There is a new era of conviviality among some of Milwaukee’s better know and awarded chefs. This charms me, to say the least. It was just a few years ago that I was sitting at the lounge bar of Hinterland finishing up something rustic and gamey, drinking beer, and talking to a newly minted acquaintance, a chef at one of downtown Milwaukee’s much-lauded restaurants.
I remember being in a great mood. The weather was still Vespa-friendly; I had just had a great meal. “Wisconsin Foodie” was in its second season, and those involved in the show were feeling sanguine about the local food scene and what we might be doing to contribute to it.
At every turn, there seemed to be yet another talented chef that had decided to stay in Milwaukee or, better yet, had headed out on a kick-ass culinary sojourn and then returned. So I turned to the chef and asked where local chefs hung out together, where did they drink and laugh, tell true kitchen stories, steal talent from each other, and share secrets? “We don’t,” he replied flatly, “I don’t know anybody who does that.”
I was surprised and dejected by this. Anthony Bourdain had just done a show about a secret place in New York where only chefs can go to for meals and drinks, where they can be themselves and mix like so many good bacteria in a Petri dish. The result was a better citywide restaurant scene.
It seemed obvious to me that, given a city of decent size, all chefs would want to do that. The more they mingled, the better the quality of their cooking. I briefly wondered if I was a bit too idealistic, since I was kind of newbie to this whole foodie thing. My doubt was dispelled when I thought about the number of smart, affable chefs I had met, all with “like it here better than anywhere” attitudes. They were predisposed to great ingredients, which were locally available. How could these minds not meet, drink together, and kibitz? Was Milwaukee so small a town that chumminess impeded a separate space for a chef club? Or was it just a bit too big, with everyone cooking within individual bubbles?
On the Vespa ride home that night, I ran all that through my heart first, and then my head, and, as I put my key in the door, felt a bit like Mick at the really scary part of “Gimme Shelter,” as he shouts out to the roiling crowd, “Everybody be cool! Can’t we all get along?” The good news is the crowd has loosened up and come back around, and is even currently swaying together to something like “Far Away Eyes.” I first noticed this phenomenon at a dinner featuring Wisconsin cheese at La Merenda, this past spring. “Wisconsin Foodie” was filming an evening of brilliant courses by local Milwaukee chefs, which were paired with renowned Wisconsin cheeses. The menu was full of unexpected culinary surprises. At times it seemed as if the Dadaists had come back and decided to cook, but it all worked splendidly, underscoring the caliber of local talent that we have.
La Merenda’s owner/chef Peter Sandroni has always played well with others. I observed him and few of the other talents cooking at that dinner working together in fields, barns, tents via-a-vis chef David Swanson’s Braise On The Go Traveling Culinary School. A good thing to be sure, but I knew these men and women to all be drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid of Swanson’s RSA, establishing the crew that night in La Merenda’s kitchen as friends. The stage is set, I thought, but no more than it has ever been.
The tipping point for me was mid-December at, of all places, Hinterland. I had the perfect 45-degree angle to view into the kitchen as nine Milwaukee and two Chicago chefs prepped, assisted, plated, garnished for each other and observed their colleagues’ work in admiration. This was a pop-up dinner, as the trend goes, but it was the first event I know of where that number of premier Milwaukee chefs took turns as only the finest most self-possessed musicians, can, essentially jamming in front of each other for the benefit of each other and for the audience too. None of them was doing it to show the others up, or put any others down. The courses were terrific, many stellar, and the lion’s share of the ingredients came from local farms regularly used by the chefs.
Equally impressive was the vibe in the dining room post-meal, when the chefs came out for a round of applause and then a drink. They entered the room as one and were received accordingly. It suddenly hit me that I had found my Petri dish. The same chef who had stated to me two years earlier that chefs never hang out was now standing about 50 feet from where he had broken my idealistic heart, laughing with a cadre of the others. I drove the Vespa home, I cued up “Lovin Cup” from “Exile on Main Street,” and I felt better.
That dinner, as it turns out, has served as an icebreaker for this kind of thing.
