The Chicago-style hot dog is an icon that needs no improvement, but certain adaptations (such as Allium's) threaten to do just that. The Popcorn Factory is taking the classic food in its own direction, with Chicago-style hot dog–flavored popcorn, part of a trio of "Chicago" flavors that hit the market today, in honor of Chicago's 176th birthday. Also featured: Chicago-style deep-dish pizza popcorn and drizzled-cheesecake popcorn. The Popcorn Factory kindly sent over some samples; my tasting notes are below.
Chicago-style deep dish pizza popcorn
Looks...like it was literally attacked by a deep-dish pizza. It glows crimson and appears slightly alive.
Tastes...like tomato sauce with fake cheese. In other words, exactly like a deep-dish pizza.
To summarize...kind of genius.
Chicago-style hot dog popcorn
Looks...like heavily seasoned popcorn.
Tastes...like mustard. Lingering finish of onion powder. Faint scent of nitrates.
To summarize...At least it doesn't taste like ketchup.
Drizzled cheesecake popcorn
Looks...like any popcorn with melted chocolate.
Tastes...like corn syrup, fake vanilla, shortening and chemicals.
To summarize...This cements cheesecake's status as a second-tier "Chicago food."
Chicago flavors are available online at The Popcorn Factory through March 31.
The name of the restaurant, which I'm told will likely open in the spring, comes from two places: First and foremost it is an homage to New York's Mott Street, a place two of Ruxbin's partners—chef Edward Kim and his sister Vicki Kim—frequently visited to eat when Edward was studying at NYU. But, serendipitously, the Korean word for "taste" is pronounced "mott," giving the name an added layer of meaning.
Not that Mott Street will be a Korean restaurant. Like Ruxbin, the influences will come from everywhere, making the genre of the restaurant almost impossible to peg. If there's a through-line to Edward's menu, it'll be food that you might find at a night market—that is, snacky foods that quell that specific brand of late-night hunger; hyperflavorful, sometimes-spicy dishes that set off the release of endorphins. "It's food that won't bog you down," Vicki says. (No draft of the menu is available yet, but the menu of the DLS event is indicative of what will be served. For another preview, pay attention to what's happening with Fête—Mott Street will preview its food at the market on April 4.)
It's not only the food that will be night-market-esque. The space, 1401 N Ashland Ave (formerly MC Bistro), will also have that vibe. While the room will be bright and have a "West Coast aesthetic," according to partner Nate Chung, it will also be, as Vicki says, fairly "utilitarian." (David Nanni, who designed Ruxbin, is not involved in the project.) The space fits about 65 people inside and 40 on an outdoor patio, and the Mott Street team has come up with all sorts of plans for the parking lot and surrounding outdoor space: A farmers' market, a vegetable garden, a place to host picnics and movies (though they admit many of these things will happen down the line, not right away).
Despite the bigger space, perhaps the most major difference between Mott Street and Ruxbin is alcohol: Mott Street will sell it. Right now Chung sees the beverage program as being centered around cocktails and beers and "possibly wine." Right. Who drinks wine at a night market?
Second City holds a monthly video shorts competition, and this month's winner gives a fantastical version of the origin story of Chicago's own Malört liquor. Second City holds a monthly contest for short videos; each month's contest is based on a suggestion from the previous month. This month's suggestion was "What's That Smell on the Bus?" The answer involves a talking polar bear:
Name Richard Blais
Welcome to Chicago! Why are you here?
Doing some media for my first cookbook, Try This at Home.
Did you have any fears/anxieties/nervousness about coming to the Midwest? Explain.
I LOVE Chicago and the Midwest. I'm a big runner and it's my favorite running city, and of course a great eating and sports city. Hmmm, guess I won't be running though the next few days :/
True or false: You will be eating at Avec while in town.
False, but I have and it's one of the best places in the country. A true chefs' restaurant, so delicious.
Where else will you be eating?
