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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Generous is the word at Albany Park’s Karam Grill

Posted By on 10.16.18 at 02:10 PM

Grape leaves, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Grape leaves, Karam Grill

The Arabic word for generosity, "كرم," or "karam," is also the name of a newish Albany Park Middle Eastern spot in the strip-mall home of the equally wonderful Sahar Meat Market and Jaafer Sweets—all at the northern end of a string of historically treasured Kedzie Avenue Levantine and Persian businesses. But while the Persian Noon-O-Kabob and Kabobi Grill are thriving, Arabic spots like Salam and Semiramis have had ups and downs over the years. Long gone is the golden age of the late, great Shawerma King, so when something new opens there's cause for optimism.
Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Karam Grill
Karam Grill opened last spring just in time for Ramadan, when they threw down an epic $19.99 iftar buffet, which I won't sleep on again. Taco Scholar Titus Ruscitti was the one who first motivated me to get in there, and as with most of the places he champions, his enthusiasm wasn't misplaced.
Beef shawerma plate, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Beef shawerma plate, Karam Grill
Others have cheered Karam Grill's shawerma, but that's not what got me excited. The plate I was served was in fact a generous pile of shaved beef alongside an enormous portion of rice that absorbed the beefy fluids, with a shockingly fresh tomato-cucumber salad, both of which I attacked with more passion than the protein. The kufta and beef and chicken kebabs on the mixed grill stood up to the heat much better. 
Complimentary baklava, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Complimentary baklava, Karam Grill
I've been more impressed with the mezze I've tried than anything else: vegetarian stuffed grape leaves so lemony you'll squint; salty, par-melted squares of fried Nabulsi cheese; extrasmoky, coarsely blended baba ghanoush. Still more compelling is the catering menu, which offers a whole stuffed roasted lamb and less common dishes like mansaf, a Jordanian dish of nutty, yogurt-drenched rice and lamb, and maqluba, an inverted casserole of rice and meat.  A few of these may occasionally show up as specials. Otherwise there's always next Ramadan.

Karam mixed grill, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Karam mixed grill, Karam Grill
Karam Grill, 4849 N. Kedzie, 773-942-6300,

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fast-casual Indian spot Tikkawala is taking a time out after just five months

Posted By on 10.11.18 at 02:39 PM

Tikkawala - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Tikkawala
Don't you hate it when this happens? You hear great things about a new place, but you know it takes time for restaurants to get in the groove, working out the kinks in the kitchen and front of the house. So you wait awhile to give it time to come into its own. Then you go and it either meets, exceeds, or disappoints expectations, but one way or another you're inspired enough to want to tell people about it.

And then you find out it's closing.

Tikkawala, which is closing Friday, is a fast-casual West Loop Indian restaurant with fine-dining pretensions from a pair of industry vets.

"We started off with a real amazing menu," chef Hiran Patel told me when I talked to him earlier this week before filing next week's restaurant review. "We hit a grand slam and got a lot of attention. It just didn't make sense in dollars and cents to continue, because everything was from scratch, and we only had four tables and no bar program."

Patel, a veteran of Klay Oven Kitchen and Veerasway, along with chef  Siran Singh (Roister, Veerasway), opened this tiny counter-service spot in June, by day feeding hot dogs and chicken seekh burgers to the kids from Whitney Young, and by night serving grown-ups (including enthusiastic early-bird food writers) more ambitious things like grilled shrimp with mango-apple salad and grilled lamb chops with Indian-spiced chimichurri and gingered potato puree.

Usually I wait about a month before I'll visit a new place, but I clearly slept on Tikkawala too long. I could tell right away something was up. Those dishes were nowhere to be found, and even things like the lauded rogan josh and saag paneer with fresh spinach were missing the cheffy garnishes that reportedlly had gussied these standards up. No chicken seekh burgers either—just a bare-bones lineup up of eight textbook dishes and a handful of sides. I tried them all, and they were all pretty good and fresh, even if somewhat restrained in their spice profiles. That restraint's intentional, according to the chefs, so that at least was on target.

