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The Bay Area and Chicagoland

5 Sep

Chicago Downtown, an El train passing by Monroe Street. Photo by Pi Wen

I lived in Chicago for 10 years before moving to the Bay Area, Marcus also spent a good 7 years in Chicago before moving out of the second city.

We now call the Bay Area home, but there’s a part of us that misses Chicagoland. Here’s a nostalgic look back at Chicagoland compared with the Bay Area.

Powell Station Cable Car Turnaround, San Francisco. Photo by Pi Wen

The Weather

Chicago’s winter is cold and long, its summer is hot and humid. But I  can count on wearing a tank top and shorts in the summer without needing to bring a sweater. Bay Area weather is moderate, it has its own season during a single day–morning fog that feels like spring or fall, and afternoon sun that feels like early summer, followed by a deep drop in temperature after sun down, which is akin to a late fall or early winter. No snow unless you go up to Tahoe or up north. Summer in the Bay Area is just as cool as a spring morning in Chicago. Go figure.

The Freeways

The Chicago freeways are named. The Kennedy, that’s I-90, the Edens Expressway, that’s I-94, the Eisenhower Expressway, that’s I-290, etc.  And then there are the diagonal roads like Milwaukee Ave and LincolnAve. When I first moved to Chicago from Ohio, I was always confused by the traffic reporter’s morning update “heavy traffic from the junction to the post office.” Huh?? Which junction and where’s the post office? Why don’t they just use the Interstate numbers? I finally understood that the junction is where I-90 and I-94 meet. The freeways in Chicago are well-labeled, they also give you enough warning before it splits off to another freeway or exit.

However, the freeways in the Bay Area are not so easy to navigate unless you’ve been living here for a while. I remember being lost in the loop of I-580, 980, and 880. I needed to take I-80 west, but from where I was driving, there was no sign of I-80W. I needed to know that first I had to go on I-580W, drive for a while (a long while) before seeing the I-80W sign. Then there’s the sudden merge or change of lane that can be confusing and dangerous. For example, the exit lane for Harrison and Oakland is extremely short, you basically have to move right 3 or 4 lanes if you came directly from the city and were just happily driving along in the lanes labelled Oakland downtown/Hayward.

Nonetheless, I take these confusing lane changes as a challenge, and have committed to my memory when to switch lanes (in advance) so that I can more easily make my exit.

And then there’s the food and restaurants.

The Food and Restaurants

Chicago has bustling neighborhoods that serve up ethnic food in hip restaurants or cozy cafes. Lincoln Square is akin to a little German Town, with an anchor restaurant like the Brauhaus. Bucktown boasts of an array of fun and idiosyncratic restaurants like the Bongo Room. On weekeneds, you’ll see a long line of customers out the door waiting for breakfast. The West Loop has fine dining like the Blackbird and the famous raw food restaurant, Karyn’s; and the theater district has the long standing Russian Tea Room. In Evanston, you can find one-of-a-kind restaurants like the Lucky Platter; their scones are to die for. In Rogers Park you find the bohemian Heartland Cafe, with one side a coffee shop the other side a grocery store. In Andersonville, you have Kopi, a traveler’s cafe, with a wall lined with travel books, maps, and souveniers from around the world. Andersonville also offers Reza’s, a Persian food palace. And we can’t forget glorious Ann Sather’s, a diner in the shadow of Wrigley Field.

Food in Chicagoland tends to be big and hearty, just like the hearty midwesterners. Of course there is fine cuisine, like those offered by Blackbird and Charlie Trotter’s. Food in the Bay Area is more al fresca, with an emphasis on organic, glutten free, vegan, farm fresh, and local ingredients.

One point of continuity between Chicagoland and the Bay Area is Peet’s Coffee. The original Peet’s is still in Berkeley; one of the few Peet’s outside the Bay Area is in Evanston, on Chicago Avenue. Marcus and Pi Wen both frequented the Evanston location.

