Put on Your Lao Cap: Lao Hunan

For those of you who didn’t know, Mao was from Hunan and Lao Hunan connects to that history in some not-at-all subtle ways.  First, (and I’m not sure if this is a bad translation, similar to the Simpson’s episode with the alien cookbook) the restaurants mantra is “Serving People.”  Second, and even more overt, are the Red Army military uniforms donned by the servers.  I can’t honestly say it’s the most comforting environment.

The food, however, is unique and very tasty.  There are some things to keep in mind, though.  Sze Chaun tends to have the “super-spicy” reputation among the provincial dining options, but Hunan dishes can have just as much or more spice than the Sze Chuan options.  In the case of the dishes preferred by Mao himself, they also tend to be pretty greasy.  The biography of Mao that his doctor wrote said that he tended to have much richer tastes than the vast majority of his countrymen.  The “Chairman Mao’s Favorite Pork Belly” definitely falls in this category.  So, when venturing towards dining here MAKE SURE to order a vegetable dish or two.  The amount of meat in most the dishes can be staggering even for the dedicated carnivore.

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Dumplings and Spicy Highlights: Lao Shanghai

A pretty common conversation with someone who is kind of into food and wants to have their first meal in Chinatown goes like this:

First timer: Where should I go in Chinatown?

Friend (who’s been to Chinatown a couple times): Definitely go to Lao Sze Chuan.  It’s like the first place that pops up when you do a google search on Chinatown.  The food is really neat, but watch out, it can be spicy!

First timer:  Sounds great!  I’ll take my 7 friends and go there this Friday at 7:00.

Herein lies the problem.  Lao Sze Chuan is pretty darn good and there are some awesome dishes on the menu.  However, it is always a zoo and the inside of the place is just ok.  If you go there on a weekend at a normal dining time, good luck getting a table.

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In Da’ (Prime) House

Rest assured, that’s a Bears “Da'” not a random way to start a beer commercial.

One of the most common Chicago debates is about steakhouses.  It seems that almost everyone you ask will have a different favorite in the city, and that any given spot can inspire high praise or serious disdain depending on who you ask.  I’ve heard plenty of people say that Gene and Georgetti’s is the best steakhouse of all time (“unique and homey”), and just as many say that it’s the worst (“if you’re not a regular, they couldn’t care less about you”).  Because the steakhouses are fairly diverse in their approaches to cooking and (a little less so) their ambiance, this isn’t a big surprise.  Given all of this, it’s important to weigh your own preferences when considering steakhouses.

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Bug-Eyed in Bucktown and Wicker Park #7: Buzz: Killer Espresso

As I have been working my way through the coffee scene in Bucktown and Wicker Park, I have (purely through luck in timing) been able to witness a little bit of a revolution in how coffee is being served and produced in the neighborhood.  Fairly recently, three new coffee outlets have made it to WPB and are pushing past the standard “cafe that serves drip coffee and espresso drinks” model that has become so common.  For instance, Caffe Streets does those things but also sources all kinds of different coffee styles for pour-overs (a method of brewing by pouring hot water over grounds in a filter by hand) that really accentuate the differences in the coffee flavors.  Cafe Ipsento does this as well, but even goes farther by roasting its coffee varietals on site.

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Sports Nerd Posts #1: Why I’m Not Afraid of Peyton Manning to the Broncos

I am, and always will be a Kansas City Chiefs fan.  I like seeing the Bears win because I live in Chicago and it’s a much more pleasant place when the local team is winning and the majority of my social circle consists of Bears fans.  However, it’s the Chiefs that keep me interested all year around and it’s the Broncos who are my least favorite team in the league.  Sure, we have the Raider Haters all over Chiefs Nation, but the Broncos are the team that seems to beat us when we are at our best and ruin our better seasons.  Let’s face it, the Raiders have been a complete joke for over a decade.

