Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Free Parking in Streeterville

Update: As of August 17, 2010, city parking authorities have not corrected the problem, 7 months after I first posted on this topic and 9 months since these free parking spaces became available. Based on continual use of these spaces--and parking spaces in Streeterville are precious indeed--the city has already missed out on $79,000 in revenue, and counting. (9 spaces x 13 hours x 2.50/hr. x 270 days) And we wonder why our city is flat broke.

That’s right. For 9 lucky parkers, the morass of out-sourced 75 year parking contracts, sky-rocketing hourly rates and finicky meters don’t exist. What could be the source of this tiny oasis in a city where downtown parking costs more than New York? Simple bureaucratic incompetence, of course. When the Streeter Place apartments recently opened, it appears the city—or is it Chicago Parking Meters, LLC?—didn’t get the memo.

So, anyone heading down around the Mag Mile/Navy Pier area should take a spin along the west side of McClurg between Grand and Ohio. If you’re parking karma is properly aligned, you just might snag one of the premier free spots in town.

X Marks the Spot.

It won’t last forever, but the free parking has been available for over 2 months now, and counting. And if you do get a space, maybe you should invest some of the money you saved on a lottery ticket or two.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ghost Ads Part I

Restaurants come and go, but sometimes their signs remain.

Rushmore tried and failed to make a go of it beneath the L tracks off Randolph Street's restaurant row. After Rushmore, there was Addiction Sports Bar also defunct. As the site prepares for its 3rd incarnation, I snapped the following pic before the last sign (literally) of Rushmore is whitewashed from existence.

Monday, October 12, 2009

O'Leary's Public House

O'Leary's Public House in River North: Any resemblance to the famed Missus, her cow or the Great Chicago Fire are purely coincidental.

Read my full review here: http://bit.ly/PYZYo

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ghost Art Part I

The majority of public art projects are planned, executed and then left to fade away into oblivion.

This is a particularly apt example of this endangered species of art.

Located along a railroad viaduct on Kinzie and Des Plaines in Chicago's River West neighborhood, these images are perhaps even more poignanat than when they were painted 35 years ago.

Hundreds of similar projects exist throughout the city, so please send along any you find.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Paramount Room

"No crap on tap" is a bold claim, but this out of the way River West gastro-pub more than backs it up.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rat Out the Racists

Tattletale. Rat. Stool pigeon. Snitch. Narc. Anyone who’s ever been to kindergarten or seen Goodfellas knows that these are unflattering terms, but in light of recent comments by the Cubs Milton Bradley and apparently backed-up by teammate Derrek Lee, it’s time for Real Cubs fans to take a stand. So, I’ll state it simply: if you definitively hear and see another fan hurling racial insults at any Cub, opposing player or fellow fan at Wrigley Field, grab security and have the idiot thrown out.

Cubs fans are better than this. We get plenty of criticism, some of it deserved, but on the whole we are undoubtedly the loudest, most loyal and hardest partying fans in baseball. Perhaps it was easier to accept the losing when bleacher seats were $6 in the mid 90’s. Now, pay Stub Hub $150 for the same seat and maybe a sense of entitlement comes along with the price tag. That’s no excuse, under any circumstances, to use racial slurs, be generally obnoxious or to toss an over-priced beer at Shane Victorino. This kind of behavior needs to stop—yesterday. Drop a dime, if you hear someone out of line.

Sure, Bradley is an inning-watcher, who “pray[s] the game goes nine innings so I can go out there for the least amount of time as possible and go home”, but we all know people like that at work, especially on Fridays. And sure, it would take 200 years for a hard-working fan earning 50K to match Mr. Bradley’s yearly salary, but he’s human and he has feelings too. If you want to hurt them, please keep your criticism within a constructively destructive framework.

Acceptable Milton Bradley jeers: “Uncle Milty”, “Run of the Milton”, “We miss Sosa.” (also #21) and, of course, a sing-song chorus of “Mil-ton”.

Taunting at baseball games is as American as hot dogs (Germany) and apple pie (England). It is every fan’s obligation to cheer excellence, boo mediocrity and beg for baseballs during batting practice. But, please, when you go to the game, stay classy Chicago.

Friday, July 24, 2009

If you like you’re ale upscale, check out this River North bar & Grill which was designed by Oprah’s favorite interior decorator. How upscale? Does the $19 Kobe beef burger give you an idea? Find out where and check out the review @ the Chicago Bar Project.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

LaSalle Power Company

The “LaSalle Power Company” sounds like the name of a Public Utility. Find out this River North bar/rock club’s Utility to the Public at the Chicago Bar Project.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chicago Bar Project Review: Wabash Tap

If you’re taking the “L” to Soldier Field, Charter One Pavilion or any South Loop attraction, you might consider a stop the Wabash Tap, located between the train station and Michigan Ave. Expect a laid-back neighborhood hangout in an area that wasn’t much of a neighborhood just a few short years ago. Check out the full review at the Chicago Bar Project.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The $180 Free Credit Report

Taking control of your credit is more important than ever. Your credit rating factors into everything from buying a home to finding a job and the credit reporting agencies are looking to capitalize on this new found awareness. Using tactics ranging from fear to catchy jingles, ads touting seemingly “free” credit reports play in heavy rotation on TV and radio. But these “free” reports often come with more strings than a marionette, so a savvy consumer needs to know their options before they end up with services they did not need or intend to buy.
The free credit reports you see advertised all come with automatic enrollment in subscriptions to “credit monitoring” services. These services cost $14.95 a month—for a total of $180 per year—and will continue indefinitely until you cancel.

The value of these credit monitoring services is limited at best. By ordering and reviewing your credit report you are already monitoring your credit, effectively negating the value of the service. And these services can induce a false sense of security leading consumers to think they are fully protected from identity theft. In actuality, these credit monitoring services cannot ensure that your identity won’t be compromised, have limited benefits and come with enough loopholes in the fine print to make a contracts attorney glaze over. Save yourself the expense and the hassle and take matters into your own hands.

Every consumer is entitled to a free annual credit report from the 3 primary credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These reports are excellent sources for finding discrepancies in your credit history and spotting incidents of identity fraud, but do not come with the much hyped FICO score. Knowing your FICO score will give you an idea of the type of credit you may qualify for, no more, no less. Individual credit reports including your FICO score can be purchased for a one-time charge of $15—which still saves you $165/year if you make this an annual habit. If you’re looking to make a major purchase, such as a home or car, you may want to know your FICO score before approaching a lender. Otherwise, you need to consider whether this information is necessary, if your primary goal is to ensure your credit report is accurate and free from irregularities.

