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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Generous is the word at Albany Park’s Karam Grill

Posted By on 10.16.18 at 02:10 PM

Grape leaves, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Grape leaves, Karam Grill

The Arabic word for generosity, "كرم," or "karam," is also the name of a newish Albany Park Middle Eastern spot in the strip-mall home of the equally wonderful Sahar Meat Market and Jaafer Sweets—all at the northern end of a string of historically treasured Kedzie Avenue Levantine and Persian businesses. But while the Persian Noon-O-Kabob and Kabobi Grill are thriving, Arabic spots like Salam and Semiramis have had ups and downs over the years. Long gone is the golden age of the late, great Shawerma King, so when something new opens there's cause for optimism.
Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Karam Grill
Karam Grill opened last spring just in time for Ramadan, when they threw down an epic $19.99 iftar buffet, which I won't sleep on again. Taco Scholar Titus Ruscitti was the one who first motivated me to get in there, and as with most of the places he champions, his enthusiasm wasn't misplaced.
Beef shawerma plate, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Beef shawerma plate, Karam Grill
Others have cheered Karam Grill's shawerma, but that's not what got me excited. The plate I was served was in fact a generous pile of shaved beef alongside an enormous portion of rice that absorbed the beefy fluids, with a shockingly fresh tomato-cucumber salad, both of which I attacked with more passion than the protein. The kufta and beef and chicken kebabs on the mixed grill stood up to the heat much better. 
Complimentary baklava, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Complimentary baklava, Karam Grill
I've been more impressed with the mezze I've tried than anything else: vegetarian stuffed grape leaves so lemony you'll squint; salty, par-melted squares of fried Nabulsi cheese; extrasmoky, coarsely blended baba ghanoush. Still more compelling is the catering menu, which offers a whole stuffed roasted lamb and less common dishes like mansaf, a Jordanian dish of nutty, yogurt-drenched rice and lamb, and maqluba, an inverted casserole of rice and meat.  A few of these may occasionally show up as specials. Otherwise there's always next Ramadan.

Karam mixed grill, Karam Grill - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Karam mixed grill, Karam Grill
Karam Grill, 4849 N. Kedzie, 773-942-6300,

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fast-casual Indian spot Tikkawala is taking a time out after just five months

Posted By on 10.11.18 at 02:39 PM

Tikkawala - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Tikkawala
Don't you hate it when this happens? You hear great things about a new place, but you know it takes time for restaurants to get in the groove, working out the kinks in the kitchen and front of the house. So you wait awhile to give it time to come into its own. Then you go and it either meets, exceeds, or disappoints expectations, but one way or another you're inspired enough to want to tell people about it.

And then you find out it's closing.

Tikkawala, which is closing Friday, is a fast-casual West Loop Indian restaurant with fine-dining pretensions from a pair of industry vets.

"We started off with a real amazing menu," chef Hiran Patel told me when I talked to him earlier this week before filing next week's restaurant review. "We hit a grand slam and got a lot of attention. It just didn't make sense in dollars and cents to continue, because everything was from scratch, and we only had four tables and no bar program."

Patel, a veteran of Klay Oven Kitchen and Veerasway, along with chef  Siran Singh (Roister, Veerasway), opened this tiny counter-service spot in June, by day feeding hot dogs and chicken seekh burgers to the kids from Whitney Young, and by night serving grown-ups (including enthusiastic early-bird food writers) more ambitious things like grilled shrimp with mango-apple salad and grilled lamb chops with Indian-spiced chimichurri and gingered potato puree.

Usually I wait about a month before I'll visit a new place, but I clearly slept on Tikkawala too long. I could tell right away something was up. Those dishes were nowhere to be found, and even things like the lauded rogan josh and saag paneer with fresh spinach were missing the cheffy garnishes that reportedlly had gussied these standards up. No chicken seekh burgers either—just a bare-bones lineup up of eight textbook dishes and a handful of sides. I tried them all, and they were all pretty good and fresh, even if somewhat restrained in their spice profiles. That restraint's intentional, according to the chefs, so that at least was on target.

But Patel tells me it isn't goodbye, just see you later. Another partner owns the building, so they're going to take some time to refocus and develop a concept that makes financial sense yet won't stifle their creativity. An intriguing five-course "Namaste Italy" dinner set for tonight has also been put off, but anyone who can't stave off a craving for the partners' take on Indian fast-casual can still hit up their two Naansense locations for lamb vindaloo tacos or channa tikka quinoa bowls.

