Sweet Mandy B's

by Steven Behling


The time has come to close the Chicago chapter of NOSHology, at least for now.  And what better way to say goodbye than with a slice of something smothered in buttercream frosting...the kind that doesn't leave a Crisco-like film inside your mouth and cause your teeth to ache.  The kind of buttercream that fills the swimming pools of your dreams, into which you dive and burst forth in a shower of rainbow sprinkles.  The kind of buttercream frosting I've only ever had at Sweet Mandy B's.  

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I can honestly say that Sweet Mandy B's is responsible for at least 15 of the 30 pounds I gained during graduate school.  Situated just down the street from DePaul University's Lincoln Park campus, this one-of-a-kind bakery features ample seating and a little step upon which your ill-mannered children can climb and plant their faces and palms directly on the glass display, showcasing row after row of sweet treats.  Over the course of the five years I lived in Chicago, I can't count how many times I walked down Webster Avenue for a cupcake or two...or six.  I celebrated more than one birthday and drowned countless sorrows at Sweet Mandy B's, and would likely be celebrating/drowning many more if I still lived in the Windy City. 

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When it came time to plan my week-long celebration of graduating with a PhD in clinical child psychology during the summer of 2010, I called Sweet Mandy B's to order a simple-yet-glorious chocolate cake with...you guessed it...buttercream icing.  

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When the time came to commemorate my friend Rachel's completion of all the many cumbersome requirements for licensure in psychology, who do you think I called? Sweet Mandy B's.  

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When the time comes for me to order a wedding cake, who'm I gonna call? SWEET MANDY B's.  I'm also going to try to order a whoopie pie, even though they don't make them anymore.  

Sweet Mandy B's is located at 1208 W Webster Ave in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.  It's also located in my dreams, but those are harder for you to access. 


Xoco

by Steven Behling


My friend Lauren's wedding wasn't the only reason for my trip to Chicago in May 2013. Approximately eight years earlier, I was in my first year of graduate school and received an enthusiastic email from a girl named Rachel. My graduate program matched second year students with first years in a mentorship role, and Rachel had just been matched with me. In her message, she expressed profound excitement to begin her studies at DePaul that upcoming fall, and was eager for advice on how to best prepare. My response included the following excerpt:

"...your primary task RIGHT NOW is to relax and enjoy yourself. Do fun things and don't think about grad school...you're in already so just chill for a bit before you jump into the swirling black hole that is grad school."

Over the following eight years, Rachel and I developed the kind of relationship that only mutual suffering, confusion, frustration, despair and, ultimately, triumph over evil can bring. Early May 2013 brought not only a return to my beloved Chicago, but also Rachel's final step in becoming a licensed psychologist: 225 questions answered over the course of 240 minutes covering every aspect of the field of psychology, regardless of the questions' relevance to the actual practice of psychology, formally known as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). You see, it's not enough to obtain a doctorate in psychology and accrue thousands of hours of supervised experience. One must also jump through the flaming hoop of multiple-choice standardized assessment in order to become properly licensed.

Rachel arrived at the restaurant on the verge of tears, which is a typical response after being ravaged and cast aside by the EPPP.  Nearly everyone I know has walked out of the exam thinking, "That's it.  I've failed.  Everything I ever thought I knew isn't enough.  It's all been a lie."  Then, weeks later, nearly everyone finds out that yes, they did indeed pass.  Fortunately for Rachel (and for me and her husband Justin), we had chosen Rick Bayless's counter-service Mexican wonderland, Xoco, as our meeting place post-exam.  I had dined at Bayless's Frontera Grill, with dessert from the upscale Topolobampo, once in 2004 when my sister and brother-in-law were visiting Chicago, but alas...until Xoco, his masterful representation of Mexican cuisine was beyond the reach of a graduate student's budget.  

After noting Bayless's presence near the front of house, I ordered a cochinita pibil torta with tender, wood-roasted suckling pig in achiote, creamy black beans, & pickled onions on a crusty roll perfect for dipping in a burning hot habanero sauce.  Perfection on a plate, photographed in a darker area of the space and subjected to an Instagram filter I was particularly fond of at the time.

