Old Habits is bar food reborn | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Old Habits is bar food reborn

The kitchen at Avondale’s Ludlow Liquors is so good it gets its own name.

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The phrase "permanent food installation" sounds like the result of an unpleasant medical procedure. But in Avondale at a new cocktail bar called Ludlow Liquors, it's what's used to describe the activity in the kitchen, its food, and its chefs—Nick Jirasek and his sous chef and collaborator Eric Valdivia, who go about their business under the rubric of Old Habits.

The menu, posted above the far end of a bar that glows atomic orange, reads like a ransom note from a desperately famished kidnapper: rib tips, egg rolls, mostaccioli, french fries. In execution the selection does what bar food since the dawn of time was designed to do—keep the customers drinking. But it does much more than that.

Ludlow Liquors is the third bar born out of the partnership between Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue, aka Leisure Activities, the duo also behind Sportsman's Club, Estereo, and Larry's. It's their first bar to serve food.

OK, really it's their second bar to serve food. Ludlow inhabits the space that once housed the Orbit Room, a dependable neighborhood watering hole with lousy grub—until the partners took it over last summer. They made smart updates; the drinking got better, and so did the menu, which was originally put together by Mark Steuer. I was all set to publish a mash note to that chef's mortadella sandwich when I learned that Donahue and McElroy were planning to shut the whole place down and reopen as a totally new concept.

I haven't heard many laments for the Orbit Room, but I sorely begrudged the loss of that creation. Until, that is, I sunk my face into the Beefy Boy, a voluptuous sandwich of pressure-cooked beef cheek and brisket served, on the occasions I ate it, on a pillowy poppy-seed bun (now it's Texas toast), with salt-and-vinegar chips on the side. Its satiny fat-and-collagen finish cut by tangy giardiniera aioli and fried onion crisps (a la Durkee), it's a tribute to the late Depot Diner's beef sandwich, and the only thing that can interrupt its rapid disappearance is the occasional quick slurp on a cocktail.

Jirasek has an uncommon resumé for a chef, with a lot of his experience occurring in the context of the local art scene. That's ranged from cooking on camp stoves at openings to making vegan mac and cheese with nutritional yeast and chicken hot dogs as (pre-heart surgery) Tony Fitzpatrick's personal chef to running the cafe at Gaslight Coffee Roasters. He also consulted at the opening of Theaster Gates's Currency Exchange Café, where he created the transporting collard greens, notably spiked with Huy Fong sriracha and Topo Chico mineral water.

The Old Habits menu pays homage to the chef's Chicago upbringing, and in an act of audaciousness that wouldn't be possible were he not a native, he's smoking rib tips (the city's barbecue signature) and chunks of belly meat, glazed in a reduction of their drippings, and serving them not with cottony, grease-absorbent white bread but on flour tortillas with melted SarVecchio and cotija cheese. These chewy, fatty, charred nuggets of porky goodness are at once a paean to masters of the form such as Honey 1 and Lem's and a so-crazy-it-just-might-work inspiration that are in a class by themselves.

I didn't believe I really enjoyed lumpia, the iconic, cigar-bore, and often too-dry Filipino egg rolls, until I tried Jirasek's, which are fat, tubular vessels for a pleasingly greasy farce of finely ground pork, beef, and Spam. These are in fact served upright in an empty Spam can with soy-dashi-coconut vinegar and lightly fermented chile sauce to the side. Jirasek is an assassin with such condiments. The coriander chutney that comes with his vegetarian egg rolls is part and parcel of an ingenious conceptual leap from the original Cantonese-American standard to its Indian analogue, stuffed with curried mashed potato and peas, samosa style.

The menu contains other improved mashups of beloved but frequently disappointing junk food. The lightly crispy crab Rangoon—here "dragoon"—is packed with meaty crustacean meat in an everything-bagel-seasoned cream cheese and served alongside sweet-and-sour sauce and a sinus-scouring hot mustard. Three pasta dishes, all with ruffly campanelle noodles, feature thick, soul-coddling preparations like a riff on Hamburger Helper with cheddar and American cheese and a tangy variant of McDonald's special sauce broiled on top with sesame bread crumbs, or an expression of baked ziti with a thick, gravity-resistant pork-jowl-and-beef-cheek bolognese that's also available as an upgrade for the french fries.

The fries themselves are the greatest triumph at Old Habits. Thick and long, they have creamy interiors and crispy exteriors that capably withstand that kind of treatment along with beef gravy or garlic butter, though they have a more difficult time when dipped into a small tub of malted vanilla ice cream. The combo already seems like a ghost of 80s-era MicroMagic frozen meals, so why not serve an actual milkshake? Jirasek promises an improvement when the patio opens and a shake machine goes into service.

My only half-hearted grumble about the food at Old Habits is its general saltiness, something that's difficult to complain about under the circumstances in which it's eaten. If this is even a problem, there are plenty of solutions behind the bar, which offers an all-batched, largely brown liquor-based cocktail list, each drink available in one-, two-, and three-ounce sizes. The old-fashioned is particularly memorable, a large serving poured into a hefty cut-glass tumbler that feels made for the hand (or for a bar fight), the drink's typical sweetness tamed by salted simple syrup. The Escapist is a decidedly adult, nontropical rum mix with white vermouth. The Careless Whisper echoes a Sazerac with its rye and absinthe lethality camouflaged by chokecherry liqueur, while the Delicious #7 is the requisite mezcal proffer, its vegetal bite softened by applejack and herbal Benedictine.

The space, toned down from its Orbit Room days, very much looks like it was designed by Kevin Heisner (Sportsman's Club, Lone Wolf, Bar DeVille) because it was. It features the requisite stuffed birds and an illuminated glass-rod-back bar staffed by some of the most enduringly chummy bartenders in town, like Luke LeFiles and general manager Uby Khawaja.

We might be in the midst of a surge of quality bar food when you look at recent openings like the Moonlighter and Fort Willow—chef-driven places where the menu is an attraction in its own right rather an antidote to fermented-and-distilled toxins. That's certainly true of Old Habits, whose novel takes on classic junk foods trigger primal urges that can weaken your inhibitions just as easily as the booze.  v

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