Best Of :: Food & Drink
A great pizza is maybe 30 percent context. This is science. And Jay's Café gets the context just right: a small box of a room; cracked linoleum floors; small, square tables with an aged black-lacquer finish; IBC root beer in the cooler. That they've captured the essence of the great American pizzeria is surely coincidence, and you must take full advantage of the universe's happy accidents. Here's how you do that: First, you find the free parking. It's all meters in front of Jay's, but a right or a left just north of your destination will save you some quarters (add them to the tip; the service is attentive without being invasive—another perfect balance!). Take your seat and politely refuse the menu. Tell your server that you did not come to fiddle around, but to eat some pizza. There are only two or three on the menu at any given time, and you'll be hard-pressed to find one that does not animate in your mouth and trigger whatever unique pleasure sounds come out of you at moments like this. It might be the bacon that does it, or the occasional walnut or roasted red pepper. It may be the blue cheese or the rosemary—but you will make sounds. "Surprise me," is what you'll say to your server, with a wink and a smile. And take your time. This is, after all, a café. And there's no need to worry about the meter.
This Frogtown market has all the basics: Asian produce, noodles, candy, spices, and soft drinks. You'll find 50-pound bags of rice and durian fruit. Bahn mi sandwiches and deep-fried sesame balls are available for takeout. There's even a jewelry store. But what make this market stand out from the rest are its tanks of live fish and its snout-to-tail butchery, which is not for the wasteful or the squeamish. When you reach into the refrigerator case of cellophane-wrapped meats—everything from duck heads to chicken feet to beef lips (and you thought tripe was authentic!)—you'll realize you're not in Byerly's anymore. In the aquatic section, you'll find the still-swimming fish, plus fresh oysters, snails, shrimp, and crabs. The only thing they don't seem to carry anymore—but once did—are live frogs.
All too often, breakfast comes down to a simple either/or prospect: Either do it up and spend a lot for an expensive brunch, or eat a mess of eggs and potatoes in a skillet. Both have their time and place, but it's nice to be able to break out of the box. At the simultaneously affordable and high-class Lucia's to Go, there is no compromise. Folks who have moved to New York City have been spotted complaining on Chowhound.com about not being able to get the equal of Lucia's croissants there. Truly, those croissants (chocolate, almond, and traditional) are flaky, buttery, many-layered things. The plain variety ($2.50) will complement any other breakfast choice, and the sweet incarnations are a light breakfast unto themselves when accompanied by a cup of coffee or Grand Keemun tea. Lightly iced and nutty Budapest and baby Budapest buns are a stylishly restrained twist on the usual fatty frosting-bomb that is the traditional American cinnamon roll. And the crepes...oh, Lord. They range from $4 to $5 and are either sweet (Nutella, berry butter, fresh preserves) or savory (onions, ham and cheese, or greens). But both species are light, bursting with flavor, and as elegant as George Clooney in a tux. The tight space at Lucia's to Go often gets packed, but as any fan of Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown knows, a crowd's not a knock, it's the ultimate compliment. A scrum of elbows and legs means "Good Food Served Here...Cheap."
Few things in this world are incontrovertible. But here's one: A good neighborhood bakery can save lives. How? It's difficult to say, but it feels right to say it. If you stood outside the place peering in through the window, you wouldn't believe me. The view is mostly obstructed by a grandmother's collection of old signage, things like a woodcut of a sheep with the words "Thank Ewe!" painted across the wool. And passing by in your car, it would be easy to mistake the place for something more akin to one of those Wonder Bread thrift stores. You would certainly never guess that this jewel of a Minneapolis bakery is run by the former pastry chef of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, if only because of the prices. The buttery-crisp blueberry turnover, the caramel cake, the doughnut holes packed into a clear to-go cup and surrounded by the beaded moisture of the just-baked—any of these things can be yours for just outside of a dollar. And the perfect peasant loaves? Just outside of two dollars. As if they needed to indulge in any further kindness: The iced tea comes with ice cubes made of the same. And this is truly a neighborhood bakery. On any given Sunday morning you'll find kids still in their pajamas and neighbors exchanging another week's worth of hyper-local gossip. Is it saving lives? Okay, we'll cool it with the bluster. But it is.
It will set you back $5.25 (or $5 at the Northeast location) for this meal at the Bulldog, but for the amount of food you get, you'll swear you should be paying more. Those who order the Chicago Dog will be treated to maximum doggage (either meat or a plump and filling veggie dog). Quality Chicago dogs are only as good as their toppings, and the mass of accoutrements loaded on this meal is impressive: tomatoes, a whole pickle spear, diced onion, sweet green relish, yellow mustard, and little sport peppers that unleash tiny explosions of spiciness in your mouth. All of this comes with what seems like an entire grocery bag of potato chips, which can be used to scoop up any excess toppings that fall while eating. Add a pint, and you've hardly broken the bank at around $11.
It's gotta be a rule that fanciness and great barbecue are mutually exclusive. We've just never found decent ribs in a place with padded booths and linen tablecloths. Lee and Dee Smith have been churning out the Cities' most consistently excellent barbecue for 15 years, and their little restaurant's biggest claim to fanciness is a rabbit-eared TV mounted on one wall. Their pork sandwiches are hearty enough for any appetite and dripping with rich, tangy sauce; the ribs are slow-cooked until the meat falls off the bone. If you're tired of the muddy, flour-battered catfish common to the North, try a taste of Lee's and Dee's flaky, cornmeal-battered fillets for a refreshing change of pace. But the dish perhaps most indicative of true Southern cooking (and great for sopping up sauce) is the cornbread, cooked in a flat pan, cut into squares, and salty, not sweet.