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Monthly Archives: July 2007

A Brunch Worth Waiting For

Tuscan Eggs BenedictOne of the problems with going out for Sunday brunch in Chicago (or anywhere, for that matter) is that there is inevitably a long wait to sit down, and you’re usually hungry and craving caffeine because you’ve been postponing breakfast for half the morning. Another problem with brunch is that it’s almost never worth waiting for. The pancakes, omelets, French toast and muffins served in most restaurants are rarely better than what you can make at home in less time and at a fraction of the cost. That’s why when I go out to brunch I like it to either be for food I don’t know how to make at home (e.g. dim sum), or for food that’s actually unique and of a higher quality than I might have attempted. M.Henry in Andersonville is a perfect example of the latter.

Apricot Almond French ToastThe line to be seated was quite long when Empanada Boy and I arrived for brunch with Mimosa and Half White With Hot. A few members of our party purchased drinks and small pastries from the bakery to stave off hunger. But after we sat down and our food arrived, nearly all annoyance at the wait vanished. That’s because the dishes that the waiter set before us were distinctive, beautiful and delicious. Take, for example, this decadent brioche French toast with apricots, blueberries and almonds, which even the dauntless Empanada Boy couldn’t quite finish. Or feast your eyes on the dish pictured above that— the Tuscan Eggs Benedict. This consisted of slices of crusty Italian bread topped with goat cheese pancetta and poached eggs, all coated in a deeply flavorful stewed tomato sauce.

Egg SandwichM.Henry clearly shines when it comes to glorifying the mundane. This skill is evidenced by the sublime fried egg sandwich pictured here. Sourdough toast encases two over-medium eggs, applewood bacon, sliced tomatoes, Gorgonzola, and fresh thyme. How could anyone even think of eating an Egg McMuffin when something as glorious as this exists in the world? Every ingredient tasted fresh and carefully crafted. Half White With Hot ordered this, and I envied him the moment he did.

Blackberry PancakesMimosa ordered another M.Henry specialty: the Blackberry Blisscakes. These were two pancakes layered with warm blackberries and mascarpone and topped with a brown sugar oat crust. Needless to say, Mimosa ate about a quarter of this and the rest of us made our best effort to help her finish it off. To no avail! I think the pastries beforehand may have been partially responsible. If I ever ordered this again, I would share it with at least one other person.

One final commendable thing about M.Henry is its prices. Faithful readers of this blog may recall my comments on Over Easy in which I cried out at the injustice of $10 omelets. The food we ate at M.Henry cost around $8 a plate, and it was far more innovative. Who says quality always has to come at a cost?

5707 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60660

M. Henry in Chicago

Brewers, Brats and a Beer

Bratwurst and KnackwurstIf there’s one thing people in Milwaukee are crazy about, it’s baseball, specifically Brewers baseball. If I could name two more signature Milwaukee pleasures, they would probably be beer and brats. All three of these elements converged today when Empanada Boy and I drove to Milwaukee to meet up with Drumstix and Popcorn Princess for a Brewers baseball game.

Sausage RaceWatching a game in the relatively new and very elegant Miller Park was a treat, especially because the Brewers won. I also learned a lot about Milwaukee baseball tradition, including the famous sausage race. Yes, that’s right. At the bottom of the sixth inning, five people dressed up in costumes representing various sausages race each other halfway around the outside of the diamond. The sausages (in order of appearance from left to right) are: Polish, Bratwurst, Chorizo (a recent addition), Italian and a regular hot dog. Fans can place bets on which sausage will win the race during each game. Being the open-minded gourmand that he is, Empanada Boy was rooting for the chorizo. The Italian sausage won.

Kielbasa and Smoked Beef SausageThe race was a major reason that Empanada Boy and I found ourselves craving sausages after the game was over. Luckily we went to Water Street Brewery in downtown Milwaukee. Water Street’s proprietary brew turned out to be quite tasty, but their menu offerings seemed fairly average. EB and I immediately honed in on the sausage plates, which were the bright spot of distinction. I had the “Old World Selection” (pictured above). It came with a brat boiled in Water Street’s lager and a knackwurst atop a bed of sauerkraut and accompanied by German potato salad and excellent spicy mustard. EB went Polish with this kielbasa and smoked beef sausage platter. This came with spaetzle, German seasoned fried dough balls.

