Like all great cities, eating and drinking in Chicago is a dual proposition. While the likes of Alinea, Moto, and Green Zebra ping away at culinary pleasure sensors, the city’s midwest soul food circuits beckon. I developed my own ritual patterns for Chicago’s simpler local eating more than twenty years ago, always making sure to integrate pilgrimages to Sam’s Wines & Spirits. Chicago’s best pizza, hot dogs, and ribs learned to live side by side with Sam’s vinous bounties inside a city honoring BYOB far better than my current hometown (read: prohibition village); Boston. This past weekend we revisited two old time favorites, a new twist on hot dogs, and a metamorphic iteration of Chicago’s old time retail wine mecca.
Back in the day, Sam’s Wines & Spirits was a smaller Lincoln Park shop on North Avenue with a treasure trove of end bins that brought civilized wine collectors to their knees, crawling around floors laden with dusty wood crates in search of a few buried prize bottles at ridiculous discounts. Then, Sam’s moved a few blocks away to larger, more modern retail space. With serious selection and depth in all formats of Bordeaux, Rhone, and California wines, among others, the shopping experience became more comfortable and less geeky. Competitive pricing accompanied vast selection.
Involving a long sad story of family disagreements and serious miscalculations, the Rosen family consolidated ownership under brother Brian, who turned around to sell majority interest to local private equity firm Arbor. Things went bad with that expansion plan and deal. It brought Sam’s to it’s knees, ending up in a sale of it’s locations to Binny’s in 2009, a local big box wine retailer busily scooping up local wine shops and outfitting them in shiny new Binny’s branding. It was a sad moment in Chicago wine retailing history and I had not been able to convince myself to pay a visit to the old Sam’s, current Binny’s, until this weekend. Three important notes on that visit:
- Selection is still vast, especially California, Rhone, and Bordeaux. Format variety is robust and prices are competitive. A glass front, temperature controlled cellar full of classics is on display at the back of the store. Staff is friendly and courteous. But the place, just like in the Sam’s era when it departed from the retailing practices that once made it legendary, feels boxy and antiseptic. If you can get beyond nostalgic remorse, it lives on as a dynamite Lincoln Park wine retail spot, on the way to or from the airport or your favorite BYOB.
- Turns out that last year the Rosen’s got back into the game as active consultants to Chicago start up Evolution Wines & Spirits in Northbrook, Ill. Regional expansion plans exist and hopefully the Rosen’s will remember what originally made them successful. I couldn’t get there this trip, but a visit to Evolution is firmly on my next Chicago agenda.
- I picked up some of the newly arrived 2010 Chateau Pesquie Terrasses for $13. More on that in a moment.
I really like pork ribs and these are my favorite. They are slow cooked, moderately sauced, not smoked. The meat falls off the bone; not the least bit of exaggeration. Twin Anchors has been operating since 1932 and the ribs beat anything I have ever eaten in Kansas City, St. Louis, or Memphis. It’s probably worth sticking with classic Zesty sauce, even though there’s a new Prohibition sauce now that adds more heat. Since they’ll load your table with deep bowls of any sauces you want, try both out for yourself. While Twin Anchors is an institution, it’s nothing more than a simple, local Old Town neighborhood bar scene, nothing fancy at all, positively no dancing, a decent beer list, and a $10 corkage fee.
That’s right, a bar with the best ribs in the world and proprietors more than happy to let you pop the cork on any wine you want to bring from home, or in my case, Sam’s (woops, Binny’s). You can’t be too fancy with ribs (leave the ’45 Petrus home), but the Zesty sauce is restrained enough to not overwhelm young wines. I have popped new vintage Bordeaux, massive young California Cabs, and newly released Rhones inside this bar since the mid-eighties, washing down full racks of pork ribs that melt in your mouth. It’s been a hedonistic ritual that I fully recommend.
I have been waiting for the 2010 Chateau Pesquie Terrasses to show up. Chateau Pesquie was an early player in the Cote du Ventoux, getting in at the establishment of the appellation in the early 70′s. While production is large, the wine is a ridiculous and intense value at $13-15. While some vintages can be stylistically modern, chewy, and fruity, the region’s terroir is mostly present in this primarily grenache and secondarily syrah blend (70%/30% in 2010). I have been curious about the 2010 ever since Parker awarded it 94 points, favoring it over Pesquie’s 2009 luxury cuvee Quintessence.
It’s stunning and Parker is on point here. Fully reflecting the scorched earth of the Provencal region’s heated terraced vineyards, full of the aromatic wafts associated with its local wild herbs baking in mid day sunshine, the dark purple wine is so pretty and elegant in your mouth, showing tremendous rich cherry grenache fruit and sweet floral notes. It is a complete and multi faceted wine of classy flavors and intensity without being overwhelming or in your face. It might remind you of $100 Chateauneuf du Pape. How amazing is it that a large production bottling can deliver such a stunning wine for $15 or less. This is the kind of reference point value European wine I think about when I bemoan the lack of quality and value in California wine production. Buying a case of 2010 Chateau Pesquie Terrasses will most likely be one of my top recommendations this year for sensible wine appreciation. Opening it at Twin Anchors for Sunday lunch with a full slab of ribs and bowl of Zesty sauce can not be underestimated.
Pizza and Hot Dogs
I tried one new spot for dogs and returned to a favorite deep dish haunt on this trip. I can fully recommend The Art of Pizza; an easy quick drive from Wrigley Field. It’s a simple spot in a small strip mall. While the strip mall looks are deceiving, the deep dish pizza is mind blowing. For me, raised on Brooklyn’s best pizza, deep dish is all about crust and sauce just like Sicilian pies back home. Here, the sauce is sweet, light, and pure tomato joy. The crust is crisp on the bottom, and light and doughy throughout. I tried the sausage and cheese stuffed version. It is ethereal. I couldn’t eat more than a slice, but will hang onto its memory until my next visit to Chicago. Very highly recommended.
At Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, you will be hard pressed to find a traditional Chicago dog experience. But what better city to try “Dawgs Gone Wild”? The Chicagoesque dog will remind you of traditional local renditions, but cranks it to a new level. I don’t prefer it over the real thing, but it is a mighty rewarding dog experience. It has all the usual toppings, but takes it to a gourmet level, if you will. We also tried the Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese dog, and it is decadent. But that’s what you come her for, along with another BYOB policy that allows you to wash down your dog and must-try Tripple Truffle Fries with more Chateau Pesquie from, ok, Binny’s.
See how easy it is to forget about obsessing over an Alinea reservation?