A similar evening will be presented at Hinterland this coming February by microbrewery enthusiast John Lavelle. Five courses will highlight what he considers some of our best local breweries and our best local chefs. He is calling it “The Best Of Milwaukee Beer Dinner: The First of Five.” The following four will be presented across 2012. The first will have courses from the chefs of The Rumpus Room, Hinterland, Tess, Sanford and Roots.
This may all sound like a Milwaukee culinary kumbayah circle, but here is why it’s cool.
Inviting someone over to your house and sharing a meal is indicative of a relationship that is deepening. Similarly, when a chef and restaurant unselfishly invite other chefs to cook in their space, mess things up, screw with the line stations, etc., and the other chefs agrees to come in, pull off their dishes, absent a lot of the tools they are accustomed to working with in their kitchens, simply because they are all are so different, that mishigas, is a very good thing. A better analogy might be going camping with someone. You’ve got what you brought, you’ve got each other, there will be bonding of some sort or another.
And it continues. In early February, a nice chunk of Milwaukee’s chefs will be coming together at the Iron Horse Hotel in a culinary music mash-up called SoundBites to benefit 88.9 Radio Milwaukee. Chefs will basically take over the Iron Horse on all three floors, creating amazing signature small plates, while the DJs spin “sonic pairings” to go with the dishes.
Because I was involved in pulling this event together, I was able to see firsthand how close many of the chefs really were. When asked to participate in the event, the resounding response of the chefs and restaurants on my short-list was essentially, “Who else is going to be there? Oh, those guys! We love those guys! We’re in!”
Another chance to experience this sort of thing happens in April at the Intercontinental Hotel with SloPig, an amazing porcine wonder of an event exported from Madison in celebration of properly raised, tasty pigs. Madison chefs have been known to be exceptionally convivial for some time. (Except when they are not, in which case you get a bar fight.)
Maybe all this newfound culinary camaraderie is due to the warming trend our winter seems to be having, with people emerging more readily. Maybe, with the spate of new restaurant openings slowing post-2008, the recession resulted in the city’s kitchens needing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Who knows? I have never spent a 14-hour day in a demanding kitchen; I have never argued over ingredients and menu choices; I have never done a three-month learning trip to Italy, only to return and have a couple send back their plates because “this doesn’t taste right — it’s just not very Italian.” (As happened to one of Wisconsin’s most famous native-born exports, while he was cooking in a Wauwatosa ristorante.) Maybe all of that makes one less likely to mix with your profession’s own at the end of the day.
For the past few years, I have had the unique advantage of standing just outside the bubble and observe as the solidarity of Milwaukee’s gastronomic scene as it has grown. I have gotten to know many of these talented women and men firsthand. In my mind, they are all in one place, a sort of “knights of the round table” of cooks for my city. Why should they have drinks, laugh and talk with each other, instead of simply doing the great things in their own kitchens, which I have come to enjoy so much? Perhaps all of this mixing is just a moment in time, a brief shining moment, the quintessential “Camelot” moment for Milwaukee’s culinary scene. Still, I’m glad the mixing is going on.
BY KYLE CHEREK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID LARSON
It used to be that hotels were a perfectly respectable place for chefs to cut their teeth.
Jacques Pepin in his autobiography talks about one of his first serious jobs in the Old World European model of the kitchen brigade in a Swiss hotel. Thomas Keller on his last book tour told me during his tenure at a San Francisco hotel, he took being moved from dinners to breakfasts as a demotion. That move ended up giving him a formative education from a veteran hotel chef who taught him how to execute perfect egg dishes, among other classic hotel breakfasts.
Over the last 10 to 20 years, among the legions of hotel chefs, there have always been bright spots. But, to put it politely, somewhere between the erosion of the age of elegant travel and the rise of the Schrageresqe boutique hotel concept, the idea of the well-vetted, hotel model chef has perished. Or, as one James Beard winner put it, “That’s where chefs went to die.” Oddly, in a way, the advent of the celebrity chef lent a good hand to bringing these hotel chefs back. Outposts inside of the ever-chic places to lay your head seem to be in vogue nowadays, which is why it was such a find to see a cadre of small plates executed so inventively on The Intercontinental Hotel’s Clear Bar menu by a somewhat unsung hotel chef, David Zakroczymski.
