Hungering for More

Michael Nagrant / 04.24.07

This article might suck.

Sounds like a set-up? You bet. As a self-respecting writer, one should either skip writing such an article, or just write the article and let the reader decide whether it sucks or not. Similarly, any professional waiter shouldn’t start the night’s service with the following statement: “Hello, I just want to let you know we have twelve large parties tonight, and we’re going to be real busy. Your food order will probably take a long time. Just bear with us and everyone will have fun.”

I suppose if this were one of those restaurants where your gum-smacking high-school-aged waitress hopped up on a case of Red Bull sits next to you in the booth, strokes your arm and calls you honey before taking your order, that might be OK.

But this happened Saturday night at Las Tablas (2965 North Lincoln), an independently owned Colombian-style steak house located in Lincoln Park. The waiter even flashed his best Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” grin before walking away.

Why he pulled any punches when he should have added, “We may not even bring part of your order, and once we do, the corn muffin and fried yucca will taste like an Elmer’s School Glue cake. If you care to lodge a protest, feel free to do so as you pass by the wine-bottle-clutching throngs in the lobby while our front door hits you on the ass on your way out,” is beyond me.

Indeed, the waiter forgot a steak for one member of our party. Halfway through everyone else’s meal, when the meat finally arrived, the waiter set it down without apology, clapped his hands like a wayward Flamenco dancer and asked if everyone was having fun.

It doesn’t surprise me. Las Tablas is the poor man’s version of the all-you-can-eat churrascarias, where faux gauchos sporting MC Hammer pants and redneck handkerchiefs hawk over-salted meat impaled on glinting swords, and where you can’t possibly eat enough food to justify the high price tag. At Las Tablas, you can at least score a pretty tasty, well-seasoned steak as big as a Mayor Daley’s head for about $18 and bring your own liquor to boot.

With masses lined up down the block all summer long there’s no incentive for Las Tablas to improve. I don’t blame the folks in line, as it’s just another sign that Chicagoans are still seeking tasty, value-driven food, where they don’t have to pay a Tony Rezko-campaign-contribution’s worth for a decent meal. Faced with paying $34 for a twelve-ounce filet mignon at David Burke’s Primehouse (blue cheese crust will run you $4 more), I’d run for the nearest South American steak house too.

Though for my money, I’d head to Tango Sur (3763 North Southport), where the garlicky chimichurri, the flaky zesty empanadas and sizzling parillada grills are superior to Las Tablas.

While looking at high-priced steaks, I noticed that Avenue M (695 North Milwaukee) is selling a bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge, which retails for $27.99 at Sam’s Wine and Spirits, for $115 (a 410-percent mark-up). At that price, they should be serving the bubbles with a complimentary whole-roasted foie gras. Three-hundred-percent mark-ups are becoming the norm in the restaurant industry, making the few BYOB’s that operate, irrespective of food quality, that much more attractive.

Thankfully, across from Avenue M, you’ll find Juicy Wine Company (684 North Milwaukee), where bottles drunk at the bar are marked up only $15 above “retail.” While the retail prices at Juicy are slightly higher than at Binny’s or Sam’s, they are eminently fairer compared to the egregious prices charged by many local sommeliers.

I was also disheartened by last week’s “An Insider’s Food Guide to Chicago” published in the Tribune’s Good Eating section. Purportedly, it was a guide for folks in town for the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention, as well as primer for regular readers who might “…stash this guide away somewhere or download it to their hard drive. We want them to come back to it again and again because it’s useful and fun and maybe, just maybe, there’s something good they don’t know about.”

Featuring spots like Superdawg, Billy Goat Tavern, Pizzeria Uno, Al’s #1 Beef and Hot Doug’s, the article might have been more appropriately titled, “A Food Guide to Spots Lauded Ad Nauseum by the National Press and Only Useful for Chicagoans Who’ve Returned from a Fifty-Year Coma.”

I suspect culinary professionals are more likely intrepid food folks looking for a bit of brains masala on Devon or some banana blossom salad at Spoon Thai rather than a well-known gut-bomb deep-dish pizza. This article is especially puzzling, when the Trib also ran an informative piece on how and where to eat an obscure regional dish like Nigerian fufu the same week. It will be interesting to see if the rise of Sam Zell (aka Ruport Murdoch 2, electric bugaloo) will do anything to unify the paper’s food-editorial vision.

This article appeared in a different form in Newcity

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