The Chicago show is at the Hideout, where I am told we played seven or eight years ago. It feels cozy and lived in, like a neighborhood bar in Queens. The room is big and we’ll be playing with Tasha and Michael Albert, both people we know and like. It promises to be a good one. We’re all hungry, and the promoter passes around a menu for Sultan’s Market, a nearby Middle Eastern spot. I order a lamb shawarma plate with lentils and rice, tabouli, hummus, and pita. It is huge and costs like eight dollars.
This is goddamn delicious. I highly recommend Sultan’s Market to the hungry traveler in Chicago. Hummus perfectly creamy, with a dash of sumac on top. Sumac is a game changer, hard to find in stores but worth getting a hold of if you cook. I only learned of its existence a year or so ago. It is kind of like citrus meets an oily leaf like rosemary or sage and goes nicely on savory things, plus it’s a striking color. Tabouli is the same everywhere, never particularly exciting nor disappointing. It does the job. But this lamb and rice is next level. Heavily seasoned and cooked just right. Lentils and rice the right amount of al dente, nicely moistened with lamb juice. You could make two meals of this if you wanted, but I am hungry.
Tasha goes on first. Julian and Carlos met her on tour with NADINE a few months back. She radiates good vibes, she plays guitar and smiles with her whole face and her voice sounds like she’s sharing a private joke with you. It’s just her and her guitar and she easily commands the attention of the room. Warm, inviting music. Next up is Michael Albert, which is not just Michael but also a band. We’ve run into Michael a few times on tour and also in New York, and he’ll be our local host for the evening. He plays in Thin Hymns and also works with Manual Cinema, a sort of mixed media performance group that does these intricately crafted shadow puppet shows. Dorthy and I saw him perform back in New York and it was top-notch. He’s a fantastic guitarist and has a beautiful voice, you could probably put him in any musical situation and he’d be fine. The set is excellent, of course. So is ours, if I may say so myself. I love this room. It’s a fantastic crowd considering it’s Sunday, and I see a lot of familiar faces. People buy stuff, which at this point is exciting mostly because we’ll have less stuff to carry than because of the money. We even get a surprise appearance by Jonah’s parents, who graciously allowed us the use of their house to record Moon 2. It’s always nice to see the parents at the show. A successful night all around. I am deeply saddened to learn that LiveNation just bought the entire neighborhood and is going to open five concert venues there. If The Hideout survives it will be irrevocably changed. I’m glad we got a good show in while we can. I guess the lesson of our time is that if you enjoy something you should brace yourself for a corporation or the government to destroy it. Just always be mentally prepared for forces greater than you to make your life worse in measures large and small. The wave of shit engulfs all things and it is your ethical duty to yourself to enjoy things as much as possible until then. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Before we go to Michael’s we make a stop at his studio to load out gear. There are carts and a freight elevator and everything. His studio is full of cool shit. A harp, an upright bass, a Wurlitzer. Next door is what he describes as a “punk marching band” and this is also where Manual Cinema is headquartered. Next door is a dog store, which I am disappointed to see merely sells items for dogs and contains no actual dogs. We settle in back at Michael’s place, which is large and cozy. After a few weird sleeping surfaces all I want is the floor. Michael insists on getting me a comforter to lie on top of. This mummified bat watches over us as we sleep.
In the morning, Michael makes us coffee and prepares a little platter of fruit and nuts. This is advanced hosting, just above and beyond. Even more exciting, he’s going to take us to his favorite Mexican place in town. I hadn’t heard a lot about Chicago Mexican food not being from there, but it’s apparently on par with the West Coast. When I told the lady who makes us our burritos on rehearsal nights we were going to Chicago, she said it was very good there. And Michael’s a local, he knows things. This is the sort of situation I look forward to on tour, getting taken somewhere I’d never find on my own.
La Chaparrita does not disappoint. They only do tacos and huaraches, and a wide range of aguas frescas and shakes. You can buy some basic grocery items there and also candy and toys. There is a shrine to Santa Muerte by the door and some religious items like candles and oils. Michael recommends the tepache, which I’ve never heard of before but looks important. It has its own little place on the menu separate from the other drinks, and it’s the only one you can get a gallon or half gallon of to go.
Tepache is fermented pineapple juice, but that description does not prepare me. It’s more like apple cider than anything else, taking on a dark reddish-brown color that in no way resembles pineapple. It has a faint acidity and fizz like kombucha. The pineapple flavor is actually very subtle. It’s pretty sweet but very refreshing and nicely balanced. One sip in, I know I’m getting a half gallon for the road. I have to find this shit back home.