Ordinarily I like to avoid the trend of small plates. This is a common condition among foodies because it is often just less-inspired food done in smaller bites. All in all, the small-plate movement is a bit mean-spirited; I liken it to what my harassing older brothers would do with my bag of potato chips when I was kid: swoop in, smash them up, and then hand them back to me and say, “Look, now there’s more.”
On Zakroczymski’s menu, however, a few small-plate gems stand out, including the Crab Boursin Tater Tots. I cannot take credit for this discovery. My friend Adam ordered them up one night while we were waiting for a lobby fashion show to begin. Chef told us that he came across them as they were cast in the role of a soup garnish. What were the originators of this matchup thinking? Crabs are native to the water, Normandy is on the channel, so let’s get this little culinary darling wet! In … soup? Thank goodness Zakroczymski saved them for drier shores, because the genius twist is in the tot itself. It is reminiscent of the cheap, crispy, fresh-out-of- the-oven Ore-lda flavor profile that hooked so many of us in the first place. But then, like the best movie plots, the one-dimensional appearance unfolds into something much more complex and surprising. Napoleon Dynamite would be proud.
A few other places to park your palette would be the Tatar Tacos: small, yummy, and not really a mess to eat, which is imperative while trying to swirl the olives in your satellite dish-size martini glass and maintain your stylish mien. Order them if only to have the opportunity to say to your cocktail companions, “Who the hell makes a taco shell out of taro root?” From there I would incline toward the Cuban Spring Rolls or the Bacon Wrapped Dates.
I haven’t been to Cuba as some of my State Department-connected friends have, but those same friends say the pulled-pork rolls’ guts are quite good. Twisting that up in a spring roll gives a nice cool snap (literally) to the pork. As for the dates, well, I simply love the Middle East meets Midwestness of the whole thing. After all, if a hotel lobby isn’t about the mélange
of guests from all over the world, then what is?
Kyle Cherek is the host of the Emmy nominated “Wisconsin Foodie,” a regular guest on Fox 6 “Real Milwaukee,” as well as a blogger, and monthly columnist for M Magazine on all things culinary. Follow him on Twitter @kylecherek for updates on food and the scene around town.
Be a tourist in my hometown. The first time I heard that expression was in New York from my friend Paula, a Midwesterner turned New Yorker. “I am too busy to be tourist in my hometown.” I have heard this opined my whole adult life. Whether in a big or small town, we are too busy with the struggle and trappings of living wherever it is we live.
It’s not an uncommon malady. We move somewhere, or stay somewhere, and then bit by bit, we begin to skip taking advantage of the very reasons we made that “where,” where we wanted to be.
In filming with “Wisconsin Foodie” for the last few years, the request of “where is the best place to dine?” comes my way often enough. As swell of a question as this is, I usually preface the answer to the fact that the bent of the show is one that exists in an opposite universe of the critic. This disclosed, when asked, one’s got to say something. In giving the answer, I am amazed at how many of my even terrifically well vetted foodie friends have no idea of the chef treasures we have within a five-minute drive in and around downtown Milwaukee. When I mention to them that within a quick drive, they could dine in the restaurants of two James Beard Best Chef Winners, and four recent semifinalists, one of whom was named Rising Star(a unique distinction even among the Beards), they get that wistful look in their eyes that a teenager might get upon hearing you’ve just added three hours to his curfew.
First, a word about the method of measurement, the hallowed ground of the James Beard Awards, that qualifying annual certification of accomplishment that has been both reviled and extolled in the press, written and read by those who dig food.
