Delicious Events

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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Best Bites Chicago

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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Best Bites Chicago

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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Best Bites Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: crab rangoon & Painkiller No. 3, Three Dots and a Dash

Painkiller No. 3, with
Painkiller No. 3, with Bajan rum, Jamaican rum, coconut liqueur, passionfruit, pineapple, and cream

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Three Dots and a Dash has been generating buzz ever since bartender Paul McGee announced last year that he was leaving the Whistler to be involved with a tiki concept. The basement bar finally opened in River North two weeks ago, and it truly is a tiki paradise, down to every last swizzle stick. The drink menu is extensive – and fully illustrated, of course – so for a girl who really likes rum, it was a paralyzing task to decide which tropical concoction to order first, even with a significant head-start while I waited for friends to arrive. I was thrilled with my first selection, the Painkiller No. 3, which was a frothy, just-sweet-enough blend of pineapple, rum, coconut, and cinnamon, topped off by a flower and cinnamon stick. It’s worth noting that every drink we ordered came in a different ornate tiki vessel with its own beautiful set of garnishes.

Blue crab rangoon with four dipping sauces: mustard, chili, sweet & sour, and peanut
Blue crab rangoon with four dipping sauces: mustard, chili, sweet & sour, and peanut

The snacks we tried proved to be a suitable match for the outstanding cocktails. My favorites were the crab rangoon, fried golden-brown with a thin, smooth filling that actually tasted like crab rather than a hunk of cream cheese. I also adored the divided dish of four dipping sauces (chili, mustard, peanut, and citrusy sweet-and-sour) that were versatile enough to mix-and-match with our Thai fried chicken and coconut shrimp as well. I have no doubt that Three Dots and a Dash will become a major River North destination, but I’m hoping that at least the alley entrance, marked only by a single tiki torch, might take the crowds a little longer to find.

Bunny's Banana Daiquiri, with
Another great drink: Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri, with Jamaican rum, spiced rum, overproof rum, coconut liqueur, banana, lime, and nutmeg – plus the dolphin garnish!
Greeted by this wall of skulls on the way downstairs into the bar
Greeted by this wall of skulls on the way downstairs into the bar

The details: Three Dots and a Dash, 435 N Clark St., Chicago.