Delicious Event: Pok Pok Thai pop-up supper club in Chicago

Pok Pok pop-up table setting
Loft-style space with long wooden tables, set with fork and spoon atop Thai paper placemats

Last night, I attended my first Land and Sea Dept. pop-up dinner with two food-loving friends. We bought tickets for the later of the two seatings held in the group’s East Garfield Park studio space (both sold out within hours).

It was the first of this fall’s From Good Stock supper club series, and featured Chef Andy Ricker preparing the cuisine of the Tai Yai / Shan people in the north of Thailand. Everything was served family-style at communal tables, and I felt very at-home among people who appreciate adventurous food as much as I do.

Chef Andy Ricker in the kitchen
Chef Andy Ricker overseeing the plated first course

Ricker is renowned in the food world for the wildly popular Pok Pok Thai restaurants, which opened first in Portland, then expanded to New York and Los Angeles. Pok Pok was at the top of my list when I visited Portland a few years ago, and the chicken wings (and more) did not disappoint.

With a soundtrack of Thai music from the DJ, we opened the evening with a cocktail by Paul McGee (best known for the beloved Lost Lake) that included local Letherbee Gin and one of Pok Pok’s drinking vinegars. It was punchy, fruity, and complex, as McGee’s cocktails always are, and set the tone for the sour-sweet-spicy balance that would persist throughout the meal.

Welcome cocktail and pinball machine, Pok Pok pop-up
Welcome cocktail of Letherbee gin, pineapple, lemon, tamarind vinegar, Letherbee absinthe brun, chili tincture, and mint, with a pinball machine backdrop

The first course was anchored by a fiery dip of sour tomatoes, peanuts, green onions, and a whole lot of chiles. Of all the accompaniments – cabbage, cucumber, and some more exotic herbs and vegetables – my favorite were the knotted green beans. The spiciness of the dip was right at the edge of my comfort level, but I’d prefer an authentic experience over one tamed for Western palates. Lacey fritters made with shallot and green papaya were a deep-fried foil for the chile-laden dip.

Naam pit with crudites, Pok Pok
Naam pit: naam phrik of grilled tomatoes, green chiles, green onions, and peanuts, served with herbs and crudité
Khang phong fritters, Pok Pok pop-up
Khang phong: green papaya, lemongrass, chile, and shallot fritters

The two components of the second course had the same sort of dynamic: one spicy and super-charged; one meant to absorb the other’s impact. The yu choy salad was a textural explosion of crispy shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings, plus more of the sour-spicy ingredients from the dip and pungent black sesame oil. The heat of the salad was tempered by rice balls, gently flavored with turmeric and fried garlic. Eating both together was key to this course.

Phak kad ko salad, Pok Pok pop-up
Phak kad ko: yu choy salad with black sesame oil, phrik kaliang, naam phrik thua, shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings
Khao som rice balls, Pok Pok pop-up
Khao som: rice balls flavored with turmeric and tomatoes, and topped with fried garlic

We paired the first two courses with Double Jungle Boogie, a fantastic imperial IPA from local Marz Community Brewing Co. Then the beer got even more creative: each person was presented with a Thai “jelly beer,” a bottle of Singha lager cooled below freezing for a slushy-like effect (explained here by Thrillist). A traditional elephant-carved barrel gently shakes the beer in an ice bath – here’s an Instagram video of the barrel in action. When the beer is opened, the pressure release and temperature change is what creates the slushy consistency.

And, needless to say, such a cold beer was sweet, sweet relief after two spicy courses. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated an icy lager more than I did at that moment.

Thai jelly beer slushy, Pok Pok pop-up
Thai jelly beer, a supercooled beer slushy
Kaeng hang leh pork belly curry, Pok Pok pop-up
Kaeng hang leh: pork belly and shoulder curry with tamarind and ginger

Then came the third course, whose centerpiece was a luxurious pork belly and shoulder curry. The pork was wonderfully tender and aromatic from just enough five-spice, bathed in a mild-yet-rich broth. Alongside were lightly seasoned, almost creamy rice vermicelli noodles showered with more of the same onions and herbs. The noodles were especially useful in soaking up the leftover pork broth. The course also included a curry of boiled eggs and what a fellow diner described as Thai marinara sauce. Eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce are a staple of many world cuisines (Israeli shakshuka is the buzziest at the moment), and this version fit right in.