It’s to your credit to protect your credit. Just make sure you’re protecting your wallet at the same time.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Chicago International Film Festival

Film buffs and the culturally curious, take note: the 44th annual Chicago International Film Festival is coming October 16-19. The film festival is one of Chicago’s premier events and a showcase for artistic talent from around the globe.

The film festival offers a once-a-year chance to see films that would otherwise never flash on a multiplex screen. The festival, as always, offers a diverse collection of documentaries, feature films and shorts, a mix of the experimental and conventional, retrospectives and new releases. In debunking the notion that the films focus solely on the obscure or the “challenging”, this year’s festival includes Japanese anime, a South Korean western, an Italian-made modern mafia tale and a Swedish coming-of-age vampire story.

Surprisingly to some, the festival also includes a number of American made studio and independent films. Ed Norton and Jon Voight star in the pre-release screening of Pride and Glory. Darren Aronofsky presents The Wrestler, and even someone as unlikely as Jada Pinkett-Smith makes her directorial debut with the independent film The Human Contract. And this just scratches the surface.

If you enjoy movies to any degree, there is a film waiting for you to find it.

Fear no subtitles, and enjoy.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Amazin'" Grace and "Decent" Derrek

Does anyone else have the feeling that Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee has morphed into former fan favorite Mark Grace? On the surface, that’s a complimentary comparison. Mark Grace was a solid hitter, with a career .303 average, a good fielder who earned 4 Gold Gloves and was generally well-liked by his teammates (Sammy Sosa not included.)

The problem is that Derrek Lee is not being paid $13,250,000 a year to hit like an above average first baseman with limited run producing potential. He’s being paid an 8 figure salary to carry a World Series starved team offensively. Among National League first basemen, as of Sept. 3, Derrek Lee is 6th in hitting, 9th in home runs, 9th in RBIs and 10th in slugging percentage. For perspective, Derrek Lee still trails Mark Teixeira in both home runs and RBIs, though Teixeira was traded to the American League’s Los Angeles Angels on July 30th and is unable to add to his National League stats.

If you look at Derrek Lee’s offensive production since his April 2006 wrist injury, the numbers eerily compare with Mark Grace’s from a decade ago. It’s a shame that a fluke play at first over two years ago, when Raphael Furcal barreled into Lee after an errant throw by Scott Eyre, could so alter a career.

As the Cubs make their September playoff push, Derrek Lee somehow has to find a way to put some lift under the ball. It is no small feat to hit .290-.300 for an entire season, but there is no awe in watching a 6’5”, 240lb singles hitter.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rocking on a Wednesday

4 bands, $8, don’t encourage the “bums”. The show took place at Reggie’s Rock Club, an ambitious establishment consisting of a concert hall, restaurant and record store, located in adjacent storefronts at the confluence of the Bronzeville and South Loop neighborhoods. (The aforementioned sign, by the way, is no subtle commentary on our gentrifying city.) Reggie’s serves up a variety of BBQ in its restaurant, the record store specializes in hard to find vinyl and CDs and the music venue caters largely to unsigned bands of all genres. In this day of streaming media, instant downloads, literally thousands of entertainment options and new regulations on concert promoters after the E2 tragedy, opening a new concert venue/record store in the city is no small act of courage.

The concert hall is largely open between the bar and the raised stage, with standing room for perhaps 200. A lofted lounge area, sits to the back of the room, with seats and tables for a few dozen. If the show is crowded, be prepared to stand for the duration. The acoustics are clear enough, though the slab floors and brick walls cause a bit of reverberation. Standing to the side of the stage actually provided better sound than watching the bands head on. Beer selection is standard, the staff is friendly and prices are reasonable. Overall, Reggie’s seems like a promising spot and a welcome addition to the local music scene.

The Chicago-based sextet On We headlined the show, taking the stage at 11:00PM*. On We played a tight 45 minute set of textured, melodic and often catchy original material. On We is fronted by singer Bridget O’Callaghan, whose look evoked an early Bjork and whose voice was vaguely reminiscent of Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Backed by 2 skillful guitarists, bass, keyboards and drums, On We squeezed every ounce of energy out of their performance. Their self-proclaimed “Cold Pop” sound is clean and their songwriting is developed and nuanced. In a city teeming with local acts of all descriptions, On We seems to be a highly marketable product that is refreshingly different from the norm.

*Is 11:00PM too late to start a mid-week concert? (I once saw Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes perform at 2:00 AM in Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood, but that was on a weekend and I was on vacation.) Not everyone who enjoys live music has the interest in, or the stamina for, the bar scene. Unless it’s an affront to their Rock & Roll sensibilities, a 10:00 start for the last act on weeknights might just increase attendance for Reggie’s and other music clubs throughout the city.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Garfield Park Conservatory

When it was opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory was considered an engineering wonder and a fine example of Prairie School architecture on a grand scale. Multitudes of Chicagoans filed through the exotic gardens admiring an assemblage of flora that was larger and more diverse than anything that had ever been collected under one roof. As the conservatory celebrates its Centennial in 2008, the structure itself still impresses, and the overflowing greenery inside still provides year-round access to spreading palms and fragrant orange blossoms.

The mammoth glass dome that covers the conservatory and its adjoining wings allows the Midwestern sun to shine down on plants from across the globe. Species are divided in various rooms and exhibits including palms, ferns, desert aroid and something called the “sweet house” (fruits and other food plants). The soaring roof provides ample space for the dense arrangements of plants and trees that occupy almost every available inch of floor space. Winding stone paths, occasionally overgrown by encroaching plants, are cut into the landscape and meander in rough circles around the arrangements. Several rooms have irregular pools incorporated into the landscaping, which adds an additional natural element to the surroundings. Among the highlights of the conservatory is the display in the Aroid room, which incorporates original works remaining from Dale Chihuly’s 2001-2002 exhibition.

With additional gardens and paths outside, the conservatory can be more than just a rainy day destination. The conservatory can be reached via the CTA’s green line at the Central Park stop, but parking in the neighboring lot is free. Admission to the Garfield Park Conservatory is also free, which makes a visit one of the better deals in town. And though you can see, smell and learn about living things from around the world, there’s none of the nagging guilt that can be associated with a trip to the zoo. Most plants looked quite content to be grown in captivity.

Though the conservatory is free to the public, the aging building is always in need of further renovations. If you go, please consider making a small donation.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Who Turned off the Lights?