All of the sausages were made by Usinger’s, which is apparently considered the best for brats among Milwaukeeans in the know. I’m glad Water Street Brewery hasn’t taken items like these off its menu to make way for bland health food wraps or more run-of-the-mill fried dishes. My meal felt like a natural continuation of the themes of the day. Eating the beer-boiled brats and drinking beer at Water Street was, in many ways, like the Brewers game. Only here, the sausages were racing into my mouth… Oh, and there was no more baseball to be played.

Water Street Brewery

1101 N. Water St.
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Central Mexico Meets the Midwest

ParilladaI accompanied Empanada Boy up to Madison again this weekend. After a pleasant weekend with EB’s family, almost everyone had plans on Sunday evening. But EB’s brother Rocky Roccoco— hereon after to be known as Drumstix— had some free time and wanted to redeem himself after his earlier, infamous pizza selection. He took us out for dinner at La Hacienda, or “La Haz,” as EB’s family fondly refers to it.

Rice and BeansEmpanada Boy and Drumstix both insisted that the thing to order was the parillada, an assortment of meats grilled on a charcoal grill and then served on a platter atop a gas flame. (Drumstix doesn’t usually get to order it because he’s married to a vegetarian.) It’s traditional in Central Mexico and in meat-loving countries like Argentina and Peru. The name comes from the Spanish word parilla, which means a charcoal grill. We got the small, which was more than enough for three. It came with ribs, carne asada and chorizo. Mixed in were sweet grilled onions, crispy green onions, thin disks of potato and a large chile de arbol. A basket of corn and flour tortillas came alongside in addition to a platter of beans, rice guacamole and pico de gallo.

The meat was juicy and flavorful, especially the tender, fatty rib meat, which was served still on a thin disk of bone. The chorizo and the thinner pieces of meat cooked quickly on the heated platter, leaving small, dark crisps on the plate. I could have done without the rice and beans, but the guacamole and pico de gallo tasted fresh and lively. We piled meat, vegetables and sauces into a tortilla and ate them like fajitas or tacos.

Chile RellenoThis feast would have been enough, but Empanada Boy couldn’t resist ordering his favorite chile relleno. La Hacienda’s offering was a surprisingly tasty one. The battered exterior was light and flaky, and the stuffing was made with an excellent, stretchy Mexican melting cheese like Chihuahua. La Hacienda’s chile relleno was far superior to the one we tried in Nogales.

The rest of La Hacienda’s menu is a mix of traditional Mexican offerings and widely recognized Mexican-American choices like burritos and enchiladas. The dishes we tried seemed quite authentic, a fact that was emphasized by the number of Mexican-American people in the restaurant. La Hacienda is an unassuming little restaurant that I would likely never have tried without help from Drumstix and EB. Madison’s may still not be the first place I’d go for great Mexican food, but Drumstix did well to open my eyes to the joys of “La Haz” and the parillada.

La Hacienda
515 S. Park St
Madison, WI 53715

Comfort Food for Cheeseheads

Cold Beet SoupEmpanada Boy and I drove up to Madison after work on July 3. We were planning to ride up to EB’s family home in Eagle River with Tofuti Cutie, Popover and Popcorn Princess the next day. That morning all five of us— plus two dogs— piled into EB’s parents’ old van, which was towing a trailer full of motorcycles and bikes. The first sign of danger to come came when we stopped for gas and the van failed to start up again. We got a jump and were on our way back to switch cars when all the systems in the van began to fail, one by one. The alternator had given way. Tofuti masterfully conducted the car to the side of the road, and we called AAA. While we were waiting, a car miraculously pulled over and out jumped a guy who knew all about fixing cars who said he could get us a new part, install it and have us back on the road in a couple hours. (Only in Wisconsin!!!) Popover decided to take a chance on him. And we opted to pass the time by meeting Rocky Rococo for lunch at The Old Fashioned. (My camera was in the van, so these photos were taken with Empanada Boy’s cell phone camera).