Tikkawala 1258 W. Jackson, 312-455-1258, 

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Monday, October 1, 2018

Arepas are stuffed your way at Lincoln Square’s Sweet Pepper

Posted By on 10.01.18 at 07:44 AM

Reina Pepiada arepa; arepa with pulled pork, Gouda, and plantain, Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Reina Pepiada arepa; arepa with pulled pork, Gouda, and plantain, Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar
Suddenly the 2600 block of West Lawrence, on the west end of Lincoln Square, seems like an international sandwich incubator. Along with longtime banh mi supremacists Nhu Lan Bakery and the cheesesteak church of Monti's around the corner on Rockwell, the new kid on the block is Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar, a storefront trafficking in the arepa rellena, the stuffed cornmeal wonder of Venezuela.

There are those among you who will argue that this is no sandwich, but a food category unto itself. And that's at least mechanically supported in that the puffed, toasty griddled corn puck isn't completely bisected, only opened like a pocket and filled with various meats, cheeses, sauces, legumes, and vegetables. (OK, point taken, but what do you call the thing that's falafel stuffed into pita bread?)

Just work with me. Sweet Pepper is the inspiration of Jose Navea and Andrea Andrade, a young couple formerly of the Andean city of Mérida, in northwestern Venezuela, and it's the latest in an almost unprecedented string of Venezuelan restaurants like Bienmesabe, La Cocinita, Rica Arepa, and 11 Degrees North (RIP Aripo's), all founded by recent arrivals who've escaped the chaos of their native country. We're lucky to have them.
It's due to these newcomers that we've become increasingly familiar with classic combos like La Nuestra ("Ours"), stuffed with pabelon, the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese; the El Domino, named for its contrasting black beans and crumbled white cheese; and the chicken-salad-and-avocado Reina Pepiada ("Voluptuous Queen"), named in honor of Susana Duijm, winner of the 1955 Miss World pageant.
Lincoln Square's Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Lincoln Square's Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar
If you're not hip to the classics, Sweet Pepper takes the mystery out of the arepa-stuffing process with a Chipotle-style build-your-own combo system wherein you choose a protein (barbacoa, pulled pork, shredded chicken, avocado-chicken, tuna, tofu), then add cheese, beans, and/or vegetables and a variety of sauces, like the thin guac variant guasacaca, or the sweet and spicy aji pepper relish that the restaurant is named for, a specialty of Mérida.
The arepas' crisp outer layer bulges around the ample fillings Andrade and Navea pack into their soft, faintly sweet interiors. They're durable little bassinets, but inevitably there's some fallout, so if you prefer to work with a fork and bowl from the start, you can apply the formula over rice, salad, or plantains. Still, that's denying yourself a singular hand-to-mouth experience.

They're frying their own yuca and plantain chips at Sweet Pepper, and bottling a few juices like mango, passion fruit, and papelon, a lemonade gently sweetened with cane and brown sugar that almost tastes like an unfermented tepache. There are a few desserts too, but the folks behind Sweet Pepper are specialists, focusing on a superhero of the sandwich universe, here in the company of its kind.

Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar

Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar 2604 W. Lawrence, 872-208-5665,

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pretty Cool Ice Cream is the anti-Happy Place

Posted By on 09.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Clockwise from upper left: blackberry-buttermilk, lemon-buttermilk,  grape party pop, Arnold Palmer truck pop, coffee-pretzel-toffee-custard bar, green apple party pop - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Clockwise from upper left: blackberry-buttermilk, lemon-buttermilk, grape party pop, Arnold Palmer truck pop, coffee-pretzel-toffee-custard bar, green apple party pop

A fun thing I did this summer was don sackcloth and sit outside the Happy Place pop-up exhibition, offering to reveal the exact time and cause of death for each person that exited. I didn't end up in many selfies, but I did my best to reset an appreciation for the malignant horror of the moment.

A more genuine Instagram trap opened in the waning days of summer that has me feeling more cheerful. Pretty Cool Ice Cream is a twee Logan Square ice cream parlor from Dana Salls Cree, the ace pastry chef and author of last year's cookbook Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream, whose talents over the years could only be appreciated with reservations at posh spots like Noma, Alinea, Blackbird, Avec, and various other outposts in the One Off Hospitality empire. A few years ago Cree teased the masses with the potential of going retail with her flavored milks, yogurts, and frozen treats at the never realized 1871 Dairy, but until now, her work was a rare indulgence.

Caramel-potato chip - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Caramel-potato chip

There's no scooping at Pretty Cool, which traffics strictly in novelty pops that are at once inventive and nostalgic. The variety is dazzling: mustered like soldiers in the frozen display cases, the offerings include chocolate-covered custard bars (caramel-potato chip, coffee-pretzel-toffee); dairy-free "truck pops," unlikely to encourage "Turkey in the Straw" earworms (cherry-pineapple, pink lemonade); vegan "plant pops" (banana-horchata, matcha-mint); kid-size "pony pops" (cookie monster, bubble gum); fruity buttermilk-based bars (roasted nectarine, black raspberry); and lysergically colored party pops coated in vivid magic shell and sprinkles.

