For the past several Decembers, we’ve made a tradition out of attending the annual julbord, or Christmas buffet, at Tre Kronor, on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The Swedish restaurant turns itself into a Christmas jewel box, offering two seatings every night at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. (except Sundays) and lays out the largest spread of Swedish fare I’ve seen outside of Stockholm. The centerpiece: a dozen types of herring, with flavors ranging from curry to dill. In an era where the experts tell us how important the small, oily fish are – both on the environment and our health – I love that the fraternity of herring, mackerel and anchovy are now considered the cool kids. There are plenty of other surprises on the julbord, including a nip of glögg to start things off, followed by deviled eggs, gravlax and a cream-laden potato dish called Jansson’s Temptation that still haunts me. Servers don traditional white dresses, and sing folk songs while you nibble from the dessert table. Note: the main floor only has seatings on Fridays and Saturdays this month, but the upstairs has two seatings every night (except Sunday). Go to Brown Paper Tickets to sign up. But hurry!
They don’t advertise or tell anyone about these special dinners, as word-of-mouth pretty much fills every chair at every seating. Many years ago we sat next to Studs Terkel; who knows who’ll show up this time around. If you haven’t been, don’t worry. They sell herring throughout the year (although the dozen-plus varieties only show up during the julbord). Big thanks and shout-out to Todd Rosenberg (@toddrphoto) for the fine camera work this week.
I’ve often sung the praises of the mango with sticky rice or the som tom (papaya salad) at Aroy, which, coincidentally and appropriately, is translated as “delicious.” The tiny mom-and-pop only has only about 12 tables, but their old-school approach could rival any Thai restaurant in the country, including the revered Pok Pok, now wowing New York City food media from its perch in Brooklyn.
The thing I love about Aroy is that they don’t hold back. The food doesn’t feel restrained, as if they’re cooking for delegates to a Southern Living convention and don’t want to offend or scare off anyone. They cook as if you’re their long, lost uncle from Isaan, and they make no apologies. When you tell them you want it “Thai spice,” they deliver the goods. The same is true with their pork neck salad. Made from marinated and grilled pork that would be fine on its own, they toss it in a powder, made from wok-seared and pulverized sticky rice, galangal (young ginger) and kaffir lime leaf. I could eat this dish all by itself and be happy that I made the trip to Ravenswood. But obviously, I’m ordering mango with sticky rice if it’s in season.
Chicago has been swept up in the doughnut craze the past year or so, and Glazed & Infused seems poised to be taking control of market share. They’ve already established their beachhead on Fulton Market, but now are opening up satellite stores in various neighborhoods, even taking up some space in the back of owner Scott Harris’ Francesca’s Forno in Bucktown (where a Doughnut Throwdown will take place on a daily base once Stan’s Doughnuts opens across Damen) and also next to the new Davanti Enoteca in River North. I have to say, I’m still either a basic yeasty glazed kind of guy, or a simple, cakey old fashioned, but I do admire their maple bacon long johns and more creative filled doughnuts like creme brûlée. (Kudos and thanks to Todd Rosenberg – @toddrphoto – for the beautiful HD quality video).
Don’t just think of Publican Quality Meats as a butcher shop. True, they have a beguiling assortment of aged meat, high-quality cheese and imported goods. But there are also several great sandwiches at PQM. I instantly fell in love with the tuna muffaletta, but like so many great things, they can be fleeting. The meatball sandwich has been a staple at PQM for some time, however, and even though they’re not using the housemade bread for it (it’s more of a lobster roll-style bun they source elsewhere), the combo of the spicy Spanish tomato sauce and the sharpness of peppers and fresh mint makes this a meaty, messy, satisfying lunch.
Neapolitan pizzas have been taking over Chicago recently, kind of like Middle Eastern falafel joints, fried chicken shacks and BBQ houses. But the best of the bunch is certainly Panino’s Pizzaiolo - although I’ve also loved the pies at Forno Rosso, on the far western edge of the city, on Harlem Ave. Say all you want about Nella’s in Lincoln Park (I was just there), the crust (and by that I mean the yeast starter) at Panino’s is far superior, resulting in a chewy, complex dough with just the right amount of salt. A combination of longer fermentation and a hot oven – plus the addition of fior di latte cheese and San Marzano tomatoes – make this Neapolitan one for the ages. Mangia!
They’re known for their pies, obviously, but Bang Bang Pie Shop in Logan Square is also rightly beloved for its biscuits. Unlike the pie crusts (which have lard in them) they stick to butter for the biscuits. But oh, how their heft and density boggle the mind. I could eat these everyday for breakfast, with a simple jam or marmalade, or better yet, one of the half-dozen butters or seasonal preserves they make in-house everyday. Bonus: they just started selling breakfast sandwiches featuring their candied bacon, eggs and sausage, so if you’re anywhere near Logan Square in the morning, you’ve got to stop by and try one.