A little background on the awards and James Beard. They happen every May, in celebration of the former chef James Beard’s birthday. They are all at once the Oscars of culinary things in America, except where the Oscars give statues to foreign films they deem exceptional. There is none of that with Beard. That is not too fine a point because it was James Beard, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, who from the 1950s through the 1970s most ardently shaped the palate of the serious American diner and cook. I have said before in print and on film, that Child and Pepin are the Jagger & Richards of American food. I still hold that true. Beard would then metaphorically be the amalgamation of every roots musician and honest American sound that more European ears, or in this case of palates, took in stride as they cooked. For Americans, from the 1950s on, he taught us what American gourmet was, while lauding the merits of French cuisine above all others. Beard’s predilections in the French direction, coupled with the same from Child and Pepin are the single reason why French still is the pre-eminent gourmet cuisine across America. Had Beard been keen on Italian, had Pepin been named Privinzi, and Child’s husband been stationed in Italy after the Allies reclaimed the boot, we would have a lot fewer Olive Gardens, and a lot more Osterias, and that would be a good thing. Beard was the first to have a TV cooking show in 1946, and was on the national culinary map as early as the beginning of that decade. He was born at the beginning of the 20th century, found his way to New York, and after a less than stellar theater career, opened a catering company with a friend and smartly addressed the cocktail party craze and made his name with a cook book called “Hors D’Oeuvres and Canapés.” See what I mean about the French thing? By the end of his life he published 20 books, created a television show and toured the country proselytizing the merits of great cooking and exceptional ingredients.
Beard’s small house in Greenwich Village is home to the foundation that bears his name. The whole award thing began in 1990, and at first was met by the chefing world with a classic French response that goes something like this: “Ehhh.” Add your own insouciant shrug as needed. Since then it has grown into something that makes careers, and blesses or curses food trends with either its nod or its failure to notice. It’s far from perfect. Anthony Bourdain called it “a kind of benevolent shakedown operation,” and to a certain extent he is right. That said, I have eaten in as many winning or nominated restaurants as I could during the past number of years, and to be glib, they far from suck.
So how is it that people who watch food shows, including my own, have no idea of the high caliber of cooking going on in the city they call home? Lack of tourism in their own town I surmise. You should stay hungry for what is close as well as what is out there beyond the comforts of your local ZIP code. Starting from what is closest to my house in Walkers Point, here is the James Beard get list.
First is Crazy Water. Chef Peggy Magister was trained by Wolfgang Puck and has simply one of the best takes on American meets cosmopolitan cuisine you can have without getting on a plane. She was listed as a semifinalist in the Best Chef Midwest category in 2010 and to quote Magister, “Yeah it’s nice, but we don’t cook for that stuff. Good food is good food.” All the more reason to go.
Next would be Hinterland. Chef Dan Van Rite has been ranked as a semifinalist two years in a row for Best Chef Midwest, in 2010 and 2011 respectively. For those of you following the geography of this story that means that in 2010 you could literally walk from one nominee’s restaurant to another’s and have two great meals. Van Rite is one of my favorites simply because he brings a Mountain/West Coast aesthetic to Milwaukee’s chef scene. He cut his teeth as a chef on a private ranch for a financial captain of industry. The long and short of that was that ingredients had to be spot on, cost was not a consideration, his chef skills had to be top tier on call, but he could also go for weeks literally watching the grass grow. Gamey, guts and restrained rustic are what I would call his hallmarks.
From here it just gets silly in a good way. The SURG group behind Umami Moto and the rest of its cadre of restaurants has a thing for hiring good people. The do gloss, glamour and the shiny side of dining better than anyone in this town. In that environment some might forgive them for having passable food fueled by the room of pretty people drinking in each other and their cocktails. (Vegas anyone?) First at the helm was chef Aaron Bickham who trained with Jean Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud and Adam Siegel. Though Bickham has not been nominated himself, he warranted mention because of his unprecedented run with previous Beard winners. Three in a row to be exact. Post Bickham’s departure, SURG and Umami did not miss a beat with current chef Justin Carlisle. Carlisle hails from the Chicago and Madison restaurant circles as of late, and has been a semifinalist three times for the James Beard accoladethat I can count. His reinvention of the Umami Moto menu as well as contributions to the rest of their concepts pulls in all the strengths of a chef who knows how to cook within the season while pressing against an exotic flair that is used only for solid tastes, instead of for show.
It will take you about 12 minutes, if that, to walk from Hinterland to Umami Moto.
From Umami Moto to Sanford, maybe 10 minutes. At Sanford you will find a double whammy of sorts. Yeah, that’s a culinary technical term. Sanford D’Amato won the James Beard in 1996 after a ridiculous six nominations.
