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Feature Fri Nov 09 2007
I was gone 18 years.
Now I'm back and know how to get "there" but don't always know what's "there" when I do. Fascinating.
Quite a detour. The city is as different as I am. I've returned home and see things in a different way. When you leave for a while and come back many years later, you view and appreciate things differently.
I'm glad to be here instead of yearning to leave. There's an energy that I feel here today as opposed to back in the day. It's palpable to me. Some of the streets vibrate with it... like Michigan and Wacker. I have a Mary Tyler Moment every time I walk over the river going north. That view down West Wacker and the river and up Michigan Ave. If I wore a hat, I'd not be able to resist tossing it in the air as I whirled dervishly around.
That view is special to me, Mr. Grant. It makes me happy to have some association with it and I swell with pride and do a little dance each time I'm there. Or behind the Planetarium looking back at the City. Or Diversey Harbor looking towards downtown. Big smiles.
The sculptures by Miro and Picasso or the Chagall Mosaic and Millennium Park. The Auditorium Theater or Lyric Opera. Steppenwolf and the Goodman. Kedzie or Argyle. Division and Devon.
The Culture. The Clubs. The Food.
That's what I'm talking about. The rich tapestry of life in a vibrant metropolitan city. Nothing makes you appreciate what you had more than noticing what you're missing.
It's not as if I was trapped in Mayberry all those years, but I just didn't have a sense of connection wherever I landed, or, if so, it was only temporary. With as much travel in as many varied cities, the thrill wore off soon enough. Too long was spent in too many places feeling in limbo. Limbo equals the length of time spent in that grey area between knowing you should change/move on/regroup and actually putting it into motion. Get on with it or years can be wasted there. I know I have. More than once. Stuck in the status quo, it's easy to forget that change is good. Anything realized is right.
I began to get homesick seven or eight years ago. I'd visit Chicago briefly for whatever reason and regret having to leave, to go back to wherever "home" was at the time. But it wasn't home. Not to me.
I lived there yes, and worked there as well, but it wasn't "home." Generally on the "El" to the airport, I'd compare in my head what I liked about here and what I was lacking there and wonder, why bother to leave? Of course you tend to romanticize things from the distance of years, but I was cautious not to be caught up in some false sentiment for things past that never really were. Who hasn't done that?
Slowly the attraction to come back home and try Chicago again became appealing. A few events helped catapult me forward, but my fate was already in the air. Natural destruction in the form of two hurricanes in three weeks time (Francis and Ivan) were nothing compared to the unnatural destruction levied upon me in the form of a woman.
Chumped is not a good feeling. Time to book. The planets were in alignment and I was gone. "Tchau bella, I'm outta here." Geographical cure time and a good move.
So I'm back couple years now. My life is rich and full of old friends with a smattering of new. Early upon my arrival, I found a group of like-minded individuals that have been responsible for some stunning dining experiences.
That would be LTHforum. Check it out if you haven't already. A kinda cut to the chase finger on the pulse jump-start into what's happening food wise in this city. If you're reading this, it will interest you.
Food and music are my life. Jazzfood. I'm blessed to be able to have two careers I love. Retire? Never. I'll work till I drop, but then, it's not work if you love it. Notice you play music, not work it. If you want to samba or eat, I'm your guy. Depending on when you meet me, I'm either a player who cooks or a chef who plays.
Since I've been home, I've met some excellent musicians and play regularly with them at theirs' and my own gigs, the best nights of my week.
Food side career wise, I still travel and consult but I'm based here in Chicago instead and I've never been happier — proof it was the right decision. I'm a Chicago civic booster to the 10th power and love being home.
Here're about a hundred reasons why, picked randomly from my head, in no particular order... except #1. Quoting Julie Andrews (but thinking John Coltrane), "These are a few of my favorite things."
1. Mario's, Peach or Nectarine if possible. Banana, Lemon, Cantaloupe, Tutti Frutti, Pineana or Lemoloupe are my standbys in their absence. A religious and sentimental experience for me with unshakeable childhood memories. Pre-Circle Campus. I worship at that alter. A last meal kinda deal.
2, 3. Chicken Boti and Bhindi Masala at Khan BBQ on Devon.
4, 5. Crispy Ong Choy or Grilled Pork Neck @ TAC Quick under the Sheridan El. Roti when they have it. The Ong Choy is a revelation of flavors and textures. Among the most interesting and delicious foods I've eaten since I've been back.
6. Shui Wah for Dim Sum.
7-12. Lao Sze Chuan for Tony's Three Chili Chicken (aka Chicken Crack,) Ma Pao Tofu, House Special Dry Chili Prawns, Potherb with Minced Pork and any and all Maw or Tendon with Chili Oil.
13. An Al's combo dipped with hot and sweet peppers and fries. For me, the best sandwich ever.
14. Avec later at night, when food that good and interesting is hard to find. A blessing.
15,16. Rib Tips and Hot Links at Honey One BBQ. Robert is Pitmaster of the Universe.
