For the past several Decembers, we’ve made a tradition out of attending the annual jülbord, 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 (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 jülbord, 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.
They don’t advertise or tell anyone about these special dinners, as word-of-mouth pretty much fills every chair at every seating. A couple of 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 varieties only show up during the jülbord). 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 – especially when you order off of their “Thai only” menu (which is not integrated onto a regular menu listing both adventurous and safer choices) – could rival any Thai restaurant in the country, including the overhyped 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 they’re 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.
Naf Naf Grill has quietly been taking over Chicago’s fast food Middle Eastern niche. It started in Naperville – the result of a former Taboun cook’s passion for fresh pita and juicy-as-hell chicken shawarma – and has now spread to Niles, Aurora and thankfully, The Loop. They’ve whittled down the menu to the essentials: falafel, shawarma, kebabs and chicken schnitzel, the latter a dish every Israeli child grows up eating. You can get them in a freshly-baked pita or over rice. That’s about it. The schnitzels are crispy outside, and exude the tender juiciness that is the hallmark of a well marinated and seasoned thigh, lightly coated and fried at the proper temperature. The toppings – including pickles, purple cabbage and a tahini-less Jerusalem salad – also make this sandwich truly unique. (Big thanks to Todd Rosenberg, @toddrphoto, for the fine videography this week).
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. 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) Note: I’m taking the rest of the week off for the holiday, so please have a safe, healthy and happy Thanksgiving. See you back here on Monday.
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.
While the country votes for a president today, I’m casting my vote for Panino. Neapolitan pizzas have been taking over Chicago recently, kind of like Middle Eastern falafel joints and BBQ houses. But the best of the bunch is certainly Panino’s Pizzaiolo. Say all you want about Nella’s in Lincoln Park (I was just there Friday night), 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!