I had the privilege of dining there prior to ’96, and the delay in the honor of “Best” was definitely NOT because he was still getting his game together. D’Amato, for as low-key as he is personally, is the perfect example of still waters running deep. If Child, Pepin and Beard form the trifecta that gave us what is called American 20th century gourmet, then what does it mean when Child picks you and only nine other chefs to cook for her on the occasion of her 80th birthday? It says your contribution to cuisine and your talent far exceeds the intimate restrained eponymous restaurant you and your wife, Angie, have in Milwaukee. To be proper, D’Amato does not cook at Sanford every night anymore, and that’s a good thing in the sense that Justin Aprahamian, the Sanford chef scion, gets a chance to course things out in his fine, French meets regional sensibilities meets totally inspired flavor-layerings manner. Don’t misunderstand. D’Amato regularly cooks right along Aprahamian, or in front, or beside, etc. It is a legendarily small kitchen. It’s just not a predictable schedule. These are the benefits of having your name on the door. Aprahamian, to his credit has not just survived in D’Amato’s shadow. He has been nominated for both the Beard Best Chef Midwest and Rising Star awards. A huge honor. When he lost this past 2011 round to a Minneapolis chef, a television food personality who is a household name, Aprahamian told me a few weeks after the awards, “He (the television personality) should of won. He is tremendously talented.”
If you don’t go to Sanford for any of these reasons, go because it is a connection to our culinary history. I have another chef friend who started washing dishes at Sanford and decided to follow the path to culinary school after Pepin and Child cut into the dining room through the back door off the kitchen. He is now acclaimed on his own and has cooked at the Beard House.
Lastly, but far from least, is Lake Park Bistro and Adam Siegel. Chef Siegel won the Best Chef Midwest in 2008. He had been nominated just once before, and still to my mind, owns the award when he cooks. To tell the story of Siegel’s 2008 award is also to tell the story of the man who to a great extent fostered his chef talents, Paul Bartolotta. Bartolotta, for his part, has won the Beard twice, unprecedented, in two separate regions, (Midwest and West) within the space of 15 years between. To some that might seem like a long stretch between, to me it signals someone who is still on top of his craft a decade and half after being called a master at it the first time. To date the award has never gone to the same chef in two regions, ever, except to Bartolotta. Siegel’s home turf is undoubtedly French (he trained and cooked there in several acclaimed Parisian restaurants). Bartolotta and his monthly visits back to Milwaukee to engage Siegel and the rest of his team brings the kind of finesse and culinary presence that years of training in Italy and France can lend. The first time I met Pepin, it was a chef lunch that Siegel was preparing. The two of them have the easy jocularity of guys that had gone to the same college and have inside stories and jokes. The second time I met Pepin, he was with his daughter at Kohler Food and Wine. Jacques and Claudine finished their cooking segment and hustled over to watch Siegel give his. When Pepin crosses the rainy resort grounds at a Food and Wine event to see you give a demo on classic Francophile cooking, I would say you are doing French pretty well.
This tour should be on the lips of anyone that cares about or, as I said previously, digs food. Not just because all of these chefs are cooking at such a high level and a swell little foundation in New York noticed. No, it should be on everybody’s lips because it is entirely novel that a city of Milwaukee’s size can support, sustain, even demand this caliber of food. That of all the places to make your mark in American cooking, you find the restaurant owners, customers and opportunity to do it here. Milwaukee. A city some of my acquaintances on the coasts can’t even explain the location of in regard to the rest of the Midwest. This tour should be on the lips of everyone who digs food because its very existence is evidence of that lovely Midwestern (minus Chicago) edict. We are not doing “it” to somehow flout the “fly-over states” title. We are doing it for ourselves. If you happen to notice, have a great meal.
This should not happen.
Not happen in the sense that it is least likely to, or rather, it would be fine if they screwed this one up.
What I am referring to is a burger, a very good one, and at, of all places, The Harbor House.
There is an old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” This is rarely true, however, in the chef world. Those that can, do.
In the case of Paul Bartolotta, he has trained a legion of well-known and well-respected chefs — the least of which is a Wisconsin boy and soon-to-be global star chef, Michael White.