Last night Chicago participated in Earth Hour 2008, a global campaign to raise awareness of climate change. For one hour, cities around the world asked citizens and businesses to turn off unnecessary lights to encourage people to start thinking about ways they can reduce their impact on the environment.

In anticipation of the event, I was in position at 7:55PM local time at Water Tower Park near the top of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, to watch the city fade to dark. Hoping for something between the strip’s usual luminance and a darkness that encourages looting, the results of Chicago’s first Earth Hour were certainly mixed.

At 8:00, the lights at the top of the John Hancock center went black, leaving the red warning lights at the top of its antennae hanging in the sky. The ancient sign announcing the Allerton Hotel’s “Tip-Top-Tap” faded out. And that was about it from my vantage point. Perhaps 25% of the businesses on the storied street joined the event. Various hotels darkened their lobbies; some handing out glow lights to their guests. Banana Republic, for example, darkened their signage and display windows. But an overwhelming number of retailers, from Sak’s Fifth Avenue to the Apple store to Nike Town were operating business as usual. So, from street level, it was pretty difficult to notice any difference if you were not looking for it in advance. I’m hopeful that in coming years Chicago’s participation, no matter how symbolic the event may be, will rise to a level that truly makes a statement.

Around 8:15, the floods illuminating the stone and mortar Water Tower finally went dark. Even an “Earth 45 Minutes” is a start.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Say “Cheese” or $#:+!

Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot and apparently Chicago city government has promised a red light camera at every intersection. Currently, 69 intersections are monitored by the cameras, designed to capture pictures or video of motorists who run red lights. But the current outdoor photo studios are only the beginning. The city has just signed a $52 million, five year contract [with an out of state company] to install an additional 220 cameras by 2012. (Assuming the city can find the money that number may climb to 580.)

Now, there is really no defense for running a red light. There are only three instances when it’s acceptable to blow through an intersection: official police business, an ambulance in a medical emergency and during a chase scene in a Michael Bay film. Still, the cameras evoke an air of Big Brother, or at the very least are a further erosion of our collective privacy. (If you’re looking for more, the city has also signed a separate multi-million dollar contract to install video cameras on street sweepers. There is now no escaping the $50 fine should you fail to see the temporary paper signs, which are occasionally hung the night before an impending run.) Though the city positions the arsenal of cameras as a public safety tool and as a way to promote better driving habits, it would appear that the motive is equally related to dollar signs.

Drivers caught on film for a red light violation are mailed are mailed a ticket for $90, soon to be an even $100. The city, by its own estimates, predicts the new cameras will generate $50 million a year in revenue. So, despite the numerous cameras acting as a deterrent, the city is still expecting 500,000 infractions a year.

Wow, I feel safer already.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Seven Oaks – Lake Geneva, WI

The turn onto Wells Street, just before entering the 2 block long heart of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, takes you on a path that is parallel, but not directly adjacent to the Lake itself. Due to its less desirable geography, the street has long been home to a strip of 1950’s and 60’s era motor inns that catered to the budget-conscious traveler, long before the days of Southwest Airlines. But recently, a gem has emerged from this strip of peeling Americana. The Seven Oaks B&B Inn, which opened in the spring of 2006, has transformed one of these aging properties into a quiet getaway within a getaway.

As Lake Geneva has been revitalized in recent years, the center of the small downtown has become a popular place on weekends, both in and out of season. Staying downtown can have the air of a low-grade frat party on certain nights. Resorts like the Grand Geneva (the former Playboy Club) and Geneva National offer more tranquility, but are also relatively isolated from the town itself. Seven Oaks occupies a location, which is just far enough from the city center to offer a relaxing atmosphere. It’s also close enough for a leisurely walk into town in fair weather.

A small hanging sign, without a trace of neon, quietly announces the Seven Oaks entranceway. 9 free-standing cottages flank the paved driveway which terminates in the equally renovated main house. Follow the small sign to the secondary entrance near the garage, which serves as the guest reception area. The hosts, Leon and Amanda, are cordial and accommodating. Originally from London, they bring more than a touch of English civility to the surroundings, and their attention to detail did not go unnoticed.

As we carried our bags into the Wimbledon cabin, a light snow began to drift downward with the calmness of a snow globe. The front door opens on a small tiled area, with a breakfast table on the left, and a wet bar on the right. The small refrigerator beneath the sink contained bottled water, a welcome plate of cheese, fruit and crackers and a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc. (Choose from among 7 wine selections when making your reservation.) The counter and cabinets are stocked with all the tools and ingredients for a full coffee and tea service, including separate cups for coffee and tea and a separate tea pot for boiling water.

An L-shaped sectional sofa separates the kitchen from the living area. A leather bench/cocktail table fronts the sofa and provides ample room for both drinks and weary feet. A stone façade encases the gas fireplace on the opposite wall, which provides palpable heat on a cold winter day. A large flat-panel TV is embedded in the wall above the fireplace. A full range of cable channels, a DVD library and free wi-fi provide multiple entertainment options from the comfort of the couch.

The separate bedroom is simple, but refined. The king-size bed is covered in high thread count linens and multiple over-stuffed pillows, and connects to a master bathroom. One side of the bath is dominated by a 2 person spa tub, which is amply deep to allow for a soothing soak, and is accented with a supply of locally made soap and bath salts. The stand-alone shower stall is equipped with 1 overhead and 2 side jets, with independent flow controls. Step from the spa or shower onto the heated tile floor, and then grab a warm towel from the heated rack. Provided robes complete the pampered experience.

In warmer months, a fenced in area, far from street traffic, is home to a quaint English garden. Tables, chairs and rockers, provide a quiet spot to read, play cards or have a cocktail. What makes Seven Oaks even more tranquil for a romantic weekend is its policy that excludes pets and children from the premises. So as not to give the wrong impression, I would characterize Seven Oaks as a place for Grown-ups, not Adults-Only. Rates start at $189/night, and a 3 night stay will earn a 50% discount on one night’s stay. Seven Oaks is open year-round, unless otherwise noted on their website.

Launch Pad Tip: The homemade caramel and cheese popcorn, the “Chicago mix”, at Constant Cravings in downtown Lake Geneva, is almost worth the 90 mile trip alone.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who are these People and why should I vote for them?

I present to you the 7 candidates running for Dick Devine’s vacated Cook County State’s attorney seat: Tom Allen, Anita Alvarez, Tommy Brewer, Howard Brookins Jr., Robert Millan, Tony Peraica and Larry Suffredin. If you are familiar with more than two of these names, the chances are you currently work on one of these campaigns, or are one of the candidates themselves. If you can even pick the lone Republican in the group, you’re an honor student of Chicago politics. With 98.7% of media coverage focused on the presidential races, many important state and local races are getting even less coverage than usual.