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Crispy-yet-doughy, sugary churros dipped in melty Champurrado hot chocolate (of which we did not waste a drop), followed our respective meals.  The coarseness of the sugar balanced out the hot, doughy interior of the cinammony churro, and the hot chocolate was less Swiss Miss and more "thank you, miss."  Liquid chocolate would have been a better description.

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Trips back to Chicago are now dictated by jam-packed (pun intended) food itineraries, and there simply isn't time to stop at the same place twice.  Although this may surprise many readers, my stomach does reach capacity at some point.  Nevertheless, after Lauren's wedding and before the reception, I found myself both peckish and down the street from the Bayless block (North Clark Street between Illinois and Hubbard).  Again, he was physically present throughout the restaurant, overseeing the various operations and working the line.  The positive impact of his presence was felt in many ways, not the least of which was my bowl of wood-roasted chicken pozolé with Gunthorp chicken, tender hominy, smoky broth, crunchy cabbage and crisp radishes, a generous amount of ground red chile, and a squeeze of lime.  Not since I lived and worked among the migrant farm workers of central Washington State had I tasted the familiar flavors of a rich and satisfying bowl of pozolé.

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I can still taste it.

Xoco is located at 449 N Clark Street in the River North neighborhood of Chicago.  A cursory search of teh Interwebs reveals a second location at 1741 N Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park, just down the street from my old apartment.  I never should have moved.


Hot Doug's [CLOSED]

by Steven Behling


It seems as though NOSHology, conceptualized as a place where friends and family can "virtually" join me at the table for a delicious meal, or perhaps in the kitchen for an experiment in cooking, or maybe in the theatre for a screening of a food-related film, is turning into an online memorial of sorts for eateries long since shuttered, including Katsu Burger (thankfully re-opened), La Bête, and Frog N Snail.  Either I have very esoteric tastes or the restaurant industry is more transient than I once thought it to be.  Regardless, let us take a moment to "pour one out" for Hot Doug's.

This Avondale homage to encased meats led hungry patron after hungry patron to willingly wait in line for hours for a chance to wrap their lips around gourmet sausages created in-house by wildly popular charcuterie czar, Doug Sohn.  Some went so far as to tattoo themselves to proclaim their love for Sohn and his creations.  The regular menu at Hot Doug's was filled with affordable and tasty staples with periodically-changing names based on current pop culture and references to Chicago's history and people, with multiple gourmet options on rotation detailed on the Today's Specials board.  You even got to choose how your sausage was prepared: steamed, grilled, deep fried, or fried AND grilled.

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I'll never forget the summer of 2008 when my friend Lindsey and I were rewarded for our patience with an antelope sausage with blackberry crème fraîche and goat cheese.  We also enjoyed a smoked debreziner with bacon-garlic mayonnaise and smoked gouda and a traditional Chicago Dog.  For all you newbies out there, that means an all-beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun with mustard (NO KETCHUP!), raw chopped onion, toxic-sludge-green sweet pickle relish, a tart dill pickle spear, slices of tomato, pickled sport peppers, and a pinch of celery salt. 

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It's no surprise that when I was planning my week-long celebration of finally completing my PhD, Hot Doug's was one of the stops on my food tour of Chicago.  Hey look!  My double chin is so adorably pinchable!  Say what you will about the recent rise of the lumbersexual, but I must endorse the effectiveness of my current beard on downplaying my pudge.

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When my mother and Uncle Rob rolled into Hot Doug's, we picked up some Chicago Dogs, duck fat fries (available on Friday & Saturday only) and an über-rich foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse, and sel gris.  Yeah, I know how foie gras is made.  You don't have to tell me.  No, I'd never had it before, and I've not had it since.  I ate it purely out of spite.  Ain't no city council gonna tell me what I can and cannot eat.  Little did I know, this visit would be the last I would ever make to Hot Doug's.  In May of 2014, Sohn announced that he would be closing his iconic restaurant forever.

