Day 1: Hopleaf, Map Room, and a delicious soul food restaurant called Big Jones

Chicago in February is cold.  Not ‘get me a light jacket’ cold, either.  More like ‘stay inside and sleep on a heater’ cold.  Or ‘if you don’t have gloves you may get frostbite just standing outside’ cold. Being from San Diego, this was especially challenging.  Nevertheless, it was what I had to work with, so 7 degree weather or not I was going for it.  I’d met up with my cousin (the first of a couple hundred family members I met over the weekend) and pleaded for a stop at one of the places for which I had received multiple friend recommendations.  First up?  A recommendation for a Belgian bar called Hopleaf.

Hopleaf door

The Hopleaf was a fine little place in the north Chicago community of Andersonville.  Owing to this being the middle of the day, cold, and during the work week we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.  The upside of this is that I don’t feel bad asking a ton of questions, taking random photos of things and generally behaving like the tourist I am.  Our server was super pleasant – another bonus of the place not being slammed – and we got to order a few items we might not have landed on.

First up was a kale salad, followed by a catfish sandwich and specialty porchetta that I decided to order in lieu of the mussels, which were really on my mind.

Mescal cocktail

 

Although I enjoy the food while I’m eating it, the truth is I write about it more to remember the experience.  I sat in this recently remodeled Belgian-inspired bar chatting with a cousin I didn’t even know I had until very recently.  Food and drink was the backdrop for a nice way to share stories about life.  It’s like the culinary equivalent of a movie soundtrack, at least in this instance.  My cousin’s uncertainty with the food choices faded away into conversations about growing up a relatively short distance from one another and not having any idea the other existed.  The magic of restaurants isn’t just in great food – though I love enjoying meals for their own sake much of the time.  The real magic is that as long as Hopleaf exists, every time I visit or someone mentions it I’ll get to momentarily relive just a few seconds of that memory.  This point is why the good restaurants take service and details so seriously.  If those things are off, it isn’t just that we won’t give the restaurant another chance in a city with so many options.  It’s that the emotional reality of ruining or compromising a memory means the impact of a bad showing by the restaurant is even worse than it might otherwise be.  The moral of the story is to get it right. Hopleaf did.  They even threw one of these in and helped keep us warm.

Hopleaf fire

I’m glad we started off the weekend with this particular destination, it set the tone well.

With a little time to spare after a few more hours of drifting around the city, I decided I’d check in on a place in the Bucktown neighborhood that I’d heard quite a bit about.

Found a little afro-centric craft beer spot! Who knew

Found a little afro-centric craft beer spot! Who knew

Joke in the caption aside, the above map was on the wall inside the aptly named Map Room – a bar/coffee house.  I ended up making two trips about six weeks apart and just decided to collapse those experiences into this writing.  The first time I went I had very little time, so I only barely got to enjoy the ambiance and a short pour before absconding to the airport.  More recently, I’d decided to use my Divvy bike and ride from the Westin Michigan Avenue to the 606 and then ended up close enough to Map Room that a return trip seemed like a grand idea.  I’ll get into the specifics of riding a bike through the busy streets of Chicago in a separate post, but suffice it to say I was glad I made it back.  On the one hand, the Map Room wasn’t that different than any similar craft/independent focused bar I’ve been in anywhere in the country.  On the other hand, that’s kind of what to like about it.  Well, the music was better.  That’s one thing about craft spots, they seem to cater to the musical tastes of the ownership, so for those of us who might like a little hippity hop or jazz or motown or something with our craft selections, the musical landscape can be a lonely place.  Here’s what to actually look for when cruising down Randolph to find this place.

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After a day of running around town I decided I’d need to squeeze in a dinner before the restaurants stopped serving.  Although I appreciate good recommendations, every once in awhile I also like to just find something and go for it.  I hopped in my rental car, queued up my Waze, and made a bee line for a soul food spot in Andersonville called Big Jones. I didn’t know much of what to expect, but the service was extremely friendly when I got through the door and the people eating looked like my kind of people.  The hungry, food-indulgent, groan over good bites, kind of people. I planted myself at the bar, asked the bartender if he had Mescal, and got started with this

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That would be a paloma variant, one of my favorite cocktails.  I can’t say that I was taking the edge off of anything, as the day had been quite a lot of fun, but I did enjoy slowly sipping and thinking about all that I’d be taking in over the next couple days. Next up was the real reason I came

Big Jones chicken

I’ve had home made chicken, restaurant chicken, family chicken, friend chicken, stranger at a random potluck chicken. Basically, if someone has made a variant of chicken, I’ve tried it.  Shortly after getting married, my wife introduced me to the concept of brining chicken. I don’t want to overstate it, but this really might have revolutionized the chicken game for me.  I don’t know if every restaurant brines chicken, but on the infrequent occasions that we indulge in the friend yardbird at home I have to say that I really enjoy my wife’s use of this technique. But this post isn’t about my wife’s culinary skills, it’s about Big Jones and whoever its cooks are.  This was slightly fancy chicken, I’ll admit, but it was also very good, very moist, and very well seasoned.  That’s really what you want, along with some good texture between the crunchy skin and the chicken itself, right?

As I sat alone in that barstool I relished the fact that I had nothing to think about and in that moment I had nowhere to be.  For most people, I think those stolen moments of peace are few and far between.  Or at least that’s true for me.  I can’t say I contemplated the meaning of anything other than my next bite in those moments.  I did notice several gay couples as I walked in, enjoying their own meals the way couples on date night do. It made me smile to think that places other than my little corner of San Diego have realized the error of offensive behavior towards others for no good reason.  This soul food place was not like many down home soul food spots I’ve been to, but it was comfortable and easy. And the bartender mixed a hell of a drink.  If you find yourself in the northern neighborhoods of Chicago, you could do worse than a trip to Big Jones.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

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