The Bird Bird Bird, the Bird is the Word

If I were put on death row and given one last meal, there’d be about a half-second of thought before my answer: fried chicken. It’s so simple, yet it remains one of my favorite foods and guilty pleasures (I could probably eat Popeye’s once a week for the rest of my life). Face it, no matter how you feel about chicken (bland and boring), it’s exponentially better when it’s greased up in fat and oil. Here in Chicago, numerous places fry up a mean bird such as the ever-popular Harold’s Chicken Shack, Asian-style Crisp, and even high-end places like Table Fifty-Two. But perhaps one of the most overlooked spots is Big Jones and its Boarding House Lunch. For fried chicken lovers, there’s not a better deal around.

Available Mondays through Fridays, the Boarding House Lunch features a hearty, family-style meal of fried chicken, biscuits and cornbread, mashed potatoes and gravy, red beans & rice, collard greens and snickerdoodles for dessert. The best part? It’s only $16 per person but does require that the whole table participate, although there can be as few as two people. So I was thrilled when my friend suggested we drop in for lunch. I was not disappointed.

Big Jones focuses on Southern heirloom cooking using fresh, sustainable ingredients. They serve a fantastic brunch on the weekends but on this afternoon, and most others I presume, it looked like most of the restaurant was there for the Boarding House Lunch. We placed our order and proceeded to wait, and wait, and wait. Their site proclaims that it has been set up to get you in and out in under an hour but that clearly was not happening. We stared hungrily as other tables got their food before us while we only had cornbread to tide us over. When it finally arrived, it was glorious.

Each person got a piece of leg, wing, thigh and breast as well as ample portions of the sides. The chicken was cooked using Edna Lewis’s classic recipe in fresh leaf lard with butter and a ham hock, in a cast iron kettle. Golden brown, juicy and succulent, this was fried chicken nirvana. The sides were equally impressive although the collard greens went untouched because we’re gluttonous animals who have no room for greens in our meal. And when we were done, there was still plenty of food left to take home.

 

Now in a food-induced coma, there was still one more course left to go—dessert. Snickerdoodles were brought to the table and provided the perfect sweet ending to a rich and filling lunch. For $16 a person, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal in town. It’s Southern cooking done right and I couldn’t ask for much more. I only hope the Boarding House Lunch stays under the radar so there’s plenty of chicken left for me.

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Recap: Baconfest 2012

Is there anything more perfect than a festival dedicated to arguably the greatest food ever? The answer, my friends, is no. And what is this illustrious food that I am referring to, you may ask? Bacon. Yes, you know you love it.

Baconfest Chicago is the creation of Michael Griggs, Andre Vonbaconvitch (seriously?), and Seth Zurer, and to these three gentlemen I thank, and ask that they pay for any medical expenses that may occur as a result of this yearly event. It was said that there would be over 1300 people attending this event, and Jeffy and I happened to be among the first one hundred VIP entrants. For one hour, we had the opportunity to mingle with the fifty-five restaurants (dinner service) and chefs.

Among the fifty-five eateries was the highly anticipated restaurant Trenchermen.  We had a brief opportunity to chat with the Sheerin brothers about their North Avenue eatery. “We’re about six weeks out from opening” said chef Patrick Sheerin. He proceeded to describe their offering for the evening, a bacon kimchi mortadella, pickle aioli and bacon tater tots.

Top Chefs were well represented, and their baconized dishes were all so different, and all so good. Season four champ Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) cooked up a bacon soup topped with a smoked foam. This season’s runner-up Sarah Grueneberg (Cafe/ Spiaggia) was slinging wild cherry smoked bacon, cheddar gnudi (think gnocci) with spring ramps. Also from the most recent season, chef Heather Terhune and the folks at Sable offered applewood-smoked bacon pretzels with a cheddar-bacon jam dip so good that I would literally drink it.

   

With over a thousand bacon lovers in attendance, we had the opportunity to spark up a few conversations with local foodies. When asked about favorites, there were an overwhelming number of votes for three dishes: mini-whiskey bacon pops, bacon three ways (porchetta ravioli, crispy panchetta chip, and warm bacon vinaigrette), and braised pork belly with whitefish brandade, spring peas, and pickled green garlic. Jessica Oloroso (Black Dog Gelato) has created one of the best gelato desserts ever in the mini-whiskey bacon pops. These delectable treats are dipped in chocolate and generously coated with bacon. Jason Paskewitz and the team at Gemini Bistro (and Rustic House) whipped up the one, truly balanced dish in their bacon three ways. What made this dish (it was a three in one) so perfect was the balancing agent: vinegar. It was the much-needed acid in what was an overly-fatty and salty night. The Vie team behind chef Nathan Sears whipped up a very simple looking, but flavorful dish composed of a thinly sliced piece of braised pork belly. But what made it truly divine was the whitefish brandade.

   

But at the end of the day, the most interesting and fun dish, and I use the term lightly, came from chef Derek Simcik and my new favorite guys at Atwood Cafe. Their focus was the same as everybody else, bacon. But what this crew put together was a trip to the Wonka Factory. Titled “Willy Wonka meets Bacon – an array of Wonka-inspired candies done with bacon,” this really wasn’t a dish at all. It was a candy store, and children walked up, took disposable spoons and took scoopfuls of various pixie dust and, wait for it, bacon Pop Rocks. The stuff was like crack, and I stopped by to get my fix not once, but twice. On the second trip, though, the guys offered up a whole stash of the Pop Rocks concoction. Jealous?

     

We didn’t actually eat for the last thirty minutes. Jeffy and I were on the floor of the UIC Forum, having a stroke. Three hours. Twenty-one courses. It was heaven. But the best part about Baconfest is that it donates a significant portion of its proceeds to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. So while eating pounds of bacon, feel good about yourself because the money you dished out goes to a great cause.

It’s bittersweet now that the event is over. So until next year, BF..well not really, because I’ve got some bacon in the fridge.

Here are some other pics for your drooling pleasures.

            

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