But Patel tells me it isn't goodbye, just see you later. Another partner owns the building, so they're going to take some time to refocus and develop a concept that makes financial sense yet won't stifle their creativity. An intriguing five-course "Namaste Italy" dinner set for tonight has also been put off, but anyone who can't stave off a craving for the partners' take on Indian fast-casual can still hit up their two Naansense locations for lamb vindaloo tacos or channa tikka quinoa bowls.

Tikkawala 1258 W. Jackson, 312-455-1258, 

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Monday, October 1, 2018

Arepas are stuffed your way at Lincoln Square’s Sweet Pepper

Posted By on 10.01.18 at 07:44 AM

Reina Pepiada arepa; arepa with pulled pork, Gouda, and plantain, Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Reina Pepiada arepa; arepa with pulled pork, Gouda, and plantain, Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar
Suddenly the 2600 block of West Lawrence, on the west end of Lincoln Square, seems like an international sandwich incubator. Along with longtime banh mi supremacists Nhu Lan Bakery and the cheesesteak church of Monti's around the corner on Rockwell, the new kid on the block is Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar, a storefront trafficking in the arepa rellena, the stuffed cornmeal wonder of Venezuela.

There are those among you who will argue that this is no sandwich, but a food category unto itself. And that's at least mechanically supported in that the puffed, toasty griddled corn puck isn't completely bisected, only opened like a pocket and filled with various meats, cheeses, sauces, legumes, and vegetables. (OK, point taken, but what do you call the thing that's falafel stuffed into pita bread?)

Just work with me. Sweet Pepper is the inspiration of Jose Navea and Andrea Andrade, a young couple formerly of the Andean city of Mérida, in northwestern Venezuela, and it's the latest in an almost unprecedented string of Venezuelan restaurants like Bienmesabe, La Cocinita, Rica Arepa, and 11 Degrees North (RIP Aripo's), all founded by recent arrivals who've escaped the chaos of their native country. We're lucky to have them.
It's due to these newcomers that we've become increasingly familiar with classic combos like La Nuestra ("Ours"), stuffed with pabelon, the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese; the El Domino, named for its contrasting black beans and crumbled white cheese; and the chicken-salad-and-avocado Reina Pepiada ("Voluptuous Queen"), named in honor of Susana Duijm, winner of the 1955 Miss World pageant.
Lincoln Square's Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Lincoln Square's Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar
If you're not hip to the classics, Sweet Pepper takes the mystery out of the arepa-stuffing process with a Chipotle-style build-your-own combo system wherein you choose a protein (barbacoa, pulled pork, shredded chicken, avocado-chicken, tuna, tofu), then add cheese, beans, and/or vegetables and a variety of sauces, like the thin guac variant guasacaca, or the sweet and spicy aji pepper relish that the restaurant is named for, a specialty of Mérida.
The arepas' crisp outer layer bulges around the ample fillings Andrade and Navea pack into their soft, faintly sweet interiors. They're durable little bassinets, but inevitably there's some fallout, so if you prefer to work with a fork and bowl from the start, you can apply the formula over rice, salad, or plantains. Still, that's denying yourself a singular hand-to-mouth experience.

They're frying their own yuca and plantain chips at Sweet Pepper, and bottling a few juices like mango, passion fruit, and papelon, a lemonade gently sweetened with cane and brown sugar that almost tastes like an unfermented tepache. There are a few desserts too, but the folks behind Sweet Pepper are specialists, focusing on a superhero of the sandwich universe, here in the company of its kind.

Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar

Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar 2604 W. Lawrence, 872-208-5665,

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pretty Cool Ice Cream is the anti-Happy Place

Posted By on 09.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Clockwise from upper left: blackberry-buttermilk, lemon-buttermilk,  grape party pop, Arnold Palmer truck pop, coffee-pretzel-toffee-custard bar, green apple party pop - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Clockwise from upper left: blackberry-buttermilk, lemon-buttermilk, grape party pop, Arnold Palmer truck pop, coffee-pretzel-toffee-custard bar, green apple party pop

A fun thing I did this summer was don sackcloth and sit outside the Happy Place pop-up exhibition, offering to reveal the exact time and cause of death for each person that exited. I didn't end up in many selfies, but I did my best to reset an appreciation for the malignant horror of the moment.

