Farm & Garden

Peterson Garden – Vegucation

July 29 2013 - 10:00 AM

I’m case your tan lines don’t spell it out for you, summer is at its peak, and along with the joyous jingle of the ice cream man, summer is all about garden-fresh produce. But with so many ingredients bursting forth from the soil, it can be overwhelming for home cooks to know what to do with it all. This summer, Peterson Garden Project saves the season with its new Operation Vegucation blog series, designed to educate gardeners on a different ingredient each week and teach them how to cook it, how to store it, the nutrition facts, and more. In case you’re not familiar with Peterson Garden Project, you should be. PGP is a non-profit organization that strives to inspire people to grow their own food in community gardens. And with outlets such as Operation Vegucation, they make it as simple and enticing as possible.

Operation Vegucation can be found on PGP’s aptly named We Can Grow It blog. Here, PGP’s master gardeners document a different seasonal ingredient each week, digging into the nitty gritty that makes each item unique and delicious. For instance, did you know pole beans can be rambunctious? That summer squash are packed with Vitamin C? That the insides of cucumbers can be up to 20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature?! We learn something new every day, and you can continue learning if you follow along on PGP’s blog. There’s a new Operation Vegucation post every Friday, and given the current state of summer in Chicago, there is lots more to learn and eat.


Hot Dish Heaven - Johnny Casserole Delivers

July 29 2013 - 8:00 AM

I first met David Bryson’s smiling, friendly face beneath his trademark fedora, gently bobbing his head to skater punk and doling out boxes from The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. Back then he was going by the name “Noodles” – on account of his pasta bake repertoire – and he became the first food truck operator to recognize me as a regular, a fact which both delighted me and prompted the thought that maybe I should be packing my lunch more often.

When I next meet Bryson, it’s in his new space on Damen Avenue in the North Center neighborhood. The front door to the shop is locked to the public and he’s fedora-less, but Bryson is possibly even more cheery with me as his audience of one. The reason is no mystery: I’m here to chat not to “Noodles,” but to “Johnny C.” and we aren’t talking up The Southern, but his recently resurrected, pseudo-eponymous café and delivery service, Johnny Casserole.

The core concept is simple. Bryson and partners Tim O’Neill and Marc ‘Sparki’ Dufour prepare fresh, never frozen one dish dinners big enough for a family and deliver them across the city ready to bake. Sides, salads, and even breakfast bakes round out the menu.

Johnny Casserole PatioBut Johnny Casserole also serves as a sit-down restaurant. Those interested in a bite for lunch can buy single serving sizes to eat on the back patio, and the dining room – a former café – is equipped to sell a full espresso menu. “I always thought of Johnny Casserole as small,” Bryson tells me. “It’d be a little joint… maybe have coffee, a couple tables, but mostly it would be pick-up and delivery.”

The seed of Johnny Casserole grew out of Bryson’s interest in street food. He was disappointed in Chicago’s dearth of options and was one of the first to pursue a food truck in the city. However, as the recession set in, securing the start-up loans proved too much trouble.

He next jokingly suggested a supper club. “Talk about slow food,” Bryson laughs. “We’ll take it to the next level. Pick something out and wait 45 minutes.” But those around him thought the idea was less crazy. One friend suggested the twist that would stick. “What if you deliver casseroles?”

In 2010, Bryson started Johnny Casserole version 1.0. Working out of shared space in Kitchen Chicago alongside the likes of 5411 Empanadas and Tamale Spaceship, the business lived up to the tagline “First casserole delivery in the Midwest!” by debuting frequent, fresh and hot meals. Good press followed – JC was featured on Steve Dolinsky’s Hungry Hound – but ultimately the work load got to be too much. “I can’t do this myself,” Bryson thought, and the idea “got tabled there.” The project went quiet and, answering a job ad, Mr. Johnny C. traded slinging his own hot dishes for those of The Southern.