The State’s Attorney job is arguably one of the most important jobs in local politics. The position oversees a $100 million dollar budget and around 900 lawyers. The State’s Attorney prosecutes the areas most high profile criminal cases, and the job often serves as a springboard to even more prominent office, as our multi-multi termed mayor is an example. Yet, only the 2 or 3 candidates that can afford commercial time even have a chance of registering more than a blip in the polls.

And if awareness is low for the State’s Attorney race, what about the dozens of other state and local races? The ballot on Tuesday will contain races for State Representatives and Senators, judgeships and even the ultra-sexy Water Reclamation Commissioners. (The little known Water Reclamation District oversees a $1 BILLION annual budget, by the way.)

When you pull the proverbial curtain behind you, who do you vote for in these races? Do you skip on voting in races where you do not know any of the candidates? Do you vote for the 1 candidate who happened to buy a billboard on your way to work? Do you vote for the candidate with the most benign name? (‘Hmm, McLovin’ for State Senator sounds like a nice Irish boy.’) Though seriously, it was innocuous sounding names that helped Lyndon LaRouche followers wins in the 1986 Democratic primary.

For most of these races, I still have no idea who, if anyone, I plan to vote for, but sometime between now and the election, I plan to find out. http://www.voterinfonet.com/

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Icy, a Problem

Pop Quiz: You see the following sign. What do you do?

A. Sprint clear of the building, with your arms protectively thrown over your head. (Repeat at each of the dozens of high rise buildings posting similar signage around the city.)

B. Follow the sign’s helpful arrows upwards to see what the fuss is about.

C. Briefly contemplate what you’d do with the settlement money, should you survive any subsequent head blow from an over-sized ice cube.

D. Not a damn thing.

Signs like this have become the “wet floor” signs of Chicago winter. They have become common to the point that they scarcely register a second glance, yet that does not mean that accidents never happen. (For examples, try here or watch the video here.) What isn’t clear is if the signs are meant as a warning or as a notice of release from subsequent liability.

For 130 years the world’s greatest architects have been designing high rises in Chicago, and for just as long pedestrians have been forced to participate in a game of dodge-ice every time it freezes and thaws. And the problem is not confined to the oldest skyscrapers in the city. Plenty of buildings erected within the last 20 years suffer from the same problem. As the next generation of buildings reach for the sky (i.e. the Chicago Spire, Trump Tower, The Loop, Aqua, Waldorf-Astoria Tower), only time will really tell.

Retrofitting existing buildings is not the solution. Prohibitive costs, aesthetic concerns and community/political bickering will prevent any serious measures from ever taking place. So, what do we do about ice falling from our city’s buildings? I would be interested to hear your suggestions, but I’m afraid that the question might be rhetorical.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Iggy's 3 - The Third Time is not a Charm

When a bar’s business model works, its concept can be successfully copied and transplanted to other neighborhoods or cities. Locally, see Bar Louie and John Barleycorn. On the other hand, when a bar makes three separate attempts to make a go of it in the city, as is the case with Iggy’s 3, it may be a case of trying to force a square mug into a round hole. For a dozen years, the original Iggy’s was a fixture on Milwaukee Avenue, before closing its doors. The second incarnation lasted for 3 years in the Bucktown neighborhood, and, sadly, after an evening at their latest River North venture, one can only wonder about the half-life of the current location.

Iggy’s is clearly an establishment with an identity crisis. It is not truly a restaurant, and it’s not, by a long shot, a full-fledged bar or cocktail lounge. Black and red dominate the motif, with the requisite sock puppet photos from its past locations lining the walls. A small, crescent-shaped bar, with seating for perhaps 8, dominates the front room with several small tables flanking the bar, in a space that can at most seat 50. Iggy’s does provide a hip environment, but the overall vibe is one of style over substance.

As a bar, Iggy’s comes up short. With little space to mingle and fewer spaces to sit, Iggy’s does not lend itself to a comfortable setting for a round of drinks, particularly if the place is crowded. $11 martinis may be the going rate in the city these days, but Iggy’s does nothing to separate its offerings from the crowd. A small, though high-quality, selection of bottled beers are offered to those looking for something lighter, but Iggy’s offers no beers on draught.

As a restaurant, Iggy’s menu seems to be out of line with the atmosphere it is presenting. Appetizers run as high as $15 and entrees to $29, though meals are served by t-shirt clad wait staff who seem more properly attired to slinging buffalo wings. The ambitious menu, combined with the informal service, sends a confusing message to customers. In terms of taste and presentation, a sampled goat cheese appetizer was presented blandly and tasted about the same. Not one sandwich appears on the menu, which may be perfectly suitable for a fine-dining establishment, but it would be a stretch to put Iggy’s in that category.

Overall, Iggy’s is a cool looking spot that needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Rating: 1 mug

Editor’s note: A negative review is not something that I relish in giving, unlike a slathering Simon Cowell. But until Iggy’s rights the ship, if you’re looking for a drink in that part of River North I might recommend Clark St. Ale House. For a bite, the authentic and reasonably priced Café Iberico is a solid bet. (And by the way, the original Bar Louie is just a few blocks west of Iggy’s on Chicago Avenue.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Philly Knows Lunch

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I had the good fortune to stop for lunch at a grand bazaar of culinary delights, known as the Reading Terminal Market. In operation since 1893, the market provides a year-round array of fresh and prepared foods, housed in a revitalized train terminal, which was originally built with the grandeur of a bygone era.

Beneath the high-domed ceiling, row after row of independent merchants compete for the right to fill your stomach. And during lunch hour, you’ll be competing too, with throngs of locals and scores of business travelers, who come from the adjoining convention center. The atmosphere is one of mild chaos, which seems quite apropos for this setting.

Sections of the market, catering to locals, are devoted to stands featuring fresh produce, meat and fish. (Much of the fish on the day I visited was very recent pulled from the ocean by the nearby Atlantic fleet.) Interspersed among the raw goods vendors, are dozens of prepared food stands, which go well beyond the almost cliché Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. From falafels at Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties to mouth-watering roast beef and homemade Italian sausage sandwiches at DiNic’s, from ikura at Tokyo Sushi Bar to hand-carved turkey from The Original Turkey, there is something to please every taste.