A more genuine Instagram trap opened in the waning days of summer that has me feeling more cheerful. Pretty Cool Ice Cream is a twee Logan Square ice cream parlor from Dana Salls Cree, the ace pastry chef and author of last year's cookbook Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream, whose talents over the years could only be appreciated with reservations at posh spots like Noma, Alinea, Blackbird, Avec, and various other outposts in the One Off Hospitality empire. A few years ago Cree teased the masses with the potential of going retail with her flavored milks, yogurts, and frozen treats at the never realized 1871 Dairy, but until now, her work was a rare indulgence.

Caramel-potato chip - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Caramel-potato chip

There's no scooping at Pretty Cool, which traffics strictly in novelty pops that are at once inventive and nostalgic. The variety is dazzling: mustered like soldiers in the frozen display cases, the offerings include chocolate-covered custard bars (caramel-potato chip, coffee-pretzel-toffee); dairy-free "truck pops," unlikely to encourage "Turkey in the Straw" earworms (cherry-pineapple, pink lemonade); vegan "plant pops" (banana-horchata, matcha-mint); kid-size "pony pops" (cookie monster, bubble gum); fruity buttermilk-based bars (roasted nectarine, black raspberry); and lysergically colored party pops coated in vivid magic shell and sprinkles.

It's an almost overwhelming selection that almost led me to a panic attack during my first visit, which I staved off on a follow-up with a cooler that I packed with everything from a "MacArthur Park"-worthy green-apple party pop to the very adult Arnold Palmer to the peach-buttermilk bar with its keen fermented tang.

This is all set in a kid-friendly Wonkaesque environment with magnetized lettering on the walls and bamboo bleachers like the story room in a children's library. The bubblegum-pink facade also looks in on the kitchen, where you can watch Cree and company in production and R&D modes, which has already led to disruptions like peanut butter-banana-hemp doggy pops and wild huckleberry bars made with Washington State fruit that are likely to keep this happy place's Instagram tags populated all winter long.

Pretty Cool Ice Cream - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Pretty Cool Ice Cream

Pretty Cool Ice Cream, 2353 N. California, 773-697-4140,

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

The owners of the Pierogi Wagon are selling their food truck business—on Craigslist

Posted By on 08.23.18 at 06:00 AM

The Craigslist ad selling the Pierogi Wagon
  • The Craigslist ad selling the Pierogi Wagon

For sale by owner: a big yellow diesel-powered step van. Extras include a Chicago food truck license, a website, several social media accounts with more than 10,000 followers, pierogi-making equipment, training, and access to special recipes for the Polish dumplings.

It's not unusual to see a vehicle for sale on Craigslist. But Damian and Jessica Warzecha's ad is different because the husband-and-wife food entrepreneurs are selling their entire Pierogi Wagon business along with the truck—all for the asking price of $25,000.

The catch? You have to continue running it as Pierogi Wagon. Nothing else.

Continue reading »

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Sunday’s Kultura Festival filled Logan Square Emporium with the food and arts of the Philippines

There's a lot more to the culture than Spam, you know.

Posted By on 08.21.18 at 08:14 PM

Rapper and spoken-word artist Ruby Ibarra performs. - PAT NABONG
  • Pat Nabong
  • Rapper and spoken-word artist Ruby Ibarra performs.

This past weekend, Emporium Logan Square was turned into an ephemeral Filipino neighborhood that featured Filipino-American chefs, artists, dancers, activists, and performers.

Where other ethnicities have distinct neighborhood identified with them—Chinatown, Greektown, Pilsen and La Villita—"We don’t have our exact community space. . . . We don't have a Filipino town," says Natalia Roxas, a photographer behind the food and culture website Filipino Kitchen. Four years ago "in a drunken spur" Roxas came up with the thought of a Filipino-specific event. The Kultura Fest blossomed into something bigger as she talked to people in Chicago's Filipino-American community.

"It's that need of having a community space and coming together to really appreciate and highlight all these people that are hidden in different kitchens and difference scenes," Roxas says. "It feels like our community here is struggling with that."