Khao sen ko rice vermicelli, Pok Pok pop-up
Khao sen ko: rice vermicelli with fried garlic oil, chile powder, cilantro, green onion, and lime juice
Khai oop egg curry, Pok Pok pop-up
Khai oop: tai yai boiled egg curry

The meal ended the way it began: with a mint-garnished cocktail. This time, cold-brew coffee joined milk, coconut, and Letherbee fernet (a spirit I keep on hand at home) as a sweet and licorice-scented dessert drink. The dessert itself was a bowl of coconut cream, sweetened with palm sugar and dotted with Thai bananas and soft tapioca pearls, which were worlds apart from the larger (and to me, unappealing) bubble tea variety. As a whole, the meal was an unforgettable introduction to ultra-regional flavors that I likely would never have experienced outside of traveling there myself.

Coconut cream dessert and coffee cocktail, Pok Pok pop-up
Dessert of warm coconut cream with palm sugar, sago pearls, and bananas; dessert cocktail with cold brewed coffee, coconut, condensed milk, Letherbee fernet, and mint

View more coverage of Land and Sea Dept. restaurants.

The details: From Good Stock by Land and Sea Dept., 3124 W. Carroll, Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Cameo Kirby cocktail and beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Cameo Kirby cocktail, Cherry Circle Room
Cameo Kirby cocktail with gin, dry vermouth, raspberry, lime, and egg white

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel reopened earlier this summer after extensive renovations, and it’s emerged as the dining and drinking wonderland that Michigan Avenue never knew it needed. When the Shake Shack on the first floor isn’t even the main attraction, you know you’re in for an experience.

Go upstairs, wander through the impeccably styled lobby and down a hallway paneled with the same chocolate-hued wood that’s prominent throughout the space, and you’ll find what has to be the classiest game room in Chicago. Try not to get distracted by the billiards, shuffleboard, checkers, or even the full bocce court, and walk all the way back until you reach the double doors that lead to the Cherry Circle Room. With inviting leather booths, warm lighting, and a strikingly elegant bar, this restaurant has mastered the turn-of-the-century speakeasy vibe that can so easily feel forced elsewhere. But it’s not surprising coming from the Land and Sea Dept. group – I’ve blogged about projects of theirs (Longman & Eagle, Lost Lake, Parson’s) a combined eight times, so I guess you could say I’m partial.

So back to that bar, where I chose the gin-based Cameo Kirby to sip while waiting for our table. It stayed completely balanced between fruity and dry, and was deliciously frothy from the egg white. A simple and delicate drink, for sure, but also probably one of my favorite drinks of the year.

Beef tartare, Cherry Circle Room
Beef tartare with chili, quail egg, aged gouda, and salsa verde

The beef tartare came recommended by the bartender, and seemed like the right kind of throwback dish for the setting. The luxurious creaminess of the quail egg combined with the punchy, herbaceous salsa verde brought the savory mixture together. We spread the tartare on thick slices of grilled bread, whose char added a cooked dimension to the otherwise uncooked beef. Our main courses were just as good, but the tartare definitely set the tone for the rest of the meal.

And your visit to the hotel isn’t complete without a cocktail at Cindy’s, whose 13th floor rooftop boasts what is unquestionably my new favorite view of Millennium Park. Order the rose-petaled “We’ll Always Have Paris,” , lean up against the glass, and soak it all in, whether by day…

…or by night.

The details: Cherry Circle Room and Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, 12 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

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This week’s Best Bite: Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules cocktails, Lost Lake

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules, Lost Lake
Ripples on an Evaporated Lake, with aged Panama rum, aged Trinidad rum, coffee, coconut, and amaro; and Pool Rules, with bourbon whiskey, aged guyana, rum, lemon, curaçao, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and angostura bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve been to Lost Lake at least five times since it opened in mid-January – officially enough to deem it my new favorite bar in Chicago. As fortunate as I am to live within walking distance, there’s just so much to love about this tropical oasis. Immediately upon stepping inside, you’re effortlessly transported to a warmer, happier place. The interior features leafy wallpaper, thatched bamboo, and stone walls, all of which strike an impressive balance between kitschy and fashionable. The retro island soundtrack hits the same sweet spot. And Paul McGee, who left Three Dots and Dash for this new venture, makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.