A corner of the busy market is devoted to stands run by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Open on a more limited basis than the rest of the market, the stands run by the various Quaker sects, offer a range or organic meats, cheeses, produce and baked goods. And though their dress reflects their religion’s traditional codes and values, interaction between the Pennsylvania Dutch and their customers does much to dispel stereotypes. For instance, my purchase from the Lancaster Co. Dairy was concluded with a simple “thank you”, rather than a ‘Tis a pleasure doing business with you, English’. Their fresh-squeezed apple cider was nectar of the gods.

By meal’s end, you may feel like you could not take another bite, but leaving the market without dessert would be a mistake. I might suggest exiting the market on the Filbert Street side and stopping at Termini Brothers Bakery for a to-go box. Cannolis are filled on-site; the creamy sweet filling is not piped into the flaky crust until you place your order. The connolis are rich, yet delicate and are worth making room in your hotel room’s honor bar fridge, if you have no room in your stomach.

It’s hard to leave the Reading Terminal Market unsatisfied, but be forewarned. Upon exiting you may be left with a decision: a cup of coffee or a nap.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

$25 For You, $80 Million For Them

Visa, MasterCard and Diners Club have recently entered into a settlement agreement in a class action law suit filed in the Southern District of New York, which will affect thousands of Chicagoans. The suit alleges that the credit card companies “conspired to set and conceal fees, typically of 1-3% of foreign transactions, and that Visa and MasterCard inflated their base exchange rates before applying these fees.” Any U.S. cardholder, who traveled abroad and used one of these cards to make a foreign transaction between February 1, 1996 and November 8 2006, is eligible to take part in the settlement.

The class action settlement agreement assumes no guilt on the part of the credit card companies, but does call for them to take steps to redress the complaint. Once the settlement is finalized, the defendants have agreed to more transparency in their billing statements, which will now provide detailed disclosures on foreign transaction fees. The defendants have also agreed to create a $336,000,000 settlement fund to compensate victims of these overcharges. Nationwide, several million cardholders are expected to be eligible to take part in the class. The current suit and settlement come on the heels of several other recent cases, which have resulted in an additional $35.5 million in payments from the credit card companies.

In the current settlement proposal, eligible plaintiffs can submit an “easy” claim form and receive a single payment of $25 once the settlement takes effect. The $25 payment is unrelated to the total amount charged on foreign transactions, and excludes that person from making any future claims. More meticulous travelers, who have access to 10 years of receipts, can submit a more detailed claim to potentially receive a refund of 1%-3% of their total purchases during that period. A traveler who amassed $10,000 in charges over this period could potentially be reimbursed up to $300.

While the third of a billion dollar settlement and changes in disclosure policy prove to be a mild rebuke to the multi-billion dollar credit card companies, the real winners would appear to be the law firms involved in the case, rather than consumers. The two law firms representing the plaintiffs, Coughlin Stoia of San Diego and Berger & Montague of Philadelphia, stand to profit handsomely. The settlement agreement calls for the firms to split a 27.5% share of the $313,000,000 that is expected to remain after deducting costs for administration of the suit. The firms can also claim an additional $5,000,000 for actual expenses incurred in handling the case, bringing their total compensation to a staggering 85 million dollars.

So, while affected Chicagoans, who are the real victims of collusion in this case, will receive a pittance in reimbursement for past over-charges, the boutique law firms will walk away with over $42,000,000 each. It is apparent incongruities like this that have led some to call for regulated limits on contingency fees, and others to wonders if justice, in class action law suits, is really being served.

Monday, December 3, 2007

When is an election important?

In case you missed it, one of the most historic events of year took place over the weekend, a little south of Chicago. Voters in Venezuela decided the long-term fate of their country in a referendum over sweeping changes to their constitution. The referendum would have given control of the country’s banking system to the central government and done away with term-limits for the president, among 67 other constitutional edits. If passed, the measures would have allowed sworn enemy of the United States, Hugo Chavez, to join the proud tradition of South American dictators.

In recent years, we have seen our own constitution tested by the Executive Branch in some disturbing ways, but not nearly to the degree as those faced by Venezuelans in Sunday’s vote. Tied to grandiose promises of pensions for “informal workers” (i.e. street peddlers) and a reduction to a 6 hour work day (interesting), Chavez’ proposals would have given him virtually unlimited power and would have effected the lives of every Venezuelan.

Enraged university students, once sympathetic to Chavez’ leftist politics, banded together with other opposition groups and disillusioned citizens. Told that they would be branded “traitors” if they voted against these measures, enough Venezuelans found the courage to vote with their conscience and defeat the measures by a razor-thin margin of 51%-49%. Democracy in Venezuela takes a step forward, “for now”, as Chavez was quoted as saying.

Despite what was at stake in the Venezuelan vote, only 56% of registered voters went to the polls. In an election that would have allowed Chavez to redraw congressional districts and declare himself president for life, just 56% of the electorate bothered to find the time to vote.

Perhaps it’s comforting to know that voter apathy is not just an American pastime. Our own presidential election, of no less importance, is just 11 months away. Will U.S. voters turn out in numbers higher or lower than 56%? I might bet the under.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

For Sale: City of Chicago

The city of Chicago has spent nearly $300,000 to hire a marketing services firm to investigate selling the naming rights to various city attractions. Soon, Chicagoans might have the opportunity ride the Blue by American Express® line to O’Hare, or visit The Container Store’s Shedd aquarium and Maxim magazine’s Kohl’s Children’s museum. On the heels of the privatization of the Chicago Skyway and Millennium Park garages, selling the naming rights to cherished civic institutions might seem like the final act of the commercialization of our municipality. But, this is only the beginning.

Chicago is just one of many U.S. cities seeking “creative ways” to raise funds and offset budget deficits. Selling the naming rights to city programs, buildings and events appears to be the most painless way to build public coffers and is certainly much easier than trying to make existing departments more efficient. It seems like easy money, but in the long run there’s a catch for both the city and its would-be corporate partners.

Corporate sponsorships have been around in the world of sports for generations, and with each new sponsorship or stadium name change, the marketing impact of the tie-in becomes more diluted. Wrigley field was built as part of a chewing gum empire, but over the years the name has become more associated with the baseball team than a pack of Juicy Fruit®. A more recent example is U.S. Cellular’s sponsorship of the White Sox stadium. Though the telecommunications company spent millions for the naming rights, the majority of fans refer to the park as “The Cell” or even “New Comiskey”. U.S. Cellular is still better known for their painfully unfunny television ads starring Joan Cusack. Unless White Sox fans overwhelmingly use U.S. Cellular as their wireless provider, where is the value for the corporate sponsor? Now imagine everything from the public libraries to the Taste of Chicago with a named sponsor. When will corporate sponsorships reach the point of diminishing returns?