It's an almost overwhelming selection that almost led me to a panic attack during my first visit, which I staved off on a follow-up with a cooler that I packed with everything from a "MacArthur Park"-worthy green-apple party pop to the very adult Arnold Palmer to the peach-buttermilk bar with its keen fermented tang.

This is all set in a kid-friendly Wonkaesque environment with magnetized lettering on the walls and bamboo bleachers like the story room in a children's library. The bubblegum-pink facade also looks in on the kitchen, where you can watch Cree and company in production and R&D modes, which has already led to disruptions like peanut butter-banana-hemp doggy pops and wild huckleberry bars made with Washington State fruit that are likely to keep this happy place's Instagram tags populated all winter long.

Pretty Cool Ice Cream - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Pretty Cool Ice Cream

Pretty Cool Ice Cream, 2353 N. California, 773-697-4140,

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Eating elsewhere: of cow tongue Reubens and fresh pasta at Raduno, in Traverse City, MI

Posted By on 07.23.18 at 12:00 PM

Tagliatelle, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Tagliatelle, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

I headed to Leelanau County in northern Michigan last week for R&R, armed with a list of cideries, wineries, farmers' markets, ice cream stands, and restaurants to check out. That's the little peninsula on the state's greater lower peninsula that sticks out between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay like a pinky finger on a wine stem. Blessed with a glorious maritime climate (in summer, anyway), it has a serious viticulture (relative to the rest of the midwest) and a comparably respectable food scene.

Porchetta sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Porchetta sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

There's almost too much to take in in a week, but near the top of my list was Raduno, an Italian cafe-deli in Traverse City, founded in part by onetime Chicago butcher Andrea Logan Deibler. Deibler, a Kansas City native, dove into the charcuterie arts at the late, great Mado, studying whole animal butchery with Rob Levitt, then later went on lead the charcuterie program at the late City Provisions, and then set up as the in-house butcher at Hopleaf. In 2014 she moved to Traverse City, where her husband grew up, and bounced around various farm and restaurant kitchens on the peninsula, notably at 9 Beans Row, a beloved farm-to-table situation in Suttons Bay where she met chefs Paul Carlson and Janene Silverman, the latter an accomplished maker of pasta and bread who'd worked in Italy's Piedmont region for nearly two decades.

Rigatoni with pork bolognese, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Rigatoni with pork bolognese, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Last summer, the three struck out on their own, opening in a small neighborhood strip mall well off Traverse City's well-touristed waterfront strip. Inside it's roomy with lots of tables and a good view of the operations, but what's most striking is the display case of the fruits of Logan Deibler's labor: mortadella, prosciutto, coppa, speck, bratwursts and blood sausage, and a striking bowl of fat corned cow tongues, all preserved from local beasts.

"I get whole Durocs from Hampel Farms up here near Buckley, Michigan, and make sausages, patés, smoked meats, and such in house," she told me later. "Whole lamb I get from a farm near Williamsburg. We don't move enough beef for me to get whole steers (and labor is very tough to find up here) ,so I buy odd bits from a great local food distribution company called Cherry Capital Foods. They are getting organic beef tongue from dairy cows at Dekam Dairy near Falmouth."

Smoked turkey sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Smoked turkey sandwich, Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Many of these are put to good use in fat sandwiches like smoked turkey with mozzarella, pickled red onion, pesto, and greens; or porchetta with salsa verde and arugula; or an enormous banh mi with country paté, chicken liver mousse, pickled carrots, and aioli. All come on Silverman's seductively chewy ciabatta. The cow tongues are sliced and used to build Reubens that Logan Deibler reports sell surprisingly well. "People here get really excited for all the bits you can’t find easily. It’s a farming community, and a lot of people grew up eating beef tongue and blood sausage and braunschweiger and can't get that at a lot of places."

The other key component to the operation are the fresh pastas made by Silverman that, along with Carlson's sauces and fillings, stock another display case: tentacular tagliatelle with bright tomato sauce, ruddy rigatoni with lamb ragu, bucatini, gnocchi, sardi, ravioli, each available raw and unsauced to take back to your vacation pad or back home to Chicago. Either way it's an essential stop to or to from the peninsula.