17. Frango Mints
18, 19. Calumet City Fisheries on the bridge for Smoked Fish and Fried Shrimp.
20-22. Korean Panchan, Galbi and Salt Grilled Mackerel at San Soo Gap San or Hae Woon Dae.
23, 24.The steam table at Andy's Deli (ex of Division, now on Milwaukee) for Bigos and Kielbasa.
25-27. Spring Roll, Duck soup with Shiitakes and Ju Ju Beads and the Crisp Rice Crepe (bahn xao) at Tank Noodle Vietnamese on Broadway and Argyle.
29. Jim's Original Polish. I remember as a child, Sunday mornings standing on Maxwell and Halsted Street with my father eating a polish and a pork chop sandwich listening to Muddy Waters or Hubert Sumlin playing off the end of a flat bed truck. In the winter, they'd light garbage cans on fire to keep warm. Now there's a Jamba Juice on that corner. Sacrilege.
30, 31. Coalfire and Spacca Napoli for pizza other than Chicago style.
32. Barbacoa at La Pasadita (east side of Ashland). I love that there's three La Pasadita's on that corner. Besides seats, the only difference is that you can get tomatoes or guacamole on the west side.
33. Mango-Lychee Fruit Smoothie with Tapioca pearls at Furama.
34. Taramosalata at Greek Islands.
35, 36. Saba Sashimi with Shiso (besides the taste, I love the sound and rhythm of it, say it quickly) and Pan Seared Scallops at Bob San.
37. Bittersweet Chocolate with Chorizo at Coco Rouge.
38. Chile Rellenos Burrito at El Milagro on 26th St.
39. Roasted Marrow Bones at Volo.
40. Shan Grocery on Sheridan for Balti. Chill with the boys in back and eat killer stews while watching cricket or Bollywood movies.
41. Sticky Rice for Issan Sausage with Lemongrass.
42-45. All three Flatbreads and the Lentil Soup at Larsa's.
46. Fox and Obel's Olive Oil Bar.
47-49. Graham Elliot Bowles' food at the Peninsula, Paul Kahan's at Blackbird and Jean Joho's at Everest. Well done inspired food that as a chef I respect immensely.
50-52. My Rabbi Gary Wiviott's Crispy Chow Fun with Roasted Duck and Pork, Salt and Pepper Shrimps or Clams with Black Beans and Ginger at Little Three Happiness.
53. Root Beer Float Cupcake at Sweet Cakes on Damen, just south of Augusta.
54. Tuna Sub with Provolone and Giardinara from Fontano's on Polk and Vernon Park.
55-57. Hard Salami, Kishke and Knockwurst at Romanian on Touhy and Clark. At least once a week growing up. Like lox. Soulfood.
59. Green Zebra.
60. Jay's Potato Chips.
61, 62. Whitefish and Walleye
63. Belini's at RL
64, 65. Vegi Burrito with shrooms and an Oatmeal Milkshake from Irazu
66. Xni Pec. When's the last time you had Mayan food?
67. Chicken Vesuvio.
68. Carts with Elotes walking down my street.
69. The Tuesday Special Dolma at Salam on Kedzie, lemony and lamby.
70, 71. Another guilty pleasure from my childhood. Hackney's Cheeseburger on Pumpernickle rare, with Fried Onion Loaf.
Beyond the food, I also love the submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry. I love the "Bean" and the changing cityscape as you walk around it and as long as we're there, I love the architecture downtown with large open plazas and incredible artwork and love the fact that it (downtown) often smells like chocolate.
I love the "el" and for that matter, cabs as needed or being able to walk to civilization, just down my street or bike riding along the lake. I love the Cultural Center that used to be the Library when I was a kid. The amazing marble staircases and Tiffany stained glass domes are unreal. Whenever I bring tourists there, they're blown away. I love having an association to Al Capone anywhere I go. I love the Deco look of the Atwood Café and the renovated lobby elevators of the Burnham Hotel where they reside. I love the Green Mill, Smart Bar and a night of music at Frank Gehery's Millennium Park Bandshell. I love bookstores like Shake Rattle and Read or Myopic or Quimby's.
I love the Art Institute for so many reasons but can't help mentioning an Impressionist Art collection among the finest in the world. For that matter we have many world-class museums. I love thrifting at the Ark on Milwaukee and hitting pawnshops for drums or cymbals.
I love love love the basement at Andy's Music on Belmont, my personal toy store, as if I've died and gone to heaven. I love Ravinia and the Bahai Temple. I love the murals on the wall by the staircase in the Allegro (used to be Bismark) Hotel. I love the Jazz Fest. I love the National Restaurant Show every year at McCormick Place, the reason I was coming back to visit in the first place. Most of all, I love seeing my address on my passport.
I love taking advantage of, or at the very least having the option to, all that the city offers. Sometimes it takes a new perspective to see what's in front of you. Hard to be objective in the eye of a hurricane. Literally. Years away have given me a keen appreciation. Is it all good? Of course not, but I can feel the love.
Stop me before I click my ruby slippers. There's no place like home.
Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.