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Unlike the other NOSHology entries for now-defunct eateries, this one has a self-directed and happy ending...at least for the chef/owner, if not for the general public: Sohn simply wanted to direct his creative energy toward something else.  Coverage from the local news media on the day of Doug's announcement and leading up to his last day on October 3rd, 2014, reflects the love and appreciation Chicagoans and out-of-towners have for Sohn and his work.  Fare thee well, Emperor of Encased Meats.

Buy Hot Doug's: The Book here.  It doesn't taste as good as the real deal, but it's all we have left.

 


The Bongo Room

by Steven Behling


True to form, my tribute to the city of Chicago and the food that got me through graduate school is taking longer to complete than promised...much like the graduate school experience itself.  October 2014 was a crazy month with some rather tough stuff in it, but here we are in November and I'm hungry to continue celebrating some of my favorite Chicago eateries. 

The Bongo Room.  Photos simply do not do justice to the decadence that is brunch at The Bongo Room.  Very few photos exist of my many trips to this fine establishment, mostly because I could not wait another moment to take in the fluffiest pancakes coated in crushed pretzels and drizzled with chocolate and bananas, or perhaps an aromatic vanilla crème anglaise and ribbons of salted caramel, or maybe a dusting of graham cracker and webs of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla sauces with fresh strawberries dancing in a Neapolitan wonderland.  If you play your cards right, you might happen upon said pancakes topped with crushed candied praline and buttery hazelnut cream.  I could go on and on.  And on.

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Pancakes not your thing?  No prob.  How 'bout their chocolate tower French toast?  Bittersweet chocolate chunk bread with maple mascarpone (did someone say autumn?), banana crème brûlée sauce (what?!), fresh bananas and a little chocolate tulip plus chocolate shavings on top. #becausechocolate

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I suggest going with a friend and ordering one sweet, one savory, and splitting them amongst yourselves.  My favorite savory has always been their baby spinach, roasted red pepper, and feta Benedict, shown photobombing the chocolate tower French toast above.  That Benedict is such a ham.

The Bongo Room has three Chicago locations: 1470 N Milwaukee in Wicker Park (check out the ceiling fans!), 5022 N Clark in Andersonville (perhaps the most seating of the three), and the original South Loop location at 1152 S Wabash.


Toast

by Steven Behling


Mascarpone-stuffed French toast, lightly dusted with powdered sugar and served with seasonal berries.  Shh.  Don't say another word.  Nobody likes it when you talk with your mouth full.

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Toast has locations in two Chicago neighborhoods: 746 W Webster Ave in Lincoln Park & 2046 N Damen Ave in Bucktown.


Green Tea Japanese Restaurant

by Steven Behling


During my first year of college, I worked in a bookstore with this girl named Courtney.  Oh, Courtney.  How did I feel about Courtney?  Perhaps the Jets said it best:

During a particularly slow day in the store, Courtney and I got to talking and she appeared incredulous when I told her that I'd never had sushi.  "Wait, never?!  You've never even had a California roll?" she asked.  "No," I responded, "but would you like to be there for my first time?"  IT WAS A DATE, one proposed with only a moderate amount of innuendo.  

Courtney was there the first time I ate sushi, and I'm glad, because to the outside observer, deciding to take raw fish and rice, wrap it up in dried seaweed, and actively choose to put it in your mouth seems wrong.  Sadly, Courtney and I never ended up together, but that's okay, because the real star of that evening, sushi, is now my main squeeze.  Sushi and I hang out all the time, and when I'm feeling lonely or upset, sushi is always there to help me feel better.  Thanks, sushi.  