Trying to see what my friends Grant Achatz [and] Homaro Cantu are up to. I haven't been to Girl & the Goat yet (gasp...) maybe [restaurants from] Graham Elliott Bowles, Rick Bayless, maybe Grace. But honestly, I'm unfortunately in and out :/
The Chicago hot dog—yes or no? (Choose one.)
C. I don’t know what that is.
A. An enthusiastic YES! That dish has truly inspired me. It's the celery seed/celery salt thing....Blows my mind. I'll be having one for sure, even if it's at the airport.
What does Chicago have that your home city doesn’t have?
The Cubs. I love the Cubs. Food-wise, a great number of well-done restaurants. A great mash-up of both ultra-creative fine-dining spots, stuff-your-face eateries, and historic street/casual food. It's an epic food city, but you know that…
What does your home city have that Chicago doesn’t have?
A good football team....I'm going to get in trouble for that. Food-wise, the South has a more storied tradition, perhaps deeper roots. But I consider Chicago a better overall food city to be honest.
Tell us an interesting story from your childhood
My first job was at a McDonald's. I was the poissonier, which means fish cook in French. So it was a very prestigious position.
Tell us a funny/interesting/frightening tale about your restaurant.
We have 400 reservations at The Spence Saturday—that frightens me.
If I had just one more day in Chicago, I’d use it to:
Run 10 miles lakeside. Such a beautiful back drop. And running through the Museum [Campus] & Soldier Field: the best. But I'd want it to be Spring :/
The nominees for Best New Pastry Chef in the 2013 Eat Out Awards are:
Erin Mooney of Maison & Eggy's
Read more about Mooney, one of TOC's 20 Chefs To Watch.
Mitsu Nozaki of Urban Union
Read more about Nozaki's Copy Kat dessert, named one of the 100 Best Things We Ate last year.
Bobby Schaffer of Grace
Read more about Schaffer, one of TOC's Four Pastry Chefs To Watch in 2013.
Anna Shovers of the Publican
Read more about Shovers, one of TOC's Four Pastry Chefs to Watch in 2013.
Katie Wyer of Telegraph & Reno
Read more about Wyer's famous wood oven–fired bagels.
Voting ends March 13. Vote now!
Despite the proliferation of craft spirits, Chicago-proper still has only two functioning distilleries: Koval and Letherbee. Looks like baby will make three this spring, with the launch of CH Distillery in the West Loop. CH's focus is premium vodka, and the facility will also have a bar with small plates from consulting chef (and avec alum) Jesse Katzman (one of TOC's 20 Chefs to Watch). TOC spoke with Tremaine Atkinson, who's opening the distillery with Mark Lucas:
You’re a home brewer. How did that translate into opening a distillery?
As a brewer, I was always interested in the idea of taking beer to the next step, which is distilling it and turning it into something else. I’ve always just been a huge fan of vodka, so it’s kind of a natural progression from being a brewer to becoming a distiller.
Is there a demand for a locally made vodka?
Yeah, I think so. The idea of this is really driven by a passion to do something and do something well. But from the business side, there are obviously a lot of vodkas out there, and there are a lot of craft distillers out there. There aren’t a ton of craft distillers who are focused on vodka as their primary product and also making that vodka from scratch, from actual grain. There’s a fair number of vodkas out there that are made by distilleries while they’re kind of waiting for their whiskey or their bourbon to age in the barrels. And to really make a really high-quality, very clean-tasting vodka takes different equipment and a different approach to distilling. Our passion is with vodka, and there seems to be a bit of an opportunity—maybe—in the market for a really well made, truly hand-crafted vodka that’s also local—that’s made right here in the city, made from Illinois grain and with a focus on Chicago as the market.
What is the different type of equipment that you need to make a high-quality vodka?
There are basically two types of stills: one is a pot still, which is used really for making whiskey. The pot still does not have a lot of ability to sort out and filter out the various different types of alcohols that, when you’re making vodka, you need to remove. To do that, you need a column still, which has a lot more plates, which give you very fine differentiation of temperature as you’re vaporizing and re-condensing the alcohol. You really can’t make a high-quality vodka from scratch on a pot still. Column stills are also more expensive. They also have to be taller, so you need some ceiling height in your space as well to be able to do that.
