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Monthly Archives: January 2008

Hope Shines Like Silver Near the Loop

Banana Blossom SaladFriends often ask me where they should go for a good, inexpensive meal when they’re shopping on Michigan Avenue, or having lunch on a work day. For a long time, I had very few suggestions. There’s Pizzeria Uno (if you can spare the calories and a few hours of waiting); there’s Fox and Obel, an excellent gourmet market that’s not exactly a quick walk; and then there are a bunch of boring chain restaurants. Whether it’s Panera, Corner Bakery, Chipotle or McDonald’s, none is really worth settling for. I worked just outside the Loop for a year, and I brought my lunch almost every day. Thanks to me, Empanada Boy brings his lunch too. But when Flava Flav and I went to EB’s office to visit him late on a Friday afternoon, we needed a quick, cheap, delicious spot to prevent me from fainting away. The cheap eats gods were smiling on us when we happened upon Silver Spoon.

Panang CurrySilver Spoon is owned by the same family as the previously reviewed Spoon Thai, but its menu has a more Pan-Asian angle. The first three or four pages list Thai options, and the last page is devoted to sushi and other Japanese fare. We stuck to Thai, thinking that would be the specialty of the house. We started with a banana blossom salad (pictured above), which was fresh and vibrant with shrimp, chicken, cilantro, coconut milk and lime. It definitely packed a punch in the spice category, a sign that the Spoon Thai owners haven’t dumbed things down too much for the business lunch crowd. Flava Flav selected the panang curry with tofu. It was thick and peanut-y with long strips of firm tofu. The curry wasn’t the most nuanced version we’d tried, but it was definitely satisfying.

Pork SoupThe bitterly cold day inspired Empanada Boy to order soup. He selected the Bamee BBQ Pork with egg noodles in a hot, fragrant broth. The broth warmed us up, and the pork was smoky and delicious. The noodles had a grainy texture that made them a little stiff and not quite as flavorful as I was expecting. Still, this was a distinctive dish, probably not available at your run-of-the-mill Thai joint.

There are a few somewhat adventurous dishes like this one on the menu, but overall, Silver Spoon seems to play it safe by sticking to the dishes Americans recognize. There is no secret Thai menu here (at least as far as I know) as there is at Spoon Thai. And none of the dishes we tasted were quite as authentic or out-there as some of the traditional Thai fare served up in my neighborhood. It makes sense for a downtown establishment to stick to the standards, at least until it drums up a sizable clientele. And even if it never changes, at least it provides people like me with a reliable, non-chain restaurant to turn to when we’re hungry near the Loop.

Silver Spoon
710 N. Rush St.
Chicago, IL 60611

Silver Spoon in Chicago

Where Franks of the World Unite

Hot DogsFlava Flav and Ketchup are visiting this weekend from Portland and Cleveland, respectively. Despite the bitter cold (high of 8º F yesterday), we ventured forth to explore some of the architectural wonders of Chicagoland. Empanada Boy had never been to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, so we decided to head out to Oak Park and take the tour. Admiring the detailed craftsmanship of one of Wright’s earliest structures, and battling the drafts of cold as we passed from home to studio, helped us work up an appetite. But where to go in Oak Park? Ketchup came to the rescue and called his friend Milk-n-Cola (one for health, one for fun!), an Oak Park native. We said we had a hankering for Chicago franks and other cheap, meaty fare. M-n-C’s advice: go to Mickey’s.

BurgerLike Budacki’s, which I wrote about a few months ago, Mickey’s is one of those classic Chicago locations that serves everything from baby back ribs to Italian sausage to liver and onions. I snapped some pictures of the large menu as we walked up to the counter. The guy at the register, who turned out to be the owner, barked out: “hey did you just take a picture of me?” I assured George (Mickey is only his business name) of my good intentions with regards to his restaurant. Once he understood what I was up to, he said we had to try the gyros and the ribs. But Flava Flav and I had our hearts set on hot dogs. We both got two hot dogs with fries for $3.99. It was a lot of food, but it meant Ketchup and Empanada Boy got some fries and a taste of the dogs. When I asked for tap water, Mickey called out, “one Lake Michigan!” to his waiting kitchen staff. Ketchup took M-n-C’s advice and got a Big Mickey’s, a double cheese burger with onions and pickles. Needless to say, the condiments were more important to the flavor of this dish than the meat itself.

Italian beefOnce again, EB couldn’t resist his old favorite and ordered the Italian beef. Mickey’s did a fine job, laying generous meat onto the crusty bun and topping it all with a spicy giardinera. As we were finishing our food at a plastic coated booth under a Casablanca mural, George popped out of the kitchen to see how the meal went. We voiced our approval. “You have to come back for the gyros and ribs,” he insisted again. I told him we would. And indeed we may— the next time we’re in Frank Lloyd Wright’s old neighborhood.

Gyros, B.B.Q. Ribs & Chicken, Burgers and Hot Dogs
525 N. Harlem Ave.
Oak Park, IL 60302

Sushi On My Street

Unagi DonThere is a strange little space right down the street from my house. It has a small ground level space cut down the middle with stairs that lead up through a pseudo-mudejar archway meant to evoke Arabian palaces. It used to house a Moroccan cafe called Marrakesh Expresso, which had hookah and low cushioned chairs around tables in the windows, but which never seemed to have any customers. Empanada Boy and I used to talk about going there sometime, but we never got around to it. Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything we could have done to save the place. We weren’t surprised to see a “for lease” sign hanging in the window a few months ago.

