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Feature Fri Jul 03 2009

Birds I View

After high school, I moved to the Bay Area with visions of enrolling at UC Berkeley. An older cousin of mine lived there that played Alto Sax. The plan was that I would use his address and get into school as a California resident for dirt cheap tuition. Instead, I ended up playing music gigs with him full time, so while I went to Berkeley, I never "went" to Berkeley. I was 17 and it lasted until I was 23.

The summer of love was a recent memory, Chez Panisse had just opened and we lived down the street from Patty Hearst when she got snatched by the S.L.A. In fact, we heard it going down. Across the bay, the Zodiac Killer was on the loose and Harvey Milk was in office. Quite a heady time for a ripe and impressionable manchild.

Oakland is directly adjacent to Berkeley and one of my cousin Steve's favorite haunts was Lois the Pie Queen, a legendary soulfood restaurant that became my benchmark for all soulfood to come. The world champion Oakland A's would hang out there occasionally delivering lunch orders (Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue in particular) as would the Pointer Sisters, whose father had a church down the street that they sang at. All were welcome and treated like family, from neighborhood characters to local celebrities. Lois was bigger than life and radiated warmth as did her staff, mothers to all.

Smothered pork chops, oxtails and greens, unreal fried chicken -- and then there were those namesake pies. So it was with slight apprehension that I stepped foot into West Side soul food restaurant Doggy's SS. Within moments I felt deja vu. A Lois-like vibe overcame me. To one side, older gentlemen discussed last Sunday's sermons, a waitress that was sweet, efficient and teasingly funny took orders and then there was the fried chicken. And what fried chicken it is.

Lightly dredged in seasoned flour and crisp as a freshly printed $100 bill, memories of Lois' came flooding back to me. My taste buds were transported back to 1972. Cooked to order and worth the wait, the dark meat was moist, succulent, delicious... all of the above, coupled with the best mac and cheese I've experienced since the summer of '72.

I could see Lois' enormous smile with every bite. "Is that good, sugar? Of course it's good, Lois made that just for you!" Or in this case, Doggy did.

My work often causes me to be outside of Chicago for extended periods, sometimes six to nine months at a time. Eighty to 100 hour weeks are the norm and I sometimes find myself dreaming of home. Those dreams often turn to food and when they do, the Chicken Boti at Khan BBQ steals my nocturnal thoughts. Halal thigh meat is marinated in a spicy yogurt-chile riata, then skewered and lowered into a large tandoor oven until charred around the edges and cooked through. This relatively simple dish is more than the sum of its parts. I find myself missing this particular primitive form of BBQ more than anything else on my journeys. Upon returning home, it's one of the first must-haves of the many that inevitably follow.

But wait... there's more. Not one, not two, but actually three noteworthy chicken dishes can be had at Khan BBQ. Besides the Chicken Boti, the broasted chicken is well spiced then crisped to almost orange in color and served bone-in. Frontier chicken with rice are small pieces of tandoori chicken, finished by mixing with rice pilaf and sautéing it on a large flat top grill. First rate all.

Earthy daal palak (lentils and spinach), bhindi (okra and tomatoes) and goat champ (when available, which is close to never) are also among my favorite dishes here.

Another standard on my round of "must stops" is Lao Sze Chuan in the Chinatown Mall, home to Chef Tony Hu's 3 Chili Chicken, aka "chicken crack". I'm usually there within 48 hours of touching down on Chicago terra. The crispy, spicy, sweet, salty nuggets of birdy goodness have a legion of devoted followers that can be heard ruminating on Chicagoland foodcentric internet culinary chat sites (LTHForum.com in particular) regaling the qualities of one batch of 3chilichix compared to a not-too-distant memory of chicken cracks gone by.

While you're there, you can't go wrong checking out the Ma Pao tofu with $2 extra pork, the beef maw with tendon, the dry chili shrimp (shell on and completely edible) or the Pot Herb with minced pork. The menu which numbers more than 350 items can be daunting to peruse, but the above selections are tried and true. Most American restaurants try to cap that number in the high 20s. This is nearly 40 times that! I can just imagine the checklists and mis en place (prep) needed for service, let alone the knowledge, training and multiple techniques that the chefs must possess to produce all of the menu items. Impressive indeed.

