Kirsten McSweeney browses upcoming meals on the Grubwithus website.
Social dining. A phrase that seems almost redundant, as a table and food have brought people together since, well, tables and food existed. Ancient Romans gathered in atriums around a table to eat meals together. Paris birthed the modern day restaurant with “family style” meals shared by a competitive group of diners snatching at the food before it disappeared. Brides-to-be pick out dining sets and fine china for their future dining table, hoping one day to fill the seats with family and friends.
Yet, in the unforgiving pace of the city, dining “family style” sounds like more of a hassle than a meal. Who has time to sit down for meal and socialize when twitter, facebook and emails are flooding smart phones at rapid fire? Commuters keep takeout numbers saved in Iphones, ordering without ever opening a menu. On the el ride home, Chicagoans look up to advertisements for food delivery services like GrubHub, and grocery delivery services like Peapod.
The American Dream once revolved around social dining, the perfect meal shared with loved ones and friends. Now Americans dream in 140 characters or less and most meals come neatly wrapped in white plastic “thank you” bags at your doorstep. You stare lovingly into the face of your computer screen, as you dig into dinner.
But maybe it’s not too late to save social dining. In fact, maybe social media is just the utensil Chicagoans need to enjoy dinner again. Grubbers certainly think so. That is, the members of a new social group called Grubwithus, a website bringing people together over both food and social media. The website, launched in July of 2010, hosts meals at restaurants across Chicago, and allows members to sign up for an enticing meal at a set price. Eight to 12 interested members meet at the restaurant to share “family style” portions from a multiple course menu. The brave diners arrive at dinner as strangers, and vow to turn off all connections to the outside world during the course of the meal.
I pledge allegiance to the Grilled Cheese of America…
A Grilled Cheese with Tomatoes from Pick Me Up Cafe.
The first thing I ask for when I walk through the door to my parent’s house is always the same. I drag my suitcase across the freshly vacuumed carpet, letting it flop down the stairs to my childhood bedroom. I walk into the kitchen and the skillet is already warming on the stovetop. An unnatural block of yellowy goodness sits on the counter, half wrapped in aluminum. My mom slices into the brick of gelatinous cheese, making floppy slices of Velveeta that stick to the knife.
She stacks buttered bread next to the cheese and holds her hand over the blackened pan like it’s a campfire, checking the heat. It’s the same pan I used to watch her cook with when I still needed to drag a chair over just to see the stovetop. The same skillet that made omelets for dinner when dad was gone for business meetings because we had to use up the eggs before they spoiled; the same skillet that sizzled with weird combinations of leftovers doused in barbeque sauce when dad was home, as he devoutly believed in using everything left in the fridge.
Tonight I was home, and it was grilled cheese time. When we made grilled cheese growing up it wasn’t because we needed to use up whatever was in the fridge. It was because we craved it. The simplicity of gooey melted cheese oozing out of two slightly burned slices of wonder bread.
But as I grew up my grilled cheese evolved. My mom added tomatoes and jalapeños. My dad bought Swiss and rye bread. I snuck in spicy mustard and pesto. We personalized our own grilled cheese. Mom’s was barely left on the grill long enough to melt the cheese, dad’s was blackened and dipped in tomato soup. For lunch on a lazy Sunday the original was always best though. Continue reading
Ceviche – the reality star that gets paid way too much, but you can’t stop watching.
A sea bass ceviche tradito, served in the rind of an orange.
I slouched in a comfortable oversized chair. Gazing out at the warm tropical Peruvian sun. The sticky humid weather, the sound of traditional Latin music and ocean waves in the distance. The catch of the day, as fresh as you can find, sat on the table in front of my eyes. I contained my drool at the sight of the meal. The bright colors of fresh chiles and onions mixed in the citrus of limes marinating the flounder, just off the boat.
My first experience with ceviche was the most authentic, the most delicious, and all presented in pristine HDTV. Okay, so I’ve never been to Peru, but my first encounter with ceviche, while watching Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, still managed to have a lasting effect. (Don’t worry – I have actually eaten real ceviche since then.)
Sure, if you can afford it, hop on the next flight to Peru, the alleged homeland of this spicy, citrus raw fish delicacy, and try it immediately! Take pictures and send them to me. However, if you’re more realistically going to hop on your Netflix account and look up the No Reservations episode in Peru, much like I did, then listen up. Continue reading
Drew Swanson of Big Jones poses with a Wreckfish. Photo courtesy of Big Jones.
Drew Swanson sticks to his midwestern roots. As the sous chef at Big Jones restaurant, located just four blocks from the Berwyn redline stop, he may prepare strictly southern cuisine, but his methods and ingredients stay close to home. Born in a small Iowa town, Swanson learned about the food business at an early age, and just after turning 18 he first looked into becoming a chef.
Though the steep rates for culinary schools lead Swanson on a detour for a few years working in sales, the right opportunity brought him back to the kitchen and into the big city. As a graduate from the Le Cordon Bleu program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago in 2008, Swanson has worked with Chef Paul Fehriback at Big Jones for nearly three years.
Swanson describes his inspirations, dedication to local ingredients and farmers, and most of all, his love for butchery. Hey, he got a pig tattooed on his arm for a reason. Continue reading
What the pho?!
Pho777 serves up traditional Vietnamese soup without the expletives.
A table full of pho and BYOB make for a happy night off the Argyle Stop.
The train doors slam shut. You snake past the evening crowds, down the platform stairs of the Argyle redline stop. Horns snarl angrily from Broadway. Neon signs and scripts in different languages adorn the packed storefronts. The dingy cavernous walls under the train tracks contrast your mounting excitement.
You look east down Argyle Street. Past the construction bins that never seem to move. Past Hoa Nam Market. Past Kim Tam, Kim Hing and Heng Heng Jewelry stores. A pink and green neon sign glows in the distance.
Lucky number Pho777. A shabby little Vietnamese noodle house hiding among the many distractions on Argyle Street in the Little Saigon of Chicago. For the past seven years this restaurant has served the warmth of a hot Vietnam day that you’ll wish you had known about all along. It’s the secret place you go to, not to be seen or impress a date, but to hideaway and forget about the city for a while.
The dining room is exactly what you expect to find. Paper lanterns and intricate crimson and gold decorations hang from the drop tile ceiling. The contrast of a plain tiled floor juxtaposed with the traditional Asian decorations and plants. The large tables sit dressed in a deep red floral pattern. Fish gawk at you from a large tank in the back. When you enter the open dining room no one takes a second glance. They’re too busy hovering over steaming bowls of soup.
This isn’t Campbell’s condensed. You will not find this soup in a can. And it’s not microwave safe. It’s Pho. The traditional Vietnamese soup that will change the way you define soup. Or at least remind you of the warmth you felt going back for seconds of mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup or vegetable beef. The ingredients have changed, but the effect is surprisingly the same.
A narrated view of Pho777:
Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine without the Expletives
Pho777 offers a seafood pho shown above, featuring soft crab, fresh shrimp and tender squid.
Pho. Bo. Tom. They’re all hanging out at Pho777, minutes from the Argyle redline stop. In case you’re wondering, Pho, pronounced sort of like the beginning of that curse word you shutter under you breath after sprinting up the CTA stairs (only to see the train doors slamming in your face), is a traditional Vietnamese broth and noodle soup. ‘Bo’ is beef, and ‘tom’ is shrimp, both delicious additions to this soup. Remember these very important words when walking into the extravagant yet unpretentious dinning room of Pho777. Continue reading