Not long after, we were excited to see that a Japanese restaurant was preparing to open in its place. Grand Katachi has been open for a few weeks, and we went in to try it on Friday night. The interior decor combines the old Moroccan look with a kind of Ikea-inspired cheap-but-hip look. They painted the walls white and installed wavy light fixtures and white Formica tables and chairs. Most of the seating is upstairs through the mudejar archway. Brightly-colored artwork— pretty bad on close inspection— adorns the walls.

Nigiri sushiThe restaurant is BYOB, so EB and I started things off with some Sapporo left over from our last sushi outing. EB was feeling in the mood for something substantial, so he ordered the Unagi Don (pictured above). It came in a lacquered box filled with pickled ginger-flecked rice, topped with strips of grilled eel (unagi). The unagi was coated in the sweet, teriyaki-like sauce, traditionally used with eel. The dish looked beautiful, but the fish served a little too cold, and even the rice was lukewarm. This made me wonder whether the dish had just been prepared or if the pieces had been sitting around in the kitchen for a while. My nigiri sushi, shown here, was fine but definitely not amazing. I had a piece of yellowtail and a piece of red snapper. The quality of the fish was decent, although not as thick or firm as I thought the $2.50 and $2 a piece price tag merited. The rice could have also been a tad bit warmer.

Spider makiGrand Katachi’s maki menu seemed to be mostly made up of cooked fish. Only a few of the pricier rolls had super white tuna and other notable fish additions. Not feeling like springing for an extra $5, I went with the spider maki. These were made with deep fried soft shell crab, avocado, scallion and a spicy Japanese mayo. I like this roll because it’s crunchy on the inside and softer on the outside. This particular version, while tasty, wasn’t innovative or inspiring. The ingredients were good, but there was no flavor that stood out and carried the dish beyond the average.

All I can say is that hopefully Grand Katachi continues to grow and improve in its new space. Perhaps the restaurant will use the next few months to start focusing on procuring better fish and vegetables and on taking the food to a more interesting level. If it doesn’t make these improvements, I’m afraid it will meet the same sad fate as its Moroccan predecessor. Maybe leaving that archway intact was bad luck.

Grand Katachi
4747 N. Damen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

Food for Thought in the New Year

WaterMost food-related New Year’s resolutions involve pledging to eat less, but I prefer to look at it a different way. This year, I plan to be more aware of the food I’m eating, including where it comes from, who made it and how it was grown.

I’ve already been tuned into issues of sustainability over the past week or so. I wrote a letter to the Tribune in response to the biased story they printed on Chicago’s new tax on bottled water. The article seemed to be trying to make readers feel sorry for the upper-middle class people who will now have to pay more for what amounts to a wasteful, unnecessary luxury. Needless to say I am not very sympathetic to their plight. Continuing on my kick of righteousness, I wrote another letter to Bon Appétit magazine because they listed “steelhead salmon” for suggested use in recipes. As the daughter of Daddy Salmon, I know that steelhead are actually trout and that they are a threatened species.

In short, by paying closer attention to what I eat and making decisions based on that information, I believe I can reduce my carbon footprint, help my local economy and be healthier all at the same time.

In that spirit, here are my top ten food pledges for the year in no particular order:

10. I will not eat store-bought desserts that aren’t made by a local baker. That means no more packaged cookies served at receptions or supermarket pies brought to potlucks. My calories are better spent elsewhere, and I don’t need to be supporting multinational food companies.

9. I will buy fewer fruits when they’re not in season. That means no more winter tomatoes. (They’re mealy and disappointing anyway!) That will cut down on my carbon footprint because I won’t be eating as much food that’s traveled long distances.

8. I will bring my own bags to the grocery store. Plastic shopping bags have become a huge nuisance in Chicago and many other cities. San Francisco has even banned them. Canvas is so much cooler!

Red Meat7. I will eat less red meat. While I can’t pledge to cut red meat out of my diet for good, I will do my best to eat it only a few times per month. I’m not doing this because I feel sorry for cows; recent studies have shown that doing this is one of the best ways for an individual to slow global warming.

6. I will seek out breakfasts that are enhanced by hot sauce. This one came from Empanada Boy, so I can’t provide any further explanation.

5. I will eat more greens and unusual vegetables. Many of these aren’t part of my regular diet, but they’re inexpensive and healthy. They’re also available during the fruitless winter months. Kale and parsnip soup anyone?

Sea Bass4. I will only eat fish that are safe and sustainably caught. The first step to doing this is to get the right information. One reliable source is Seafood Watch, a fish-buying guide maintained by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

3. I will not eat at national chain restaurants. Supporting local businesses is better for the environment and my health. This does not include my beloved Burgerville, which is a local chain.

2. I will stop drinking bottled water. Out of sheer need for revenue Chicago finally did something environmentally progressive and passed a 5-cent tax on bottled water. Now I have a financial incentive along with a moral duty.

1. I will savor everything I eat. And if the food I’m eating isn’t worth savoring, I will stop eating it!

Hopefully I can keep these pledges up as the year goes by. Even if I fail at a few of them, just thinking about the issues surrounding the food I eat will help me make changes to move in the right direction.

Here’s to a happy, healthy new year!