It was difficult to pick two favorites from a menu that has so many creative options, but these two repeatedly stood out. Ripples on an Evaporated Lake fused four things I love to drink: coffee, rum, coconut, and amaro. In each sip, the coffee and rum hit my palate first, the flavors quickly progressing from sweet to bitter on the finish. The mint and coffee beans were a nice touch as garnishes. Meanwhile, Pool Rules, in its adorable fish-shaped glass, was more bourbon-forward. The rum and bourbon both fell into balance with citrus, bitters, vanilla, allspice, and cinnamon for a complex yet easy-drinking cocktail.

The details: Lost Lake, 3154 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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2014 Best Bite #17: Bone marrow, Longman & Eagle

For the third year in a row, I’m using each day in December to celebrate the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2014, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at year-end Best Bites from 2012 and 2013.

Bone marrow, Longman & Eagle
Roasted marrow bones, bacon shallot jam, preserved meyer lemon, sea salt, and sourdough toast

Why it’s another 2014 Best Bite: Longman & Eagle did a lot of things very well this year; the bone marrow appetizer is one of the dishes that still wowed me time after time. The roasted marrow itself was truly luscious, and the combination of bacon, shallot, and preserved lemon turned it into the perfect spread for toast. It was easy to miss the little spoon of sea salt, but trust me: a generous sprinkling on top of the toast was what launched this dish from great to extraordinary.

View two other Best Bites from Longman & Eagle: one at dinner, one at brunch.

The details: Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

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List: From coffee to cocktails, seven of my favorite sips lately

It’s finally summertime in Chicago, so I’ve got beverages on the brain. Here’s a round-up of a few recent favorites.

Rum cocktail, Homestead on the Roof

With bursts of blueberry, thyme, and lemon, plus lots of ice, this rum-based cocktail was frothy and refreshing.

Rum cocktail, Homestead on the Roof
Rum cocktail with blueberry-thyme, housemade falernum, lemon, and angostura – alongside Homestead’s always-stellar bread basket

Homestead on the Roof, 1924 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.

Cortado, Intelligentsia Logan Square

Once you order this off-menu beverage that combines espresso and milk in perfect balance, you’ll never go back (and, to be honest, this is also what you order if you want to impress a barista!). It was perfect to sip slowly as I lost myself in a great book.

Cortado, Intelligentsia Coffee Logan Square
Cortado on the sidewalk patio, accompanied by my latest read, “The Goldfinch”

Intelligentsia Coffee, 2642 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Mango-orange-kiwi juice with honey, Meli Cafe

I fell in love with this unique tropical juice combination and the added silky sweetness from the honey.

Mango, orange, and kiwi juice with honey, Meli Cafe
Mango, orange, and kiwi juice with honey

Meli Cafe, 540 N. Wells St., Chicago.

Masala chai latte, Reno

I’ve sung Reno’s praises before, but this spicy chai became my new go-to for camping out to get a couple hours of work done.

Masala chai latte, Reno
Masala chai latte

Reno, 2607 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago.

Blood orange Radler, The Radler

This beer cocktail screamed summer, from its fiery orange color to its citrusy, fizzy, and thoroughly thirst-quenching character.

Blood orange Radler, The Radler
Blood orange Radler with Ayinger Brau Weisse and blood orange soda

The Radler, 2375 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee, Longman & Eagle

While there’s no actual chocolate in this draft iced coffee, the cocoa notes and bold, fruity complexity make it the dreamiest of morning beverages, especially outside on the patio with a splash of cream.

Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee, Longman and Eagle
Dark Matter Chocolate City draft iced coffee (on the patio, of course!)

Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

Hot chocolate, La Colombe

Dark, rich hot chocolate is always a treat, but even more so in such a beautifully intricate cup and saucer.

Hot chocolate, La Colombe
Hot chocolate

La Colombe, 1552 N. Damen Ave., Chicago.

2013 Best Bite #11: Brioche french toast, Longman & Eagle

Each day in December, I’m celebrating the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2013, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at 2012’s Best Bites.

Brioche french toast with foie gras frosting, pistachio custard, macerated strawberry, and candied granola
Brioche french toast with foie gras frosting, pistachio custard, macerated strawberry, and candied granola

Why it’s another 2013 Best Bite: Much like Lula yesterday, Longman & Eagle is another neighborhood favorite that inevitably made the list again this year. Any brioche french toast that involves strawberry, pistachio, and granola is already a winner, but there was one last ingredient that took it to a totally new place: foie gras frosting (yes, you read that right). Adding subtle balance to an otherwise sweet dish, this silky, umami-boosted buttercream would have won over even foie-squeamish eaters.