But Sunday's festival drew people from all over the midwest as well as a chef from Portland, Oregon, and artists from the Bay Area. Filipino pride was palpable in the room as Filipino-American artist Ruby Ibarra rapped about the beauty of having brown skin.

The event's success has inspired Roxas to try to branch out to other cities next year. "We want to be able to serve and create this space for underresourced communities throughout the country. I think this is a really good platform to highlight different talents," she says. v

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‘Guaclandia’ made about as much sense as a guacamole-themed Instagram trap can make

Posted By on 08.21.18 at 06:16 AM

  • Courtesy Wholly Guacamole

Last Friday I stopped by the Evanston Art & Big Fork Festival to check out Guaclandia, a small portion of the festival being spun as a "fun and immersive avocado experience."

That was a bit of an oversell. The entirety of Guaclandia was a school bus emblazoned with letters advertising Wholly Guacamole—a company specializing in flavored guacamole dips—and an avocado-green ball pit (see what they did there) that spilled out the back. The themes and entertainment felt lifted straight from a kindergartener's birthday party, and I imagine the pit was about as sanitary.

It took about two minutes to walk through Guaclandia. Featured was a Warhol-style wall of avocado illustrations, a claw-machine arcade game with small avocado-themed prizes, and a nearly blank wall on which guests were prompted to write in chalk what they liked about avocados.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Urban Renewal Brewing’s cofounder says the controversial name ‘has nothing to do with urban redevelopment’ policies

Posted By on 08.01.18 at 06:00 AM

  • Urban Renewal Brewery

The cofounder of Urban Renewal Brewing says he hopes critics "can see the bright side" of the name of his new establishment.

On Monday, Block Club Chicago published a short feature about the brewery under the headline "Small But Mighty Urban Renewal Brewing Plans To Grow In Ravenswood." Some Chicagoans responded by taking to social media to express outrage about the "tone-deaf" name of the brewery and the name of its IPA—"Razed."
James Moriarty, the cofounder and head brewer of the seven-month-old Ravenswood facility (and not to be confused with Sherlock Holmes's fictional rival), says urban renewal wasn't meant to refer to the mid-20th-century public policy in which federal funds were used to raze neighborhoods for redevelopment. About 23,000 families in Chicago—disproportionately poor people and people of color—were displaced by urban renewal programs between 1950 and 1966 according to a study released by the University of Richmond earlier this year.

Moriarty says the term was instead meant to specifically refer to the renewal of the 4,500-square-foot facility at 5121 N. Ravenswood. (Metropolitan Brewing had previously operated out of the space for years before moving to Avondale in 2017.)

"There's the opportunity for the negative side of the term to come out, but people don't need to look at the bad side of our interpretation of [urban renewal]," says Moriarty. "It has nothing to with urban redevelopment, necessarily. Hopefully, people can see the bright side of what we're trying to do, and not harp on the past."  Moriarty, who says he's been living in Chicago full-time for about a year, claims he was unaware of any specific controversy about the name and also notes that the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce didn't have any problems with it. "Everyone knew the idea was supposed to be we were renewing this old brewing space and the community has been very supportive," he says.

He adds that picking a name was "a challenge" because so many names were already trademarked. His first choice, Wicked River, had been taken by a distillery in Tennesee. "With 6,600 breweries in the U.S., it was a challenge to come up with something." Urban Renewal was the last name on a list of 30 names he submitted for a DBA. "Once it came back clean, we committed to it," Moriarty says.

Urban Renewal Brewing isn't the only brewery whose name has generated controversy recently. Less than a week after a brewery in Lakeville, Indiana, announced it was naming its beers "Flint Michigan Tap Water," "Black Beer Matters," "Mass Graves," and "White Guilt," the Lakeville Brew Crew apologized and in a statement said, "the list of beer names has been wiped clean."

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Eating elsewhere: of cow tongue Reubens and fresh pasta at Raduno, in Traverse City, MI

Posted By on 07.23.18 at 12:00 PM

Tagliatelle, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Tagliatelle, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

I headed to Leelanau County in northern Michigan last week for R&R, armed with a list of cideries, wineries, farmers' markets, ice cream stands, and restaurants to check out. That's the little peninsula on the state's greater lower peninsula that sticks out between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay like a pinky finger on a wine stem. Blessed with a glorious maritime climate (in summer, anyway), it has a serious viticulture (relative to the rest of the midwest) and a comparably respectable food scene.