Raduno, Traverse City, MI - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Raduno, Traverse City, MI

Raduno, 545 E. Eighth St., Traverse City, MI

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The sad state of the sandwich at Logan Square deli Rosie’s Sidekick

Posted By on 07.09.18 at 06:00 AM

Italian beef and not-eggplant Parm, Rosie's Sidekick - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • Italian beef and not-eggplant Parm, Rosie's Sidekick

Seems like I've been burned by menus a lot lately (more on that in this week's review), so I don't mean to pick on Rosie's Sidekick, a counter-service sandwich shop from the family behind Portage Park's 50-year-old Sicilia Bakery. But in this corner of the galaxy, eggplant Parm refers to battered slices of eggplant rolled in bread crumbs and grated Parmesan, then fried crispy and draped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

I know the history of parmigiana di melanzane traces back to Naples (not Parma), and I know you can cook the eggplant lots of different ways, but regardless, there's no reason not to be very clear about what constitutes an acceptable eggplant Parm. It mostly doesn't mean the eggplant is unadorned and roasted until slippery. You wouldn't do that to a veal or chicken Parm, would you? My colleague Aimee Levitt noticed this very same thing at the late Rosie's West Town Deli, operated by the same family.

Continue reading »

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Troll the Chicago hot dog fascists with this T-shirt

Posted By on 06.25.18 at 06:00 AM

  • Derek Erdman
Apart from open defiance, the second-best way to resist Chicagoans' pointless prohibition of ketchup on a hot dog is with mockery.

Artist and ninja-level japester Derek Erdman, who recently returned to town after an extended residency at the Stranger in Seattle, posted a good one on Facebook the other day:

Last night on an airplane to Chicago I overheard some guy talking about how much he loved Chicago-style hotdogs. When there was a lull in his dogsplaining I piped up, "They're great with ketchup!" and he gave me dagger eyes. I wrote down his address from his luggage tag because I'm a total psycho and I'm going to send him one of these very pedestrian joked t-shirts.

Continue reading »

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

The return of the great Cafe Marianao to the north side

Posted By on 06.03.18 at 05:00 PM

The Cubano at Bia's Cafe Marianao - MIKE SULA
  • Mike Sula
  • The Cubano at Bia's Cafe Marianao

When the late, great Logan Square loncheria Cafe Marianao mysteriously  shut down and the property went on the market in the summer of 2016, it was like the unexplained disappearance of a loved one: shocking, brutal, and offering no closure. For decades, stoic countermen at the Milwaukee Avenue sandwich shop plied a steady but disordered scrum of adherents with cafe con leche and Cubano, steak, and medianoche sandwiches. And suddenly, without warning, it was all over. News reports were vague—the owners listed the spot for $1.39 million, and not surprisingly it sold a month later.

But who were the original owners? And why shut down? Was it a cold and calculated abandonment of tradition in the face of gentrified real estate prices?

Don't be so cynical. It was because founder Manuel Basilio "Bia" Santiago had gone to his great reward. That's the word from his grandson Marcos Santiago, who assembled sandwiches in the basement when he was growing up before going on to college and embarking on his own career.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Get wet at the first Thai New Year Water Festival

Posted By on 05.16.18 at 03:00 PM

The problem with celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year, in Chicago is that it's too cold for a water fight in mid-April. One of the popular features of Songkran in Bangkok originated as a ceremony offering blessings to your elders by anointing their hands with scented water, but the custom's evolved into a friendly no-holds-barred mass water fight, a euphoric respite from the withering heat that essentially takes over the city this time of year.

Dew Suriyawan, owner and chef of Uptown's great Immm Rice & Beyond, was so intent on hosting a water fight at the inaugural Thai New Year Water Festival that he pushed the date up more than a month so that he could hold it on a (hopefully) warm May weekend: this weekend, that is.

He also bought 1,000 water guns.

Continue reading »

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Monday, May 7, 2018

Chicago chefs, restaurants lose out at James Beard Foundation Awards

Posted By on 05.07.18 at 10:17 PM

Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo of Fat Rice. Conlon won for Best Chef Great Lakes. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo of Fat Rice. Conlon won for Best Chef Great Lakes.

First Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread lost out for Outstanding  Baker. Then Sarah Rinkavage of Marisol went down for Rising Star Chef of the Year. And then Meg Galus of the Boka group lost for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Chicago's first win tonight at the James Beard Foundation chef and restaurant awards, held at the Lyric Opera House, was Abe Conlon of Fat Rice for Best Chef Great Lakes. Conlon beat out four other Chicago entrants: Andrew Brochu of Roister, Beverly Kim and  Johnny Clark of Parachute, David Posey and Anna Posey of Elske, and Lee Wolen of Boka.

There were high hopes for Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of Boka Restaurant Group (latest restaurants Somerset and Bellemore, their 14th and 15th) for Best Restaurateur, but that didn't work out either, nor did their flagship, Boka, win for Outstanding Service.

At least Sun Wah's preordained Lifetime Achievement Award just goes to show that no matter how much the city loves to shut you down, people can still love you.

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