In 2012, Bryson got a tip on a new kitchen space. Johnny Casserole had never left his mind, but the cost of a new restaurant build – or even a remodel – had discouraged him from looking and he approached this location with the same pessimism. Surprisingly, though, instead of a potential money pit, Bryson found a fully functional kitchen, abandoned and ready to run on day one. “Is that a pizza oven?” he mused on the first tour. “I can fit a lot of casseroles in there!”

The opportunity was perfect and Bryson jumped back into self-employment for Johnny Casserole 2.0. David locked in longtime friend Sparki as a full-time partner and found Tim, a recent meet through a mutual friend, to round out the team.

Johnny Casserole Awning

The day I stop by to chat is the first day the paper has come off the front windows. Curious neighbors passing by peer in and, if they linger, David excuses himself to pop out and introduce the concept. Sparki and Tim provide a bit of a show slicing cucumbers and making basil chiffonade, while stuffing foil baking pans with cheese. Though the dining space hadn’t opened yet, the team is testing recipes and preparing deliveries.

All three partners are veterans of the service industry and, as some casseroles warm up in the oven, the first thing I notice is their abundance of hospitality. Tim O’Neill meets me at the door and offers coffee. As I settle in, we chat about his days as a fish monger at Dirk’s Seafood, modern cuisine, and his dream of working with fresh deep trench Mediterranean prawns. Sparki Dufour, grabbing plates and silverware, likewise speaks of former gigs. He was a bartender for much of his career – easily belied by his inviting and friendly conversational banter – and his resume includes Trio, Carlucci’s and Ditka’s here in Chicago and Le Cirque in New York City. He later reveals that he turned down a post with Toby Maloney (of The Violet Hour) at new NYC hotspot Pouring Ribbons to partner with Bryson.

Duo 2Bryson pulls a few casseroles for me to try as he goes over his own resume. Trained in theater, he worked in off-loop productions before settling into voice-over work. (“If you’ve listened to the radio in Chicago, you’ve probably heard me.”) He returned to school at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and used that to land a string jobs from the now defunct Speakeasy Supper Club in Rogers Park to Atwood Café and South Water Kitchen downtown.

He explains his philosophy as a continuation of Americana. “About every culture has a casserole tradition… which is awesome.” But, he continues, “we tend to think about American casseroles… lasagna, chicken pot pie, Shepard’s pie. You can even think of Jambalaya as a casserole; it’s a one-pot dish, isn’t it?”

Duo 1And with that, we launch into a tuna noodle casserole, staple of many an American childhood. Large chunks of tuna and flavorful cremini mushrooms match with traditional peas and not-so-traditional artichoke hearts for a dish worthy of its name, the Ain’t Your Momma’s. Topped with French-fried onions, it has the heartiness of home, but it’s a good step up from canned fish and Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom.

Duo 3Next, we sample the house mac and cheese, the For Your Thighs Only. On this day, the group is testing out new ideas and, as he plates it, Bryson decides to garnish with a handful of the thin basil slices Sparki and Tim prepared earlier. Simple but satisfying, this version is creamy and dripping with a thick cheddar cheese sauce. O’Neill passes (“I’ve had mac and cheese for three nights in a row now,” he groans) but the rest of us spoon up servings, thighs be damned.

The Big GrabowskiBryson invites me to try a final creation, and introduces it with a Mike Ditka quote. “In life,” he says, channeling Da Coach, “there are teams called Smith, and teams called Grabowski. We’re Grabowskis.” Ditka was celebrating the tough working class – and especially Polish – heritage of the city with his quote about the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Bears, and Bryson carries that same sentiment through to a dish he calls The Big Grabowski. It’s a mash-up of egg noodles, kielbasa and sauerkraut, topped with scallions, Swiss cheese and rye breadcrumbs. Quite aptly, Bryson subtitles it “an ode to Milwaukee Avenue,” and – maybe due to my own Polish ancestry or maybe due to just plain deliciousness – I scarf this one down with abandon. Seek this one out.

