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Around the horn: Benjyahuda, bananas, belly and bumpy cake

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Banana bread pudding from Happy Bodega (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Just wanted to share a couple of thoughts (and bites) from the past week. ‚ So far, none of the mobile food trucks in Chicago are able to prepare food “on the road.” ‚ They’re all using commercial spaces, such as Kitchen Chicago and Logan Square Kitchen to prepare their food, then they’re loading up the trucks and selling their goods. ‚ While they all hope for a new ordinance allowing for mobile food prep (and Hummingbird Kitchen in Evanston is awfully close, since their city council has passed such a law), for now, they’ll just have to bring along the best they can. ‚ Most of the Chicago trucks are doing sandwiches, but one of the best things I’ve tasted has actually been dessert. ‚ Happy Bodega is selling what is definitely one of the best versions of banana bread pudding in town: light, intense, jammed with bananas and utterly impossible to stop at one or two bites.

shawarma, ganoush & the works from Benjyahuda (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

My friend Matt - who works in the Loop - has been telling me about Benjyahuda for some time now. My other friend Brian has been doing the same, comparing this hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern fast food joint with a Chipotle-like layout and a devotion to seriously fresh food. ‚ A constant line means high turnover, and the chicken shawarma is as good as anywhere downtown: juicy, flavored with garlic and sliced thin, you can get it packed into a Bento box of sorts at lunch, overloaded with crunchy purple cabbage, tart pickles and creamy tahini draped over the moist pieces of chicken.

Pork belly pizzetta with apples at Deca (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Has pork belly jumped the shark yet? Doesn’t really matter. Chefs keep showing their love of this fatty portion of pig, and at deca - the revamped cafe inside the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel - Chef Mark Payne is in the midst of rolling out his new Fall menu. ‚ One of the first priorities: get some of that cured belly on a plank of baked dough, coat it with shards of crisp apples and fresh greens, like baby arugula, and then offer it as a hearty starter. ‚ I could seriously make a lunch out of this well-balanced dish.

Vietnamese spring roll from Saigon Grill (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Jefferson Park isn’t exactly Uptown when it comes to ethnic cuisine, especially flavors from Vietnam. ‚ Saigon Grill isn’t going to lure anyone away from Argyle, but if you’re in the neighborhood - or perhaps a CTA bus driver just getting off work at the end of a shift in the nearby terminal lot - and you’re craving a bit of g¡»i cu¡»"˜n, you’re in luck. ‚ The menu is an amalgam of egg foo young and fried rice, along with a few Vietnamese items like those spring rolls, as well as bahn xeo - the traditional rice flour crepe stuffed with shrimp and pork. ‚ The rolls are as good as anywhere on Argyle: plump shrimp, shards of cooked pork and bean sprouts, all wrapped up in rice paper with fresh basil and a ton of mint leaves. ‚ The crepe didn’t fare as well, a bland plate yearning for spice, lime and salt, but if you’re in the area, it’s a fine alternative to the chain fast food options.

Pound cake and “bumpy” cake from Big Ed’s BBQ (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

I’ve sung the praises of Big Ed’s BBQ in North Chicago on occasion, and while the brisket I had last night wasn’t so great, the ribs, mac and baked beans were more than splendid. ‚ However, any trip to Big Ed’s should also include an order of pound cake, and another of the homemade bumpy cake. ‚ The former is the best in its class. ‚ Sara Lee should just buy the recipe and take it global, because you won’t find another version that can beat it. ‚ The bumpy cake begins with a base of moist chocolate cake, which is poked with a tool to allow for maximum flavor seepage. ‚ Then a sweet, nutty, warm frosting is poured over the top, oozing into the cake and hardening over the top. ‚ Probably not a good idea to eat an entire slice in one sitting, unless maybe you’re off to train for the marathon next week.

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