Drunken bliss at the Little Goat

The 19-hour diner Randolph Street was waiting for

| February 18, 2013
The visually repellent but ultimately winning "breakfast spaghetti and clams."
- Andrea Bauer
The visually repellent but ultimately winning "breakfast spaghetti and clams."
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I have a friend who nearly planted his face in a pile of corned beef hash during a late dinner at Stephanie Izard's Little Goat. For him, the restorative powers of this and other greasy-good, massively portioned, amplified American diner classics (and mutant innovations) came several bourbons too late, and his wingwoman quickly ushered him out the door before he nodded into the crab dip. This left the rest of us with a daunting task. Whiskey-goggled and invincible, we'd already overordered, but two mouths down we were about to get clobbered by a surplus of supersized, animal-fat-saturated food created for eating under the influence.

Apart from the hash, composed of finely shredded, crispy potato and "smoked corned beef" (aka pastrami), and blanketed by a pair of googly-eyed, over-easy eggs, we had to deal with a fat, Koreanified beef burger piled high with kimchi and bacon and draped with another egg. We had seat-cushion-sized beef ravioli in cheesy ragu facing us. We had an open-faced tuna melt, essentially a hollandaise-drenched nicoise salad piled atop sourdough toast. And we had a bowl overflowing with cold-smoked French fries (smoked, then fried). But the thing that put us under the table was a fluffy, savory wheat-flour pancake, mutilated and tossed with eggs, funky kimchi, and bacon. It might have saved our lives—or at least eased our hangovers.

As it turns out, this diner—which, according to Izard, was born out of the need for a separate space to house the Girl & the Goat's expanding bread program—fills a gaping hole in Randolph's restaurant row that the titular diner food at nearby Au Cheval only partially addresses. It's open late, and unlike Au Cheval it's open early, too—from 7 AM to 2 AM, hours convenient to a whole menagerie of the damaged.

As such, it has an intimidatingly large and varied menu, written in decidedly unintimidating, infantilizing language ("sammiches," "boo boo baise," "miso hungry for a banana split"). As at an actual diner, it's possible to have eggs at midnight and burgers at dawn, pancakes at lunch and apple pie in the midafternoon. It's an array of choices that promotes dithering—especially in altered states—which the retro-outfitted servers patiently endure.

But while there is no Saint Louis slinger on the menu, its most memorable and attractive dishes are similarly outlandish dares, the sort of things that don't make the hungry hammered blink. For a time earlier this month, the Little Goat was running a blue plate special: a fist-sized chunk of pork butt fused to a pigtail that looked like it had burst from John Hurt's chest before Steph subdued it in the deep fryer.

I'm still thinking of a visually repellent but ultimately winning "breakfast spaghetti and clams": a crispy mass of brittle pasta fused to an undercarriage of fluffy eggs, topped with plump, shucked bivalves, tissue-thin guanciale, and chopped bok choy. This amorphous jumble wallows in a pool of clear, clammy broth, which would seem to indicate that the dish would become a rapidly decomposing, soggy mess—but somehow all the flavors and textures remain intact. The same is true of a boneless pork chop that practically disintegrates at the touch of a fork and is buried under a soupy, sour, salty stew of cauliflower, kimchi, and guanciale. Food like this brings us closer to the animals.

Are you noticing something here?

With the latter plate, the burger, the kimchi pancake, and two more dishes on the epic menu, Izard seems to understand better than most other non-Korean chefs an important principle: kimchi makes everything better. Even more so if bacon is involved.

Pickled accents in general are an effective weapon in her arsenal. There's a mountainous plate of nachos, a skillful upscaling of stadium food in which the light, puffy, blistered chips are bonded by cheddar, sour cream, and sweet pulled pork, all of which is lightened by a sprinkling of pickled red onions and peppers. The thinly shaved peppers appear on the Spanish omelet and chicken cordon bleu sandwich as well, and you can buy jars of them in the bakery and coffee shop next door (which transforms into a cocktail bar after dark). Smart, brightening accents like these prevent the Little Goat's food from sinking you after you've eaten it.

Animal fat appears everywhere, even where you least expect it. The towering club sandwich is built on bread made from dough worked with duck fat, beer, mustard, and caraway seeds (you can buy this meaty loaf in the bakery). But this deliberate deluge of adipose tissue isn't only for savory items: there's a smoky milk shake made with pork-fat ice cream. Other desserts run the gamut from outrageous sundaes, such as a Thai-chile-and-mint-seasoned chocolate brownie construction made with Black Dog gelato, to more delicate sweets, like a dainty but potent blood orange meringue pie.

A state of impairment can, however, lead to bad decisions. As might be expected on a menu this long and varied, some things just don't work. While so much of restaurant criticism is subjective, occasionally you can make a definitive statement about right and wrong. Here's one: the Little Goat's banh mi is just wrong. It's built on a chewy, dense French baguette—not the usual light, rice-flour Vietnamese rolls. This means the disproportionate content—too much cabbage, very little paté—spills to the plate before the teeth can do any damage. A bland egg-and-paratha burrito decorated with frisee and kidney beans tastes like it was conceived by ascetics (in spite of more pickled peppers), while a simple standard like home fries arrives unseasoned and hardly crisped. And while sometimes a dish of crab dip is just a dish of crab dip, the Little's Goat's is dominated by cream cheese, short on crustacean, and surrounded by Ritz crackers in a particularly unfortunate arrangement I can only describe as vaginal.

My biggest problem with the Little Goat might be its inflexibility in the burger department. Sure, you can get beef, goat, or veggie patties in a half-dozen iterations, but the kitchen will not cook the thick meat pucks any more rare than medium. I could understand that precaution in a restaurant that has no faith in its product, but the Little Goat is sourcing its beef from Slagel and its goat meat from Kilgus, two highly respected local farms whose animals deserve better tribute than the tough, dry burgers they contribute to.

The Little Goat gives Izard even more room to practice a discipline of excess and extremity that's evident (but more restrained) across the street at Girl & the Goat. Izard is the juggling trapeze artist who can throw a million things at you at once and you'll still ask for more—even when you can't handle it. On that first night my weary, outgunned group surrendered before finishing, but we were in far better shape the next morning than our comrade who couldn't get started at all. Sometimes what can't possibly be good for you is just what you need.


[Recommended] Little Goat Diner

820 W. Randolph
312-888-3455
littlegoatchicago.com
One of the Little Goat's retro-outfitted servers
One of the Little Goat's retro-outfitted servers
- Andrea Bauer

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Comments (3)

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This all sounds rather disgusting.

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Posted by jacktoof on 02/19/2013 at 3:56 PM

I ate at Little Goat about a month ago. My meal started out great, good beer, tasty salad but when the plates arrived-yikes! not good. They were a hot, greasy, salty mess. I had the beef ravioli and after only a few bites my taste buds were overwhelmed by the salt and grease. I couldn't taste anything. My bf, had the sloppy goat and it was the same deal.

I get the whole diner approach to Little Goat, but honestly 60 bucks for bad diner food is a way too much. I'd rather just head over to Huck Fin and pay a quarter of the price. I was actually really excited about Little Goat expanding so it's was pretty disappointing that the food didn't work.

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Posted by ac22 on 02/22/2013 at 12:02 PM

I wish I was an investor. Nothing like making money off Logan Square hipsters and Lincoln Park monies. Fuck you, pay me. Got money, eat shit, what a concept.

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Posted by feedmybankaccount on 02/23/2013 at 8:17 PM
Showing 1-3 of 3

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