Bartolotta’s got his own mastery of the Italian seafood, dual James Beards in two regions, a premier Las Vegas restaurant and from here I’ll just add, etc. With Bartolotta’s extraordinary dexterity with seafood, he and brother, Joe, and Beard-wining executive chef Adam Siegel, it should be no real reach to turn out a swell seafood spot. But here’s my point. What’s with the burger?
I am a strong believer that what one can have at the bar of an establishment tells you volumes about its strengths and weaknesses. What you can have at the bar at The Harbor House is unaccountably good for the price, but moreover, as I said to a friend the night after I first had the burger as a follow-up to some oysters and beer, “If they were going to phone in anything on the menu, it would be OK if this was it.” After all, it is a seafood place.
Others have waxed more then poetic about burgers before. Lots of others. My friend, Josh Ozersky, wrote a book about burgers and their history. It’s a fine read and, if that is your sort of thing, sincerely, I recommend it. This is not the place for that.
What The Harbor House serves up via its burger is almost too simple. A light Brioche bun from Breadsmith, a grilled 80/20 USDA quarter-pound certified Angus beef chuck patty. Crisp fresh lettuce, tomato and grilled onions if you want them. My cheeseburger came spread with Merkts Cheddar, a nice riff on the usual “slice.” On occasion the Harbor House kitchen has patties from Neesvig’s and if they do, skip the fish for sure, as it is a name mentioned among burger geeks the way the name Tiffany elicits squeals at wedding and baby showers alike. When I asked Siegel about the burger he said, “Our approach is simple, well-executed with what we consider great raw materials.” Since the Milwaukee landmark out of the window over my left shoulder cost millions more than it was proposed, I ordered a modestly priced second Schlitz to pair with the burger. I wanted the Châteauneuf du Pape, a wine that’s great with a good burger. In light of the view, I thought the Schlitz was the sensible choice. They work well together to say the least.
I know, I know. Dissenters may fill this magazine’s e-mail inbox with missed and merited burger gems, screams of my suburban blind spots, and poorly researched story, as if instead of talking burgers I am a junior senator on the floor reading from his list of favorite Americans in history, and some how omitting Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony all in one inept swipe. Guilty for sure. And here are just a few more that might be under the radar.
Rupena’s at the Milwaukee Public Market.
This is the best burger in the city for less than $5, in my opinion. They do a quarter-pound 100 percent chuck blend that comes out surprisingly lean and put it in between a butter bun from their Breadsmith neighbors across the aisle. The classic lettuce and tomato duo accompanies. Grab one and take it around the corner to the Thief Wine counter and pair it with glass of either Steak House Cabernet from Colombia Valley in Washington, or if you want to go Francais, the Château Lascaux which is a Syrah, Grenache and Mourved blend. Both available by glass.
Iron Horse Hotel
The burger that newly installed chef Jason Gorman is putting out is quite simply extraordinary. It is a 10-ounce burger patty made from a specially ground mixture of chuck, brisket and sirloin. Gorman tops it with psycho-good, award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, a small batch of smoked onions, ketchup made from red wine, lettuce, tomato and puts it between a Miller egg roll. Oh, and there are Iron Horse homemade pickles to boot. This $14 burger should be $25. It’s like your own personal burger Groupon.
Chef Dominic Zumpano’s Mangia burger is made from Hidden Creek Farms beef, good to be sure, but here is where it leaves other mere “bacon added” burgers in the dust. Instead, Graffito’s burger is topped with speck, that extraordinary air-dried pork delicacy often seasoned with laurel or juniper, it then flavorfully smoked after that. Put it this way, if Prosciutto is the Cadillac of cured pork, then speck would be a hand-built Mercedes/AMG. Because it would be wild to stop there, Zumpano also tops the burger with lardo (cured strips of seasoned pork backfat, the best of which is cured in Carrara marble vats) and a local four-year aged cheddar. Graffito garnishes with a housemade tomato jam, romaine lettuce and fresh cut fries. The bun is also house-made in a riff off of a classic Brioche recipe.