View another Best Bite from Longman & Eagle.

The details: Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

2013 Best Bite #7: Hush puppies and shrimp toast, Parson’s Chicken and Fish

Each day in December, I’m celebrating the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2013, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at 2012’s Best Bites.

Hush puppies with ham hock, cream cheese, scallion, and harissa aioli; and shrimp toast with shrimp salad, creme fraiche, butter lettuce, and avocado
Hush puppies with ham hock, cream cheese, scallion, and harissa aioli; and shrimp toast with shrimp salad, creme fraiche, butter lettuce, and avocado

Why it’s another 2013 Best Bite: It seems like half of Chicago spent their summer lounging on the patio at Parson’s Chicken and Fish, sipping a negroni slushy under the shade of striped umbrellas. While its namesake proteins certainly don’t disappoint, I wanted to spotlight two appetizers that I would go back for again and again: the hush puppies and the shrimp toast. The shrimp salad screamed fresh, with a subtle drizzle of creme fraiche and avocado atop butter lettuce and golden Texas toast. And dunking those perfectly fried, ham hock-and-scallion-studded cornmeal balls into a spicy harissa aioli was nothing short of bar snack heaven.

View another Best Bite from Parson’s.

The details: Parson’s Chicken and Fish, 2952 W Armitage Ave., Chicago.

This week’s Best Bite: Negroni slushy and pimento toast, Parson’s Chicken & Fish

Negroni slushy with letherbee gin, luxando bitter, sweet vermouth, and citron
Negroni slushy with letherbee gin, luxardo bitter, sweet vermouth, and citron

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: This novel Negroni slushy has appeared in basically every Chicago summer/cocktail/patio/drinking article since Parson’s Chicken and Fish opened in mid-May, even called “the coolest Negroni in the world.” The fanfare is justified, though: it’s an excellent Negroni in a fun format, avoiding the watery or overly sweet fate that befalls most frozen beverages. With locally made Letherbee gin and citrusy Luxardo bitter, it’s mellow, refreshing, and just bitter enough.

Toast with pimento cheese, charred radishes, and pea shoots
Toast with pimento cheese, charred radishes, and pea shoots

Snack-wise, I was torn between the shrimp and pimento toast, and though I still plan to try the seafood variety next time, I was more than satisfied with pimento. My Midwestern upbringing didn’t involve a lot of pimento cheese, but especially as Southern-influenced cuisine becomes more popular in Chicago, I’ve now tasted several knock-out versions (including Zingerman’s, my favorite to have at home) and am starting to understand its following. At Parson’s, the pimento spread is smooth (no coarse shreds) and ultra-cheesy atop buttery toast. The sourness and acidity from pickle relish and charred radishes beautifully round out each bite, punctuated by the pea shoots. I also appreciated the portion of three moderate slices, enough to share easily.

Of course, I liked the fried chicken, too – though I found it to be best on its own, without any of the housemade sauces – and the mezcal margarita gave the slushy a serious run for its money. Check out more photos below of the food and atmosphere.

Menu and a margarita, another standout cocktail with el buho mescal, torres orange brandy, orange & lime juice, maguey sweet sap, and a sour patch rim
Menu and a margarita, another standout cocktail with el buho mescal, torres orange brandy, orange & lime juice, maguey sweet sap, and a sour patch rim
The interior bar at Parson's, with the negroni slushy machine in the center
The interior bar at Parson’s, with the negroni slushy machine in the center
The namesake fried chicken
The namesake fried chicken
Funnel cake with honey, brown butter, and green peppercorn brittle
Funnel cake with honey, brown butter, and green peppercorn brittle
Striped umbrellas & picnic tables on the spacious patio
Striped umbrellas & picnic tables on the spacious patio (prepare to wait on weekends)

The details: Parson’s Chicken and Fish, 2952 W Armitage Ave., Chicago.

2012 Best Bite #13: Kentucky-fried quail, Longman & Eagle

Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.

Kentucky-fried quail
Kentucky-fried quail

Why it’s a Best Bite: It’s tough to pick just one dish from Longman & Eagle, one of my very favorite restaurants, but this one especially wowed me. The Kentucky-fried quail was nicely battered and juicy, covered with just the right amount of peppery country gravy, but it was really the crumbles of foie gras-enriched corn bread that put the dish over the edge. That unlikely union of two of my favorite flavors made every bite sing. And let’s face it: everything tastes even better at an outdoor table on a perfect early-summer evening.

The details: Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.