This past Monday was opening day for Johnny Casserole’s dining room and the North Center neighborhood is embracing the hot-dish diehards. “This neighborhood,” Bryson says, “is new families with little babies. That’s my bread and butter.” Quality, locally-sourced and homemade meals that are no hassle to prepare strike a chord with busy parents. “There are a whole lotta strollers… and I think [pointing] ‘customer, customer, customer.’” At the same time, though, the heartiness of a casserole makes it appealing to the decidedly less paternal. “Guys getting together to watch the Blackhawks… Those are my customers, too,” Bryson adds.

Regardless of which camp you fall into (or neither), Johnny Casserole has a dish for you. The next time you’re mighty hungry, give them a call and have a little hot dish love delivered.

All photos courtesy of the Johnny Casserole Facebook Page.


La Colombe – Brewing Up a Name

July 28 2013 - 1:43 PM

If you’ve never heard of La Colombe, it’s probably because they aren’t Starbucks. In fact, there is a lot that differentiates this Philadelphia-based coffee roaster from the massive coffee chain. La Colombe touched down in Chicago in May 2011 with a West Loop cafe on Randolph’s restaurant row, as well as partnerships with many restaurants across the city. It has worked hard to really distinguish itself from the other major coffee roasters in Chicago and with fierce competition from local favorites, Intelligentsia and Metropolis, they have to.

La Colombe began increasing its presence in Chicago via word of mouth, all stemming from a relationship with its first client, The Bristol in Bucktown. The restaurant partnership allowed La Colombe to form partnerships with other restaurants across the city and quickly, the high quality coffee spoke for itself. .  

La Colombe’s founders, Todd Carmichael and Jean Phillippe Iberti take a  direct approach to coffee from the culinary world. They focus their flavors on the different types of cuisines they experience when dining out and try to match their coffees to go with those cuisines. The ambiance of their cafes are also strikingly unconventional. Todd and JP are purists when it comes the cafe experience. They really want patrons to focus on the coffee and engage in conversations with baristas (there are no menus), rather than burying their heads in a book. Even the furniture is meant to prop you up and engage in conversation–you won’t find  oversized velvety chairs here. All in all, the ambiance is really designed to bring the focus back to the coffee.

Something else most may not know about La Colombe is their commitment to ethical trade. They’re one of the leading proponents of long-term and ethical trade with coffee growers and focus on five principles of trade most importantly including treating farmers fairly and dealing directly with farms in order to establish longstanding relationships.

So what’s next for La Colombe? They’re currently in the process of opening a second location in Bucktown near the blue line stop after results of a client poll indicated that was the most-desired location. You can also try La Colombe’s coffee offerings at this year’s Lollapalooza music fest. La Colombe is also set to expand with four new cafes this year throughout the U.S. including new locations in in Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. Plans are also in the works to open a rum distillery in its Fishtown, PA cafe.

Have you tried the coffee at La Colombe? How do you think their cafe stacks up?


Breakfast for Dinner Recap

July 19 2013 - 4:56 PM

I saw Nothing Can Hurt Me, a great documentary about the star-crossed ’70’s band, Big Star.  One of the movie’s many voices, in describing the band’s beautiful, timeless music, reiterated an interesting description for the purpose of art.  He stated that art’s purpose is to capture a moment so that it seems as though time has stopped.  Itself an art form, fine dining can also achieve such a level of quality and impact so that, momentarily, the progression of time for the patron seemingly stands still.  Trenchermen’s five-course Breakfast For Dinner proved as an example of such a senses-gripping dining experience.  A moment that was distinctly breakfast was followed by another moment that captured dinner. Through a reinvention of traditional breakfast fare, the chef uplifted breakfast to haute cuisine, distilling familiar flavors to concepts and toying with the palate while staying within the margins of accessibility.