Porchetta sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Porchetta sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

There's almost too much to take in in a week, but near the top of my list was Raduno, an Italian cafe-deli in Traverse City, founded in part by onetime Chicago butcher Andrea Logan Deibler. Deibler, a Kansas City native, dove into the charcuterie arts at the late, great Mado, studying whole animal butchery with Rob Levitt, then later went on lead the charcuterie program at the late City Provisions, and then set up as the in-house butcher at Hopleaf. In 2014 she moved to Traverse City, where her husband grew up, and bounced around various farm and restaurant kitchens on the peninsula, notably at 9 Beans Row, a beloved farm-to-table situation in Suttons Bay where she met chefs Paul Carlson and Janene Silverman, the latter an accomplished maker of pasta and bread who'd worked in Italy's Piedmont region for nearly two decades.

Rigatoni with pork bolognese, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Rigatoni with pork bolognese, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Last summer, the three struck out on their own, opening in a small neighborhood strip mall well off Traverse City's well-touristed waterfront strip. Inside it's roomy with lots of tables and a good view of the operations, but what's most striking is the display case of the fruits of Logan Deibler's labor: mortadella, prosciutto, coppa, speck, bratwursts and blood sausage, and a striking bowl of fat corned cow tongues, all preserved from local beasts.

"I get whole Durocs from Hampel Farms up here near Buckley, Michigan, and make sausages, patés, smoked meats, and such in house," she told me later. "Whole lamb I get from a farm near Williamsburg. We don't move enough beef for me to get whole steers (and labor is very tough to find up here) ,so I buy odd bits from a great local food distribution company called Cherry Capital Foods. They are getting organic beef tongue from dairy cows at Dekam Dairy near Falmouth."

Smoked turkey sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Smoked turkey sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Many of these are put to good use in fat sandwiches like smoked turkey with mozzarella, pickled red onion, pesto, and greens; or porchetta with salsa verde and arugula; or an enormous banh mi with country paté, chicken liver mousse, pickled carrots, and aioli. All come on Silverman's seductively chewy ciabatta. The cow tongues are sliced and used to build Reubens that Logan Deibler reports sell surprisingly well. "People here get really excited for all the bits you can’t find easily. It’s a farming community, and a lot of people grew up eating beef tongue and blood sausage and braunschweiger and can't get that at a lot of places."

The other key component to the operation are the fresh pastas made by Silverman that, along with Carlson's sauces and fillings, stock another display case: tentacular tagliatelle with bright tomato sauce, ruddy rigatoni with lamb ragu, bucatini, gnocchi, sardi, ravioli, each available raw and unsauced to take back to your vacation pad or back home to Chicago. Either way it's an essential stop to or to from the peninsula.

Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Raduno, 545 E. Eighth St., Traverse City, MI

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The sad state of the sandwich at Logan Square deli Rosie’s Sidekick

Posted By on 07.09.18 at 06:00 AM

Italian beef and not-eggplant Parm, Rosie's Sidekick - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Italian beef and not-eggplant Parm, Rosie's Sidekick

Seems like I've been burned by menus a lot lately (more on that in this week's review), so I don't mean to pick on Rosie's Sidekick, a counter-service sandwich shop from the family behind Portage Park's 50-year-old Sicilia Bakery. But in this corner of the galaxy, eggplant Parm refers to battered slices of eggplant rolled in bread crumbs and grated Parmesan, then fried crispy and draped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

I know the history of parmigiana di melanzane traces back to Naples (not Parma), and I know you can cook the eggplant lots of different ways, but regardless, there's no reason not to be very clear about what constitutes an acceptable eggplant Parm. It mostly doesn't mean the eggplant is unadorned and roasted until slippery. You wouldn't do that to a veal or chicken Parm, would you? My colleague Aimee Levitt noticed this very same thing at the late Rosie's West Town Deli, operated by the same family.

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