05 October 2009

A foodie interlude — Chicago (part three)

Before I get started, I'd like to welcome all the new readers I've been seeing the last couple of days, as a result of some very kind and generous words of praise and encouragement I got over at My Year on the Grill. This has sent a number of you my way, looking for enlightenment on Persian food and, apparently, pictures of edible dildos. I can't promise the latter, but we got lots of the former. Glad to see you here, and to have your interest and comments. (And for everyone else, go check out YotG. Lots of great stuff over there.)

Okay, so, returning to the discussion already underway: In my last entry, I described the wild meal the Princess and I enjoyed at Moto, Chicago's temple of molecular mischief. The following day, we visited a pair of Chicago institutions, two places which could not be more different from Moto, or each other.

Friday afternoon: Hot Doug's.

Hot Doug's, for the uninitiated, has been a major cult destination for Chicago foodies for many years. In their current northside location (the previous one burned down), they serve up a dizzying array of, as the proprietor says, "encased meat products." That's right: hot dogs.

Hot dogs? Only hot dogs? How, you ask, can something as simple as a hot dog inspire such loyalty among the city's culinary cognoscenti? Cook a wiener, toss it in a bun, throw on some condiments; what else is there?

Fear not, my friend: Hot Doug's will show you the way.

There is absolutely a reason why this place has been a favorite of food people since it opened. Why, every day, there is a line out the door and down the block. Why it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's show a while back (see this clip, starting a little after the two-minute mark). Why bloggers far and wide have waxed rhapsodic about the joint (one, two, three, and Google for dozens more). And why it is a must-visit eatery in the Windy City.

I'll give you a hint: It's only partly the food.

Oh, sure, the menu is spectacular. In addition to the already huge regular listing, there's an ever-revolving lineup of blindingly original special creations posted on the wall as you enter. You've got your regular beef and pork sausages, plus luxury meat (lamb, foie gras), game (elk, say, or antelope), and exotica (alligator, kangaroo). The toppings are elaborate, and sound more like gourmet pizza than hot dogs. It turns out that the long, slow line is a bit of a blessing, because it takes ten minutes just to read the menu, let alone start to narrow down your choices.

The wondrousness of the Hot Doug's experience has been covered in depth on other sites, so I'm not going to talk too much about the food proper. If you click the blog links above, you can review a wealth of pictures and descriptions, covering everything from "Blue Cheese Pork Sausage with Sir William Pear Creme Fraiche and Roasted Almonds" to "Merlot and Blueberry Venison Sausage with Three-Berry Mustard and Stilton-Apricot Cheese." In their descriptions, they sound weirdly pretentious and awful, like trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy California-style overkill. Trust me — they're not. I won't belabor the point, because again you can visit those other blogs (and more besides) for a detailed report on what it's like to bite into one of these masterpieces of gluttony, but the Princess and I can confirm, first hand, that Doug's hot dogs are incredible, and well worth the pilgrimage.

(Naturally, any time a place like this earns overwhelmingly positive notices, garnering effusive praise for high-end treatment of a lowbrow product, it inevitably attracts clots of naysaying cynics, negative natterers who snark from the margins in calculated opposition to the prevailing view. Some take the position that it isn't as good as everybody says it is; others say it's just a hot dog, get over yourselves. For representative samples of the back-and-forth, see the comments sections below the articles here and here. For my part, I'll just say this: I've been to Hot Doug's, and the naysayers can get stuffed.)

So, yeah, the food is really good: fast, original, hearty, and damn tasty. (And also, I should mention, shockingly affordable. The classic Chicago dog was a buck seventy five, fully loaded. The most outré options were maybe eight bucks. And French fried potatoes, cooked in duck fat? Three fifty.) But that's not all that makes this a worthwhile experience. There's one more critical ingredient in the mix — an aspect I haven't really seen any other bloggers or reviewers discuss, but that is, nevertheless, a uniquely ineffable element in the establishment, something that sets Hot Doug's apart and which no other similar outfit can claim:

Doug himself.