The food does not disappoint either. Whenever I am at a good Mexican place I think “here is a place I can get lengua and it will be tasty and not gross,” and the lengua is indeed tasty and not gross. Just the right amount of chew without being tough. As I had hoped, the tacos are small and four is not an insane amount to order. I also try molleja, which is sweetbreads, because I’d never seen that at a Mexican place before and I trust this place to do it properly. My only other sweetbreads experience was at Sammy’s Roumanian in New York, where they are broiled and served with lemon. This taco seems to be just boiled, but the flavor and texture are spot on. It’s soft and rich like meat-butter. Not wanting to overdo the weird stuff, I also get old standbys carne asada and al pastor. This is the best al pastor I have had in a long time, with a great balance of fatty and crispy bits caramelized by the heat. Carne asada has a heavy char and is one perfect chunk instead of a bunch of little ones. I also try a bite of Michael’s tripas, which are fried to a perfect crisp, and a bit of suadero, and Becca’s huarache with nopales. I tend to sleep on huaraches, but now I get it. It’s a big open-face taco with more sauce and sufficient thickness to absorb said sauce. La Chaparrita also has the rare distinction among small Mexican restaurants of being really good for vegetarians, offering not just one but all three of the major Good Mexican Veggies: flor de calabaza, nopales, and huitlacoche. Is huitlacoche technically a vegetable? Sound off in the comments. The only thing that isn’t head and shoulders above anything you can find in New York is the tres leches cake. It’s good, just not as good as Plaza Biaxtla on Seneca and Gates, which remains the best goddamn tres leches cake available anywhere. But overall a fantastic Mexican food experience. Even better, our server wore this adorable cartoon Frida Kahlo apron, also available for sale.
Sated, we hit the road. Today will be a day off, our only one on this tour and long overdue. One a week would be a good target for next time. The plan is to go to the Indiana Dunes, a state park with a beach that is on the way to our next stop in Columbus. We have secured an AirBnB in New Buffalo, Indiana for the night. The dunes live up to our expectations. The sand is fine and pillowy and it’s a perfect cool temperature outside. I mostly just lie on the sand and nap. I go in the water for a bit and am promptly devoured by biting beach insects. Worth it. We stay until the sun sets and then set off in search of food.
There is a brief moment of panic when we realize no one can remember the restaurant Michael recommended in the area. We’re looking on Google Maps and it looks pretty bleak. Lotta pizza, which no way is that any good around here. Lotta overpriced seafood, and Mexican, which we would maybe consider had we not just eaten a lot of the best possible Mexican. We got a tip to check out Miller Beach, but everything closes at 8. Shit, are we going to have a wack meal on our celebratory day off? Michael comes to the rescue and texts us back. We are going to Volstead in Chesterton, IN.
Volstead is a weird little oasis of good food surrounded by not very much at all. What is this place doing here? It reminds me of some of the older restaurants out in the Hamptons, like the Old Stove Pub. It’s in a building that clearly used to be a house, and is oddly cheap for how fancy the food is. Jackpot. They bring us some cheesy popcorn in little skillets to start and we get a bunch of things to share. I am pleased to see they have Malört and get one, chased with a tallboy of High Life. The pairing of intense/bitter aperitif and bland beer should be more of a thing, it is greater than the sum of its parts.
We get a burrata, which is served with pickled raisins. I don’t generally get down with raisins but it is delicious. We get some mussels and sausage, extra bread to soak up the broth. Some pork in a sort of milk-based gravy, tender and fatty. A beet salad. Some amazing brussels sprouts, first boiled and then the outer leaves removed and fried, drizzled with a garlic aioli. Some salmon with more mussels. A small bowl of chili mac to fill in the cracks. This could have gone so badly, every town with more than a thousand people in it has a shitty New American restaurant that throws around words like “farm” and “craft” these days. But Michael wouldn’t steer us wrong. Everything is delicious. I don’t know what set of circumstances would bring my average reader to Chesterton, Indiana but this place is a gem. Drinks are oddly cheap and you can bring your dog.