Coffee is just one part of the Bay Area’s culinary splendor. From artisinal ice cream at Ici or Bi Rite, to vegan/gluten free Cafe Gratitude, the Bay Area has it all.  There’s even Zachary’s Pizza, which does Chicago-style deep dish just as well as any place in Chicagoland. Its wall is lined with authentic looking Chicago street signs: Lakeshore Drive, State Street, and Milwaukee Avenue.

The latest craze: food trucks that offer much more sophisticated fare than doughnuts and hot dogs. There are so many food trucks that they congregate regularly in Civic Center/UN Plaza for the Off the Grid festivals. Mill Valley’s own Tyler Florence, no shabby chef himself, is focusing on food trucks for his latest TV show. We went up to his shop yesterday, but sadly Tyler wasn’t there. Pi Wen was really disappointed. Once, she even dreamed of faking a failed attempt of making lasagna so she could call Food 911 and request that Tyler Florence come to her kitchen to show her how. Yeah, she’s his groupie alright.

Marcus’s year in San Francisco’s Mission District was a culinary delight, with taquerias, creperies, and Belgian fries all within easy walking distance. And that’s not even including the amazing Mission Beach Cafe on Guerrero, which offers an enormous mimosa during Sunday brunch. Coffee abounds too, all down Valencia St, from Four Barrel to Ritual and beyond. Even though the Bay Area is also home to great ingredients for home cooking, it was hard to even try with such good food so close at hand in San Francisco. Now, in Oakland, we do cook more often. But we could just as easily eat somewhere on Piedmont Avenue or up in Rockridge every night.

In sum–Chicago’s roads are better and the food is generous and diverse; Bay Area roads are horrible but the food is amazing. The people are indeed friendlier in the Midwest, and both Pi Wen and Marcus are apt to see Chicagoland–specifically Evanston–as more like home. That’s where Marcus went to college and Pi Wen became a successful professional woman. The Bay Area is wonderful but has not captured our hearts in the same way.


On cooking, cleaning, and learning

4 Jul

Pi Wen prefers eating at home to dining out. Eating out is a social event and a chance to enjoy time with friends. Her default fast meal at home is stir-fried vegetables with Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, steamed rice, and maybe a side of protein–most likely chicken or grilled shrimp.  Marcus typically goes for fish tacos or pizza instead.

How times have changed. Marcus still eats fish tacos sometimes, but he’s discovered a new passion in cooking, gourmet no less.  Of course Pi Wen is very happy that Marcus likes to cook and explore recipes from the Sunday Chronicle. Since we moved to our new apartment, we’ve followed the recipes and made a few yummy meals at home.

First was the southwest salad with couscous. Alas, we didn’t have couscous at home but did possess a box of red quinoa. So we substituted quinoa for couscous and Pi Wen added some grilled shimp to make it look pretty. Marcus took photos and posted on Facebook. Our friends cheered and we were encouraged by the applause. This made the culinary journey easier to continue.

When Pi Wen was out of town for a business trip, Marcus made a corn-crusted lingcod with summer vegetables, courtesy of Lynne Char Bennett of San Francisco Chronicle. But the corn nuts proved to be quite a challenge. Tonight, we tried this recipe again. With the help of a blender, we were able to crush them to much finer texture and the cods got a nice coating of corn nuts.

Marcus, fueled by his newfound passion and with a practical eye toward cooking enough for two nights, added corn chowder to tonight’s meal. This recipe is from the Earthbound Farms cookbook Food to Live By, which Pi Wen recently bought as a gift for Marcus. The bits of bacon and just enough half-and-half made this a flavoful soup without being too greasy.

