Food Mecca III: How to Hit 8 Restaurants and Bars and Not Die

do’s and don’ts to surviving your culinary masochism

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rib tips at Honey 1 BBQ – image via Michael Gebert via Chicago Reader

What do you do if you’re unfamiliar with all of the food in a city? Obviously, you eat at as many places you can until you burst.

Food mecca.

It was a slightly blasphemous and erroneous term I came up with for the culinary pilgrimage (“Hajj” would be more correct.) that I undertake every few years. But the name stuck, and so did the tradition. The first time, we ate at eight places, including such storied luminaries as Kuma’s Corner, Lula’s Cafe, and Longman & Eagle. About midway through, somewhere in the midst of force-feeding ourselves a Hot Doug’s dog like geese being fatted for foie gras, my friend turned sluggishly to me and vowed, “Never again.”

But I am not a quitter. I am an eater, a gastronome, an epicurean, a gourmand, and a thesaurus user. And so I’ve shaped and honed and (almost) perfected the process of food-based self-destruction.

ROUND 1 – Brunch at Cafe on the Grove: Our fellowship of four set off to this Bronzeville/Hyde Park location for an innocent brunch. Friendly, warm service with forgettable food. But little did we know, this was the start of something unforgettable. We had no idea our day was about to morph into a culinary quest, but they started us on the road to lasting greatness and I will be forever grateful to them.

Do: Bring enough people. You can eat less, try more things, and keep costs down. I’ve tried with a single companion and reached seven places, but you might want to Google the term “Pyrrhic victory.” 

ROUND 2 – Rib Tips at Honey 1 BBQ: If ever you can get everyone in on a post-meal snack, go for it. Do you know how hard it is to convince a group to agree on one place to eat? It starts to look like a scene from A Few Good Men. We tore open the Styrofoam container and ate rib tips, smoky meat stippled with costal cartilage and sucked sauce off our fingers. We ate on the steps of a neighboring building and crushed scout ants with leftover bread that doubled as napkins.

Don’t: Eat tons of meat. On Food Mecca II, an actually premeditated mission, we were seafood-focused and shockingly less bloated. 

ROUND 3 – Bubble Tea at Joy Yee: Before Tony Hu’s mini-Chinatown empire and eventual tax fraud plea, there was Joy Yee. I remember when she first started out at an empty restaurant in Evanston in 1993 and she used to work the tables at her restaurants instead of rolling on mattresses made of dollar bills. Now her boba tea brings the hordes. The consistency of their consistency can be inconsistent, but the passionfruit lychee is great if you enjoy tart sweetness and a lifelong fight with obesity.

ROUND 4 – Soup Dumplings at Hing Kee: There are some neighborhood restaurants that are good at one thing. You get that one thing and you never deviate from the path because outside the path is a minefield. Hing Kee can do two things: hand-pulled noodles and house-made xiao long bao (XLB), the soup dumplings that are quickly becoming a trend with Imperial Lamian and Duck Duck Goat.

Due to my waitress’s suspect English and my suspecter Chinese, she at first thinks I want four orders instead of one order of four. I quickly correct her and she puts down a single order of a minimum 8 XLBs for takeout.

Do: Be very careful with your bilingual orders. (Why do I mention all of these details? This is what we call foreshadowing.) 

Eight dumplings of unknown ground animal cast-offs enfolded in silky skin come in a tin. I dab them with vinegar-soaked ginger and bite off the tops to inhale their steam and drink the soup. Dine in for this. XLBs retain heat better in steamer baskets and adhere to aluminum tins, tearing their skins and spilling their precious soup.

THE TURNING POINT: Somewhere along your journey, whether planned or organically started, you will come to a critical moment, a pivot point if you will. And that conversation will go something like this:

“Hey, we’ve already gone to four places in three hours. Should we just do this for the rest of the day?”
“Won’t we die?”
“Shut your word hole.”

Do: Go with it. Embrace the pain. Lean into that curve. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book, know that Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey says you can refuse the call, but eventually you must cross the threshold. The chance for glory but comes around a few times in your life. 

