In Defense of the Diner

Chicago knows a lot about food, but it knows very little about diners. Chicago Magazine readers recently confirmed this lingering instinct when they voted Little Goat Diner as the city’s best.

Little Goat Diner, Stephanie Izard’s colossal space on Randolph Row, may be a respite from the delicate small plates and ticket-entry restaurants the city has become known for, and it may be one of the few places within city limits where you can satisfy swine and sweet tooth cravings with one milkshake. A diner, however, it is not.

Both Little Goat Diner and even Chicago Magazine readers’ runner-up, Eleven City Diner, are true diners to the same extent as Chipotle is an authentic Mexican Grill. Like the World Showcase food stands at Epcot or the Led Zeppelin 1977 t-shirts tweens can buy at Sears, any restaurant younger than 40 years old that calls itself a diner is probably not the real thing.

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That’s a French Ass Name

I’m no stranger to anthropomorphism. Whether it’s a projection of my own sensitivities or just a matter of upbringing, I don’t see too much wrong with casually assigning personas and feelings to certain inanimate and nonhuman objects.

To clarify, the house(s) I grew up in were filled with a few fixtures that, at the very least, had their own names. The ceramic monkey tabletop planter. The five-foot leather giraffe. And then there is the family dog, who in fact is not treated as a dog but instead as my sister and/or paternal grandmother reincarnate, among other beings.

With no pet of my own and no motivation to bestow furniture its own set of personality quirks, all of my anthropomorphic endeavors happen in the kitchen.

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The Only Realistic Holiday (Food) Gift Guide You’ll See in 2014

Somewhere between Black Friday and Giving Tuesday (a.k.a. Cyber Monday), anyone with a pulse and a web domain starts curating their online holiday gift guides. Every food blog, every digital retail storefront and even the New York Times exerts every ounce of possible pre-holiday stress into crafting the right juxtaposition of low-brow/high-brow products, lavish gift box subscriptions and cheeky stocking stuffers for everyone on your wish list.

The problem with these gift guides is twofold:

1) You can never afford, and never would want to afford, a $300 coffee table book.

2) The personas that every website structures these guides around are not grounded in reality (or sanity.) Absolutely no one has a “Luxury Savant” or “Lip Balm and Ponytail Gal” in their gifting circle.

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24 Food Notes

IMGP4581A few days ago I turned 24. The celebrations revolved, not the least bit surprisingly, around food. Butterscotch monkey bread, bourbon chicken and waffles and chocolate cherry cake is fare I should probably relish now, in my first quarter century of life, right?

Wrong. I will do oblique crunches on Jillian Michaels’ command until I’m an octogenarian if that’s what it takes to justify the occasional double cheeseburger and regular batches of full gluten, non-Paleo, real (not nut) butter, chocolate chip cookies.

Because I’m another year older, a recipe or two wiser and a little nearer to understanding Who I Am and What I’m All About, here are a few food lessons, realizations and observations I’ve picked up along the way. I’ll put them here as to not forget them myself and because nothing on the Internet disappears.

