Chicago by way of Phoenix

  One of my mentors at my old job was a Chicago native.  Many times in our now-burned-to-the-ground office we would turn to talking about food as the day came to an end and our bellies started to growl.  Often he would wax nostalgic about the foods he used to take for granted that were no longer available in the southern U.S.  My mouth would water from the tales of the unique regional treatments of seemingly common foods.  A few weeks ago I passed an authentic Chicago sandwich shop as I was biking to the art store.  Remembering the stories I used to hear, I had to give it a try.

  Luke’s of Chicago is a family owned restaurant run by the Del Principe family and is located in a tiny shack.  They pride themselves with using the same recipes that were used in their Chicagoland restaurants over 40 years ago.  Bears posters, Mike Ditka autographs and photos of the Chicago river adorn the walls.  The restaurant smelled great and you could tell by the way conversation was flowing that most of the people in there were regulars.  I knew what I wanted without even reading the menuboard.  A man behind the counter grabbed a notepad to take my order.

“Whaddya want?” the man belted out.  I immediately recognized the accent and attitude as aggressively Chicagoan.

“I want one Italian beef with hot giardiniera and one Chicago dog all the way… two orders of fries and two drinks.”

With that, he turned around and put the order in to the kitchen.  After a short time, while I was explaining to Vess what I understood to be the intricacies of an authentic Chicago-style hot dog, our order was up.

“Thanks, pal. Come again.”

  His tone and curt manor probably had been misconstrued many times as rudeness.  I could tell he was really trying to be nice.  It was just that city living had made him speak more on the side of brevity.

  The sandwiches were soon eagerly unwrapped and cut in half.  I divvied up a half of each sandwich to Vess and me so we could see what each one tasted like.  I decided to try the Chicago dog first.

  For the uninitiated a Chicago dog all the way consists of this: an all beef dog nestled in a poppy-seed bun then covered with mustard, onions, a dill pickle, tomato, neon-green sweet pickle relish, sport peppers and a sprinkling of celery salt on top.  This is called being “dragged through the garden” and is the most traditional preparation.  I had ordered Chicago style dogs before from Sonic and Frank ‘n Stein.  Not that I am giving credence to a fast food restaurant’s ability to make authentic food (or anything else, for that matter) but I felt I knew what to expect.

  The first obstacle to enjoying this thing was trying to figure out how the hell to eat it.  It takes an inordinate amount of strategy to take a bite out of this sucker without condiments flying out of the opposite side.  Mostly, planning is futile and you end up picking scattered vegetables off of the paper and cramming them in your mouth with each successive bite.  After a brief consideration of plan of attack, I just said “fuck it” and dove straight in, opening my mouth as wide as I could manage.  My teeth hit the skin of the dog and it popped as my teeth passed through – a sure sign of a natural casing.  At that brief moment, I was sold.  There is so much going on with a Chicago dog: sweet, sour, beefy, fresh, pickled.  It’s really hard to describe because your taste buds are going apeshit trying to figure out what is happening.  I know all of the add-ons sound like overkill, but somehow they managed not to overpower the hotdog, which was of excellent quality and the single thing that made it worth eating.  Before I knew it, it was gone.  I suspected witchcraft.  Oh well, at least there was still the Italian beef sandwich to try.

  Again, I had eaten an Italian beef sandwich many times before at home.  Granted, it was a recipe that involved putting beef and broth in a crock pot, dumping in a jar of pickled peppers and letting it cook for a few hours… not very sexy, but I knew what to expect.

  Holy shit was I wrong.  This baby stunk up the room in the most delicious way possible when I unwrapped the paper.  I took a bite of the fresh Italian roll and it was dripping with quality.  The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside.  The beef was cooked medium and dripping with juices.  The acidity of the hot pepper giardiniera cut the richness of the beef making for a flawless combination.  It reminded me of eating the best French dip sub I had ever had.  I would even be tempted to put horseradish sauce on it but would fear physical harm for messing with tradition.This was one of those sandwiches that once you picked it up and took a bite, it would not touch the plate again.  I hastily tore through it and was picking scattered bits of beef up with my fingers in seconds flat.  I looked at the plate, once again trying to figure out where my sandwich had gone.  It was over too soon.  Then again, most good things are.