Owner-operator Doug Sohn is never not behind the register. He's always there, taking your order, acting as the face of the restaurant, and in general riding herd on the whole operation. On a day he can't come in, or when he's on vacation, Hot Doug's is closed. It's that simple.

And he really does make a difference. When you arrive at the counter, you have maybe two minutes with Doug during which you place your order and complete your transaction, and possibly engage in a little chitchat. Those two minutes could stretch to five, if you're suffering from indecision over the cornucopia of choices, or if you're an idiot who didn't read the menu and wants to order a cheeseburger. And during that brief span, Doug is warm, friendly, and engaging, yet briskly efficient in conducting business. You feel, absolutely, that you're getting Doug's undivided personal attention, even if it's for just a few moments.

Think back to the last few times you got counter service somewhere — Starbucks, the gas station, whatever — and try to remember a feeling that the functionary behind the register actually looked at you as a fully present human being, instead of as the next widget rolling past on the self-propelled conveyor belt that is the service line. And, seriously, can you blame them? They hear the same twenty or thirty phrases several dozen times per hour all day long: it's completely understandable that they'd zone out, and send most of their brain elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that we, the consuming public, almost invariably treat the individual on the other side of the counter as less than a person, and more like an order-taking cyborg, a machine covered in skin and topped with a desperately dorky paper hat. It really is a borderline-inhumane job. Under those circumstances, it's a rational defense for people to go on autopilot.

Doug Sohn doesn't do that. He knows that the service experience is a big part of how you will remember your visit, so he takes responsibility for it himself. You step up to the counter, and he looks at you, greets you, and connects with you. He answers your questions, records your order, and sends you on your way, not mechanically, but person to person. And he does this all day long, party after party after party. It seems utterly exhausting to me, and I have no idea how he does it — but he does, and it is, I am convinced, as much a key to the success of Hot Doug's as the (very high) quality of the food.

He seems to know this, too. He has been asked, repeatedly, why he doesn't open a second location (or more), or why he doesn't outright franchise. It would certainly be possible to ramp up production of the physical product, making more sausages and ordering more toppings and hiring and training more staff. As long as the lines are (our wait was forty-five minutes), and as far as people have to come to visit his restaurant, he could easily double his revenue with another outlet.

Yet as often as people ask him this, he repeatedly declines to consider the possibility. He doesn't want to compromise, and anything that stretches him too thin, as an individual, would endanger what he sees as the essential qualities of the Hot Doug's experience. Maybe this makes him a control freak, that he insists on staying at the counter and serving as the face of the business, and maybe he's leaving a ton of money on the table with this stubborn refusal to be objective about his business prospects.

But he honestly, genuinely doesn't seem to care. He runs his business his way, and he's successful, wildly so. He has hundreds of loyal customers in Chicago, and thousands of foodie fans ranging to points beyond, and the kind of publicity no amount of money can buy — and he looks truly happy to be doing what he's doing. It's hard to argue with that.

And by coincidence, later, we went to a restaurant that, I think, offers an object lesson in exactly what Doug is afraid of.

Friday evening: Frontera Grill.

For over twenty years, Rick Bayless has been bringing to Chicago diners the authentic Mexican food he's encountered on his travels south of the border. His empire has three faces: There's Topolobampo, which has a fine-dining feel (with prices to match), and his most recent venture, Xoco, is a grab-and-go sort of quick-meal eatery. Frontera Grill is the original, the flagship, a mid-priced establishment in the heart of downtown.

Bayless himself is a well-known figure. He's been on public television for decades; his half-dozen cookbooks have been best-sellers; and Frontera merchandise has been appearing in grocery stores nationwide. A couple of months ago, Bayless won Bravo's first "Top Chef Masters" competition. His high profile and relentlessly good-natured promotion have kept the crowds coming at his Clark Street headquarters.

The Princess and I met our dining companions, all three Chicago locals, a few minutes before our scheduled reservation. The hostess told us they were running late, and it would be a little while before we'd get our table. We took the pager and elbowed our way into the bar for a cocktail. The place was jammed, and deafeningly loud, so we wedged ourselves into a corner and ordered, and drank, standing up.