  1. When in doubt, give the gift of food. If you buy your long distance friend a circle scarf for her birthday, you’ll probably pick the wrong color and not realize she’s allergic to the synthetic material it’s inevitably made from. Bake her some brownies she’s too busy to make herself and ship them off. That’s love.
  2. It’s tempting to get your inner artist on when faced with build-your-own-burger options. Yellow American cheese is the only kind that will live up to your melting expectations.
  3. Figure out how to make a salad you want to eat. Lettuce is the Laura Linney of the produce aisle. #Boring. We all have a salad soulmate, whether it’s Texas Toast croutons, goat cheese medallions or homemade dressing.
  4. You’re absolutely never too old for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. (Can’t guarantee the same for your lactose tolerance.)
  5. That said, you should give “real” mac and cheese a chance (at home or some fancy gastropub) by your twenties.
  6. The freshman 15 is a real thing. Because who honestly thinks 18 year olds can exhibit self control when the soda fountain is ADJACENT to the soft serve machine?
  7. College is also a time for experimentation. Because sometimes you realize that black bean burgers are a worthwhile affair.
  8. Be a good dinner/lunch/house guest and always bring something sweet. Or alcoholic. Or both.
  9. Learn how to brew a pot of coffee in a real coffee maker (not a Keurig.) Even if you don’t drink it, there will be a time when you’re entertaining someone who does. And you do not want to end a relationship over a weak cup of coffee.
  10. Eat a piece of fruit everyday. If you’re immature in every sense of the word, this alone gives you some adult credibility.
  11. Skipping breakfast is basically a sin. Sometimes your mom threatens to call your kindergarten teacher to tell her that you passed on cereal and that’s why you can’t focus on the Shel Silverstein story. But then you learn the importance of jumpstarting your metabolism and the beauty of Crispix and you grow into a 24 year-old that averages two breakfasts a day.
  12. Invest in a cereal container. No one likes chewy Honey Bunches of Oats.
  13. Grocery lists are necessary. They’re not perfect and you’ll still forget to put down pickle relish, but you’ll remember everything you need to make fajitas which is more important.
  14. Your taste buds are independent of your parents’. Just because your mom or dad is anti-Swiss cheese or enforces a strict no-brussels sprouts policy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go rogue and try them. Food FOMO is a punishable offense.
  15. When cooking for a crowd, stick to what you know. It’s stressful enough to think about how you’re going to fit four people around your tiny dining room table. Don’t complicate matters with new French recipes or five pan ordeals. Worry more about the wine.
  16. There’s no shame in shortcuts. I love eating pie and making pie and fantasizing about pie, but I’m not mentally ready to make my own pie crust. So I buy the frozen, roll-out crusts and they’re still delicious.
  17. Poblano peppers can burn your skin on contact. Soak your digits in water once you feel the slightest burning sensation. Contrary to the online commenting community’s advice, vegetable oil won’t save your fiery hands.
  18. Tip the delivery guy. Tip servers in general. It’s a decent human thing that does matter.
  19. Always have a can of garbanzo beans around. Good for salads, guiltless snacking and homemade hummus.
  20. Invest in a fully functional vegetable peeler. You’ll never known despair unless you’ve attempted peeling carrots with a two-dollar peeler.
  21. Leftover pizza reheated in a toaster oven > pizza reheated in the microwave > cold leftover pizza.
  22. If your apartment smells like a diaper and/or canned fish, sauté some garlic. Why Yankee Candle hasn’t tapped into this market yet, I’ll never know.
  23. Always have the basic ingredients on hand to make some semblance of a baked good (flour, granulated & brown sugar, eggs, baking soda and baking powder.) There are plenty of non-pastries you can still use them for, and you’ll be happy to have them for that inevitable Wednesday that can’t be fixed by anything but warm dough.
  24. If you can freely feast on onions or black beans or asparagus around another person, with zero anxiety and a clear conscience about the subsequent repercussions, you’ve found true love.

Because Chicken Fingers Will Never Taste as Good as They Did When You Were 9

It’s been a long time since I’ve ordered off a kids’ menu.

Sure, I have vague memories of paper placemats and the restaurants that had subpar Crayola knock-offs and the ones that had the soft, vibrant crayons (that came in a sealed pack, not out of a basket of used, toddler tainted art tools) that practically glided through the word search and the connect-the-dots zoo scene.

The recollections stop there, given that I was weaned off of the 4-choice kids’ menu (perhaps) prematurely. My days with portion controlled noodles and butter were brief, as my parents encouraged me to order from the more plentiful “adult” side – under the guise that there would always be a parent-sized appetite or a styrofoam carryout box to worry about the leftovers.

The transition was manageable (discovering the beauty of Caesar salad –  a universal menu staple – at a young age helped), and I quickly picked up on a few critical truths:  “chopped steak” = a burger sans bun, no kid’s menu includes garlic mashed potatoes, and chicken tenders find their way onto the “Entree” section of more menus than you’d care to know.

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8 Notes on Saying Goodbye to Hot Doug’s

photo-4Chicago’s heart broke a little this May. Not because (at that point) the Blackhawks were skating close to playoff defeat by the L.A. Kings, but because news broke that a small corner of the city’s essence – a now internationally renowned hot dog stand, Hot Doug’s – would be serving the last of its encased meats in October 2014.

