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Clip: Wildfire in the Reader

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

159 W. Erie St., Chicago, (312) 787-9000.
Steaks/Lobster, Barbecue/Ribs. Dinner: seven days.
Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11.

Wildfire, like almost every Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, traffics in nostalgia. It’s a replica of a 40s-era wood-paneled supper club, complete with Sinatra on the sound system, stiff drinks at the bar, and massive black-and-white photos of GIs on furlough doing the Lindy Hop with pretty girls. The menu is a throwback too. Meat predominates–steaks, chops, and barbecue. The baby back ribs are OK for ribs served in a place with white tablecloths, juicy and meaty though without the smoky resilience of a rib tended by a watchful pit master. I’d stick to steak on future visits, however. The bone-in rib eye I jealously watched the German tourist at the next table devour was massive, and the trio of filets mignons crusted in your choice of rubs looked great. Other parts of the menu give the nod to more recent decades: not too many Sinatra hangouts served macadamia-crusted halibut or touted their strategic partnerships with internationally distributed megabrands like Geyser Peak or BelGioioso.

–Seth Zurer

Clip: 87th St BBQ in the Reader

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

87th Street BBQ
100 W. 87th St., Chicago, (773) 846-8829.
American, Barbecue/Ribs. Lunch, dinner: seven days.
Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight; Tuesday-Thursday till 11.

Sandwiched between one of the Harold’s Chicken Shack outposts and a Subway, this impeccably clean Chatham takeout prompts thought of one of the enduring mysteries of the restaurant world: how does a charmless place serving indisputably bad food stay in business? A sign on the tile wall advertises an opening for a cook and a meat chopper. I hope they find someone qualified soon, because in the meantime the barbecue here is a travesty. Pork ribs are greasy and gummy, like day-old steamed roast pork. Beef ribs lack structural integrity and, inexplicably, taste exactly like the barbecued turkey leg. Hot links are the worst of the lot: though all beef, they taste like blood sausage crossed with overcooked liver and oatmeal. No wisp of smoke, the true mark of barbecue, contaminates any of the meat, and the sauce is cloyingly sweet. (According to the counterman, they used to make their own but no longer.) Service is affable, but if you find yourself in the vicinity I’d recommend Harold’s: four wings with salt, pepper, and hot sauce will save you some heartache if not heartburn.

–Seth Zurer

Clip: Merle’s in the Reader

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Merle’s #1 Barbecue
1727 Benson Ave., Evanston, (847) 475-7766.
Barbecue/Ribs. Lunch: Sun, Sat. Dinner: seven days.
Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11.

At Merle’s, the kind of barbecue place that offers composed salads for vegetarians, it falls to the savvy consumer to minimize the damage the kitchen can do to a slab of ribs. A couple of general precepts: (1) choose dry over wet (a rib presauced is a rib with something to hide); (2) avoid preportioned and reheated cuts of meat (brisket should be cut to order); (3) don’t believe the hype–the claim of Merle’s slogan to the contrary, no restaurant’s barbecue is good enough to make you want to slap your pappy, I promise. With these caveats in mind, Merle’s does an OK job. Baby back ribs, prepared dry, come in a meaty half slab, with a decent crust of highly seasoned dry rub, an almost smoky flavor, and a texture pleasantly positioned in the middle of the continuum between fall off the bone and leathern. When prepared wet (i.e., preslathered with “Tennessee” barbecue sauce), on the other hand, the meat slides into a slimy parboiled state, without a trace of smoke flavor. Brisket, which is available sliced or “pulled” (a treatment no brisket deserves), was preportioned and poor: one slice had managed to escape overzealous fat trimming and was fine, but the leaner pieces were smokeless and tough. Smoked chicken, at least on one recent visit, was overcooked and dry. “Smoking wings” were gummy winglets and drumettes first smoked then fried and coated in your choice of sauce, from mild to medium to “smoking hot.” Smoking isn’t what I’d call it, though–the waiter got it right when he termed them “macho but manageable.”

–Seth Zurer

Clip: Borinquen in the Reader

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

1720 N. California, Chicago, (773) 227-6038.
Latin American. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days.
Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11.

Borinquen, the “Home of the Jibaro,” stakes its reputation on a dish its owner claims to have invented: the jibarito (“little hillbilly”), a garlicky sandwich with your choice of meat layered between two deep-fried slices of flattened green plantain. It’s a greasy, unwieldy mess of a sandwich, but man, does it work. I like mine with lechon, juicy Puerto Rican-style roast pork laced with pockets of rich fat and satisfying crunches of golden crackling skin. The jibarito also comes in beef, veggie, ham, or chicken incarnations. I can’t wholeheartedly endorse the pollo–the stewed chicken can be tough and gristly; the pechuga, or chicken breast is better. On the side I take an order of arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas) or habichuelas (red beans with ham)and a splash of vinagre (a red-pepper and garlic-infused vinegar, made in-house). Borinquen has a full menu of Puerto Rican plates, but none lives up to the high standard set by the jibarito. The mofongo is interesting, fried plantain mashed in a wooden mortar and pestle with salt pork and garlic and then molded around either lechon or seafood. The appetizers are sometimes good, depending on how long they’ve been under the heat lamp in the window; I like the bacalaito, a codfish fritter. Borinquen now has two additional locations, at 3020 N. Central (773- 622-8570) and at 3811 N. Western (773-442-8001); the ambience at the latter hovers between sports bar and neighborhood tavern.

–Seth Zurer

Clip: Counter Offers

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

This feature ran in Time Out: Chicago in June 2005.

Step right up for great food (and no tipping!) at these counters in ethnic grocery stores, bakeries and cafeterias By By Seth Zurer

Cafeteria Marianao (2246 N Milwaukee Ave at Fairfield Ave, 773-278-4533). If you want fast service at this dilapidated sandwich shack, it helps if you are a) female, b) hot and c) scantily clad; the rest of us have to wait in the mob for a counterman to get around to taking an order. But the steak sandwiches are worth it: A “double with cheese” gets you slices of hot steak piled on an eight-inch Turano roll and topped with melted white cheese, pickled onions and tomato. And don’t miss the cafe cubano: Fresh, strong and sweet without a trace of bitterness, it’s one of the great cheap espressos in the city.
Meal for a steal: Double steak sandwich with cheese and a cafe cubano: $4.50

Carniceria Leon (1402 N Ashland Ave at Blackhawk St, 773-772-9804). Thanks to Chicago’s massive Mexican population, carnicerias and supermercados are as common as Jewel and Dominick’s. In the back of these food markets, you’ll almost always find a little counter with minimal seating and a grill or spit set up for cooking popular taco fillings. This tiny storefront is one of the best for tacos barbacoa or al pastor. The smoky, shredded beef that goes into the former is fragrant with garlic and pepper, while the pork for the al pastor (literally “shepherd-style”) has a vinegary, orange-juice tang and is cut directly from the revolving spit onto fresh corn tortillas. Both are a bargain at $1.50 a piece.
Meal for a steal: Two tacos al pastor, two tacos barbacoa and a Jarritos tamarindo drink: $7

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