A perfect example of this artistry occurred right at the outset during hors d’oeuvres with smoked chicken rillettes.  Delicate and crisp, the creamy chicken and the crumbly pastry wedge together formed a satisfying contrast of textures. Tomato gazpacho similarly pulled together disparate elements, merging a devilishly light, green creamy texture with a a slight and unexpected heat.  Perhaps the only ordinary element in any dish was a tater tot, but the accompanying creamy, savory hackleback caviar pointed it all toward another dimension.  The drink pairing was delightful as well.  Described as the Trencher-mosa, this vodka-and-peach-liqueur-based drink mixed with soda water was an ideal refreshment and proved as the perfect introduction for the evening’s festivities, particularly given the oppressive Chicago summer heat.

The rectangular, centrally-situated bar, where we enjoyed the Trencher-mosa, adds a warm and classy element to the interior.  Dim lighting, ribbed, wooden tap handles, and an array of curious-looking liquor bottles stacked high on shelves made for an inviting bar scene.

To start dinner, course one cleverly disguised an omelet in pink color, sliced lengthwise so that the egg looked like smoked salmon.  Its warm, soft texture effortlessly melted in your mouth.  Crunchy pecans contrasted nicely with the egg, and was solidly backed by an astringent, honeyed sherry.  Course two’s deconstructed bagels and lox featured succulent, tender salmon and a bagel so crispy that it mimicked a donut, spread with a mustard cream cheese which balanced creamy with spicy.   A biscuity, off-dry, prosecco complemented this dish, and helped me recall upscale New York hotel brunches.

Course three was the most challenging, as it offered bacon-stuffed bacon, popcorn grits and “apple” chiles, all paired with California riesling. However it may have been the winning course of the evening. The popcorn grits carried an pleasing pop, the chiles were properly zesty, and the savory, chewy Canadian bacon was delectable. Paring the bacon with a riesling proved to be a dynamite move, as its tartness tamed the bacon’s fat, while the salty bacon emphasized the wine’s moderate fruitiness.

The fourth, and final-non-dessert, course appeared at first blush to be the most ordinary:  New York strip loin, poached egg, potatoes, and pickled asparagus.  But with a culinary flourish.  The fluffy egg, round, and soft poached, was fun to crack open.  Truffle oil rendered the potatoes into a decadently crispy treat that effortlessly collapsed upon the slightest bite.  I now am sure that pickled asparagus is simply irresistible.  A round-but-zesty Spanish red somehow maintained order among these myriad flavors.

Finally, the fifth course was dessert, a “French toast,” which was really a banana pudding brownie with whisky caramel drizzle, alongside ice cream and streusel.  I loved the way that the banana creation dissolved on my palate, leaving behind a nutty caramel flavor with mellow cinnamon notes.  This round was well-paired with a caramel-forward Muscat.

Breakfast for Dinner appeared to be well-received by Chicago foodies who shared the experienced of this singular dining experience, if only for the moment.

– M. Sheppard





Off Color Brewing Open House

July 19 2013 - 4:12 PM

Courtesy of the good folks at River North Beer Distributors, I was invited to attend an open house at the new Off Color brewery.  Off Color’s brewers, namely, former Goose Island brewer John Laffler and former Two Brothers brewer Dave Bleitner, are more aptly described as beer deconstructionists than as brewers.  Their beers announce the fact that these fermenters have little interest in making popular styles of beer; but, rather, their mission is to create beers that capture the essence of familiar styles but forge entirely new concepts.

With a brewery housed in a warehouse with a garage door and situated deep on Chicago’s west side, Off Color appears to be making a conscious effort to in every way possible separate themselves from the gaggle of new brewers populating the North Side within a mile or two of the lake.  Their beers certainly emulate such a contrast.  Guests were allowed to self-pour beers from various tap handles in various locations throughout the facility.  My first pour was of the Scurry, a 5% pils that would, by description, seem like ordinary fare.  Automatically, the palate is alerted to this beer’s singularity as it strikes the palate with strong acidity, a malty backbone and a herbaceous spiciness with a touch of sweetness.  Brewed with honey and molasses, this beer might remind drinkers of a light pils or an amber with caramel malts, but carries a pleasantly low density along with far more herbal character than an ordinary pils.

