In the know: Chef Jose Garces

Chef Jose Garces of Mercat a la Planxa, a new tapas restaurant in the Blackstone Hotel, started his restaurant empire in Philadelphia, but his heart lies in Chicago.  Growing up on the Northwest Side, he worked as a lifeguard at Foster Beach, tended the grill at an Italian beef stand and went to culinary school at Kendall College.  “I’m a huge Bears and Cubs fan,” says Garces.  “When I got on the plane to come here, I had this feeling of just going home after so many years.” At Mercat, Garces redefines the tapas experience by celebrating international culinary influences, with dishes like Italian-style agnolotti with braised rabbit.  He also injects the menu with luxury ingredients like truffle oil and grilled prime beef.  But his most revolutionary move may be his devotion to authenticity, which includes serving deep-fried peppers, drizzled with a toasty roast almond and paprika-infused salbitxada sauce, and head-on briny shrimp that’s simply salted and grilled. Q. Which reigns supreme, the Philly cheesesteak or Italian beef? A. There’s really no comparison.  Italian beef and fast food in general is such a Chicago staple.  You know with Phillyites, I might get some crap about it, but I personally think…

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Dancing With Tripe

All I really know about Romania I learned from Nadia Comaneci, Dracula and those late-eighties/early-nineties commercials depicting squalid orphanages. And I might have kept on thinking that the country was populated exclusively by agile beauties, blood-sucking monsters and doleful children if my favorite burger spot, Kuma’s Corner, didn’t have a two-hour back-up last Friday.

The Making of a Neighborhood Restaurant

  “We’re the green-market dorks,” says Allison Levitt, chef and co-owner with her husband Rob of the just-opened Bucktown restaurant, mado. Levitt’s referring to the band of chefs who get up at dawn most every Wednesday and Saturday to scour the Green City Market looking for the best responsibly grown food for their restaurant kitchens. These chefs aren’t who you think they are. There are very few big-time local chefs. Most of those guys drop by occasionally, but usually only for a photo-op. The real “green-market dorks” are more likely line cooks, sous chefs and young restaurateurs, a group of inspired, hungry unknowns.

Rosario’s Italian Sausage

Rosario’s has a serious pig problem. There are little porky tchotchkes on the counter, statues of swine behind the counter, and a few huge piggy bank–looking porkers above the freezer case. Even the neon sign on the front of the building depicts a bunch of happy piglets jumping in to a grinder. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from one of Chicago’s best Italian sausage makers. The real celebration of all things porcine here though is the fennel-kissed house made links. They’re so good, you could eat them on a plate naked, with your morning eggs, or clothed only in peppers. But give them a slight grill char, stuff them between a crunchy crusted chewy crumbed roll and slather it with a spicy red sauce and few sweet peppers, and you’ve got a hero of epic proportions. Rosario’s Address: 8611 South Pulaski Avenue, Chicago IL 60652 (map) Phone: 773-585-0660

Green Market Dorks

“We’re the green-market dorks,” says Allison Levitt, chef and co-owner with her husband Rob of the just-opened Bucktown restaurant, mado.

Cinful

“You know Jerry Springer? I’ve inhaled with him more than a few times,” says Ed, a displaced Cincinnati architect nursing a glass of red wine at the end of the bar. On my left, a barrel-chested buzz-cut man, another former Queen City native, a national guardsman about to be deployed to Afghanistan, reminisces about lazy afternoons watching Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine at Riverfront stadium. The transplanted faithful are out in force on the first Saturday night of Lincoln Square’s new Cincinnati-style chili parlor and lounge, Cinner’s.

First Bite: Big Jones

Andersonville is hot. The strip of Clark north of Lawrence and its surrounding blocks are home to Chicago’s best beer bar, Hopleaf, Chicago’s best pastry shop, Pasticceria Natalina, and of course its most beloved if not quite best cinnamon roll at Ann Sather. In the last few months the strip has also seen the birth of La Cocina de Frida, Great Lake pizza, and now Big Jones, a spot for coastal southern cooking out to prove that the south is haute.

Eaters Up!

Growing up a Detroiter, there was no mustard-only hotdog religion. The only encased-meat principle that was inviolable was that you got your chili-slathered Coneys at gritty Lafayette, and not the theme-park-like American when you were downtown. With no cultural taboo to hold me back, there were days I ate ketchup on my hotdogs.

Barcello’s “Brick” Oven

Yesterday, Chicago magazine’s Dish reported on Mado restaurant, a new venture from Robert and Allison Levitt (del Toro, La Tache, 312 Chicago, North Pond vets) opening in the old Barcello’s space (1647 N. Milwaukee). Two days ago, I was in the space working on a story (stay tuned) about the new restaurant, I was fascinated by this behemoth of an oven, a 50 year old or so vintage Middleby-Marshall pizza oven that they’d inherited from the old Barcello’s folks (in addition to a trove of icons depicting the Virgin Mary and an old bottle of mezcal with a worm at the bottom).