Monday, May 07, 2007

The Quest for Chicago Cuisine

One of the few things I miss about Chicago is the wide variety of regional cuisine. You can get almost anything in Orlando, but there are a few hometown taste treats of which I've never found an equivalent.

Primary among them are real Chicago hot dogs, slid into a steamed bun and topped with onions, relish, cucumbers, and tomatoes (I eschew the traditional squirt of mustard for a blob of ketchup). Then you must top the tantilizing taste treat with a sprinkle of seasoned salt. My favorite hot dog stand is JR's, which also serves a delicious drink with the destructive-sounding name Orange Bang. It tastes as if you mixed Orange Julius with Tang.

Next up is Culvers custard; the chain is not limited to Illinois, but they are as scarce as an unscarred manatee in Florida. Make my poison a serving of chocolate custard, topped with marshmallow sauce and chopped almonds and finished up with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream and a ruby cherry orb.

I also adore real Mexican food. Oh, sure, we have plenty of pseudo-offerings in Florida. I dearly love Chevy's, but the authenticity of their food is about as close as chop suey is to Chinese. I mean, come on, when is the last time that you think a native Mexican villager really tucked into artichoke and portabello quesidillas?

There are plenty of Mexican neighborhoods in and around Chicago where you can sample real south of the border tastes. I usually sneer at chains, but there is one called Pepe's that is actually pretty darned close to genuine. I lust for their stuffed steak tacos (melt cheese between two soft corn tortillas, then cram them with carne asada). They also have the best chili con queso; their version is a delicious red sauce with a consistency just a bit thicker than tomato soup, although the taste is entirely unique. Dip in corn chips or spoon it onto flour tortillas and you will quickly discover that it is chock full of floating cheese chunks. You can feel your ateries solidifying with each bite.

I also have to visit one of the local Japanese steakhouses. I know the Florida residents are rolled their eyes; we have one of those on virtually every street corner here in Tourist Land. The trick is, none of them here in the Sunshine State seem to serve Lard Lobster. The name Lard Lobster was bestowed by my brother to describe a teppan-style lobster tail cooked with a generous portion of egg sauce. The sauce pretty much consists of solid lard infused with egg yolk; they have ambulances standing on call outside and a hotline to the local coronary care units. I know it sounds odd, but it's rather an acquired taste.

And last, but not least by a longshot, is Lawry's. They serve my beloved silver cart prime rib with whipped cream horseradish sauce imported straight down from Heaven. (As I type this, I've noticed a trend...nearly every food that I love is a heart attack on a plate. Oh well, at least I'll keel over with a wide smile on my face and contented tastebuds.)

I had decided to drag my carcass to Chicago for the first time in nearly a year. It would serve a fourfold purpose: to see family and friends; to say "Happy 30th birthday" to my horse; to have a last "practice flight" before I fly to Europe later this year so I could fine-tune my aeronautic Xanax dose; and to go on a gastronomic binge.

I managed to indulge in all of my favorites. Most of them lived up to my memory, although the Orange Bang was nas-tee! It tasted like something prisoners might distill in their cells by fermenting purloined orange juice for a week.

But perhaps the biggest shock was Lawry's. The food was the same as always, but the atmosphere...well, it's hard to put into words, but I half suspected that Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie had taken over management of the restaurtant.

Lawry's is located in a former mansion, and the setting is truly elegant. Think mirrors and inlays and crystal chandeliers. Once upons a time it was a dress-up occasion, but that has been slowly but surely changing in tandem with the general grunging of society. But still, it retained a measure of stately ambiance.

This time, I felt a vague sense of disquiet soon after we entered. Close to the entrance, in a flea market-esque touch, there was a large table set up with cookbooks and seasoned salt for sale. Not a big deal, but just a little creepy.

We were meeting friends, and once everyone had arrived, we were seated in the main dining room. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the open area between tables was now apparently a toddler play area. The Trashmans, sitting at the table across from us, let little Billy Bob Ray Trashman roll around the floor and run amongst the hot silver meat carts, dodging dish-laden servers and trying his darndest to be taken out of the gene pool. It just wasn't the sort of clientele that I was used to seeing. They were probably letting the kid run amock because the kind of restaurants they usually visit (McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese's, et. al.) always have a playground. They were probably wondering where the plastic ball pit was.

A while later, I heard the little poster child for ADHD screaming at that piercing level that summons dogs from five miles away and that bursts the eardrums of everyone within 20 yards. I glanced over and saw Mrs. Trailia Trashman holding him. At first, I assumed she was trying to quiet him down, but I quickly realize that she was the one inciting his screams! She was tickling him enthusiastically, causing the ungodly screech to emenate at regular intervals, in rhythm with her finger strokes. Sigh....

