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Feature Thu Jul 05 2007
Taste of Chicago is an event I've avoided for years (paying four bucks for a slab of pizza to be eaten in the hot sun in a crowd of hundreds of thousands... why?). That said, it is possible to find some good chow there (I'll make some recs at the close), but I think where the Taste generally stumbles is by featuring mainstream places that don't require much imagination to find on your own. I mean, you need to go downtown to the Taste to eat Lou Malnati's?
Right now, I'll cover some food items that are all available in Chicago and do, I think, challenge the imagination. All involve some conceptual hurdles that make them unsuitable for the Taste — that's why I'm calling this listing the Alternative Taste of Chicago.
These foods are unlikely to be found on the dinner tables of Gapers Block readers, but they're eaten — and eaten with gusto — particularly in some of Chicago's ethnic communities, where there has been a traditional tendency to eat head-to-tail, the whole animal.
So let's start simple, with the head.
Brains can be had at many hole-in-the-wall taquerias — where they're called sesos — and they're available all along the Maxwell Street Market as well as in regular restaurants like Carnitas Don Pedro (1113 W 18th St). Brains are also on the menu, of course, at French restaurants. I had my first brain at Café Bernard (2100 N. Halsted) in the '70s — and I liked it a lot. I still remember it quite distinctly. Creamy, custardy, and complemented by a tart mustard sauce with capers. Brains are also served in eggs for breakfast at Edna's (3175 W. Madison) and in a masala preparation (a curry of peppers, coriander, clove) at Shan, a Pakistani cab joint (5060 N. Sheridan). All that spicy heat helps balance the creaminess of the brain. It works.
I mentioned taquerias, and I was at two places last weekend: Taqueria Moran (2226 N. California) and Birriería Estilo Jalisco (2035 N. Western). I had the same thing at both places: a pair of tacos, one of tongue, one of head. The tongue meat was spongy and soft, the head was simply the cheeks and so on of a goat: it was dark and oily and I didn't like it that much. The tongue, though, was pretty good, and the birriería, goat stew, was fabulous. Really good, and I'd like to make a point here. I'm going over what seem like odd, bizarre foodstuffs, but I in no sense mean to hold them up for ridicule. There is nothing you can eat that is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. OK, maybe cannibalism is bad, but if you're talking about beings lower on the food chain — including quadrupeds, insects, fungi — if it's not poisonous, and if someone somewhere eats it, I'm going to eat. I'm going to try it. Who knows, I might like it. At the very least I'll learn something about the people who eat those things. Free your mouth and your mind will follow.
Sometimes, though, I go too far.
I mentioned the head taco, and I had an eyeball taco on Maxwell Street a few years ago that was the worst thing I ever ate — and one of the stupidest, as eating head organs puts you at risk for Creutzfeld-Jacob, the human equivalent of Mad Cow. They sell them every weekend at a no-name vendor stall. Taco de los ojos. A friend bought it for me, so I obligingly had a bite. Tasted like stinky mud. Really bad. But some people evidently like'em, and god bless'em.
Moving down the body, sweetbreads are made of the pancreas or thymus gland, and you can get sweetbreads at French places and also at En Nandu (2731 W. Fullerton), an Argentinean restaurant that puts them in empanadas.
Heart is a little less common, but available in cream sauce at Klas (5734 W. Cermak) in Cicero. They were chewy, as you'd expect, because the heart is a big muscle with basically no fat. Somewhat like gizzards.
Moving into the gut, intestines. That's what chitterlings (aka chitlins) are. Pig intestines, and though they're alien to most of us in the North, they're very popular in the South and a common side at soul food places. I've had chitterlings a number of times, most recently at Army and Lou's (422 E. 75th), where I had them with hot sauce that really helped them go down. Incidentally, pig guts may sound unappetizing, but I'm guessing the vast majority of Gapers Block readers have had them one way or another. If you like natural casing sausage, that casing is made from intestine. If you like to wrap yourself in natural casing, there's Trojan Naturalamb condoms, made of intestine.
With that, we're ready to go below the belt.
I was at La Condesa (1003 Ashland) last year. Checking out the menu, I scan for words I don't recognize. "Creadillas" pops out at me.
I ask the senorita, "Que es esto?"
"Testiculos del toro," she said, blushing just slightly less than me.
So that, of course, is what I order.
These bull balls were organ-y, with a deep, subterranean tang you'd want to taste only now and again. I'd like to meet a guy who actually likes this dish (and my guess is, it would probably be a guy); it was edible, but it doesn't seem like a flavor one could crave. But who knows? Different strokes...
Now, as there are testicles, there are more complete... organs... for sale in Chicago at some of the African lunch trucks. A poster on LTHForum, guy by the name of CoolerbytheLake, told us about an experience there. He saw the yams and plantain, and then said, "What's that? A sausage?" Well, after much nervous tittering, the Nigerian vendor told him what it was and asked him if he wanted to try one. And Coolerbythelake said no thanks. Then by way of encouragement, the vendor said, "Tell you what. I will give you a little penis, for free." Well Coolerbythelake tried it, and in his words, he pretty much concluded that his penis eating days were probably over. The conceptual hurdle was just too great.
If you do find yourself at Taste, here are some good places to try:
Vee-Vee's African Cuisine (6232 N. Broadway ): Jerk chicken with rice and red beans; Sautéed goat with plantain; Seasoned rice with shrimp and mixed vegetables; Rice and red beans with plantain
Lagniappe Creole Cajun Joynt (1525 W. 79th St). Crawfish boil with potatoes and Illinois corn; Jambalaya with locally grown vegetables; Cajun chicken and waffle; Beignets
Franco's Ristorante (300 W. 31st St.) Lemon Italian ice; Watermelon Italian ice; Lemon and watermelon Italian ice combo; Stracciatella gelato (vanilla with chocolate shavings)
Basically, you can find good food anywhere... even at The Taste.