  In a city full of fusion restaurants, Luke’s was a nice pit stop.  Among the Italian pizza/taco shops and the Chinese/Mexican restaurants down the street where you get a platter with refried beans next to your sweet and sour chicken, it’s nice to see a restaurant that sticks with tradition.  I believe the recipes will continue to stand the test of time and I appreciate their effort to introduce people like me to something truly authentic.

Chipotle Crema

  I based this on what was sitting on the tables at Mariscos Chihuahua.  This recipe is quick, easy and kicks ass.

...and it makes mean fish tacos.

Ingredients:

● One 15 oz container crema Mexicana (if you can’t find it, you can use Greek yogurt or make a crème fraîche facsimile from the recipe here.)

●  2 large peppers from a can of chipotles in adobo sauce.  Want it hotter?: add a few drops of the adobo sauce.  Want it milder?: I don’t know you.

● ½ tsp of garlic powder

● ½ tsp of kosher salt

Equipment Needed:

● Mortar and pestle or a knife and a lot of patience

● Squirt bottle (Completely optional, but convenient.  I found an empty one meant for ketchup at the grocery store for 99 cents.)

First, pulverize the shit out of the chipotles, seeds and all.  If you are using a knife at this point, try to mince it as fine as possible or it might clog the nozzle of the squirt bottle later.  Whisk the poor peppers together with the other ingredients, preferably in a container with a spout so you can pour it. (Like a large measuring glass.)  Pour into a squirt bottle and let chill a couple of hours in the fridge if possible.  Time for the smoky flavors to mix makes it better.

Let’s talk about applications…

Of course this is excellent on Mexican foods – tacos, tamales, enchiladas and the like.  It’s also perfect on seafood, chicken, burgers, BLTs, beans, baked potatoes, deli sandwiches, deep-fried vegetables and even as a salad dressing.  Pretty much anywhere you would use sour cream or mayonnaise as a condiment, it will take its place nicely as well.  It gets a lot of usage here and it’s always a sad time when we get to the bottom of the squirt bottle and it makes that empty-fart noise.

Experiment and enjoy!

Mariscos Chihuahua

  Every time we got to the local market we pass this colorful little seafood shack.  The place was small but always seemed to have impressive traffic going through.  One day, after Vess got out of school, we decided to walk to it and see what it had to offer.

  Doing a little research, I learned that Mariscos Chihuahua started out as a seafood stand in Nogales, Mexico.  When family from the stand moved to Arizona they brought their recipes with them, resulting in the restaurant they have today.  I also learned that they specialized in raw mariscos.  I wondered how it was possible to have fresh seafood in the middle of the desert, but then realized I was only about 200 miles from the Gulf of California.  We drove three times that distance in one day coming out here so it suddenly didn’t seem that far away.  Nevertheless, it was still enough to make Vess wary.

  You see, Vess absolutely refuses to eat raw seafood.  She’ll eat a bloody, raw piece of beef in two seconds, but put a sushi roll in front of her and her stomach turns. (Probably made even worse because it contains her second most hated thing in the world – rice.)  I assured her that there were cooked items on the menu and that she would be fine.

  Walking in, I noticed the place was tiny – I mean like 4 tables tiny.  The two entrances were left ajar in hopes of a breeze because the afternoon sun streaming through the windows made it feel like an oven.  All the signs were in Spanish, which I felt was promising.  We were seated at one of the few available tables.  Even though I fucking hate beer, I ordered a Dos Equis because it seemed like it would be a good accompaniment to the hot weather and Mexican mariscos.  The waitress brought us some whole toasted corn tortillas, a bowl full of key limes, a bottle of some orange-colored spicy crema and some ranch dressing (Huh? Don’t bring me any of that gringo shit in a place like this!) to munch on while we browsed the menu.  This was where the locals go.  I knew I was in for something authentic and special.

