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October 28, 2011

Gene & Jude's

Midnight Hot Dog Run Dominic Armato

From the outset, my first visit to Gene & Jude's may have aroused more suspicion in this Chicago Catholic family than if I'd said I was going to go hang out at the local Krishna temple. I come from a long line of Superdawg devotees, dating back to that fine establishment's inception, and while other dogs may occasionally be introduced to the collective family gullet -- most notably at ballgames -- it's always with an implicit, "Hey, it's no Superdawg, but it'll do." Staying with family while visiting home, getting ready to head out the door, two independent conversations with my folks went like this:

Yeah, That's ItDominic Armato

Me: "I'm going out for a hot dog."
Mom: "Superdawg?"
Me: "Nah, I'm going to go check out Gene & Jude's."
Mom: "Oh, Cousin Sammy took me there. He said it was the best hot dog in the city."
Me: "What'd you think?"
Mom: "I hated it."


Dad: "Where are you headed?"
Me: "Hot dog."
Dad: "Superdawg?"
Me: "Gene & Jude's actually. You been?"
Dad: "I hated it."

Well, at least we have consensus. This is a Superdawg family. I brought my sister for backup anyway, and explained to her that we'd be checking out a different breed of Chicago Style Hot Dog... a minimal version of the one to which she was accustomed.

Minimalism is a funny thing. I like to think that in the food world, there are few things nobler than something simple done well. But this is very much a situational feeling, by no means universally held among those who cherish good grub, and everybody has their limits. For every piece of produce that an Alice Waters serves unadorned, there's a snappy retort from a David Chang. Sometimes, simple cult foodstuffs are as likely to inspire indifferent shrugs as they are rapturous enthusiasm. Is the place that's been slinging the same hash since the '40s serving minimal perfection or figs on a plate? And how, exactly, do the uninitiated wade into the middle of that debate?

Cutting PotatoesDominic Armato

The minimalism at Gene & Jude's goes beyond the dog itself. Part of what's so refreshing about the place is that it doesn't have loftier aspirations. It's content to serve hot dogs, fries, and the occasional Supreme Tamale. Don't ask for ketchup. Not even for the fries. Doing so will get you laughed at and sent to the McDonald's across the street. But this is a perfect example of do less, do it better. Even at midnight, a small army of teenagers stands at the ready, and though this is a brigade that would make Escoffier wince, what the fellas may lack in economy they make up for in energy, bounding around and spitting out dogs at the pace necessary to keep up with the often formidable line, a dozen deep even at this late hour. A narrow counter for eating lines one wall and most of the front windows, though back at the car seems to be an equally popular spot to park and tuck in. We placed our order. We got our drinks. The same kid who took our order handed me an already greasy paper bag. We took it to the counter, got everything unwrapped, and had ourselves a pretty outstanding meal.

Gene & Jude's is a throwback to a bygone era of Chicago hotdoggery that existed for decades before Vienna Beef decided that to qualify as a Chicago Style Hot Dog, your sausage has to be dragged through the garden. Every time I hear somebody complain that a dog isn't authentic because it left off the tomato or pickle spear, I have to resist the urge to get rhetorically medieval on them. Don't get me wrong, I both adore and fully recognize the legitimacy of the contemporary edition (more a function of Vienna Beef marketing than the reality on the ground), but when most Chicago hot dog stands that have been in operation since the '50s or earlier eschew the more elaborate toppings, you ever stop to think that maybe that celery salt is more new-fangled than you'd like to admit? This isn't a dog with a nine item checklist. It's a depression dog, a natural casing Vienna Beef frank -- skinny one -- on a plain bun with nothing more than mustard, onion, relish, and sport peppers. That and a mountain of fries that are practically stuffed into the dog before it's wrapped in paper.

