Chicago Restaurants' Southern Influence
Published: April 2011
By Francine Maroukian
A tour of Chicago restaurants makes one point clear: Southern influence is key.
Although it’s home to plenty of nitrogen-canister-wielding megachefs, Chicago also lays claim to one of the country’s greatest back-to-basics food communities. From Bucktown to Wicker Park, these neighborhood favorites are bringing the Old South (and a little bit of the Old World) to the heartland. Mayor Rahm: you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Stop by on a Monday night and the place will likely be sprinkled with the city’s off-duty chefs, all wondering what they’ll find on Chris Pandel’s wildly unpredictable rotating daily menu, charted out on a blackboard that dominates the wood-lined dining room. One thing’s for sure: Pandel doesn’t play coy with food. His approach is head-on and all about bold juxtapositions. Regulars can take comfort in the familiarity of his signature “Scotch olives”—sausage-stuffed, deep-fried, and paired with crème fraîche—or roasted marrow bones, split lengthwise for easy spreading on rendered-marrow-soaked toast and served with pickled ramp bulbs and red-wine shallot jam. But the rest of the menu is a seasonal free-for-all. When you see the brined, braised, and crisp-fried pig ear with Vietnamese noodles, coriander, and Illinois soybeans, floating in a meaty pho-style broth tinged with palm sugar, grab it. Pandel may never show it to you again. Dinner for two $70.
In a light, airy room done up with damask wallpaper and wrought-iron chairs, Big Jones is a paean to the romantic South—with a menu to match. Chef Paul Fehribach, an ever-curious food historian, explores coastal cooking—Lowcountry, Floribbean, Cajun, and Creole cuisines—from Charleston’s iconic “reezy peezy,” a purée of heritage Sea Island red peas served over Carolina Gold rice and “voodoo greens,” to the sweet fried rice cakes of New Orleans (called “calas”). His love of everyday home-style Southern cooking shows up in classics like pimento cheese and tasso ham on house-made Sally Lunn bread, and fried green tomatoes with pickled-shrimp rémoulade. But it is his imaginative interpretations that produce his most memorable dishes, such as paneed sweetbreads with oyster purée, fried leeks, and absinthe gastrique. Just one spoonful of his chocolate-colored chicken-and-andouille gumbo, made with a traditional dark roux, will have you feeling like you’re on the Bayou. 5347 N. Clark St.; 773/275-5725; dinner for two $70.
The rich palette of van Gogh red and Prussian blue, aglow beneath amber filament lighting, paints the perfect facsimile of Dutch gezelligheid (a cozy, convivial atmosphere), and chef Joncarl Lachman mines his own family table’s history to complete the picture. In a low-slung building on the edge of the Lakewood Balmoral Historic District, Lachman creates such rustic dishes as a gorgeously textured mustard soup, mellowed with the natural sweetness of carrots and topped with fresh crab salad and tarragon, or snert, a traditional pork-enriched split-pea soup thick enough to hold a spoon upright. Amsterdam bistro favorite moules frites is served five ways, including with an Indonesian chili-based broth that’s been spiked with tamarind and shrimp paste—a testament to the Netherlands’ lingering connection to its former colonies. If you really want to go Dutch, try the oddball maatjesharing appetizer: soused herring, bracing jenever (a juniper-flavored ginlike liquor), and tingly pickle, downed in quick succession like a tequila shot. 1475 W. Balmoral Ave.; 773/334-7168; dinner for two $76.
Chef Cary Taylor is a transplanted Georgia homeboy who makes good on his promise of “the dirtiest fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon.” His buttermilk-brined Amish bird, fired up by just enough hot sauce and Old Bay seasoning (with a subtle undertow of cardamom and clove), results in a crisply crusted chicken that is both airy and earthy. Turning out bar-centric food in a sleek version of a lake house with floor-to-ceiling windows and tongue-and-groove-planked flooring, Taylor straddles Southern and Midwestern cooking with hybrids such as his Cajun send-up of Canada’s beloved poutine: layers of freshly cut potato fries drenched in house-made tasso gravy, then topped by Wisconsin cheese curds solid enough to soften up but still hold their shape. The moist pulled pork—first smoked over pecan wood, then braised—is accompanied by a squat bowl of chowchow (sweet-and-sour pickled relish equally at home in the South as the heartland) and johnnycakes. The quick breads are meant to be wrapped around the pork like a tortilla, served with or without a side of Taylor’s amiable Southern-fried storytellin’. 1840 W. North Ave.; 773/342-1840; dinner for two $60.
What do you do on a Sunday when you’re hungry but desperate to avoid typically treacly brunch food? Get in line at Jam, where dishes tilt the scale toward the savory side. Chef Jeffrey Mauro blankets braised lamb neck with Asian pears and hazelnut glaze with nutty buckwheat crêpes. His French toast (custard-soaked brioche from the third-generation family-owned Gonnella Bakery) is vacuum sealed and cooked sous vide before it even hits the griddle to be seared; it’s then garnished with macerated pineapple and cranberry, citrus cream, and pink peppercorns. Even eggs Benedict lands someplace unexpected: neat stacks of crisped, cured pork belly and English muffins are the foundation for silky poached eggs and a sweep of butternut-squash hollandaise with pumpkin seeds. The small, silvery dining room is brightened by pops of chartreuse and polished-concrete tabletops, with a busy open kitchen from which Mauro rarely looks up. Once your food arrives, neither will you. 937 N. Damen Ave.; 773/489-0302; brunch for two $30.
Another smash hit from Blackbird Restaurant Group, which brought us Chicago Avec, Blackbird, and the Publican, Big Star is a self-billed honky-tonk taqueria that’s been a neighborhood favorite since the day it opened. Chef Justin Large, an advocate of old food traditions, draws on Chicago’s strong Mexican community to find the experienced crews that tag team from open to close, fashioning tortillas with masa made from ground local corn. No matter how busy the kitchen may get, Big Star’s tortillas always exhibit the hallmark of freshness: supple enough to roll without cracking yet durable enough to withstand Large’s take on authentic tacos, such as tinga de pollo (wood-grilled chicken thigh with house-made chorizo and chipotle salsa) and tacos de panza (crispy braised pork belly in tomato-guajillo sauce). The former 1940’s service station/garage/car wash that Big Star calls home is anchored by a 50-foot-long, U-shaped Douglas fir bar abutting plenty of outdoor seating. There’s also a well-used walk-up window next to a bright yellow sign on the concrete wall: 20 taco maximum order. It may sound like a lot, but you’ll want more. Bring a big appetite. You’ve been forewarned. 1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773/235-4039; dinner for two $15.