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At American Junkie, Kendal Duque makes hay from cliches

It's spendy sports bar food—and it's in River North—but it's not bad.



We got to pondering the origins of the pork belly slider. My dinner companion was thinking about the many different culinary styles represented on the menu at American Junkie, all, at this late hour, enlisted in the service of the upscale gastropub. Whence the pork belly slider? I suspect historians will someday find evidence of it in archival newspaper dining sections, on lists of Hottest Summer Dishes 2009. Perhaps it's native to the spendy sports bar, and here we were, eating it in its natural habitat.

Not for nothing, this was a very good slider, a tiny quail egg atop each baton of thick, sweet pork. My friend isn't wild about runny yolks, so we'd asked that one of these three be cooked over hard—a fussy request, I thought, that tested and then testified to the kitchen's mettle. This River North restaurant runs like the well-oiled machine it appears to be. On the second floor there's a retractable roof and what's been called a "descending DJ booth," whatever that is. On the night we peeked upstairs there was a DJ fully descended, I assume, in front of the biggest TV I've ever seen. The look is sleek, industrial, and darkly furnished, though a place can hardly be called "dark" that has 16 (according to my count) TVs on its first floor. Enlightenment! By the glow of these TVs, on the week I visited, one could keep up with both sports scores and the real-time whereabouts of the Boston bombers.

Perhaps what my friend meant, tallying the diverse influences at play at American Junkie, was: Look at the many different kinds of meat! They're all here. Beef, pork, chicken, boar, lobster, mussels, venison, bison, scallops, foie gras, octopus. Wings, ribs, sandwiches, charcuterie, duck fat fries, "lamp lollipops." Whole pork shoulder, a shellfish platter. Your server, whose Daisy Dukes can't accommodate a pen—she'll pull it out of her socks—might recommend the sliders, a popular item, to start. You might wonder about labor laws. Do you have to be a thin young woman to work here? Can an employer really require such a skimpy uniform?

Like last year's Hash House A Go Go, this is a chain out of the south and west, with locations in Arizona, California, and Mexico. But unlike Hash House, this one boasts some serious pedigree in the kitchen: Kendal Duque, the opening chef at Sepia, who's also put in time at Tru, Everest, and NoMi. If you can focus more on the foods than the dudes—and boy are there a lot of them—you might put together a decent meal out of Duque's menu. It's an aggregation of cliches—bacon-wrapped dates, mushroom risotto, soft pretzels—but, like the latest James Bond movies, they're cliches that are largely well executed.

The Chicago bureau of American Junkie might actually benefit by comparison: I'm looking now at the menu at Scottsdale, which includes a pizza with prosciutto, grilled pineapple, scallions, green pepper, and provolone—a mixture it's not altogether easy to imagine working well together. The closest local analogue is one of Duque's flatbreads—an honest-to-Jesus flat bread, by the way, not nearly resembling a pizza—topped with foie gras, pineapple, balsamic syrup, and pistachios. It was rich and lovely, more dessert than dinner, but the rare use of pineapple in a savory course doesn't feel like pandering. Which seems maybe a special talent of Duque's: supersweet dates complemented but didn't overwhelm a side of brussels sprouts, either, and they paired darkly and deliciously with smoked pork jowl.

On the other hand another flatbread, barbecue chicken, was the biggest stinker on the menu, the sauce tasting so much like ketchup that I wondered if somebody in the kitchen hadn't messed up the recipe.

A pile of lobster cradled in a beef bone does well by its shellfish—it's nothing revelatory, but the lobster's well cooked. Wild boar chili cheese fries are way too salty, but it's hard to stop eating them nonetheless; the chili is kissed with cinnamon and the cheese, whatever it is, has a nice, earthy flavor. Hanger steak, on a sandwich, is blanketed by pungent melted Taleggio, which takes particularly well to beef.

Small, shareable plates and appetizers constitute most of the menu, but for the hungriest urban pioneers there are a couple big plates, including a scallop pasta, rotisserie chicken, and fisherman's stew. This last was simple and good: a perfectly cooked scallop under a pile of briny salmon roe, surrounded by mussels and chunks of smoked trout. Some bread would've been nice to mop up the gravy that held it together, which was thick but light and minimally flavored.

Of course, American junkies don't live by sliders alone. Wine's available by the bottle, along with a solid, if standard, selection of bottled beers and a draft list containing, alongside Bud Light Lime and its ilk, a couple boutique surprises. Cocktails are either just as boring as or more boring than you'd expect from a place that, again, is called American Junkie. The Cheating Tiger is a miscalculation of Jim Beam Black and iced tea; You'll Thank Me Later, with gin, orange juice, and thyme, was surprisingly boozy and didn't taste much of orange. A summery Sunset Boulevard, with Effen Cucumber, St. Germain, lime, and prosecco, was maybe the best of these. The drinks aren't as sweet as they look, by and large, and that's a good thing; it's one of several ways that American Junkie confounds expectations.

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