Tony is a sweetheart and the go-to godfather of food in Chinatown with three restaurants in the same mall (Lao Beijing and Lao Shanghai are also part of his fledgling empire). He's the real deal, trained at one of the most prestigious culinary schools in China, and presents his cuisine as authentically as he can in Chicago (i.e. not dumbed down for Western tastes, at least that's what he's told me in conversation). He's realized the true American dream with a combination of talent plus hustle bringing his deserved success.

Early on, some of the waitstaff would actually tell you "no, you no like" if you ordered something too spicy or too authentic in their minds and would refuse to serve it to you. It's our good fortune that a few decidedly dedicated fans persisted and now you can pretty much order (and get) whatever you want. Usually. The host can be a bit of a hustler though, so watch that.

About as far away that you can get from Chengdu, Tufano's Vernon Park Tap is an old school Italian American restaurant that excels at lemon chicken swathed in garlic and served over oven roasted potatoes. Opened in the '30s, Tufano's has been serving up hearty Southern Italian family style cuisine to generations of Chicagoans and is among the last of the near-extinct Little Italy businesses that the Circle Campus displaced.

While serving our groaningly overloaded plates, our waitress insisted we'd over-ordered and conveniently forgot one of our entrees but gave us her giardinera recipe to ease our pain. I'll share it with you now: Pour white vinegar over cut peppers and thinly sliced celery while being strained. The proper utensil to mix it with is a wooden spoon and the amount of garlic is 1-2 whole smashed cloves in the bottom of the jar or bowl. A single leaf of "basilico covered in oil" on the top. And the mix of oil... approximately 75/25 vegetable to olive oil.

Besides the lemon chicken, the eggplant Parmesan, most often relegated to cliché status in lesser hands, is exceptional. Wafer thin slices of fried eggplant layered with tart tomato sauce and gooey melted mozzarella cheese. Taste and smell being the most primitive of our senses, it was identical to what I remembered, even though it had been nearly 40 years since the last time I was there with my father as a child. Having been out of town more than 20 of those years, I'd just kind of forgotten about Tufano's, but now that I'm back home, it's on my current rotation once again.

The corner of Argyle and Broadway may well be considered ground zero for duck lovers in Chicago. Working a particular brand of that old quack magic (got me in it's spell) a veritable pantheon of mother ducklove sits across the street from one another in the guise of Tank Noodle and Sun Wah BBQ.

Pho Xe Tang, aka Tank Noodle, is home to Mi Vit Tiem (menu item #63) a fortifying great steaming bowl du duck. Quartered and roasted, a duck leg and thigh sits atop a complex broth redolent with star anise and loaded with thin egg noodles, shiitake mushrooms, cloud ear, some leafy greens and dried jujubes (think sweet and smokey). If you feel the need as I do, you may customize your soup with the pickled cabbage and chili oil on the table. Truly wonderful, particularly in winter during a snow storm viewed from behind their large panoramic windows facing the busy intersection. Sampling some last week in deference to this article, it worked just fine in the hot humidity as well.

In addition, the wonderful texture of raw spring rolls with shrimp, mint and vermicelli rice noodles (#7B) are fresh and light. Served with an excellent dipping sauce garnished with ground peanuts, you'll be hard pressed not to automatically order them upon each visit.

Another standout is "Bahn Xeo" (#12) or a coconut infused crisp rice crepe with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, served with the requisite fresh mint, basil and cilantro with leaf lettuce to "do it yourself" wrap it with. With the accompanying mildly tangy sauce, it is for me, the best rendition of this dish on the street. Put it this way, I've been charged twice as much for half the quality elsewhere.

Also, you've got to give them props on the name game, considering it's a Vietnamese restaurant with camouflage-shirted waiters. I suppose "Napalm" just wouldn't have been as appetizing.