For the city, the money will come now; the conflicts of interest will come later.
The city oversees businesses in any number regulated areas, including taxes, zoning, consumer safety and inspections. The city must act on behalf of its residents’ best interests to ensure that businesses are in compliance with all laws and regulations. Yet, once the city enters into a multi-million dollar relationship with one of these companies, its independence will be forever compromised, or at least questioned.

But the city needs the money now. And if there are problems a few years down the road, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we privatize it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sarge's: A New York deli

A visit to an authentic delicatessen is a requirement for any well-rounded trip to New York City. Tourists in the mid-town/Times Square area may be satisfied with the shtick and excess of places like the Carnegie or Stage delis, but for my money Sarge’s, located in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, is the undisputed champ.

Open 24/7, and with a full liquor license (a rarity in NY delis), Sarge’s offers a timeless deli experience. The establishment is a literal depiction of “Old School”, having operated in the same location since 1964. A tiered-display of pastries and decadent cakes greets customers. An adjacent meat counter offers take-out options for all of Sarge’s meats and side dishes. The opposite wall, behind the cashier, is a collection of autographed celebrity headshots that span the life of the restaurant and act as a walk down memory lane.

Though the kitchen itself is not considered kosher, as a full diner menu is offered, Sarge’s serves all of the favorites in the delicatessen/”Jewish Soul Food” lexicon. Traditional delicacies such as a nova lox platter and smoked whitefish appear on the breakfast menu. Knishes and kugel are available as side dishes, and there is ruggelach for dessert.

Start your lunch, dinner or late-night snack with a steaming bowl savory chicken broth, accompanied by a choice of rice, noodles or matzo-balls. Sandwich options are many and include everything from corned beef and salami, to chopped liver and tongue. Ingredients can be mixed, matched or combined, depending on personal tastes. Of note, Sarge’s is one of the last delis in New York to make their own pastrami on premises, and it shows. Their pastrami sandwich is a signature dish that stands out in a city full of competitors. An order of a single golden brown potato latke perfectly accompanies any sandwich and is easily big enough for two. Wash down the meal with a homemade Green River or chocolate egg cream, and momentary Zen can be achieved.

Sarge’s is a quintessential New York deli. Stick with the comfort food and you won’t go wrong. When a diner next to us ordered the “salmon filet”, we were certain that he was not from New York and fairly positive that he was not even from earth. This is one meal where you can be forgiven for telling your diet to go to hell.

Launch Pad Tip: You’ve landed late at Laguardia and you’re starving, but don’t want to settle for the $11 Toblerone in the hotel room honor bar. Have your taxi driver take the Queens-Midtown tunnel into Manhattan. You will emerge at 3rd Avenue and 37th Streets, less than a block from Sarge’s. Even with luggage, it’s just another short cab ride to your hotel.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Clean up on aisle 59th street

You won’t see piles of garbage on the street when you watch an episode of Seinfeld or a Woody Allen film, but when space is precious compromises must be made. This is by no means the fault of modern-day New Yorkers. By American standards, New York is an old city originally laid-out by planners who could never in their wildest dreams have imagined a metropolis of 8 million people. Building the city with a secondary web of service alleys never occurred to them, or was deemed impractical. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, Fredrick Law Olmstead was able to transform a 140 square-block swamp at what was then the northern end of Manhattan into the wonder that is Central Park, but by that point New York was developed too far for a retrofit.

If you’ve never been to New York, it is impossible to prepare yourself for the sight of garbage lining virtually every street in the city. Each night an armada of trucks set out to collect the refuse, but over the course of the day, truly heroic piles of seeping waste can accumulate on the curb. This takes some getting used to, particularly the first time you step around one of these temporary hills to enter that chic restaurant you read about in Zagat.

Yet, as the world “goes green”, New York might be a perfect example of what we truly face as a society. In Chicago, we have the luxury of filling our dumpsters and keeping our trash largely out of sight. In New York, every day is a visual lesson on how much we consume and discard. 5¢ refunds on glass bottles aside, recycling can only take us so far. As landfills reach capacity and new projects face opposition at every front (“not in my backyard”), how do we cut down on the amount of garbage we produce in our everyday lives?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


When was the last time you saw a person in hospital garb outside of a hospital? At least in Chicago, chances are it was recently, maybe as recently as the last time you were on the train to work or in the grocery store. These are just ordinary people, employed in the medical profession, on their way to or from a shift. Just ordinary people going about their lives, participating in their environment and unintentionally bringing everything they’ve touched into the hospital with them.

One of my first jobs was working part-time at a sprawling, turn of the (20th) century hospital. Each shift, any worker who came in contact with patients, from surgeons to orderlies, stopped off at a locker room and changed from their street clothes into a pair of hospital issued scrubs. The scrubs themselves were forbidden to leave the premises and were laundered on-site. So, essentially everyone in the hospital wore work uniforms from a communal pool of tops and bottoms (best not to think about it), but it was generally ensured that each worker would walk onto the hospital floor in a freshly laundered, and extremely comfortable, set of clothes. Did budget pressures force hospitals to change this practice? Is the responsibility now on the employee to outfit themselves?

In other news, there have been a few thousand stories about the dreaded, drug-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria MRSA. [See here, here or here, if you haven’t already.] Doctors over-prescribing antibiotics has been blamed for creating these hard to treat strains of the Staphylococcus bacteria. But could other harmful germs also find their way into hospitals on the clothes of those treating the patients? It could be a coincidence, but if any of those workers happened to get to work on the Red Line, I’m fairly sure the seat they used was not entirely sterile.

Launch Pad Side Bar: For any with doubts about natural selection, take a closer look at how a few genetic mutations turns a problematic, but treatable, bacterial infection into a killer. It seems doubtful divine intervention is the cause.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

But I Don’t Feel Fat

We constantly hear that America is a nation afflicted with obesity, yet it’s rare that we notice the subtle ways in which corporations manipulate what we perceive as normal. As we approach the holiday season, full of time with friends, family and sanctioned gorging, I stumbled upon the following interesting consumer fact, I thought I would share.

While shopping at a local “Big Box” retailer, I suddenly decided that I needed a new pair of undergarments. (I suspect subliminal advertising.) As I perused the selection of boxer shorts by an unnamed manufacturer (rhymes with panes), I thought something seemed different. Of course I took my purchase home and compared it to the other contents of my drawer. And sure enough, my new pair of “Medium” boxer shorts measure 34”-36”, where my old standbys were 32”-34”. The concept of small, medium and large has been redefined for men across America. The sinister thing is, most people will never notice. The new norm becomes business as usual.