Will vodka be your only product?
It will be our primary product, but the nice thing about having the equipment that we have is it does give us the ability to make really any spirit that we like. And since we will have a cocktail bar as part of the operation, and by the state craft spirit license, we’re limited to only selling what we make, we’re also going to make some products for the bar. We’ll make a gin [in a style that’s lighter on juniper than most]. We’ll likely make an [unaged] rum and an [unaged] whiskey as well. And we’ll see: If those become popular, that’s something we could make more of.
Where did the idea come from to have a bar attached to the distillery?
It was really born of having visited a lot of smaller distilleries and being a little frustrated by only being able to get a warm, little tiny taste of their product. There are some places where you can actually get a full pour or a cocktail made, and we like those better. We just think it’s cool to be able to actually have a drink! And it seemed to also fit well with the neighborhood. For example, if you’re going to avec for dinner and you want to have a cocktail before, we thought our location would lend itself really well to that. The bar will have room for about 45 people. And we will also serve some small-plate, light appetizers as well. We will not have a full kitchen at all...it’s not the intent to serve dinner or anything like that. It’s more to have some interesting foods that pair really well with the spirits. For example, it might be a glass of very cold vodka (kind of as it’s done in some of the Eastern European traditions) and a small piece of smoked fish and a piece of rye bread with that.
Are you the head distiller?
Yes. Myself and Kevin McDonald, who worked at Koval last summer. Kevin and I will be the day-to-day distilling team, but we’re also working with a consultant, Steve Wright, from Canada, who has worked with some of the big vodka producers for about the last 20 years. He’s sort of our higher-level guru that we’ve developed our recipe with and is sort of helping guide us a little bit. One of the cool things about vodka, versus a higher-flavor-profile spirit, is that vodka, from a distillation standpoint, is a much more technical distillation. It’s more science-based. That’s also where our name was born from: C and H came from carbon and hydrogen, which are the principal atoms in alcohol.
From Chinese restaurants (Home Style Taste) to coffee shops (Jackalope) to sit-down spots (Oliver's Cafe), Bridgeport has been gaining traction recently as a dining destination. (That's not to mention less-brand-new favorites Bridgeport Coffee, Maria's and Pleasant House Bakery.) Husband-and-wife Jay Sebastian and Carrie Clark, residents of the neighborhood, are eager to be a part of the revival. "We're hoping to improve the profile of the Bridgeport community," says Sebastian, who, along with Clark, is opening Bridgeport Pasty, a bakery, this spring. "A lot of new small businesses are coming to the area," he says, "and it’s starting to become a bit of a destination."
Sebastian thanks his food truck of the same name, which launched two years ago, for making the brick-and-mortar location possible. "Despite all the city problems with licensing and restrictions [with regard to food trucks]," says Sebastian, "we've still been able to reach a nice cross-section of residents for a fraction of the cost of opening a restaurant." In so doing, "it allowed us to test the waters and see if our product will appeal to the public," he says, adding: "It has." As a result, this spring the couple is adding a non-mobile location on Morgan Street to sell their pasties: hand-held meat pies with fillings like pork-and-apple, steak-and-Stilton, ginger chicken and spinach-and-mushroom. In addition to pasties (sold hot and frozen), it will serve soups ("logical soups to go with the hand-held working-class food nature of the pasty," says Sebastian, such as Tuscan bean soup or corn chowder), salads, baked sweets, coffee and sodas (like Bridgeport-made Filbert's). The food truck will continue to be a "mobile 'incubator' for new ideas," says Sebastian.
As showcased in that tiny, electric-powered Bridgeport Pasty food truck, Sebastian and Clark are serious when it comes to sustainability. They're having solar panels installed on the roof of the bakery, "so the cool thing," says Sebastian, "is we'll be able to charge our electric truck with solar power and run most of the bakery out of it."
Bridgeport Pasty (3142 S Morgan St) is slated to open this spring. Follow its progress @BridgeportPasty.