On a recent work-from-home Friday (made that much more enviable by the beloved summer half-day schedule), it was time to make the public transit pilgrimage to Avondale and pay our respects.

If you have any plans to do the same between now and the fall, hopefully these semi-organized observations and recommendations will serve you well. And if they don’t, you can be sure Doug will.

  1. The line will be longer than you’ve ever seen it. Yes, even longer than that one time last summer you came on a Friday, and definitely longer than that winter day you spent glued to the cement, wishing the feeling back into your toes. Don’t be discouraged. It does move. Clear out your inbox or, as many do, bring a book to pass the time.
  2. Don’t be that guy or gal who brings chairs. If it’s dual cup holders and the feeling of flimsy nylon under your bottom that you want, may I suggest Ravinia or any of the hundred movie/concert events in Millennium Park? There are 8 year olds who stand in this line and make due. You’re just as capable.
  3. If you’re gonna be a quitter, be a decisive quitter. When there are hungry hordes around you, no one wants to be forced to eavesdrop on your party’s roundabout argument of whether to keep waiting or bounce. Don’t linger in line just to call Kuma’s Corner – they don’t give wait times over the phone anyways. If you’re even considering a jaunt to Wrigleyville instead, just leave. You’ll expedite the line for everyone else.
  4. Ice cream is a sufficient appetizer. If you visit during the summer months, it’s likely that an ice cream truck will be parallel parked next to the line. The man has cold water bottles, which you’ll likely need. Given that you’ll be waiting anywhere between 1 and 3 hours for your main course, a Drumstick won’t squash your appetite.
  5. Summer rain moves fast. It’s the Midwest. It’s humid. More likely than not, there will be the chance of a passing shower during one of your hours on the line. The brightest of us all will pack an umbrella; the semi-prepared will at least have hats. The unpredictability of  Chicago precipitation is offset by the universal knowledge that it will only last a few minutes. Don’t ditch over a few droplets.
  6. Meeting people is easy. In this line, at least. Once the deserters are gone, you’ll likely be sandwiched between a couple groups of true devotees. Your cause is united; your hunger pangs are collective. Celebrate the small wins together, like when an employee comes out and lets you know that it’s only another hour for your chunk of the line. If you’re lucky, maybe a new compatriot will share their umbrella during that fleeting shower.
  7. Consider it a 2 dog per person minimum. You’ve waited that long; you deserve it. And there are too many creative options to have to settle on one. Balance out the familiarity and consistency of a Shirley Hardman (corn dog) with one of the more foreign daily specials – it will be awhile until you ever find foie gras between a bun, or encased crayfish again.
  8. Smile. If Doug can stand behind that counter (albeit looking a little more tired, a little more gray than the last time, maybe) and smile at each and every hangry soul six days a week, you can too. Smile in line. Smile back at Doug. Smile at the hot dogged American Gothic wall mural in the women’s bathroom. Smile at the duck fat fries as they’re plopped down on your table. You’re hungry and your tolerance for socializing is plummeting fast. Just smile. You will eat. It will be worth it. And before you know it, it will be gone.

Soup, Talking and Not-Talking

[If the title to this post is lost on you, this might clear things up. Watch that movie at least 5 times in your life.]

Our parents and grandparents are bonded together by a number profound, historical time markers. “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” or “What was your reaction the day the music died?”

Most 20-somethings have their stock of shared, somber cultural experiences. But the bulk of it leans toward the trivial: “What stance did you take on the Spice Girls post-Ginger’s departure? Did you ownForever‘?” or “Remember that Thursday night when the ‘Friends’ series finale aired? Bummer.”

Regardless of how socially meaningful it may be, one of my go-to conversation questions when speaking with someone in my general cohort leans toward food. Food comfortably straddles that fine line between high and low brow, while still holding the potential for heated debate and revealing truths.

For one, there are the nostalgia questions (e.g., reminiscing about the junk food that still exists in your grocer’s aisles, but you typically avoid now.). Nothing gets people going like a verbal volley on the merits of tie-dye Fruit by the Foot or the anthropological importance of Planter’s Cheez Balls (r.i.p.)

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