So, now my medium shorts are big on me. You can bet that I’ll be having desert.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Under the Radar: The Orbit Room

Any exploration outside the heart of the city will reveal literally hundreds of neighborhood bars, otherwise nameless save the ubiquitous Old Style or Schlitz signs marking their existence. In a bygone era, these corner taverns served a valuable purpose as social hubs for the community. In more recent times, not so much. When one of these relics inevitably gives way to new proprietors, there is always a sense of anticipation as to what the change will bring.

The Orbit Room (2959 N California) replaces one of these venerable establishments and provides a much needed breath of nightlife to the Avondale neighborhood. Inside, the Orbit Room has been made over from top to bottom with classic cocktail lounge décor, consisting of a full-length banquette, tables and stools. The entire south wall is occupied by a vintage oak bar with a matching wood, mirror and lit-glass surround. In warmer months, an attached patio deck more than doubles the available seating space.

The vibe is reminiscent of Wicker Park of several years ago: laid-back, mildly artsy and without attitude. A seemingly bottomless and varied flow of music entertains guests without drowning out conversation. The full bar is complimented by a well-rounded, if not expansive beer list. And, in addition to a menu that goes beyond ordinary bar fare, the Orbit Room also offers nightly specials to entice would-be patrons and reward regulars. ($2 Schlitz on Mondays is both a fun idea and a tribute to the bar’s former occupants.) Area residents and curious passersby are encouraged to give the Orbit Room a try for a pint, bite or martini.

Rating: 3 flasks

Launch Pad tip: If you’ve over-imbibed, have the bartender call you a cab. Finding one on the street can be a bit iffy.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

It’s Not What You Eat, It’s Where You Eat

Dining solo at a downtown food-court, I found myself sans reading material. This is always a predicament for me, as I hate to have nothing better to do during my meal than stare at fellow patrons. It tends to come across as creepy. So, after reading every last syllable on my bag of Garden of Eatin’® Sea-Salt Pita Chips (Hmmm, made in Boulder, Colorado), my attention moved to my already wrinkled receipt: 1 falafel pita (a tad dry, but not without its charms), the aforementioned chips and a medium soft-drink, Sub-Total $6.94, Sales Tax $.72, Total Due $7.66. Now, my mathematics abilities will never be confused with 17th century genius Gottfried Leibniz, but a quick set of calculations on my cell phone told me the sales tax I just paid for my lunch was a staggering 10.37463977%.

Unfortunately, like most Chicago residents, I’m already conditioned to the high sales tax rate in the city. I’m also painfully aware of the busload of new tax increases proposed by the Cook County Board and City of Chicago. What I did not know was that sales taxes in some parts of the city have already crossed that magic/tragic 10% barrier. In addition to the 9% rate imposed by the city, county and state, the city of Chicago imposes an additional .25% sales tax on restaurants. So, where does the extra 1% tax come from? I’ve found reference to a special tax assessed on dining establishments located in the downtown business and entertainment districts, though finding independent confirmation has proved about as fruitful as waiting for Godot. Whatever the source, the intended target of this levy is likely the favorite of tax assessors everywhere: The Tourist.

Whether here on business or pleasure, the logic has always been to place as much of the tax burden as possible on visitors rather than local residents. That is why taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars are always significantly higher than others. But creating a tax based on a restaurant’s location may be taking things a bit too far, and may have largely missed its mark, unfairly affecting many Chicagoans.

Not that many years ago, the Loop was a ghost-town after dark. Now, the Loop and nearby areas have developed into genuine neighborhoods, complete with 24/7 residents. These residents will take the additional hit every time they eat out near their homes. Add to that the thousands who converge on the city-center each morning, many of whom work in retail or service sector jobs, which pay at or near minimum wage. (The average retail employee in Chicago earns $9.43/hr.) Perhaps taxing the Happy Meals the family from Wichita buys at Navy Pier makes sense. But what about lunch for the cashier working at the kiosk down the way? Non-rhetorically, is there a point where the tax-bite would deter you from eating out?

(The boundaries of the downtown restaurant surcharge remain murky. As a dedicated correspondent and someone who eats almost every day, I will make every attempt to dine my way to the answer. I’m helping the economy, right?)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

World Boxing Championships Round 2

So, you were not aware that the 2007 AIBA World Boxing Championships take place in Chicago October 23rd through November 3rd? Don’t worry, although the international event serves as an Olympic qualifier for the 2008 Beijing games, 99% of Chicagoans had no knowledge of the event 48 hours prior to the first punch. Now that the fights are underway, I would estimate the “unaware factor” in mid-80’s.

Though the city admirably stepped in to host the event a mere 6 months ago, after Moscow took a TKO, somewhere between then and now the city, the AIBA and the USOC have done an inadequate job of promoting the event. While boxing is no longer a marquee sport in the U.S., hosting a bi-annual World Championships in the run-up to the Olympics should be a major draw.

I am by no means a boxing fan. I more a sports fan in general and only found myself at the Thursday preliminary session due to a fluke of scheduling mixed with the novelty of watching top amateur fighters for a measly $11. Unfortunately, not many other casual fans had free-time. Charitably, I would estimate that there were 400 spectators in the stands. (Although a weekday session, this can not look good to the IOC selection committee, who are in town to observe the proceedings.) Of those in attendance, it is impossible to tell how many were wearing credentials and how many, like me, walked up and bought tickets. Scattered groups of supporters rooted vigorously for fighters from their favored countries, injecting some life into what could have been a library-like atmosphere. Seven flag-draped fans screamed in rapid support of their favorite Mongolian fighter, Lusvanteseren Zorigtbaatar, who disappointed in a lopsided loss.

From an organizational standpoint, the city and the event planners should be applauded. The event logo and graphic design have a sharp retro-look, reminiscent of the design-scheme used in posters for the 1933 World’s Fair. The UIC Pavilion is a perfect venue for the event, with excellent sightlines to watch the concurrent matches, which take place in 2 adjacent rings. The organizers precisely staggered the bouts, so that there was continuous action in at least one ring at all times. Fighters, referees and judges from all corners of the world rotated for the various bouts without error or delay. And the fighting itself, while not always masterful, was earnest and urgent. In addition to winning and losing, in some cases national pride was at stake.

