Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

spice, sass, and soul

I grew up in what most people in Chicago would consider a small town. Jackson, Michigan is a city of less than 35,000 people. Where I’m from, a neighborhood is a bunch of houses and yards on a couple streets that connect to each other, with no restaurants but lots of home cooks. Once I moved to larger cities, like Baltimore, my perception of a neighborhood changed. It became a small town inside a larger city. Some of my favorite neighborhoods in the country are right here, in Chicago. Recently, I’ve ventured away from my own neighborhood, the South Loop, and begun exploring another neighborhood on the north side.

Lakeview is quickly and quietly becoming Chicago’s hottest neighborhood for food enthusiasts. (I don’t have much interest in the word “foodie.”) I’ve had no fewer than four mind-blowing meals in Lakeview since my arrival in Chicago. A specific street in Lakeview is especially famous for its culinary diversity and quality: Broadway.

One of Chicago’s prominent food writers and the dining editor for ABC 7, Steve Dolinsky, sings the praises of several restaurants in this area (many of them are in the Michelin Guide), and one of them caught my eye while I was watching a show on Cooking Channel about guilty pleasures and food personalities. A fried chicken joint with a twist.

Crisp is a small Korean restaurant at the intersection of Broadway and Wellington. It’s been called the “Best fried chicken in America” by Yahoo, and Dolinsky loves the place. So on my day off today, I took the Brown Line to Wellington, and walked the five blocks to Broadway.

After I traded sports jabs with the guy at the counter (I was wearing a Tigers sweatshirt and he was clearly having none of it), I ordered the half chicken (three drumsticks, three thighs, three wings), half with the Korean barbecue sauce, and half with a sauce called “Seoul Sassy,” as well as fries and a Mexican Coke.

Fried chicken normally comes dry, with sauce on the side. This chicken arrived tossed in the sauces. The Sassy came garnished with chopped green onions, while the barbecue came drizzled with sesame seeds.

I tried the Sassy first. It was spicy, salty, tangy, and juicy, with a still-crispy breading. The sauce tasted soy-based. I’ve eaten at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, which is considered to have the best fried chicken in the world.

I disagree. This stuff was light-years ahead of Willie Mae’s, and I have a reverence and deep love for any restaurant that’s been around for decades and survived Hurricane Katrina.

The Sassy was so perfectly flavored, I finished it before I ever tasted the barbecue.

The barbecue was sweet, spicy, and smoky, and I almost had more fun licking the sauce off my fingers than actually eating the chicken. As a matter of fact, the excess sauce in the bottom of the basket was the perfect dip for my fries.

I sat at the window, looking out onto the street. 95% of the businesses in the neighborhood are either local businesses or local chains (Intelligentsia Coffee, Soupbox, etc). As a huge proponent of small business, I love this street, neighborhood, and area because my food came from a person instead of an institutional process. Too often, we fail to pay attention to the origins of our food and other experiences because of the pervasiveness of large organizations in our lives. Small businesses give a place its unique feel and create an experience.

Places like Crisp, Frontier, and Home Bistro are proof that small business is important. All three of these places have provided me with what I can only call “religious experiences,” which is the highest rating we give a restaurant. I’ve never awarded a chain this honor, and likely never will. Yes, there are good chains (Lou Malnati’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Bar Louie are examples), but I’ll always eat at a non-chained restaurant first. I will be back to Crisp, by myself, with Michonne, and with other people, because the only thing better than fried chicken is Crisp’s Korean fried chicken, in this neighborhood.

Rating: Religious Experience

Crisp is at 2940 N. Broadway in Lakeview.


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