Similarly quirky, the Troublesome Gose is a bit sour and tart with a hint of spiciness to it.  This drinks almost like an Italian white wine and harbors a bit of creamy roundness. It hints at coriander and herbs.  I imagine this beer being an absolute hit in hot weather given its general airiness and refreshing palate-cleansing nature.

Next was the Three Floyds collaboration, the Tonneire Neige.  It features a hazy-yellow color and tastes of a slight nuttiness along with banana, peach, and spices.  It is richer and more creamy than the Gose.  Finally, the Beer Geek Mus it the most deconstructionist of all.  A Mikkeller collaboration described as an imperial porter or stout, depending on your source, it houses an ABV of – get this – 3.5%.   You couldn’t kill a goldfish on such a low abv.  Some “imperial” beer, right?  A buddy of mine called it a “skinny jeans porter”.  But make no mistake: one taste and you know this is a porter, and it is full of rich, smoky flavor but without the density of most porters, or other imperial beers for that matter.

Overall, Off Color has automatically distinguished themselves from the pack. Their beers may make casual drinkers a bit leery at first, as the beers have unique styles and ingredients.  But their roster will clearly and undoubtedly appeal to a large section of the beer community that is fed up with huge ABV’s, excessive hops, dense bodies, and an overall lack of imagination.  There’s no denying that Off Color has launched its operations with a clear vision of the kind of bold innovations they desire to craft, and they seem poised to position themselves as sessionable artisans, an unprecedented spot in the brewing world.

I also note that I hope Off Color does more events like these, as their beer garden/patio in back of the tank room is surrounded by a wall and was a pleasant place to drink and mingle as a storm rolled into town.


The Beginner's Beer Guide

July 17 2013 - 12:00 PM

Beer menu. My boyfriend. Beer menu. My boyfriend. Glancing back and forth, I’m hoping for a tad bit of direction. For a little nudge without being given away as the beer novice in the bar. I always feel a little naked being in one of those beer snobbish, er, savvy neighborhoods of Chicago. You know who you are.

I recently started a new job where I’m part barista, part bartender. Coffee is a familiar friend. Beer is much more of a mystery to my palate. Being thrust into this world of hops, head and malt, I’m on a bit of a beer excursion to discover makes beer so enticing. When Bud Light Lime is usually my go-to beer — judge gently — things can only look up from here, right?

I’m a history buff at heart, so my strategy as I build my beer knowledge is to craft small narratives to help the different styles of beer stick in that gray matter between my ears. For all of the other beer beginners out there, this is for you.

  • Saison (say – zahn): Having taken Spanish in college and remembering very little, this word didn’t ring any bells. Alas, that’s because it’s French and means “season”. Apparently, a bunch of beer was brewed in farmhouses in Belgium many light years ago during the cool months of the year and stored for farm workers to drink during the hot, sweaty summer. This beer is usually categorized in the pale ale family. And it’s delightful to say aloud.
  • Porter: This is a darky dark beer that is supposedly the “great-grandpa” of today’s stout. In fact, our very first president, George Dubya, er, Washington, was quite the beer man. Chopping down cherry trees was his (mythical) side gig. Washington even recorded his very own beer recipe, called Small Beer. Brew it yourself and feel America run through you veins.
  • India Pale Ale (IPA for the lazy tongues out there): The Brits love their booze. And colonization. When British troops were in India in the early 1700s, they had one major problem: beer spoilage! By the time beer traveled in ships from Britain to India, the booze was bad. Enter, hops. This plant (a relative of hemp), helped preserve the booze so soldiers in the far off lands could revel and sing drunken songs of the motherland.
  • Pilsner: Honestly, the first time I heard this word, I was confident it was a brand of beer. Not so. Another pale ale-r, this style of beer got its name from the city of Pilsen, in the Czech Republic, where it was first brewed in 1842. Since you’ll probably never visit this city, I’ll just say it’s the fourth most populous city in the Czech Republic and a badass for opening its own city-owned brewery in 1839. Talk about progressive! And speaking of Pilsen, if you’re in the area, be sure to drop by Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar for a drink or two. Or five.