The Dog Dominic Armato

I grew up in Chicago, which means I grew up with hot dogs, and after nearly 35 years, I still don't fully understand the alchemy at work in a good one. Gene & Jude's is a great one. It's a sausage and a bun along with three jarred condiments, all of which are produced somewhere else. The only thing prepared on the premises other than the fries is the chopped onion, and it hardly seems possible that that's the basis for the reputation. How does one place distinguish itself from the next? And yet, for those who have eaten scads of these things, there's no denying that some places get it right and some don't. When it's right, it's like some kind of mystical sweat lodge in that steam table, where the dog goes in only to discover its true nature and emerge a more spiritually complete version of itself. Gene & Jude's nails that mix of beefy, steamy, tangy, sweet and spicy that defines the genre, but it's somehow more harmonious than almost anyplace else you've had it. The bun squishes, the skin on the dog snaps, and all of those toppings gently support the sausage rather than burying it. And bonus, the fries are fantastic, cut minutes before you consume them, fried to order, lightly crisped on the edges and tender in the middle, bursting with fresh potato flavor and a hint of beef tallow. If you order them well done, they might even stay crispy long enough for you to unwrap them. This is a Chicago Style Hot Dog -- old school edition -- in its purest form. And despite my devotion to the big fella with the pure beef heart (a devotion that I will defend with my dying breath), there's no denying that Gene & Jude's dog is a beautiful thing to behold.

Even my sister was on board. Apparently laser-focused hot dog preference skips a generation. So after dropping her off and returning to my folks' place, I found my father still sitting at his computer, working. "What'd you think?" he asked. "I thought it was great. I don't see what's not to like." "Eh... to each his own," he responded, though I'm sure it was a struggle to phrase it so diplomatically. This is the sometimes cruel reality of food and family, when a change of pace jaunt to a different hot dog stand flies in the face of generations worth of tradition.

I'm still going back, though.

Gene & Jude's
2720 River Road
River Grove, IL 60171
Sun - Thu10:30 AM - 1 AM
Fri - Sat10:30 AM - 2 AM

October 26, 2011

Santouka Ramen

Miso Ramen Dominic Armato

I've often stated that the ability to go back and relive my food memories is one of the main reasons I write this blog. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes it's kind of embarrassing. About five years ago, I visited Santouka Ramen during a trip to check out Mitsuwa Marketplace outside of Chicago, and while I really enjoyed it at the time, I'm somewhat flabbergasted to read back and discover that my appreciation wasn't deeper. I said at the time that I was no ramen expert. I'm still not. The breadth of my ramen experience isn't yet a fraction of what I wish it were. And in the intervening years, almost every time I've had a bowl of ramen, I've thought of this one and was annoyed that it wasn't the one I was eating. Yes, Santouka is a chain. So's Din Tai Fung. Doesn't change the fact that consensus among the hardcore ramen nerds seems to be that it's one of the best bowls you can obtain in the States, and I don't have a hard time believing it.

Shio RamenDominic Armato

Santouka dishes up Asahikawa-style tonkotsu, meaning that it's the rich, milky concoction extracted from pork bones that defines tonkotsu, but with hints of seafood local to Asahikawa (located in northern Hokkaido) that provide a gentle, briny undercurrent. This broth comes with four tare options: shoyu, miso, spicy miso, and the signature shio. On this last pass, I destroyed a bowl of the shio before working through as much of the miso as I could, and though every type I've had there has been exceptional, I'm coming to understand why the shio is the one that's most highly regarded. It plays as the simplest and perhaps noblest of the quartet. All come adorned with chopped scallion, pickled bamboo, woodear mushrooms, a fish cake and optional pork, though the shio is the only one that wears the signature pickled plum, with tart and salty flavor, crisp texture and bright red color. Though all styles are available with pork, the real treasure here is the toroniku, succulent and moist slices of pork cheek that are too precious to be served in the soup. When you order the toroniku, it arrives carefully fanned on a separate plate along with the regular accompaniments, leaving a minimal bowl of broth and noodles as a palette on which to arrange them.

