photo: Grant Kessler Photography
The charcuterie plate is a great way to start your culinary adventure at The Publican.
Correlation doesn't imply causation, of course, but it's interesting that the economic nightmare we've been living through should pair up with the resurgence of popularity for some of the traditionally discarded or ignored parts of the animal. People are going broke and restaurants are putting hearts and kidneys on the plate? Hard to imagine that the two aren't connected.
It was a big year for organs and offal in 2009, with some of the city's most talented chefs finding unique ways to feed us everything from beef hearts and sweetbreads to (gasp) penis. Whether you're a viscera veteran or just now considering a ride on the brain train, these Chicago restaurants are highly recommended for those with adventurous palates.
Without a doubt, the first place on the list to mention when it comes to snout-to-tail cooking in Chicago is Rob and Allie Levitt's Bucktown eatery. On any given evening, you might find pig's head terrines, family dinners consisting entirely of mutton or boar-based dishes, and the ever-present presentation of beef's heart. But just discussing the random cuts of meat on the menu isn't fair to Mado. In addition to the restaurant's dedication to using every part of the animal, the seasonally focused spot was named one of Bon Appetit's best new restaurants - which means that no matter how foreign the food may seem, it's in your best interest to ingest it.
The gargantuan skewer of meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables served with The Bristol's bloody mary might be the most visually striking dish that the restaurant produces, but chef Chris Pandel's "5th Quarter" menu is where you'll find the real adventure. Liver ditches the traditional plate with onions and finds a new home in house-made sausages. Pork heart is grilled and presented in pure form, fully recognizable as a major part of the circulatory system. Marrow is roasted and eaten straight from the bone. The Bristol has taken some shots in the food world as being occasionally derivative of other joints around town, but has emerged with its own identity, one that takes organic, snout-to-tail cooking just as seriously as the rest of the field.
For a place that was originally sold as a temple to beer, pork and oysters, the Publican quickly became known for its presentation of the part of the pig that usually gets tossed aside. Its take on deep-fried pork rinds almost immediately became the must-have dish, puffy and light and fatty and spicy and salty all at the same time. Of course, it won't take long to work your way through the rest of the menu while lubricated with hard-to-find brews chosen by The Publican's beer sommelier. Sweetbreads (the thymus and pancreas glands) sit atop collard greens and peanuts. A charcuterie plate features liver sausage and headcheese. Veal heart is also on the menu, served with pickled cherries and the Mediterranean grain known as farro. The Publican blossomed in 2009 as another high-end destination dedicated to doing everything it can with underutilized parts of the animal, and it shows no sign of stopping. Especially as long as those pork rinds stick around.
Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tang)
Whatever's in this bowl, it'll probably taste good.
You could easily eat your way up and down Argyle Street and encounter any number of non-traditional meat products, but we'll point our focus toward Tank for a few main reasons. First off, Tank is essentially the gateway drug into Vietnamese cuisine for many Chicagoans. From there many branch out to Pho 888
and New Saigon
and the many other Viet joints that create the Argyle community. Second, it's where many get their first exposure to tripe, pieces of chewy, toothsome stomach meat which nestles next to flank steak, brisket and meatballs in dozens of bowls of pho daily. Third, it's one of the few places where you can scan the menu and find the option to add some cow penis to your bowl. What more could you want?
Don Pedro Carnitas
While some of the taquerias around town stick strictly to your standard gringo chicken/beef/steak selections for those taco and burrito cravings, more authentic taco shacks will feature the deeper cuts - literally. Tripe soup on the weekends comes standard in most places, as do tacos de tripa, but the real fun comes when "lengua" and "sesos" and the like enter the equation. Tacos with cuts of chewy tongue and creamy, exceptionally fatty brains and other organ meats can be found on menus across the city. Rather than blow your mind by sending you to the Maxwell Street Market for the infamous eyeball taco, we're pointing you toward this Pilsen outpost, where you can supplement the offbeat offerings with some deep-fried pork and goat dishes (like pork skin chicharonnes and the eponymous carnitas).