  Eventually I decide to order the camarones rellenos de queso and a fish taco.  Vess had never tried scallops before, but always wanted to.  I told her they were delicious and tender if they weren’t overcooked and promised I would cook them one day for her when I was sure I could get them fresh.  curiosity getting the better of her and tired of waiting to taste them, she decided to order a scallop salad here.  Figuring out what we wanted was the first hurdle, actually ordering it was the second.

  I can order a meal is Spanish, and I did – BEAUTIFULLY, I might add.  It’s easy.  Figure out what you want, tack a “Quiero que” on the front, throw a “la” or “el” in before the dishes, drop an “e” in between, slap a “por favor” and “gracias” on the end – bing, bang, boom… done.  It’s when the waitress says anything to me afterwards that my language turns into a mess of Spanglish and “um’s” as I search for the right words that listening to Mexican radio and my “Learn Spanish Easily” CDs taught me – not to mention that our accents were clashing like Luke and Vader’s lightsabers.  I’ve learned that people can understand my broken Spanish better than my southern accent-riddled English.  After such a flawless ordering of a fish taco, she proceeded to tell me about the special of the day.  It all went downhill from there.

  I understood it was 99 cents and she kept pointing to a sign.  Despite not seeing the word “taco” on the sign anywhere, we still thought that was what she was talking about.  Vess piped up and said she wanted one, too.  This gave the waitress a strange look.  She was telling me that the special was big.  That was fine, I mean, it was only 99 cents, right?  Two huge 99 cent tacos for us!  Go us!  It’s our birthday!  Go us!  It’s our birthday!

"Ostiones" means "tacos," right?

  About this time the restaurant started filling up.  All the tables were filled and people were passing through to pick up to-go orders.  This was an impressive feat considering it was 3:30 PM on a Tuesday.  While waiting for our food, I decided to try one of the 12 hot sauces that were sitting on the table.  I picked up a bottle, read the ingredients and started to shake it up.  Immediately the, unbeknownst to me, loose top flew open and hot sauce exploded outward like a volcano all over my pants and the table.  Luckily, it was nothing 15 napkins and a trip to the washerette couldn’t handle – and it gave Vess a good laugh.  Little did she know, the joke was about to be on her.  After a short time, the waitress came out of the kitchen with two gigantic platters and started walking toward us.  How big can these fucking tacos be?!  I started rubbing my hands together as she laid the platters before each of us.  As she lowered them, the contents that were obscured by the platter came into view.  Vess’ face turned white as a sheet.

Mmmm!!! Tacos!!!

  We had ordered 24 raw oysters on the half-shell.  I was pleasantly surprised – Vess was horrified.  I hadn’t eaten raw oysters in over a decade and 99 cents for something that usually costs 11 dollars or more was a steal in my opinion.  Vess didn’t share in my enthusiasm.  Immediately she hit me with questions.

“What do they taste like?”

“They taste like the ocean.” I affirmed.

“Aren’t they slimy?”

I tried to talk her into them.

“No more than a cooked mushroom is.  Yeah, that’s what they are – little ocean mushrooms.”

I took a deep whiff into my nose, trying to detect anything off.  They smelled of nothing but saltwater.  I squeezed some of the lime juice over a few.  Under Vess’ watchful eye, I raised one to my lips, tilted it and poured the fresh meat and oyster-liquor onto my taste buds.

“How is it?” she asked with a crinkled nose.

“Delicious.”

Never one to insult the people in a restaurant, Vess began to squeeze lime juice on a few of her shells and reluctantly picked one up.  Now it was I who was watching.  She took the oyster into her mouth.  This was either going to be really funny or enlightening.  Turns out, it was the latter.

“This isn’t bad at all!” she said, in shock.