Thankfully, the food as as godly as I've come to expect. The service was lacking in some subtle, hard-to-define just didn't have the usual edge of elegance. But I hadn't come for pampering. I had come to scarf down roasted cow smothering in gobs of horseradish-laced whipped cream, and I definitely wasn't disappointed.

On the way out, I stopped in the restroom, accessed by a magnificent sweeping staircase with a beautifully carved polished wood bannister. The restroom itself is larger than my first apartment; it has a lounge area with a couch, and then the toilet area. As I entered, I noticed a woman reclining on the couch with a magazine in hand, looking quite at home. Seemed a little strange, but what the heck. Then, as I entered a stall, I noticed a tray on the sink filled with perfume, Tic Tacs, snack sized candy bars, and Blowpops. Okay.....

I overheard another woman coming out of her stall and realized what was going on. The magazine reader was a restroom attendant, something Lawry's had never had before. I could hear them interacting, and when I stepped out of my stall, the attendant squirted the soap dispenser for me and handed me a paper towel from the dispenser. Not too elegant. If you're going to have attendants, at least have better soap and cloth towels! Do I look so weak that I need someone to pull out a paper towel for me? Puh-leese! Basically, it's a thinly disguised ploy for tips.

Sure, I could have taken advantage of the perfume, but that would conflict with the scent I was already wearing. Maybe a Tic Tac would have been okay, but why the heck would I want a Blow Pop? I mean, come on! I had just finished eating a Chocolate Bag (the signature dessert). Why would I want to sully my tastebuds with a kiddie sucker?

I know the woman was dying to return to her magazine, but she wasn't about to budge until I'd parted with the obligatory dollar. For a moment, I had a flashback to Haiti, where I'd been shaken down in an identical manner, expect that the perfume and candy had been missing in that Third World land.

On the way out, I noticed that a woman had been stationed at the entrance door where she practically pounced on every poor soul who stepped in. "Check your coat? Check your coat?" It was more of a demand than a question, as she virtually blocked their paths until they surrendered their outerwear. Good thing no one tried to enter without a coat, as she probably would have forced them to remove their blouse or shirt!

Outside, as we waited for the valet to retrieve our car, a van pulled up and began to disgorge such a vast stream of humanity that I thought I was watching a clown car. Out popped two adults and half a dozen kids, like some hellish version of the Brady Bunch (they probably hailed from the same trailer park as the Trashmans). I breathed a sigh of relief that we had finished our meal...with my luck, they would have been seated on our other side.

As we escaped to the Pimpin' Family Truckster (my husband's Aztek), I shook my head sadly and made a mental note that I needed to visit Lawry's again very soon. At the rate they are going, I predict that either a) the food is going to plummet downhill along with the atmosphere, so I'd better get one more good meal before that happens; or b) it's under new management on a downhill slide that will culminate in shutting down completely.

It reminded me of Sauzer's, a kiddieland in Indiana that I visited when I was very, very young. At that time, it was a cheerful, well-kept paradise of neon lights and amusement rides. Many years later, I returned with my husband, and it had been transformed into a horrorshow version of itself. To ride the Galaxi roller coaster, you literally had to reach out pull the train along to the lifthill via the support beams. There was a Bamboozler rusting and mouldering in a patch of weeds that I thought was inoperable...till they actually fired it up and loaded people on board! How melancholy to see what a once-beloved place had become.

Lawry's hasn't made it down that far (yet), but I fear that they're on the way. And in the meantime, it's too bad that Sauzer's closed the year after my visit. Otherwise, I could have given directions to the Trashmans and the Clown Car Family. It definitely would have been their kind of place!

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Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. Being from California - having lived in both LA and San Francisco - I miss real Mexican food and authentic Chinese food. Chevy's keeps us going - as does Tijuana Flat's - and you can occasionally find some decent Asian food but oh how I miss the real stuff.

Anonymous said...

Wow you are snarky and honest. Do you have a syndrome that makes you snarky and honest? I liked eating in Chicago but missed my real Mexican food cooked to order by real Mexican-Americans.

To snark or to not snark is the question of the day. Remember to be mentally healthy and stable one must eat lots of SGs for breakfast and lunch. Preferably with salsa and chips.

Anonymous said...

Epitome of snarkiness


Anonymous said...

I love it! You know, you remind me in a way of Simon Cowell. You are willing to say the things the rest of us would say, but generally don't, because it's not "nice".

A very enjoyable read, I can't wait to get the time to read the rest of your writings.

Big Wallaby

Anonymous said...

Churchy here.

I also do not like it when I am in a restaurant and see them kids running right through a waiter. I hate when they let their kids throw food, play on the back of the seat that we share and siren pitched babies. Baby cries, you fix problem and it stops except in restaurants.

Love to take you out to lunch if you ever dare venture to the land of nuts and stupid guests.