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Own Your Neighborhood Guide #3: A View to a Lake (That’s How James Bond Says Lakeview)

Terribly out-of-date movie references aside, Lakeview is a little bit of a misnomer.  You can live in Lakeview and have a view of Lake Michigan, but the odds are that if you live in this neighborhood, you don’t have a view of the lake.  One could argue that a lot of the neighborhoods in the city are somewhat misleading (how many people in Lincoln Park actually live anywhere near the park?)  So, let’s switch our focus to the vast array of offerings in Lakeview.  Before we do, here’s a link to a map that defines the boundaries of the neighborhood:

http://explorechicago.org/city/en/neighborhoods/lakeview.html

Lakeview is a very interesting neighborhood as there is quite a cross-section of cultural norms.  The city’s non-stop frat party (Wrigleyville) is just a few blocks from one of the biggest alternative lifestyle sub-neighborhoods in the country (Boystown).  Both of those areas and the rest of the neighborhood are dotted with all kinds of restaurants and cultural attractions.  Here are some of my favorites:

1. The obvious place for a sports fan to go: Wrigley Field

There is something special about it (by “it” I mean the Field, not the Cubs) that’s hard to describe.  One definitely gets a sense of history and time seems to stand still.  For a sports purist (like me) it’s nice to go to a game that doesn’t have all the hoopla around.  Cubs games stand in very stark contrast to Bulls games.  At Bulls games, it seems like the game gets in the way of all the other stuff going on (Bulls crowds get loudest when the t-shirt gunners come out, then they quiet down for important parts of the game).  Cubs games are all about baseball (well, and drinking) without the distractions.  It’s one of the few mainstream entertainments out there that requires more than a 5-second attention span.

2. For the avant-garde on a budget: Red Tape Theatre

DNS has been to a few productions here and they were all stunning their own ways.  For the first performance, a custom stage/seating setup was built that put the crowd right in the middle of the actors and stage (it was so immersive that they did not allow bathroom breaks during the show).  The shows are edgy,  inexpensive and very well-done by the ensemble cast.

3. For the hungry/thirsty Theatre goer: Wilde

Wilde is a bar and grill that evokes the literary-style pubs of the British Isles.  The food is very good for bar fare (mac and cheese is a highlight) and the beer list is quite competent.  There is an actual library in Wilde, and it can be a great place to get a meal or to just sit and read as there are multiple areas setup that can accommodate either activity.

4. For whiskey, punk rock, and legends: Delilah’s

It’s a great little bar for those looking for something that’s not just another sports bar.  They have over 400 whiskeys available (and seemingly an inroad with Maker’s Mark), a very good beer selection, and actual pool tables.  Speaking of the pool tables, DNS’s cousin made a no-look (he stared down the opponent instead of looking at the table), one-handed, from-the-hip game-winning shot at Delilah’s.  Every game of pool through eternity will be a letdown after that.

5. For food network junkies: DMK Burger Bar

Just about every neighborhood in Chicago has a burger place of note.  Burger bars are the trend du jour (that’s the trend of the day) in Chicago.  DMK was relatively early on the burger bar train, and they make some pretty interesting burgers due to the ingredients.  However, the quality of the burgers underneath it all could use some work.  Their selection of fries is pretty impressive, though and the beer selection is well-thought-out.

6. For those who think a rock star should be able to play an instrument: Chicago Music Exchange

This has to be one of the most awesome guitar stores in the world.  The selection is dazzling and they stock vintage instruments that just aren’t found anywhere else.  If you like guitars and you are in Chicago, this is a must-see.

7. For a really early meal (or really late, depending on your outlook): Salt & Pepper Diner

This seems to be a staple for breakfast (or post bar crawl) diner food in Wrigleyville.  It’s exactly what you expect out of a diner: cheap, hearty and not too creative.

8. For European snootiness in an American setting: Julius Meinl

Of course it makes sense that there’s a coffee place that’s mostly in Austria having a spot a couple blocks from Wrigley field.  I think that with Theo’s new contract, he may start getting spotted here instead of Starbuck’s.  All kidding aside, there is a decidedly snooty vibe here, but the coffee and food are top-notch.