Half an hour after our reservation time, the pager buzzed, and we threaded our way back to the front. The hostess led us on a weaving path through the over-crowded dining room, squeezing past tables and dodging customers and servers in the narrow walkways. We crammed ourselves into a corner table and began reviewing the menu.

None of us ever having been there, the Chicagoans included, we decided to ask our server for advice. She was sweet and fun, and obviously proud to work at Frontera; but she was also clearly overworked, with too many tables on her radar. For example, after she described the entree specials, I asked if she knew the source of the seafood (not an uncommon question from serious diners). She said she wasn't sure, and then paused. I requested that she find out before I make my decision. She composed herself for a moment, clearly aware that this meant another couple of minutes before she could get our order in, and then nodded and went to check.

All through dinner, there was this subtle pressure to keep things moving. It wasn't overpowering, or obnoxious, and didn't really interfere, but it was unmistakable. This isn't all that surprising, because the place was jammed wall to wall with people having a great time. It's obvious that everyone is there for the scene, to have cocktails and chatter and laugh. In this situation, people will sit at a table and socialize, taking their time eating, which plays havoc with the restaurant's reservation schedule. At a place like Frontera, which is popular and in-demand, this creates uncomfortable tension between competing objectives: The restaurant wants to move people in and out, to serve as many parties as possible; but the diners want to hang out and enjoy the boisterous energy. In this equation, the food is secondary.

And that's too bad, because the food is actually pretty good.

Our appetizer starters — empanadas, matchstick fruits with spices, stuffed mushrooms — were all simple and flavorful. We also got a ceviche sampler, which was very fresh and nicely balanced. Our entrees were expertly prepared; the meats were beautifully cooked (even the fish special I chose was perfectly rare, exactly as I'd asked), and the sides were good complements to the centerpiece proteins. Desserts were nice, with attention to texture as well as flavor.

It's a conventional dining experience, to be sure: appetizers, entrees featuring a big hunk of meat surrounded by starches and vegetables, followed by dessert. The difference at Frontera is that the Mexican recipes are scrupulously authentic. (Given my family background, Mexican food is something I know a bit about. I may need to learn Persian cooking, which is the point of this blog, but as far as Mexican dining is concerned, I can tell you, Frontera gets it right.)

The sad thing is that I don't think most of the restaurant's patrons really know the difference. If pressed, I'd be surprised if the majority of the people could explain what distinguishes a plate at Frontera from the roughly equivalent version at, say, Chevys, or another corporate chain offering Americanized Tex-Mex.

Why should I be concerned about everybody else? Why can't I just enjoy the food in front of me, and tune out the rest? Because, as a service business, the restaurant needs to respond to, and take care of, the needs of its diners. And with people coming in just to hang out and party, without much regard for the food as long as it's reasonably tasty, the feel of the restaurant, overall, is drifting toward a fairly corporate experience. This is supposed to be the flagship for the Rick Bayless project, bringing true Mexican food to the U.S., but the individual character of the chef, and the particularity of his mission, is being diluted by the day-to-day reality of the business. This definitely affects how it feels to be there; I had to work hard to perceive the food amid the distractions.

That doesn't mean we didn't have a good time. We leaned in close so we could hear each other amid the hubbub, and we shared bites from one another's plates. We grinned and yummed our way through dinner, and let ourselves be carried away a bit by the energetic environment. At the end of the night, we were quite satisfied; the company was great, the food was good, and the price was right.

But, thinking back, I don't really remember the night in terms of specifics. In a lot of ways, it was less the proud focus of an individual chef's life's work, and more like a higher-end chain restaurant — like a Buca di Beppo, say, or maybe Cheesecake Factory. I wouldn't necessarily choose, myself, to patronize one of those places, but I'm happy to go with friends and family when invited (I'm not a total snob). I just keep in mind that the emphasis will be on socializing, and not eating.