With that, I began trying different combinations of hot sauce, crema and lime juice on the oysters.  All of them were fantastic.  They were big, fresh and pre-shucked from the shell with expert precision.  Before too long, I was propped over 12 vacant mollusk houses nestled in ice.  I surveyed Vess’ platter.  6 gone – pretty impressive for a noob.  I couldn’t blame her.  Afterall, we still had the main course to come.  Two more plates came out of the kitchen and headed our way.  The waitress set my plate down in front of me first.

Shrimp stuffed with fresh Mexican cheese and wrapped in bacon.

It was a thing of beauty.  Vess’s eyes lit up as the smell of fried shrimp and smoky bacon wafted into the air.  Now we’re talking!  She watched hungrily as her plate was placed in front of her.  Enough of trying this raw stuff!  Time for some perfectly cooked scallops!  Her faced turned whiter than before.

Ocean.... porkchops, maybe? I dunno. I was running out of euphemisms.

  Well, there was no worry that these were overcooked, that’s for sure.  To be fair, technically they weren’t “raw.”  They were done ceviche-style – that is, the raw seafood is marinated for a while in an acid (in this case, lime juice) that denatures or “cooks” it.  Regardless, a flame had never been anywhere near it and I could see the disappointment in Vess’ face.

“You don’t know how to order!” I accused, completely ignoring the fact that I had just ordered 24 raw oysters instead of two tacos.

“Shut up!  I didn’t know!” she snapped back.

  I offered to switch meals with her but she refused, so I immediately tore into the shrimp.  They were tender, sweet and the teeny-tiniest bit of pink inside – exactly how it should be.  The crispy bacon was barely able to contain the gooey cheese living inside.  Next I tried putting the shrimp in a flour tortilla that accompanied my platter.  I added some rice, a little of my salad and doused it with the spicy crema.  My toes curled.  I was in heaven.  It was a bacon, shrimp and cheese taco – What’s not to like?  Completely forgetting about Vess’ dish, I was surprised to hear what she said next.

“These scallops are so good!  I love this!”

“Huh?  Let me try one!” I begged.

I gave her one of my stuffed shrimp and took one of her scallops.  She was right.  The little slivered scallops were fantastic.  The naturally sweet medallions of meat were cut by the sour acidity of the lime juice.  Anytime someone gets the whole sweet-sour thing balanced perfectly in a dish, I am a happy man.  The red onions and cucumbers were an effective palate cleanser but the scallops were definitely the star of the show.  I returned to devouring my plate and was about halfway through when another plate started heading my way.

Mmmm!!! Oysters!!!

  It was the fish taco!  I had completely forgot about it!  Taking a break from the shrimp, I squirted some of the crema on it and sampled eagerly.  It was easily one of the best tacos I had ever had.  The buttery avocado texture and the crispy breading on the fried fish was exactly what my tummy craved, even though I didn’t know it at the time.  It was a mild white fish (like cod, or tilapia?  I’m not sure – like wine, I have a hard time telling a difference beyond red or white) which was good considering it wasn’t a spicy taco.  I’d like to say that I took my time and savored the all-too-small taco, but that would be a lie.  I devoured the poor taco with such ferocity that Vess pointed out a little girl at the next table that was watching with wide-eyed amazement.

  I didn’t finish my meal, but I gave it a good try.  I immediately damned my eyes for being bigger than my stomach while walking home.  Turns out, a belly full of fish and raw oysters sloshing around with alcohol in the hot sun tends to make you feel sluggish, but I was undeniably happy.  It was a meal unlike anything I had ever had before, and I felt lucky for the chance to have experienced it.

  I was also very proud of Vess for trying something completely new to her.  Honestly, I don’t think I could have ever convinced her to order what she did on purpose.  It’s been a little over a week and Vess is still talking about how great those scallops were.  Something she was convinced she would absolutely hate turned out to be one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve moved out here.  All it took was a little courage, being adventurous, and piss-poor Spanish comprehension.