A few months after I moved to Chicago, Sara, one of the students in my cohort, introduced me to what would become my favorite sushi spot in town: Green Tea.  A tiny, inconspicuous spot along Clark Street just north of Webster, Green Tea was within walking distance from DePaul's Lincoln Park campus...plus they delivered (to many a team meeting during my time there).  Green Tea was where I and a few of my friends went to celebrate my 28th birthday (after the Harry Potter Exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry and before going to Sweet Mandy B's for cupcakes), and even though we had to wait for nearly two hours due to the minuscule amount of seating (four tables and the sushi bar), it definitely made for a very happy birthday.  Green Tea was where I took my friend Brett and his wife Janeen when they came to visit, and they loved it.  Green Tea was the last place I ate before departing Chicago, and is a must whenever I visit.   One of the best parts about dining there is that when you grab your coat and head out the door a satisfied customer, the staff stop whatever they are doing and shout, "See you tomorrow!"

When you've got some time, and a hankering for deliciously fresh sushi, head on over to Green Tea.  My favorites are the Chicago Spicy Crazy roll, the spicy scallop roll, and the "special" Dai Shiro Maguro roll.  The Chicago Spicy Crazy roll is composed of tuna, salmon, whitefish, white tuna, spicy sauce, avocado, and cucumber shaped into a giant triangle and rolled in red tobiko.  It's a big maki, so you probably only need to order this if you're by yourself.  But c'mon...it's SUSHI.  Get more.

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The Dai Shiro Maguro roll isn't on the main menu.  If you're lucky, your table has a soy sauce-stained little placard announcing the tastiest roll ever: seared superwhite tuna on top of a shrimp tempura avocado cucumber roll, garnished with a colorful assortment of tobiko and a touch of homemade special soy sauce.  Simple, understated perfection.

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Green Tea is located at 2206 N Clark St in Chicago, Illinois.


Firecakes Donuts

by Steven Behling


Weddings make me hungry.  Possibly because I eat my feelings, and weddings, as much as I enjoy the celebration of loved ones making a commitment to cherish and honor one another, also remind me that I am alone.  So alone.  More doughnuts, please.

On my way to my dear friend Lauren's wedding in the spring of 2013, I had exactly 15 minutes between getting off the red line at Grand and the first chords of the processional music.  Just enough time to stop in at Firecakes Donuts, take a photo, eat a fluffy lemon verbena meringue Firecake the size of my head, straighten my tie, and walk in to Assumption Roman Catholic Church with six minutes to spare.   

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There's always time for doughnuts.

Firecakes Donuts is located at 68 W Hubbard St in Chicago, Illinois. 


¡Bang Bang! Pie & Biscuits

by Steven Behling


On a sunny Sunday afternoon in May of 2013, I was catching up with my friend Amber and was feeling peckish.  She suggested a little (then up-and-coming) spot down the street, ¡Bang Bang! Pie & Biscuits.  It was toward the end of the day, so the selection was a bit sparse, but I settled on their silky smooth Kentucky Mud Pie with a chewy honey graham crust and fresh whipped cream...and I'm so glad I did.  Next time I'm in the neighborhood, I'm stopping by when ¡Bang Bang! opens and will have myself a one-person pie-eating contest. #winning

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¡Bang Bang! Pie & Biscuits is located at 2051 N California Ave in Chicago, Illinois.


Frog N Snail [CLOSED]

by Steven Behling


I admit it.  I'm a big fan of Top Chef.  Although I've never been a reality television supporter, something about [variably] delicious food prepared in the pressure cooker of competition and ingredient sabotage keeps me glued to the television.  During my visit to Chicago the spring before last, I stopped by Top Chef Miami finalist Dale Levitski's Frog N Snail on the morning of my friend's wedding for a delicious start to the day.  While I was waiting for my breakfast to arrive, I sipped silently on a velvety milk chocolate violet steamer and contemplated what unique finds I might discover at Foursided, one of my favorite shops in Lakeview that offers framing, unique cards, and little bits of this and that (all of which you need).  

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Post-steamer, I enjoyed the rabbit dumpling hash with salty truffle dumplings, tender braised rabbit, garden fresh asparagus and peas, smooth "broccoli n cauliflower" purée, and preserved lemon jus.  Gorgeous!

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Just when I thought my meal was complete, Dale himself stopped by to see how I liked it.  What?!  This is what my Top Chef obsession has turned me into: one of those guys who asks for a photograph.