Pi Wen mostly cooks from what she knows and by improvisation using whatever is in the fridge. She uses recipes but always changes the ingredients, preferring a free flow format to sticking strictly with the recipe. Nonetheless, this joint cooking adventure has led Pi Wen to learn more about food and to develop an appreciation for proper cooking techinques. Before, Pi Wen only knew about cod fish and didn’t know there are so many kinds of cod. Likewise, she only knew squash as squash, but now she knows there’s a kind of squash called crookneck.

Marcus also didn’t know about crookneck until a few weeks ago.  But he is now becoming such a foodie that he smiled with delight upon discovering crookneck squash at the Oakland Whole Foods this morning.  (The first time he made this dish only the vague “summer squash” was available.) Another foodie moment was the realization that the stalks of fennel–called for in the cod recipe–could substitute for the celery stalks required in the chowder.

Despite these gourmet pretensions, Marcus is still learning some basic fundamentals of chopping, slicing, and apportioning.  His home economics training was decades ago, and he has not had much inclincation to hone those skills since.  Cleaning up afterwards can also become a heavy chore, particularly if–as was the case tonight–the recipes call for numerous ingredients.  Over the weekend Mark Bittman claimed that cleaning up after a home-cooked meal only took him 10 minutes, a speed that aroused great envy and suspicion in Marcus’s mind.

So there is a gap between skills and aspiration.  But Pi Wen is a patient and informative teacher, and the pleasures of a home-cooked meal seem ever more obvious as time goes on.  Our friends like the pics when they see our food photos online, and there is indeed a better connection to the land when you cook.  Watch out! Before too long Pi Wen and Marcus could do a full Michael Pollan and kill their own food. (NOT!)

Pollan is from Berkeley, which is not too surprising.  Aside from Pi Wen’s wise counsel about the virtues of a homecooked meal, the Bay Area is the epicenter of “farm to table,” “slow cooking” cuisine. Sometimes the food scene here feels a bit precious, but there is some glory to it.  That’s what Marcus has learned. Now, if only he can learn how to clean up more efficiently.

Quinoa Shrimp               Cod Chowder

Date Night at Barlata

23 May

Image via Wikipedia

We just moved so we have every excuse to eat out since we have not fully unpacked yet. Tonight we were at Barlata for some tapas. Pi Wen loves Barcelona and she’s always up for tapas. Marcus loves patatas bravas, so he’s always game for potatoes.

As we dined we eavesdropped on the young couple next to us. This is not as obnoxious as it sounds, because the tables were very close (of course, Marcus always uses that excuse when he observes people on a date.)  Over the din of Billy Joel and the Beatles, we discussed whether it was their second or third date.  Marcus said second, Pi Wen third.

Pi Wen’s ears perked up when she heard the lady recount her previous dating experiences. As Pi Wen pretended to take a long, focused stare at the basketball game on the corner TV, she tried to make out the details of the couple’s conversation, when suddenly Marcus asked “number two or three?”

Pi Wen instintively knew what Marcus was talking about, she said three because it seemed a little too fast to disclose dating experiences on a second date, which is usually just the first dinner date (after a first coffee date) and the couple would still be checking each other out. The lady would probably not reveal too much so she could maintain some sense of mystery…of course, this is the point of view of Pi Wen and probably influenced by her Asian upbringing.

Marcus was not attuned to these dating subtleties. He did notice that the guy was very gentlemanly and sweet, and that the woman was graciously polite.  Suddenly Marcus recalled a brief excerpt from an essay by Phillip Lopate he read long ago, about how men and women both play their roles in the courtship dance.  This couple–probably in their late 20’s–seemed to have some experience of disappointment in love, but were still very hopeful.

As we were preparing to leave, the couple–sipping wine from their fashionable Temescal glasses–discussed their Myers-Briggs types. The guy, “loves the Myers-Briggs!”  She does too.  This was all said a bit too eagerly, but that made it touching.  During early dates, the couple always agrees with each other. As time goes by, agreement is good but having mutual understanding and respect is even better.

We wish them well and hope they’ll make it to their 3rd or 4th date, and far beyond.

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