So, there’s your beer-ducation for the week. And by that I mean your ticket to convincing both friends and strangers at the beach, bar, or BBQ that beer is more than a drink. It’s a lifestyle. Your lifestyle. My beer knowledge is a work in progress, with many pours and sips in the future. For the beer gurus out there, you’ll be happy to know my Bud Light Lime days are firmly behind me. Cheers!

News & Features

Kung Food

July 14 2013 - 4:48 PM

They say food can be a weapon. Here that can be taken literally.

Home Cooking

Watermelon Feta Salad for Summer

July 12 2013 - 9:00 AM

Lettuce and dressing can get pretty boring, right? That’s what most people think of when they think of salad. While I do love a good Greek or Caesar, it’s easy to get sick of these standard variations. Summer barbecues are full of heavy foods – hotdogs, baked beans, potato chips and more. It’s nice to have a salad option…but one that people will actually eat instead of just move around their plate.

I’m  a big fan of the grilled corn, avocado and black bean salad. I tend to make that one too often and get a little tired of it. For a salad that is healthy and refreshing, try out a watermelon, feta and mint salad. I know, it doesn’t sound like those ingredients go together. You’d be surprised.  The creamy, salty feta pairs perfectly with the sweet fruit, and mint gives it the perfect, refreshing finishing touch. The lime juice and  zest I add to mine gives it a nice touch of citrus that pulls everything together.

It’s a side that almost seems like a dessert, and it’s certainly easy to make for a crowd with only a few ingredients. Take advantage of this salad while watermelon is perfectly in season.

Get the Watermelon, Feta & Mint Salad recipe here >>


Good Vines Wine

July 09 2013 - 9:00 AM

In the 21st century, shoppers have become more savvy and are more aware of what they buy – and who they support by buying – than ever before. We live in a world of free-range beef, cage-free eggs, non-GMO wheat, fair-trade chocolate, and community-supported agriculture. But this trend is not limited to food. Distilleries are making whisky from locally-sourced corn and breweries are gifting spent grain to farms to feed pigs.

And then there is socially-minded wine. One of Chicago’s newest products is Good Vines Wine, one such brand with three goals.

First is sustainability. The line of Italian varietals are produced on farmer co-op owned vineyards in the Veneto region of Italy. These estates are 70% powered by solar energy, an unusual — but positive — break from tradition that helps to minimize environmental impact.

Marzemino LabelNext is support for the arts. Bottles feature original art from local artists that plays to both the ethos of the brand and the style of the particular wine. The artists involved form a rotating slate that changes from year to year and from market to market, and the artists are promoted alongside the wine with joint bottle signing and wine tasting events.

Finally, Good Vines’ main mission is support for local charities. With each sale, 5% of the purchase price is given to local children-focused charities. In 2012, the brand partnered with The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to support the pediatric program there and in 2013 is teaming up with Common Threads, Chicago Chef Art Smith’s non-profit focused on teaching children in underserved communities how to prepare wholesome and healthy meals. As the brand expands across the country, they hope to feature different local causes in each market.

Carlos and Sean - Good Vines Wine

Good Vines is the creation of Chicagoans Carlos Quimbo and Sean Thomas and represents a blend of their loves. Quimbo is a veteran of the financial business world, but was exposed to wine through his family’s business, a Philipino winery called Novellino. On trips through Italy with his father, Quimbo fell in love and decided he wanted to enter the beverage world himself. Thomas also is expanding on his family’s business. As the grandson of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, Sean Thomas has been active in the company’s philanthropic endeavors – especially the Dave Thomas Adoption Foundation – since a young age and sees Good Vines as a way to continue this work through a project of his own.