This is a French place in New Berlin that does a great Angus burger. And why wouldn’t you open a French place in a suburb named after the German capital? A little spiky perhaps, like, well, the French. Chef Andy Tenaglia, formerly the executive chef at Miller Park (you may have heard of it) has struck out and done well after handling “everything from tailgating to fine dining” at the ballpark. In that he comes from this arena, it is no surprise he can pull off a killer burger. In my mind it is a true ingredient trifecta. First, his burger is a grand patty of 25/75 chuck/sirloin blend made of American Wagyu from Snake River Farms in California. Next he uses a 10-year cheddar from Vern’s in Chilton. I am no expert cheese monger, but I know some experts and the three I called all agreed that Vern’s 10-year is one of most undervalued aged Wisconsin cheeses presently available. Lastly, Tenaglia puts all this and lettuce and tomato between a housemade bun called a Pain auí late. Translated as “milk roll,” it is made from a rich dough flavored with a Wuthrich Swiss style butter from Grasslands Dairy. Imagine a gourmet, slightly sweet, Wonder Bread-type bun. If you live downtown or on the North Shore it is worth the drive.
During a recent tasting at Waterford Wine, over three short of a dozen bottles of the “unknown French,” our guide for the night, after leaning a Languedoc against a Rhone, put this to the drinkers in the room: “The question is, how do you want your decadence at the end?” The work of hard fought for Northern Rhone vines still on my tongue as I walked down Brady Street got me thinking of the way I want my decadence at end.
A lot has been made of cart food in the last six to eight years. A lot. Bourdain and Zimmern are mostly to blame here. Arguably, there is lovely freedom in not even having to say, “we’d like a table please.” A bene placito. On the whole this is, I think, a good thing. The roach coach exultant. The cart food folks have long been unsung heroes. Headcheese to hamburgers. Hot dog stands to unregulated hibachis. The spotlights and imagination have trained on this end of the spectrum for a while. If it’s got wheels and a heat source, let’s hit it.
My affections (and later evening-ending decadence) were peaked, as is oft a young man’s heart in late spring, and I have stayed true since first kiss to the white truck labeled Loncheria/La Mexicana often parked on the corner of 1st and Walker streets weekend nights from approximately 10 p.m. until bar time. I know, you can all but hear the wind up and the pitch. Here’s the part where I wax poetic about the amazing flavors and fresh ingredients of a humble street food trailer parked across from a Hispanic Night Club. Me, Gringo on a Vespa not less, (I think they rank No. 43 on the list of things white people like, from the book of the same name) standing in line with “them,” Hispanic guys with their dates. Guys all duded up in big white cowboy hats and ladies in short skirts. It’s gotta be good. I mean the food. But first let me say this, chefs and cooks everywhere will tell you that making any dish — simple or complex, many, many times, quickly but engagingly, delivering it spot-on, fresh, balanced and a repeated delight, without turning it into a homogenized soulless piece of calories — is not as easy as it seems.
The Mexican fare at the Loncheria Truck is quite simply solid, authentic and fresh. To boot, the tacos are $1.50 and burritos, $4. Even culinary wallflowers begin to step forward and try things just for breaking a $5. I suggest the Assada and the Pork. Even if you have that errant gene that turns cilantro into soap in your mouth, get it anyway; there is something magical at work in between the double corn tortillas. Mexican street food is presently all the rage. In Chicago at Big Star they are lining up for a James Beard chefs who is taking on this trend. Same cheap prices made often by folks for whom English may be a second language, and then delivered to you through the window. As it says in the book of Job, there is nothing new under the sun, yet the professional cooler-outers are loving it.
Francisco and The Loncheria/La Mexicana staff are not culinary auteurs, not innovators, not gastronomic historians or cultural importers. Just self-possessed practitioners of great food. He’s cooking the food he loves, and to follow the cliché to its end, it shows. The real test was when I asked him about the absence of tamales on his menu board. “I don’t like tamales,” he shrugged. The perfect answer, I thought, from a guy and his restaurant on wheels that can travel where the road takes him. At 1:45 a.m., I stepped out of the line so the next guy could order his decadence.
BY KYLE CHEREK