ToronikuDominic Armato

The toppings are fresh and precise, the pork is very good to stunning depending on whether you get the chashu or the toroniku, the noodles are on the thinner end of the spectrum, slightly kinky with a great bite, but it's all about the soup, and this stuff is powerfully intoxicating. Who cares if it's served in a spartan food court? It's rich and deep, a lush and wonderfully fatty broth with those faint hints of the ocean, provided by who knows what manner of Asahikawa seafood they've slipped in. I'm particularly impressed by how mellow it is, the flavors striking a balancing act so subtle that it initially plays as less complex than it is, only to slowly reveal itself as you get deeper into the bowl. The problem being, of course, that the bottom arrives too quickly, not because the bowls are too small (though Japanese-sized, they're dense and filling), but because you just don't want it to end. Sometimes experience causes us to gain an even deeper appreciation for something we've already known. For me, such is the case with Santouka, and I wish I had access to this on a regular basis.

Santouka Ramen
Mitsuwa Marketplace
100 E. Algonquin Road
Arlington Heights, IL 60051
Mon - Sun11 AM - 7:30 PM

October 03, 2011

The Quarterly Report - Q3 2011

Tuna Melt @ Perk Eatery Dominic Armato

Precious little food writing going on here these days. What can I say? A busy month. But between the quarterly report and the forthcoming (very soon!) first installment in the McDowell Project, we'll see if we can't fire off a dozen or so in rapid fashion. For reasons I can't explain, this summer was filled with burgers, pizza, cheesesteaks, corned beef sandwiches and all sorts of things that are about as squarely in the mainstream as you can get. Something about the heat, I guess. But whatever the reason, without further ado, in order determined by random.org as always, here are some places I've eaten over the past few months that didn't quite inspire a full post:

Pancakes with Fresh BerriesDominic Armato

Perk Eatery
6501 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale AZ 85254

Now here's a swell little place that rightfully seems to have captured the love of the food nerds. Perk Eatery is a casual little corner joint that serves no-frills breakfast and lunch and does a really nice job of it. Omelets, pancakes, burgers and sandwiches are all simple and straightforward, but made with great ingredients and an awful lot of care. Pancakes are thick, satisfying and served with actual maple syrup (alas, more noteworthy than it should be), and the pumpkin spice special I sampled last week was fabulous. Eggs come with classic sides, and always arrive exactly as ordered. When it comes to lunch, burgers are big, juicy and cooked to temperature. The "Best Ever Tuna Melt" may not quite meet its lofty aspirations, but isn't too far off that impossible standard with fresh salad, two melty cheeses and beautifully griddled bread. And the patty melt, dripping with juice, cheese and sweet griddled onions is absolutely dynamite. The food's great, the folks are friendly, the prices are inexpensive... there's nothing not to like, and despite my compulsion to keep trying new places, somehow the family keeps ending up back here. Nothing about Perk Eatery is fancy. It's just really good.

CheesesteakDominic Armato

1640 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85016

I was tempted to simply write "No." and leave it at that. But I... can't. Given that the restaurant's featured item is Philadelphia's most recognized food, I'm going to momentarily set aside the fact that they've named the place after a fictional New York crime family and built a website that prominently features Al Capone. I can look past that. Then there's the wall labeled "You know you're from Philly when..." that's stuffed with every cringeworthy cliche in the book. I'm not from Philly, so I can look past that too. But a sandwich that bad is unforgiveable under any circumstances. Roll? Stale. Whiz? I've made my peace with it, and I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but it needed way more whiz. It was almost undetectable. Worst, however, was the beef, a tasteless shredded hash that I never would have believed had ever touched a griddle if I didn't see it myself. My best guess is that it was frozen, and upon hitting the griddle ended up steaming rather than searing. But whatever the process, it was an epic disaster of taste and texture. Best part? Written on the wall of the embarrassingly commercialized joint with a godawful cheesesteak: "Only tourists go to Pat's." Are you taking notes, Alanis?

