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Feature Thu Apr 02 2009
Chicago lacks for little when it comes to food. Yes, there are better versions of certain items in other zip codes, but all and all, we do pretty well on any number of foodstuffs. Take pork for instance, which is exactly what we're going to do here.
A lifelong love affair with all things pig goes back to early childhood memories of bacon sandwiches on Wonder bread with sliced tomato (only in the summer) and Hellman's mayonnaise. A childhood comfort that still resonates. I never saw a need for lettuce and considered it a tasteless barrier to the soft outer-crispy inner-salty fatty money shot contained within. Even then I was a picky bastard, and it set me on a course for pork regularly early on.
Speaking of Wonder bread, I once saw an employee of mine (East Bank Club circa '85) bet his entire paycheck on the fact that he believed he could eat two pieces of said Wonder bread, dry, in one minute. He lost. We couldn't believe it, but a bet is a bet, especially in a large kitchen filled with rooting coworkers egging you on. While I won't say it can't be done, that was an expensive lesson for him (two weeks pay).
The life lesson learned was, only bet on a sure thing, something that has saved me countless of dollars over the years.
Is it the fact that pork is traif, or forbidden? Maybe. That certainly has held an allure throughout my life. But how could something so damn delicious not be meant to be coveted? It's not...so I do. Oscar Wilde once said, "I can resist anything but temptation." I couldn't agree more.
In and around Chicago there are many examples of primo pig to be had. Here's my preferred method for getting your porcine on:
The pork siu mai dim sum found at Shui Wah on the west end of the Chinatown mall has all the requisite "This Little Piggy" flavor one could ask for as it explodes out of a steamed rice skin wrapped dumpling.
Upon hitting the table, they're dangerous and too hot to just pop into your mouth (as is want to do). Trust me here, wait a couple minutes before dousing in chile oil and scarfing down, unless you enjoy your pallet scorched and blistered by their still-steaming heat. Guaranteed to ruin any enjoyment of your next several meals, and a given if you are heedless to this tried-and-true advice. The fried taro stuffed with pork benefits from being anointed with chile oil as well. Actually, most things do.
Next up, rib tips and smoked hot links at Honey 1 BBQ. For me, as I've learned from my BBQ life coach, aka BBQ Bear, serious Q is about the meat, not the sauce. He'd strongly suggest Honey 1's bite-sized cartilage capsules enswined by our theme ingredient S.O.S., or sauce on the side. A rib tip combo with hot links will find you approaching oneness with Pit Master Supreme Robert Adams. This guy knows pig. Born and bred in Arkansas, he's been doing this pretty much his entire life, and for my snobby tastes, Adams produces the best rib tips and links in Chicago. He does great chicken wings as well. Again, we'd have to insist S.O.S., but that's for another day. Or maybe not.
Cemitas Puebla, a father and son-run Humboldt Park restaurant featuring their abuela's recipes, is well-known for their Cemitas Milanesa. But pork pigs like myself up the ante and instead go for the Cemitas Atomica, a pure pork trifecta: pounded breaded pork Milanesa, carne enchilada (guajillo chile marinated butterflied pork chop) and sliced jamon. Coupled with avocado and a string cheese-like queso Oaxaca, then garnished with papalo (think cilantro but mas herbaceous) plus a smokier, fruitier morita-type chipotle pepper in adobo sauce transcending the custom-made sesame seed bun (cemita) into being among the best sandwiches in Chicago. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
If that isn't enough, in addition to the Atomica, the chicharrones quesadilla is stunning and the wisest $2.50 you'll spend on food anywhere. Very few things will ever make you this happy for that price, and so simple: crisp fried pig skin with melted cheese. Texturally brilliant, and tastewise, muy sabroso. Especially consecrated with some of those house-cured chipotles that you'll need to ask Papacito for as a side. Primero.
Porchetta is a savory stuffed boneless pork roast that enjoys near-iconic status in and around Rome. Roasted with garlic and herbs to a crackley crispy-skinned magnificence, the best I've had here in the states was at Riccardo Trattoria. Chef Riccardo Michi comes with a pedigree dating back 50 years. A cousin to the Milan-based Bice restaurants, Chef Michi opened numerous stateside restaurants on their behalf before decamping in Chicago to open his namesake trattoria.
In all fairness, the porchetta was a special that evening, but even when it's not available, you can't go wrong with his take on fava beans with black truffle oil and pecorino, or anything with Burrata cheese, mozzarella di buffala's quivering cousin. As you would expect, the pastas and risottos are standouts as well.
For a whole hog tour-de-force, head over to Chef Jose Garces' Merkat
a la Planxa at the Blackstone Hotel where "cochinillo asado," or whole roasted suckling pig, holds court. This one takes a bit of effort, though. You'll need help on this mission and must plan in advance. Eight to twelve partners-in-crime willing to "pig out" (couldn't help it) and three days' notice should suffice, as you'll have to call in advance and pre order with the kitchen to give them time to source and prep your meal. And what a meal it is.
Carved at table, this is an experience you're not likely to forget. The guest of honor is rolled out on a cart head intact, radiant in all its swinery. Knife in hand, a chef makes a sideways slit to the throat and then again by the hooves, and dispatches the entire crisp-roasted skin (a recurring theme here) off in one piece. I witnessed an autopsy once that was similar. It's then sliced into manageable portions, and drizzled with some olive oil and sea salt.
As it gets passed around the table, conversations stop, replaced by groaning intermixed with scattered expletives.
But you're just starting.
As our boy is expertly dissected, each of his parts is shared in the same fashion with the same results. Served with some traditional sides, this is a true porkfest. If you're really down for it, ask for the brain to be grilled. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the rest of the menu is a more than respectable Catalan-style tapas affair with a standout fideua negra, or baby squid, in its own ink with angelhair pasta and saffron aioli.
Lastly I give you the king of hams, the sultan of pork, the guru of oink, The most Reverend Jamon Iberico de Bellota Esq III. This free-range Spanish black pig (pata negra), who is said to have accompanied Columbus to the New World, roams specially maintained oak forests, foraging on acorns and other wild plants. This exercise and diet contributes to the incredibly rich, nutty taste and silky mouth feel and is exactly what makes all the damn difference in the world .
Only recently available in the States, this hog of hogs jamon is salt-cured and air-dried for two to four years depending on size and conditions. Because they contain greater amounts of the more desirable intramuscular fat, only the hind haunches are used. And good fat at that. The lifestyle and genetic makeup of this particular animal contributes to the high percentage of non-saturated fatty acids.
MMMMM. Pork fat.
This ham is best savored sliced very thinly and served at room temperature among good friends. If you like Parma Prosciutto, you'll LOVE Jamon Iberico de Bellota. This love comes with a steep price though, upwards of $100 per pound retail. And if that's not enough, a recent USDA ruling increased the duty on imported hams on the bone by 100% so it will be interesting to see if that prices it out of the market. Most regularly, it's been available at Binny's in the South Loop. This best-of-the-best is well worth the experience, at least for the moment.
I could go on and on but will leave you with honorable mentions going to anything containing pork belly at Blackbird and the ever-changing charcuterie platter at Mado.
2162 S. Archer
2241 N. Western
3619 W. North Ave
2119 N. Clark
Merkat a la Planxa
638 S. Michigan Ave
Binny's South Loop
1132 S. Jefferson
615 W. Randolph
1647 N. Milwaukee
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. Check it out at alanlake.com.