According to the official website, “highlights” of the competition will be shown on Fox Sunday, November 4th, A DAY AFTER the actual finals take place. It’s a shame that the first time many hear or see these hopeful, young fighters will be after the ropes are packed.

Punch Drunk Glove

It’s 11:24AM and, apparently hungrier, Hungarian Pal Bedak has just scored a 24-9 victory over Columbian punching bag Oscar Padilla in a preliminary bout at the 2007 AIBA World Boxing Championships. I’m not sure when amateur boxing adopted football-like scores, but I’m not sure that I mind. (3 of the 5 ringside judges must indicate a clean punch for a point to be accrued. After four 2 minute rounds, total points scored determine the winner.) With a moment’s reflection, it seems a hundred times more logical than the mysterious “10 point must” judging system used by professional boxing federations.

Of course, a knock-out would have been exciting, but these early bouts are in the 106lb (48kg) Light Flyweight division. Though fast, nimble and active, fighters at this weight don’t possess the power to knock out a cold. With the prospects of mat-time at a minimum, I’m starting to like this scoring system better all the time.

The lone American on the morning fight card is Rau’shee Warren, defending bronze medalist from the 2005 Championships. He cruises to a 20-8 win over an out-matched fighter from arch U.S. rival Uzbekistan. During four rounds of dominance, I can feel my patriotism swell, as I root for a fighter I had not heard of five minutes before. The chants of “USA” between rounds give me a case of goose bumps. I experience a rare moment that affirms the inherent goodness in sport, and its power to unite otherwise disparate people in a common cause.

“Down goes Fraser!” I mean Parlagi. In the lone knock-down of the session, the eager Slovakian fighter steps into a short right from his Bulgarian opponent. As knockdowns only count as a single point, the overall impact of the blow is minimal. Parlagi jumps to his feet and goes on to methodically jab his way to an easy twelve point victory.

In the last fight of the day, England’s Frankie Gavin takes on Barbados’ Omar Ward. After round 1, Ward has yet to score a single point (5-0). Mid-way through round 3, Ward is down 18-0 and the few remaining fans (more on that above) begin to take up his cause. All they want is for the young amateur to score a single point. Ward bobs and lunges in with a left jab. Gavin deflects the blow and counters with a 1-2 combination. The referee jumps in between the two men. The 20 point slaughter rule has been enacted. And in the blink of an eye, the fight and sessions 6 A&B of the 2007 AIBA World Boxing Championships are over.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dude, there’s a China link on the right side of your Chicago blog

Hey, thanks for noticing, but contrary to all indications this is not a mistake. This fledgling blog seeks to explore Chicago “and beyond”, and really, you can’t get much further beyond Chicago than China. (about 6597 miles give or take)

China Rises: Notes from the Middle Kingdom is an insightful look into life, culture and Chinese society in general. Written by Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers Tim Johnson, China Rises provides a continuous supply of interesting information that delves far deeper than the 30 second sound bytes on the evening news. After reading a few posts, you’ll be captivated by the intricacies and paradoxes of a society that is, after all, 5,000 years older than ours.

Besides, the Beijing Olympics begin in a little over 9 months, on 8/8/08, placing China in the world’s spotlight. (Admit it, there’s nothing like watching Team Handball on a 15 hour delay.) Nearly everyday another product recall makes headlines. (I’m waiting for the story: “Chinese lead found to contain high amounts of lead.”) Meanwhile, avoiding these same Chinese goods in the marketplace is as easy as taking 10 laps in the pool without getting wet. There is the question of Taiwan, China’s interesting relationships with Burma and North Korea, the unbalanced Yuan, Tibet, product piracy, the Great Firewall of China and probably a dozen things I failed to mention.

And just to balance things out, I promise to add Jessica Alba to the “Useful Links” section, ASAP.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Under the Radar…Fonda del Mar

Any $17.95 guidebook can tell you the best Mexican cuisine in Chicago, and perhaps America, can be found at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill/Topolobampo. But this blog is as free as those wee samples they give away at the grocery store, so Launch Pad Chicago strives to take you deeper into the tangled and fascinating culinary landscape of the city. Follow me if you dare…to eat really good food.

My Under the Radar pick for Mexican fare is Fonda del Mar (3759 W Fullerton). Though clearly becoming a destination spot, Fonda del Mar remains largely unknown to the uninitiated, due to its “out of the way” location on the near northwest side. Look for a non-descript sign on the south side of a rather non-descript block, find a meter to feed and enter the “Boardinghouse of the Sea” to have the favor returned.

Diners are welcomed by informal bistro décor and an open kitchen that compliments the accommodating service and family-run atmosphere. Entrées I will leave for you to discover (isn’t that half the fun of dining out?), but for appetizers I might recommend tacos Ensenada, fish tacos served with a savory salsa of octopus, squid and bay scallops. And for all that is good in the world I implore you to try the corn tamales, an exquisite creation that just might be as good for dessert as it is to start a meal. (i.e. They don’t suck.)

Fonda del Mar is highly recommended for its charm, fresh food and authentic character. How do I know it’s authentic? As I found out upon my first sip, they even brew their coffee traditional way, with cinnamon.

Launch Pad tip: Stop at the panderia (bakery) across the street and take home some delicious, and ridiculously cheap, pastries.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Room With A View…For Now

In the mid-distance, the two cranes pointing upward like mismatched insect antennae mark the future home of The Chicago Spire, the 2000 foot sky-gouger by world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. The narrow, twisting tower, already dubbed “The Drill-Bit” (by me), will be the tallest building in North America – surpassing the yet to be constructed Freedom Tower in New York. The ground-breaking, which began in the summer of 2007, has skyscraper enthusiasts buzzing with excitement. (Yes, in fact there are enthusiasts for everything on earth, including skyscrapers.)

Some local residents don’t share the same buzz. They complain of issues with over-development, neighborhood congestion and the effects on home values at a time of a nationwide downturn in the real estate market. (Reportedly, the Spire’s asking prices will more closely resemble central London than Chicago.) The Spire’s supporters counter that the building itself is a work of artistic expression, and cite the positive economic impact the building will have in terms of jobs and an increase in the tax base.

There is no doubt that the Spire will transform the city’s skyline forever, further cementing Chicago’s reputation as one of the world’s architecture capitals. At the same time, the Spire can never replicate or replace the simple beauty of nature. There is a sense of utter peace watching the sunrise, as the first rays refract golden across the rippling water. That sense of peace can never be replicated in a static structure, no matter how gracefully designed. This is particularly true, when the building in question is an over-sized version of something I can find in aisle 7 of my local Ace Hardware.