Thin Crust PizzaDominic Armato

7215 E. Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale AZ 85258

I had hitherto known Oregano's only as the punchline to 12% of the food nerd jokes out there. "Where's a good place for sushi?" "Have you tried Oregano's?" (Though perception has oustripped reality, the place seems... a touch overrepresented in various reader polls.) I guess the joke's on me, though, because the thin crust is pretty decent. Though I can't speak for their stuffed or pan pizza, I understand why the thin is lambasted by foodnerdia. This isn't Bianco, and it isn't 'Pomo, or any of the other beautifully crafted pizzas that are one of Phoenix' culinary strengths. "Elegant" isn't a word that springs to mind here. But if you're looking for a recreation of a Chicago tavern-style thin crust, that's this pizza all over. Dense cracker crust that's really only crisp around the edge, slightly sweet sauce with dried herbs, way too much cheese, cut into squares... this is the kind of stuff I grew up on. And it certainly isn't best of breed. But whether or not it's your thing, I can vouch for it as an accurate and fairly well-executed version of one of Chicago's signature styles of pizza. For what it is, that's worthy of praise.

New Yorker SandwichDominic Armato

New York Bagels 'N Bialys
10320 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale AZ 85253

I keep trying delis, and trying delis, and trying delis, and depending on the day of the week, I vacillate violently between wanting to focus on the positives and openly declaring that their bubbies would all be ashamed. Part of the problem is that so many aren't terrible, they're just weak, and NYB&B falls into that category. The bagels are the best part. They aren't anything that'll cure a New Yorker of his homesickness, but they're dense with a nice skin and chew. Chicken soup, on the other hand, is kind of overdrawn and muddy, latkes are doughy, deep-fried pucks, and I suspect the tuna salad in the tuna melt had taken up residence in the fridge for a while. After getting ice cold pastrami on one visit, I asked if the corned beef was also served cold, or if it was steamed. I was told it was steamed. Next visit, a straight up corned beef on rye was, indeed, warm... but my money's on a microwave rather than a steam box. The unfortunate truth is that this is one of the better delis I've visited in Phoenix. Maybe it's just time to drastically adjust expectations.

Texas BurgerDominic Armato

David's Hamburgers & Mexican Food
7212 E. Main Street, Scottsdale AZ 85251

Gads, is David's a funny little joint. The first bit of oddness is the incongruity of burgers, breakfast, and Mexican. The breakfast, I didn't try. The Mexican, I'm not sure I care to try again unless it's 2:00 AM and I'm hammered (the fact that it's open uncharacteristically late is one of David's best features). But the burgers, fries and malts are great. They're just... familiar. Hand-formed patties griddled to a nice crisp on the edges, crispy bacon, thick slices of cheese, warm bun wrapped in paper, and a variety of toppings and sauces that almost perfectly mirror a certain popular '50s style burger chain. Even the chili tastes like a clone. But while the chain they mimic is one for which I have an occasional weakness, I can say without hesitation that the last burger I had there wasn't nearly as good as David's. The components were the same, but where one was slapped together, the other was carefully prepared, and that makes David's a worthy, if puzzling, stop in my book.

Egg Croissant SandwichDominic Armato

Carmel's Coffee
4233 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Carmel's arrival on the scene followed a bit of a strange trajectory, replacing the widely-respected Chestnut Lane and making a splash with a killer breakfast croissant sandwich before going through a chef change not one month after opening. But they're finally getting settled over there, and it's a cute place and a great stop for coffee, even if I'm having a hard time getting excited about the food. Scones are solid, if sweet for my tastes, but the croissants aren't at all what they were before the change, still chock full of butter but now limp and spongy rather than layered and flaky. Sadly, this also means the "signature egg croissant sandwich" is no longer the one that everybody loved when they first opened, though it's still tasty. The tuna sandwich was a total dud, crisp and fresh and totally tasteless. Water-packed albacore has less flavor than a boneless skinless chicken breast, and it needs more than a token amount of diced onion and celery and a squeeze of lemon juice to keep it from coming across as nondescript, dry protein. Great tuna can fly solo, but this isn't it. On the other hand, the citrus salad was nice, butter lettuce, sliced apples, toasted almonds and bits of goat cheese with a sweet vinaigrette alongside orange slices. But it only makes me miss the creative, crisply executed salads of Chestnut Lane. In their defense, that was a tough act to follow. But I'm sure I'm not the only one drawing the comparison.