And it's unfortunate, to me, that that's what Frontera Grill seems to be turning into, or has become. Rick Bayless is a better chef than that, and he has one of the world's great (and underrated) cuisines at his disposal. He's not presiding over an empire; he has three restaurants, right next to each other: one fine-dining, one mainstream, one quick-and-casual. And yet it feels like you're in some outpost of a huge chain. Thankfully, what's on the plate is still better than chain food, but danger signs abound.

And right there, I think, is the big, blaring warning that Doug Sohn hears every time he's approached with the prospect of expanding his humble hot-dog eatery into a multi-store culinary kingdom.

And Hot Doug's is exactly what I found myself thinking about as I reflected on Frontera afterwards. The quality of the food at the two places — taken on their own terms, in the sense of what they're trying to achieve — is probably comparable. Still, at the end of the day, I was remembering Hot Doug's with much more fondness than Frontera. And I seriously think that the service experience is what made the difference.

At Hot Doug's, we were face to face with Doug himself for probably three or four minutes; at Frontera, we got personal attention from staff (hostess, servers) for maybe four times that. But I still felt like we really "met" Doug, and were recognized and welcomed, in a way that we didn't get at Frontera. There — again, like at a chain restaurant — we, as customers, were treated as minimized entities, like freight to be shipped to the table, fed, and shipped out. Given the choice, I would much rather go stand in line at the hot dog place.

So what does this have to do with Persian cooking?

There's a concept in Iranian culture called tarof (or "tarouf," or "taarof"). The word itself doesn't have a translation in English; it's a code of conduct governing the relationship between host and guest. It's not about rules of behavior for one or the other exclusively: rather, it defines how both parties are supposed to interact with one another. Basically, the host offers the guest everything in the house, short of the shirt off his own back, and the guest politely refuses all offers, claiming to want not even a glass of water. Host and guest dance around each other, negotiating, in subtext, what will actually be offered, and accepted.

The Wikipedia article is here; or, you can let this very funny British-Iranian comedian tell you about it:

Now, I'll be honest: I've never really understood tarof. I've certainly had it explained to me, but it's been difficult to grasp, mostly because I haven't grown up up with it. For native Iranians, it's totally natural to engage in this implicit negotiation, to do-si-do around one another for a while before arriving at some mutually (and socially) acceptable compromise. We in the U.S. are much more direct: if you offer me something, and I want it, I'll take it; and if I offer you something and you refuse, I won't offer it again. Which makes me, according to the rules of Iranian society, rude and uncultured.

I will say, I do recognize tarof when it's done badly. In one household the Princess and I occasionally visit, the couple divides this responsibility; one of them makes conversation, while the other sits silently, watching the guests with predatory attention, looking for opportunities to leap forward and be hospitable. The problem is, it's done without grace, and is aggressive and ostentatious.

It goes like this: "Would you like some fruit? Yes? Good, here's the plate. Oh, you only had one piece? Perhaps you're tired of fruit; would you like some pastry instead? I'll just shift the fruit plate to the other side of the table, and move the pastries closer to you. Well, now, I don't see you eating pastry. Let me refill your tea cup. You don't want more tea? All right, I'll be back with some water. And as long as I'm up, I'll move the fruit plate closer to you again, in case you've changed your mind. Wait, let me hold the plate right up to your face, so you can get a clear view of your options."

In situations like this, it's clear that for many Iranians, tarof is treated as something of a competitive sport, an opportunity not to simply be gracious, but to out-gracious one another. It's an obvious contradiction — Look how modest I am! No, look at me, I'm the most modest person ever! It's crazy; but it's a core element of Persian culture.

And yet — going to Hot Doug's and Frontera on the same day provided a unique, and illuminating, juxtaposition.

The difference between the two restaurant experiences is simple: Doug, basically, means it. He is a natural host. It takes stamina, obviously, but his personality makes him a perfect fit for his role. At Frontera, by contrast, the hospitality is manufactured, and deployed only to the degree necessary to maintain complacency in the patrons. It's just above the threshold at which diner discontent starts to become a problem for the business.

