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Big Star's perfect drinking food, the Hearty Boys' retooled comfort dishes, and unbalanced burgers from a steak-house scion

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Unlike Paul Kahan's other ventures (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), Big Star is a bar. But you may have to remind yourself of that, because it's got probably the tastiest Mexican menu of any bar in Chicago.

Both food (by Justin Large, formerly of Avec) and drink (by Michael Rubel of Violet Hour) are pitched to a very agreeable price point, making the place a surefire, low-cost, high-value good time. If you're not in the mood for a well-engineered cocktail ($7), you can slum it with a one-buck Schlitz shorty. Or if you just can't decide between a mixed drink and beer, try a Michelada ($4)—Tecate in a salt-rimmed glass, with ice, lime, and tomato juice—a simultaneously thirst-stimulating and -quenching beverage. Either way, pop for a five-buck platter of guacamole with chips and drop an extra buck for chiles toreados, a small bowl of peppers with flavorful heat—truly authentic south-of-the-border drinking food.

The queso fundido (browned Chihuahua cheese and chorizo with a lush poblano underlayment) is surpassingly wonderful. The tacos are fatty and salty (like bar food should be), but the pork belly and lamb are of such high quality that a little extra lard and sodium are way worth it. Carved from frustums layered in-house, the tacos al pastor are crisp, riddled with golden knurls of flame-licked fat, and served on fresh, delicate, house-made minitortillas that make the big flavors seem almost dainty. All tacos are $2-$3; in fact all eats and drinks alike are priced in round numbers, making fast math easy for even the alky-addled.

Big Star gets high readings on the wow-it's-now meter for its carryout window (Mon-Fri 4 PM-2 AM, Sat 11:30 AM-3AM, and Sun 11:30 AM-2 PM), 21st-century postindustrial aesthetic (see also Belly Shack and Benjyehuda), and the fact that the busy bartenders are also responsible for flipping LPs on the turntable. The downsides have mostly to do with it being a bar (because it's a bar, remember?): There are only a few tables and they're for parties of four or more, so smaller groups have to hover and pounce on just-vacated bar stools. Task-oriented servers brook no dawdling. And all transactions are cash only; if you run a tab, you'll have to hand over your ID as ransom. —David Hammond

It's easy to see how Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh's start running Hearty Boys catering informs the "comfort revisited" theme of their new restaurant Hearty. The pair—who've parlayed their self-described "accidental" expertise into early-morning Food Network semi-celebrity—have assembled a roster of archetypal crowd-pleasers, a number of which could be exponentialized for remote events. (It's Casserole Central here.) So much on the menu appealed to my oft-suppressed inner nostalgist—only the strictest ascetics could turn up their sniffers at pancetta-encased meat loaf, pulled pork with root beer BBQ sauce, or short-rib beefaroni—that I'm astonished how few turned out to be as satisfying as they sounded. Take the lobster potpie. I know its heretical to say, but I'm not sure that's the kindest treatment for the delicate-fleshed crustacean in the first place. But in this instance it didn't matter: there was barely any lobster to be fished from the tarragon-laced stew of potatoes, fennel, and carrots.

From the spongy scallop fritters to the mac 'n' cheese squares, the rabbit-sausage corn dog in a cornflake-coated fried chicken that would've been perfect but for just a pinch of salt, batter-fried items—and there are many—seem willfully underseasoned. It almost seems there's an implicit assumption that if you're old enough to have feelings for these iconic dishes you're old enough to have your salt intake restricted. On the other hand, that promising short-rib beefaroni was oversalted, and its "retooled" elements—shallots in merlot reduction and roasted butternut squash—foreshadowed the day I find myself sitting in the assisted living center cafeteria in my soiled diaper, bellowing that the beefaroni needs cheese. Probably the most perfect savory bite I took was from the dessert menu: a cornmeal-based Indian pudding that shamed its grainy butterscotch and stiff rice companions on the pudding flight.

Hearty has jumped on the classic cocktail bandwagon and fallen into a common trap: many of the libations are unbalanced on the sweet side. Just one example: the Pegu Club cocktail, built on Hendrick's gin but knocked over by a sugary lime-a-zoid flavor that completely overwhelmed the spirit.

Heavy, unthreatening, and, yeah, hearty—I suspected these qualities might translate better at brunch. The Boys do indeed have a way with eggs—poached and fried, their runny yolks improving super-buttery shrimp and bacon-larded grits (salt, please), grilled andouille, and breakfast sausage. And it was at brunch that I found my favorite dessert in the place: pumpkin pancakes with lingonberries and mascarpone. —Mike Sula

A prose poem that dominates the men's room wall at DMK Burger Bar suggests that the portobello and turkey burgers make a pair akin to Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir. But I'm hard pressed to see anything even vaguely Algren-esque in that combo, and I'm more than little sad that David Morton and Michael Kornick's most enjoyable contribution to the Year of the Burger is nothing beefier than a nicely sagey turkey patty with smoked Swiss, arugula, and dijonaise.

DMK wants to be the burger place for everyone, offering a house-molded veggie option, two turkeys, a lamb, and the aforementioned fungus in addition to six grass-finished beef varieties (notoriously low in fat and more prone to overcooking than corn-fed beef, but pleasantly resistant to the mandibles).

But Kornick and Morton (son of Morton's founder Arnie) have clearly taken a cue from the architecturally topped burgers pioneered by Kuma's Corner. While it makes good business sense to reference that style for the hordes who can't tolerate the prohibitive wait times there, the patties favored at DMK can't stand up to heavy strata of toppings. These are skinny burgers: five ounces, cooked medium with no dispensation allowed for the blood fiend (sensible enough for a restaurant whose customer base is drawn from a neighboring hospital complex). And any flavor or subtlety to the beef is submerged under the equivalent of a Reuben or an order of huevos rancheros or layers of bacon, cheddar, and BBQ sauce. Even DMK's pleasantly gamy grass-fed lamb patty disappears between salty layers of feta, black olive tapenade, and tzatziki.

Fries, offered in an almost equally varied selection of flavors and sauces, are more appealing—well browned and crisp. Deep-fried pickles and okra, onion strings, and two choices of grilled cheese join house-made soda, ice cream sandwiches, and lumpy milk shakes to complete a set of referents to burger drive-ins past. But they haunt a slick, dark bar with an extensive beer list, two custom wines, and "classic" cocktails such as negronis and sazeracs denatured with rocks and blasphemously sugared around the rims. Nelson and Simone wouldn't be caught dead drinking those. —Mike Sula

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