ROUND 5: Drinks at Pleasant House Pub: Newly moved from Bridgeport to Pilsen, Pleasant House has massively expanded from bare bones bakery to a gastropub dripping in hipster British style. A beautifully vinegary Bloody Mary puckers my lips and a raft of beers drown us. We sip in the light of their massive windows and discuss the beauty of their restrooms (a separate post) and the potential lead levels in the neighboring garden.

Do: Take a breather. Breathing might not be part of your future soon. Enjoy it. 

ROUND 6: Pastries at the Nuevo Leon Bakery: Like worms after a rain, panaderias have popped up all along the Pilsen sidewalks. We nosh on fresh-baked doughnuts and mini pineapple upside-down cake caramelized into sweet oblivion. My vision begins to tunnel and I reach towards the light.

ROUND 7: Korean BBQ at Cho Sun Ok: Why in the world would we do this? Anyone who’s been to Korean BBQ knows what to expect: an unnavigable sea of tiny banchan side dishes you try not to knock over into the boiling hot caldera of the table stove, its shimmering heat waves sunburning your skin to sullen redness. It gives new meaning to the term “meat sweats.”

Do: End in style. You came this far already didn’t you?

Generally speaking, you want to bring a Korean-speaking friend. Service goes smoother, they know how to cook the meal, and they’re just your overall tour guide. Despite losing our fourth person earlier, we’re convinced by our waitress to get two orders of meat; one is too little (Each order is $25 and designed for two). It comes out on a giant plate, a cinderblock built from layer after layer of sliced ChaDol Gui beef.

Cloves of garlic spin about the black stone stove bowl while beef curls and smokes and spits. At the end, the waitress brings out a bag’s worth of rice and dumps it out, the rice crisping up like the socarrat of a Korean paella. It’s delicious and beautiful and textured in a dozen different ways.

Do: Ride off to dessert in style. 

Do NOT: Accidentally order extra food because your Korean is sketchy. 

Do: Make sure you quickly fix your order rather than cover your eyes and continuously make cryptic statements about how you “might have made a big mistake.” 

Fresh off eating a small baby’s worth of meat, the waitress shows up with a platter with four bowls. Let me walk you through both the timeline and percentage levels of panic as the slow realization of an ugly truth dawns on us.

PANIC! AT THE BBQ METER:

0-10 seconds: 0% – There are three people, four bowls. (Of course it’s not for us.)

10-20 seconds: 15% – The waitress puts down a bowl of BiBim NaengMyeon, cold buckwheat noodles that are sometimes used as a refreshing finish. (Okay, we can split this. I’m full, but it might be good.)

20-30 seconds: 80% – The waitress puts down a bowl in front of each of us. (Clearly the waitress has made a mistake! She’ll take them back!)

30-35 seconds: 200% – The waitress puts down a fourth bowl. (Who is that for??? Of course they know the order is ridiculous! They’ll take it back!!!)

35-120 seconds: 500% – Korean-speaking friend explains her mistake. (NOOOOO!!!!)

120-240 seconds: 5000% – We stare at the four bowls in shock. The waitress returns to explain that we need to mix the noodles. We stare in shock. She mixes one for us. We stare in shock. She mimes mixing one for us. We stare in shock.

240 seconds-1200 seconds: 10,000% – We try to eat four bowls of noodles.

Do: Enjoy the noodles anyway. They’re pretty good and it keeps in the spirit of the day. Ignore the slow, pulsating waves of pain emanating out from your middle areas. 

ROUND 8 – Beers at Half Acre Beer Company Tap Room: One of you will want to best your previous record.

Don’t: Abandon them. You must march with them through the gates of your own personal culinary Mordor. 

ROUND 9 – Sleep in Bed: TKO.

Leftovers Cho Sun Ok
bags of leftover BiBim NaengMyeon (Coke for scale)

FINAL COUNT:

8 places hit
5 neighborhoods visited
2 pounds of meat eaten
3 panic attacks
4 bowls of NaengMyeon
2 giant bags of leftovers
12 hours passed
1300 words written
4 vows of “Never again”

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