9. To recreate a scene from Beerfest: Uberstein

The name pretty much describes what you are going to get here.  German beer by the liter and bar food with a German slant.  It’s also a surprisingly good setup for football as they have all the NFL games.

10. For South American cuisine on the North Side: Tango Sur

Tango Sur is a very good South American steakhouse that has all the expected choices: Parilladas (mixed grilled items), steaks, chimichurri (parsley, olive oil and garlic sauce), and hearty sides.  It’s a different experience from your “normal” Chicago steakhouse.

Now it’s time to switch gears and discuss the real estate trends in Lakeview.  The prevailing view is that, just like Hansel, real estate in Lakeview is “So hot right now.”  Let’s see if that notion holds up to some analysis of the pricing trends.

Over the last couple of years, Lakeview has seen some price declines (which is not surprising given the overall real estate market), but most of this decline is seen in distressed properties with 2 bedrooms or less.  Traditional sales (meaning sales that are not Short Sales or Foreclosures) have actually held up fairly well.  This puts Lakeview in a similar category with Lincoln Park.  It is quite stable.

The particular situation in Lakeview is emblematic of what we are seeing around the country.  Housing in great locations with good amenities are not losing value in the “down” market.  Lakeview has very easy access to public transportation and is very walkable.  In a city with a lot of traffic (and $4 gasoline), these attributes are important.

If you are thinking about buying in Lakeview, you can feel relatively confident that your home will hold up in value.  On the other hand, the market is well aware of this so you are not likely to end up making the deal of the century.  However, if you are one of the ever-hopeful Cubs fans out there, maybe Theo Epstein can get land values to skyrocket in the neighborhood (as well as provide a World Series showing).

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Bug-Eyed in Bucktown and Wicker Park #6: The Map Room

Wicker Park and Bucktown arguably have the best neighborhood selection of coffee places in Chicago.  Options abound from the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts/Starbucks (they don’t deserve a spot in this review because plenty has been written about both of these places) to one of the only outposts in the midwest (Bagel on Damen) that has the much revered Stumptown coffee.

Here is a rundown of what’s out there and what each brings to the table for today’s discerning coffee drinker and/or anyone that’s ready to break away from the bigger names in coffee.  This tour is necessary because those unfamiliar with the neighborhood may not be aware that the place with the best drip coffee (for me, Bagel on Damen) doesn’t have any kind of cappucino to offer.  The ins and outs of the local establishments are, for lack of a better word, kind of complex.

Today’s entry: The Map Room, 1949 N Hoyne, Chicago, IL

Who knew that one of the best places to grab a craft beer (and not just in Chicago, but probably in the country) is also a good place to get a coffee and pastries in the morning?  Well, I’m guessing a number of people in the neighborhood do.  In any case, there are some very good reasons to hit Map Room in the morning.  So, let’s get to it.

Map room is located just a bit west of Damen on Armitage, and unlike a lot of good Chicago hang-outs, there is plenty of free street parking.  Additionally, the crowd in the morning tends to be fairly spartan allowing for a nice atmosphere to get things accomplished.  Also, they keep it local by serving Intelligentsia, which I respect.

On a Saturday morning, there are plenty of spaces and tables to get things done.

Their drip coffee has been quite good.  In fact, I like it better than some of the other places who also serve Intelligentsia.  This gives me evidence that they take some care in making it.  For espresso drinks, there is a pretty standard set that is well done and at very reasonable prices.  I have had particularly good cappuccino there.  Map Room also serves chai, hot tea (loose leaf, done in a steeping bag), pastries and sandwiches.

Overall, it’s a solid place to get a good coffee and enjoy the atmosphere at particularly good prices given the neighborhood.  Plus, this place can get very crowded during beer serving hours (starting at 11:00 am) and getting coffee might be your best bet to make sure you have a seat when the taps get cranked up later in the day.

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