The AirBnB is cozy and has a backyard with a gas fire. There’s a little guestbook that tells the story of the place, how one of the owners survived cancer and then met the other owner and they got married and bought this place. It is called the Soulshine Inn, based on a Warren Haynes song, which is quoted in the guestbook. The whole thing is extremely cute. Plus, knowing exactly what is up, our hosts have left us the makings of s’mores. I make a round of cocktails: 2 ounces rye, 4 ounces tepache, a lemon wedge, two or three ribbons of cucumber. Muddle the rye with the lemon and cucumber, stir in tepache, add ice. Delicious, even without the rye. We sit outside and eat s’mores for a while, some chopsticks we found in the house as skewers. My s’more technique is refined from many visits to my grandparents’ fireplace as a child. I take one square of Hershey’s chocolate and push it into the flat side of the marshmallow until it sticks out both ends. Then I sort of balance the chocolate atop the skewer to keep it from falling apart, and keep the marshmallow as close as possible to the flame without burning it. The idea is to get the chocolate melted and the inside of the marshmallow soft. Once it’s there, I put it in the flame to get a little char on it. Then I eat it open-faced on half a graham cracker. You can consume more this way, since you’re taking in less graham cracker and chocolate, and each one is more satisfying. Chocolate gone, we go back inside to doze in front of the TV. A relaxing evening, much needed.
Our next stop is Columbus, home of Street Fight Radio, my favorite podcast to listen to while cooking. Columbus has a nice vibe. We get a bougie lunch at Northstar, a sort of fast casual healthy type restaurant. I get roasted chicken and avocado sandwich with sweet potato fries and it hits the damn spot. The sweet potato fries are interspersed with sprigs of rosemary and little chunks of fried garlic. Everyone should roast their chicken instead of grilling it, it’s juicier and more flavorful and a much nicer texture. Grilled chicken is bullshit, always, and there is no culinary situation in which it is preferable to any other protein. Anthony Bourdain could come back from the dead and make me grilled chicken and I’d say man, what is this shit? Props to Northstar for acknowledging what we all know in our hearts to be true. It’s a little expensive for how much food it is but worth it at this moment for something fresh and not crazy bad for me. I guess I could have gotten a salad instead of fries, but sweet potato fries are hard for me to resist. We sit at Kafe Kerouac for a while, a coffee shop with old furniture and stickers everywhere. If I were older I could get away with calling it “funky.” The iced chai I get is basically milk with a dash of syrup but the vibe is nice. Ohio has a lack of pretension I find refreshing. Joke’s on me for getting a damn iced chai here I guess.
The show is fine. It’s the dreaded four-band bill, with three of us being from out of town, so it’s a late one. Most shows on this tour have been three or even two, which is much more civilized. A four-band bill guarantees that you will make less money and stay out later. There are some old heads in the front singing along, though, which is always a treat. When you’re playing a small and mostly empty room it is crucial to be reminded that what you are doing is important to people somewhere. That shit warms my heart. I am pretty sleepy, having opted to hang late last night rather than sleep at a reasonable hour. So when Carlos’s friend Jordan secures us two places to stay, one for going to hang out at a bar and one for just sleeping, I jump on the sleeping one. I stretch out on the couch and laze. It is much needed.
In the morning we go to visit Jordan at her work, the Cambridge Tea House. This place is pretty weird. My paternal grandmother would have loved it. It is an English-style tea place where you can get High Tea with the little finger sandwiches and whatnot. Based on the clientele it seems to be where older ladies in Columbus go when they want to feel a little fancy. Also there are some plastic tiaras, so I guess you take your kid there when they’re going through their obsession with British things phase. Jordan has set a table for us and waits on us personally. I do feel kind of fancy. I get some scones with jam and clotted cream and a pot of strong black tea. Clotted cream is a truly disgusting name for a delicious thing. If it were American it would be called sweetfluff or something by now. I remember the problem with scones, which is that one is too little but two is way too much. I am stuffed with dough, and I would love some raw broccoli and a hard-boiled egg right now, but it’s time to set out for Cleveland.
It’s a short drive, and we stop near the venue at an Italian place Caffè Roma. At first we just plan to get espresso, but thinking ahead we get some food too. The venue tonight has a kitchen but it’s all burgers and wings. I get an Italian wedding soup, which hits the spot. Becca observes that this is basically the Italian version of matzoh ball soup, which is right on. Julian says the one at Rosa’s back home is his favorite. I only ever think to get a grandma slice or a sfingione at Rosa’s, and I make a mental note to try it when we’re back. It’s funny that something once associated with a special occasion is now available at every Italian restaurant in the world.
Carlos and I also split a sausage and pepper sub, which is served with quite possibly my favorite plating I have ever seen.
Is this a threat? Jeez. I also love the juxtaposition with the still-bagged chips. The sandwich is pretty good, nothing remarkable. We also share a garlic bread, thoughtfully served with dipping marinara. Sated, we head off to the gig at Mahall’s.