“Via Chicago”

7 Jun

Hello to a city that I haven’t seen in five years.

Here's me the last time I was there, sometime in 2008.

Here’s me the last time I was in Chicago, sometime in 2008.

You’ve still got a spell on me. More than even David Bowie does. The Windy City has been calling my name, and those winds were blowing me back to Chicago. I spent three days in Rogers Park with my friend, Rolfe, who I also haven’t seen in years. There’s a lot to catch up on, and even more to see.

MCA-not just the late, great Beastie Boy

Outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art, this could be the best display of affection on Mother's Day

Outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art, this revolving banner could be the best display of affection on Mother’s Day

One of these places I haven’t seen are cool downtown art museums. In the past, I’ve either been too busy with family plans to get to some of the art museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). On Tuesdays, admission is free for Illinois residents. This is an excuse for Chicago dwellers to see more museums; it’s an excuse for non-Chicago dwellers to memorize some zip codes so they too can get in for free. I loved the MCA, and two of the exhibits in particular stood out to me. The first was a photography exhibit on the first floor, titled Think First, Shoot Later. All of the displayed photographs were actually staged shots, even seemingly spontaneous scenes. The idea is to challenge our notion of reality being truthfully depicted on camera. This one in particular blew me away.

Reminds me of Indiana Jones dad saying, "It's a fake."

Reminds me of Indiana Jones’s dad saying, “It’s a fake.”

Even though this Canadian nightclub looks hopping (and there’s some dude definitely stuffing his face with pizza), photographer Jeff Wall set up this entire shot in a studio. All of this is manufactured. After knowing this, I started looking for ways to tell. All of the cigarette butts are around the same size and pointed in the same direction. It quickly turns into a Where’s Waldo game of looking for discrepancies. From a food photography standpoint, where so much of a photographed dish is manipulated, this exhibit was totally relevant. A steak you’d see on the cover of Bon Appétit gets tweaked with tweezers and is warmed with the camera crew’s flood lights. It’s definitely cold by the time it’s photographed, but the idea is to represent the food at its best. It’s a model you wouldn’t really eat, but I’m always trying to get it to look the same.

Photography by Amalia PIca

Photography by Amalia PIca

The other fantastic exhibit was Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void 1949-1962, which I found out just ended on June 2nd. This was a group of post-World War II painters that got into destructive forms of working. Some of these artists threw exploding paint cans onto canvases, used blowtorches to melt parts of the canvas, and shot BB guns at paint-loaded balloons. They were not pretty, but the paintings are a cool way of putting together art. The Japanese painters, like Shimamoto and Yoshihara, had video of them “performing,” or putting their feet all over their wet paint. It looked like a lot of fun.

Lock Your Doors: Kuma’s Corner

Later on that rainy Tuesday, Rolfe and I checked out Kuma’s Corner, a burger bar in a battered part of Avondale. Kuma’s Corner is the kind of place you’d want to tell stories about. Let’s start with the greeting, a made-up hostess with well-groomed eyebrows and ink tattoo sleeves. From the chin down, she was all tattoos. While waiting to hear about the wait, I noticed a list of rules on the wall.

“No parties larger than four.”

“The hostess is doing the best that she can.”

“If you don’t like the movie being played, DON’T WATCH IT.”

“Choice of side is chips or french fries. We don’t have waffle fries. We never have, we never will have waffle fries. So don’t ask.”

I was still mulling over those when we passed the S&M-themed posters on the wall and heard some guy shredding on guitar. Heavy metal is the soundtrack at the darkly lit Kuma’s. All of the burgers are named for famous heavy metal bands, from the Led Zeppelin topped with bacon to the Iron Maiden. I settled on the Goatsnake, which has goat cheese, fried red onion, and a lemon-Cholula vinagrette. Visualize this:

These guys were my burger's namesake.

These guys were my burger’s namesake.

In the meantime, Rolfe and I ordered a macaroni & cheese to split. The whiskey is on tap there; for patrons, that could cause more problems than listening to Goatsnake during times of concentration. Like brain surgery. The mac ‘n’ cheese there is build-your-own, and it comes out in a platter bigger than Robert Plant’s hair. Ours arrived with our also-tattooed server.

“Mac ‘n’ cheese!” She slammed down the platter unceremoniously and darted off to throw more food or enforce rules. She’d be perfect at either one.

I served out two spoonfuls for both plates, and the server came back, with the unmistakable something-has-gone-wrong-and-the-ball-has-been-dropped look on her face. What did we do? Give the impression of having a four-person party? Was it the cell phone call I took earlier? Should I have snarled my burger order? Is my hair not big enough?

“So. I gave you guys the wrong mac ‘n’ cheese. This is completely different from what you ordered. They’re working on yours now.”

. . .

I started scooping the noodles and all of their potential headbanging glory back onto the platter. Somewhere in the world, a guitar was gently weeping.

“Well, guys, we can’t really serve this plate of mac ‘n’ cheese now.”

I looked at the platter, a nearly perfect presentation except for the spoon-shaped tumor of cheese and noodle, clearly the work of an amateur mac ‘n’ cheese slayer.

“Because of health regulations, guys.”

Oh, yeah, the Man. The Man’s always trying to keep mac ‘n’ cheese from the mouths of enjoyment.

“So, unless I’m mistaken, can we just keep this one?”

“I, uhm, well, sure.” She stammered, as if this had never happened before. She answered us like a parent conceding to a request. “As long as you don’t tell your father, I guess you can wear his shoes and glasses around the house.”

She darted off quickly like before, and we were left with one mac ‘n’ cheese and the anticipation of another. In the meantime, my Diet Coke and whiskey was tasting weird.

Our server came back again. Surely, this time was an even better announcement.

“Led Zeppelin is here right now. We would ask them to sit with you, but it’d make a party larger than four.”

That’s what I wanted to hear.

“Your mac ‘n’ cheese is on the way. Also, that’s just a regular Diet Coke. I’ll go fix that now.”

What a ruse. Well played, Kuma’s Corner.

Our burgers arrived, not with fog machines and Celtic folklore overtures, but in glory nonetheless. They towered over the french fries like heavy metal gods, looking as hedonistic and heavy as the music that inspired them. Rolfe’s Plague Bringer was erupting with a sharp, peppery scent, the kind of smell that lets you know far in advance how spicy your food is going to be. Topped with jalapeños, hot sauce, and garlic guacamole, it was a force of adulterated heat. Not even the rivers of Valhalla could wash down that spice.

The Goatsnake was packed full of a lemon and rosemary wallop, a taste on a burger that has been lost in the dark ages for too long. And goat cheese is so good on burgers.

I think I met my match of the king of burgers, and I’d love to recreate this one. It may take some music to get there though.

This was the best meal in Chicago. Now the Zeppelin line “goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart” might just refer to arteries shaking. Kuma’s is that powerful.

Stay tuned for a Cubs game, a trip to Nashville honky tonks, and my epiphany next to a goat pen.

In front of a nightclub,” courtesy of Jeff Wall and mcachicago.org. All others photos by Tommy Werner

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One Response to ““Via Chicago””

  1. lilyclare June 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    I am so hungry now. thanks.

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