In Mad Flavor, the author describes his occasional forays from the farm in search of exceptional culinary experiences from small artisanal producers. Recently, Mad Flavor was on the ground in Chicago — the author’s ancestral home city — a veritable garden of delightful food.
I’ve long dreamed of a very particular neighborhood cafe/restaurant.
It would lie in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood, looking onto the chaos of the sidewalk. It would be open from early morning until late at night, and seem to transform itself with the hour of the day. It would serve multiple functions: a place to go for an afternoon coffee or glass of wine, a quick breakfast on the way to the train, a simple after-work meal, or an elaborate celebration dinner.
It would be housed in an old, well-worn space, preferably with a pressed-tin ceiling. There’d be a place to sit outside; and inside, at night, the light would be low. The commitment to fresh, seasonal ingredients — and great coffee, beer, and wine — would be total. The wait staff would be friendly but rigorous — no pretension or overeagerness.
Overall, the place would sort of hum — hyper-competent and confident cooks and wait staff serving up great food to people who really appreciate it.
In Chicago’s lovely Logan Square neighborhood, where I stayed with friends during the YearlyKos convention, dreams came true. I present you with Lula, my dream neighborhood restaurant.
I didn’t want to leave Lula while I was in Chicago. In fact, I barely did.
Just look at the menus (note plural). There’s the “cafe menu,” available all day and night, on which every dish but one is under $10. This one is for neighborhood types who use the place as a kind of canteen. Honestly, there’s not a dish on there that doesn’t sound fantastic to me.
Of those I tried, I adored the “beet bruschetta” ($7), a jumble of olive oil-marinated sliced beets mixed with arugula and goat cheese, and tossed in a garlicky vinaigrette, the whole thing served over toasted bread. I also have to give love to the “pasta yiayia” ($8), a neighborhood staple consisting of impossibly fat bucatini noodles (a kind of hollow spaghetti) dressed with cinnamon, feta, garlic, and brown butter. It sounds weird, but it works. I know people who practically live on it.
So, you get people enjoying this sort of stuff — and fabulous-sounding sandwiches, none of which I got to try — sitting right alongside people getting down to a serious meal on the town.
For them, there’s the dinner menu. I didn’t order much from it, but what I did get ranked alongside anything I had on that Chicago trip (and I had fabulous food).
What I got was something matter-of-factly hailed on the menu as “blackberry and plum-glazed pork belly [with] heirloom Italian chard, fingerling potatoes, pecans, and tropea onion salad” ($22).
Just typing those words makes my own belly growl. Pork belly — essentially, the part that’s typically used to make bacon — has quite rightly become a fashionable dish on restaurant menus. At Lula, that noble cut reaches the level of divine — a kind of pork-fat apotheosis.
Unctuous, all caramelized and crisp on the outside, with sweet, rich meat inside, swathed in that sweet blackberry sauce … this is the kind of food that stops people short and makes their eyes roll skyward as they contemplate true glory.
Yes, Lula, yes, Chicago, yes, Logan Square, yes, pork belly. Yes, yes, yes. More!
I’ll be back. I want to order the “cauliflower and cornmeal pudding,” and much else as well.