Beet SaladThe Old Fashioned gets its name from the brandy-based drink that is typical in Wisconsin’s North Woods. The restaurant’s menu is supposedly shaped around the state’s most traditional food and drink, but it seemed pretty similar to the fare at many of the country’s better gastropubs. I was pleased at the use of seasonal ingredients as in the delicious cold beet soup (pictured above) and in my lovely beet salad with Gorgonzola.

Steak Sandwich The cheese on my salad was made in Wisconsin, but the most typical Wisconsin dish at our table was probably the grilled cheese sandwich that Rocky and Popover ordered. It came with local cheddar and Swiss cheeses, roasted red pepper and bacon. Cheese was the theme that linked Empanada Boy’s order to the rest of ours. His shaved prime rib sandwich came topped with a thick slice of local aged white cheddar.

The meal was simple but pretty good for what it was. It certainly seems to be the kind of food that would make any Wisconsinite feel at home. And it greatly contributed to putting us all in better spirits after our discouraging morning of delays. Best of all, we got a call from the Good Samaritan mechanic about fifteen minutes after finishing up. He fixed the alternator for a better-than-reasonable fee, and we were on the road again by 2 p.m. That got us to Eagle River in time for dinner and fireworks.

The Old Fashioned
23 N. Pinckney St.
Madison, WI 53703

South Side Fried (Chicken, That Is)

Fried Chicken againMy dear friend Mimosa and her boyfriend Half White With Hot were in Chicago visiting us this weekend. Half White With Hot graduated from University of Chicago in 2005, so he naturally wanted to take us on a tour of his old haunts. After touring the ivy coated halls of the storied campus, we made the requisite dinner stop at Harold’s Chicken Shack.

Harold’s is both a famous South Side chain and a staple of HWWH’s college diet. We went to the location in a strip mall near his old apartment. In fact, his name in the entry refers to his favorite order: half of a chicken, white meat only, topped with Harold’s signature hot sauce, fries and two slices of white bread. This order, or some slight modification of it, is the classic option at Harold’s. Every franchise apparently arranges the plate a little differently; some put the bread on the bottom, others keep the sauce on the side. Following the advice of HWWH, I ordered the same. Empanada Boy tried the half “regular,” which mixes light and dark meat. Mimosa had the sweet barbecue sauce because the hot was too hot for her taste.

InteriorWe ordered at the counter and then sat at a booth to wait for our chicken to be ready. The eating area is wallpapered with funny chicken print, and three large soda vending machines take up half of one wall. Harold’s will make your chicken, but it won’t fill up a cup with drinks. All are purchased from the vending machines. Thankfully bottled water was also an option as the steep caloric intake from the chicken hardly warranted any sugary supplements.

BagAbout twenty minutes later, our number was called and Half White With Hot went up to get it. He returned carrying paper-bagged bundles with our chicken inside. The chicken was excellent. Deliciously crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. I can only venture to guess what unnatural substances when into that fried coating. The sauces soaked into the exterior, gradually softening and flavoring it. The fries made a nice bed for soaking up more sauce and chicken juices, but they weren’t very good on their own. The white bread would have also been better if it had come underneath the chicken, but I didn’t have room to eat it anyway.

Perhaps the most hilarious element of Harold’s is that each diner only gets one paper napkin in a packet with the utensils. As we pulled apart the sauce-coated meat, we found ourselves wanting quite a few more. We tried to wash our hands and faces in the dingy little bathroom, but I still felt a little greasy when we left. Let’s just say, don’t go to Harold’s Chicken if you’re looking for clean. Do go there if you’re looking for some of the best fried chicken in the Chicagoland area.

Harold’s Chicken Shack
1208 E. 53rd St.
Chicago, IL 60615

Harold's Chicken Shacks in Chicago