A few doors east of Broadway on the north side of Argyle is home to quite possibly the best Peking Duck in Chicago. Sun Wah BBQ. Family owned and operated for years, with the more recent involvement of the second generation daughters (Kelly and Laura Cheng) their foodie caché has risen considerably. Tech savvy and culinary school trained, the ladies use their talents and knowledge to upgrade what could be standard Cantonese fare and the internet to communicate with their customers, planning special themed dinners etc... which is how they came to feature this outstanding version of the Peking Duck experience with accouterments. Good news is that the special that was, now permanently resides on the menu.

Carved tableside by one of the sisters Cheng, the crisp whole duck is served with the requisite scallions and hoisin sauce. A pickled diakon salad served on the side is the perfect foil to the rich, unctuous motherducking meat. One innovation, though, is that they serve it with a fluffy, doughy sweet bun or "bao" as opposed to the standard mu shu pancake-like crepe. It should be noted that this is particularly inspired and is the only non-traditional aspect of the meal.

The remaining carcass is then transported back to the kitchen to make a mild soup broth which appears at the table and is almost digestive in nature.

Finally, duck fried rice is made with the remaining duck scraps. One of the best fried rice dishes I've ever enjoyed, it's delicious enough to order in its own right, but you're there for the whole experience so just sit back and enjoy it as your third course of this duck tour de force. All this is to be had for the ridiculously low price of $28, which easily serves three to four. Deal of deals for the duck of ducks. And if the mood strikes, supplement your duckstravaganza with some fried octopus whiskers, often available as a special. Just sayin...

Lastly, speaking of duck fried rice dishes, an interesting variation on a theme has recently crossed my path and is worth noting. Thalia Spice, on Chicago Avenue just west of Halsted, is an ambitious "Asian Fusion Bistro." That tagline alone would normally send me running. What that usually means to me is nicer than ma and pa ambiance with standard dishes tweaked in some way by the house, often times not to our benefit, and that holds true here.

In the proper hands, it can be stunning. Wolfgang Puck's groundbreaking Chinoise on Main in Santa Monica leaps to mind (overseen by my friend Chef Kazuto Matsuka during the golden years, 1984-90, before he left to open the original Buddha Bar in Paris). Or Suser Lee, ex of Toronto currently cooking/residing in NY. Masters of the genre with pretenders everywhere nipping at their heels. They've got nothing to worry about. The challenge is in finding those hands, which are few and far between. It was no surprise that the rest of the menu at Thalia Spice was a bit of a crapshoot, but this dish was by far the standout amongst the dozen or so that we sampled.

Tom Yum fried rice with sliced duck breast. The spicy sour flavors of one of my all-time favorite Thai soups pairs well in this rendition, which substitutes rice for broth and duck for shrimp. It was innocuously listed on the menu as a side dish, but in an inspired move we added the duck and loved the results. I'm generally off put by molded rice presentations, preferring a more freeform effect. Be forewarned, they may initially resist if you order it that way, but your efforts will be rewarded if you persist. Just tell them they've made it that way for you before and they'll relent.

A good meal is worth working for.


Lois the Pie Queen
851 60th St., Oakland, CA
510-658-5616

Doggy's S.S. Soul Eatery
2815 W. Harrison St.
773-722-4037

Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Ave.
312-326-5040

Tufano's Vernon Park Tap
1073 W Vernon Park Pl.
312-733-3393

Pho Xe Tang aka Tank Noodle
4953 N. Broadway
773-878-2253

Sun Wah BBQ
1132 W. Argyle St.
773-769-1254

Thalia Spice
833 W. Chicago Ave.
312-226-6020

About the Author

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for over 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's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.

Larry Rothfield / July 4, 2009 7:34 PM

Your reminiscences of Berkeley took me back. My sister Suzy was, like you, living round the corner from Chez Panisse and down the block from the SLA hideout. She was (and remains) into the countercultural old-time music scene at the Freigh and Salvage, which she now helps run. I missed the fried chicken, though.

Alan Lake / July 5, 2009 1:00 AM

Let's just say they were interesting times to come of age in and shaped me profoundly to the core.

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