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It was glorious.  Sadly, Frog N Snail, along with Levitski's other Chicago venture, Sprout, are both closed now.  You can still enjoy Dale's haute cuisine if you're willing to drive for seven hours down I-65 from Chicago to Nashville to arrive at his newest venture, Sinema, located at 2600 Franklin Pike, Suite 102.  I'm pretty sure you should.


Tank Noodle

by Steven Behling


I've often wished that I could pick up Chicago and set it down on top of the hills of Seattle, being careful to preserve the architecture and people of both cities, ultimately ending up with a Pacific Northwest weather pattern with a Windy City + Pike Place Market feel.  Unfortunately, doing so would change the Chicago culture, at least with respect to the way the city comes alive in the summertime.  Seattleites are, of course, glad to see sunny blue skies after months of grey darkness, but temperature-wise, we only have about a 20-30°F difference between our average summer and winter temps.  Contrast that with Chicago's 50°F differential, with temperatures exceeding that shift depending on the day.  I remember the first summer I was in Chicago, a friend from Washington State came to visit, and the weather was 119°F with humidity.  Ugh. UGH.  I also recall going to a Super Bowl XLI party in February 2007 to cheer on "Da Bears" and it was -40°F with the wind chill.  Unacceptable.  I was so appalled, I may have taken a photo of my computer screen with the foreboding forecast, which proved too generous on the actual day.

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Sometimes the Chicago River freezes.  THE RIVER FREEZES.  Unacceptable.

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It was on an unusually crisp, almost wintry autumn morning that I flew back to Chicago from Southern California where I was doing my final year of clinical training.  I was in town to defend my dissertation, and the stress of all that was going on at the time nuked my immune system.  Thanks to the passenger in seat 12A on my LAX to ORD flight, I was the recipient of a burgeoning head cold that would have seriously thrown a damper on my dissertation defense had it reached full capacity.  Luckily, my friends Rachel and Justin knew the perfect remedy, and took me down the street to Tank Noodle for some phở.  I'd never had this Vietnamese soup before, yet its anise-and-cinnamon-infused fragrant beef marrow broth, bounteous rice noodles, thinly-sliced sirloin and onions, with a side plate of add-your-own jalapeños, mung bean sprouts, lime, cilantro, saw-leaf and basil was just the thing I needed to obliterate the cold and send me on my way to a successful defense.  Tank Noodle, you'll always be my first, and nobody can change that.  Nobody.

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After a frigid, cruel winter in Chicago, restaurants open up their sidewalk seating, the palm trees that were "put away" for the winter are re-planted at Oak Street Beach for the summer months, and nobody seems to mind that the heat and humidity cause their nether regions to stick to the insides of their legs. But it doesn't matter what the weather looks like...there is always room for phở.

Tank Noodle is located at 4953-55 N Broadway in Chicago, Illinois.


Ann Sather

by Steven Behling


One of the first places I fell in love with after moving to Chicago in the autumn of 2004 was a little place just around the corner on Broadway off Roscoe (and also down the street, by the Belmont El stop) that served the gooiest, sweetest, frostingest cinnamon rolls this side of Scandinavia: Ann Sather.  This Swedish-inspired breakfast and lunch spot delivered reliably delicious offerings the many times I stopped in over the years, but the one thing I always went for was a[t least one] cinnamon roll.  Hey, they come with your breakfast entrée.  How can you not?  On more than one occasion, I stopped by the Belmont Ave location and picked up a dozen (extra frosting please!) on my way to campus for a meeting; take note...dry research meetings are made better with gooey frosting.  Always.

Also, if you're headed to Seattle from Chicago, note that Ann Sather's cinnamon rolls travel fairly well, at least within the day.  Message me for my address.  I'll stay up late for you.  

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Ann Sather's flagship restaurant is located at 909 W Belmont Ave in Chicago, Illinois, next to the Belmont El stop.  They can also be found at 3145 N Broadway St and 1147 W Granville St.