OK. All this is well and fine, but when we drink wine, we want it to, you know, taste good. What are the chances this is both good for the world and just plain good?

Good Vines Wines - 3 VarietiesCurrently, Good Vines offers three wines. They have a classic cabernet sauvignon and a crisp white tai-pinot grigio blend, but the star of the portfolio is an unusual sparkling red marzemino. This frizante-style wine is uncommon here in America, but is a versatile medium dry with just enough bubbles to dance on the tongue. It works well as an aperitif before dinner, but also pairs smartly with a light main course or fruity dessert. It can even be used as a cocktail ingredient.

I’ve had a few sparkling reds before and Good Vines’ marzemino stands up quite well in comparison. And at only $11.99 retail, it’s an easy recommendation. Pick up a bottle to try something new. As the brand’s tagline says, “Do Good. Drink me.”

Good Vines Wines are available at a number of both retail and restaurant locations around Chicago. Try the marzemino by the glass at Bin 36 or 694 Wines and Spirits, or experience the sangria using Good Vines Wines at Las Palmas. A full (and expanding) list of locations can be found under the “Buy” section of the Good Vines website.

All images courtesy of

News & Features

The Fairest Taco of Them All

July 02 2013 - 12:00 PM

Over the past few years, Wicker Park has evolved into a curious hub for chef-driven tacos and modern taquerias. Big Star and Antique Taco are two of the most prominent destinations, constantly packed with locals and people who seem to not have jobs, thus affording them the opportunities to fill seats at all hours of any day. Although they’re in the same neighborhood and they both attract similar crowds, the two have never gone head-to-head… until now. This past weekend, the two taquerias squared off at the Chicago Artists Coalition‘s Starving Artist event. It was a taco battle to behold, featuring the two teams pounding out tacos at an impressive rate to feed the starving hordes and vie for votes.

The third annual Starving Artist event was a lavish, bustling soiree filled with art- and food-lovers alike. Hosted by the Chicago Artists Coalition, Starving Artist serves to pair local artists with local chefs, who team up to create new art pieces and gorgeous bites of food. It’s an aesthetic smorgasbord for the senses, featuring artists and culinary artists enticing both eyes and mouths. Along with a roster of chefs that included Fabio Viviani of Siena Tavern and Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, a new addition this year was the taco battle. Finally, these two Wicker Park staples were face-to-face, or rather back-to-back, as both kitchen teams were situated under an outdoor tent, making tortillas fresh on-site and filling them with ingredients cooked on makeshift stove-tops.

Taco lines were long and winding. The artists may not have literally been starving, but they were certainly hungry for tacos. Big Star’s offering was a taco de borrego, filled with braised lamb shoulder, salsa borracha, pickled and grilled spring onions, housemade queso fresco, cilantro, and mint. The lamb was sublimely succulent and tender, like a pot roast more meltable than an M&M. It retained much of its braising liquid, making for an extremely juicy taco that you could practically slurp through a straw. Talking with/nagging a few attendees, I heard some people say that the lamb was a little too sweet, while others likened it to their favorite meaty comfort food.

On the other side of the tent, Antique Taco was churning out shrimp tacos with an elote-like corn salad and pickled onions. The plump shrimp had a nice spice to them, complimented nicely by the creamy, slightly sweet corn salad. Some guests mentioned that this taco tasted more complex than Big Star’s, and the shrimp was a big crowd-pleaser.

Guests were given key limes as voting tools. Once they had tried both tacos, they casted their votes by placing them in the jar labeled with the taqueria of their choosing. Ultimately, it was victory for Antique Taco, and by night’s end, starving artists were pleasantly stuffed on tacos.

Photo courtesy of Antique Taco