Some of you will be getting the picture, I think. We don't have tarof in this country, so what's happening at Frontera isn't a perfect match for the Iranian custom, but the clear contrast between Frontera and Hot Doug's helps illuminate, at least for me, what tarof is really about.

As I see it, some people are naturally gracious, naturally generous. Some people, it goes without saying, are not. And most people fall somewhere in the middle.

In the U.S., we're familiar with the experience of, for example, sending out party invites, and hearing offers of assistance from some proportion of the attendees. "Can I bring something?" people will say, or, "Can I come early and help set up?" Other people make no offer, and simply show up empty-handed. And even among those who do make some kind of offer, there's a fraction who fail to follow through on their agreement, and either "flake out" or bring less than they said they would. We're used to this; we simply accept that some people will be pleasant, and some will be jerks (albeit, in some cases, temporarily), and adapt accordingly.

What tarof does, as I see it, is turn this around. Rather than tolerating people's selfishness, it mandates a cultural code of generosity. Elaborate social behaviors have arisen and evolved around the expectation of graciousness.

The reality, however, is that even with such a code, you still have the same basic proportions of people who are naturally generous versus naturally selfish. Some people are genuinely, unaffectedly gracious, and tarof comes easily and organically to them; it's basically how they'd act anyway, and tarof just gives them a consistent framework to organize and channel their energies. Many more people would like to be gracious, or at least want to be perceived as such, but it doesn't happen without effort and conscious attention; for them, tarof offers a clear-cut rulebook they can follow. Their behavior will be a little artificial, necessarily, but at least they're working to fit in.

And then you have the jerks, the people who, in the U.S., say they'll bring beer to your party but show up at the door bringing only a lame excuse that clearly says they had no intention of fulfilling their promise — or the people who, party after party, never offer to help in any way. Maybe, under tarof, it's exactly these sorts of jackholes who make a nuisance of themselves, calling flamboyant attention to their own conduct. Maybe they're the ones who give the tradition a bad name, who deliberately and scrupulously over-observe the expected manners. Maybe this is what creates such annoyance about the whole idea of tarof, per the video clip above.

I could be reaching too far on this, of course; I could be indulging in unfounded speculation about a still-unfamiliar culture based on the lucky happenstance of an interesting experience. Maybe the Princess will chuckle and roll her eyes and say, "Yes, dear, you're very smart," which is code for, stop being a doofus. For now, though, I'm going to treat it as an operating hypothesis, and see where it takes me.

And if I'm not wrong, if it turns out there's something to it, then I'll get to be amused that an insight about Persian culture came about because I had a Mexican dinner after a quintessentially American lunch.

Next, and last in this series: A meal beyond imagination.


  1. My Friend, that was quite a post, and excellent points...

    Please, no insult intended, but 1 suggestion... PHOTOS. They entertain, but they also break up the look of the post. You write with enthusiasm and intelligence. For "just a blog", you are creating an important blog/diary that is exciting to read and imagine where it will go 1/6/24 months from now... you think out everything you have to say and you make lots of points all in one post. If you separate your points into bullet points, break each point with a photo (an original is best, but a generic would be fine also (like grabbing a photo of the front of the restaurant in this particular posts). Photos illustrate, entertain, add another medium to your blog, but they also help to separate your points so that we readers can file away that section and know that we are moving to another section. Then when you tie everything together, we can mentally open those files and agree/disagree or ponder. If all the files run together, we have to either reread the post or give up cause we aint that smart... But that's just me.

    I really enjoyed your point about tarof. I have never heard that word before, I think i am going to start using it more (the word, and the act).

    The rushed through dinner experience really grates my cheese. Especially when the prices would more justify a relaxed leisurely meal.

    OK, now I'm getting long winded. great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Yeah, you're right. In my defense, I was thinking of this series of Chicago posts as an exception from the regular routine, the Persian cooking entries, which feature lots of pictures. Also, in my "mission statement" introduction, I said I wasn't all that fond of "foodie blogs" where the diner is hauling out his camera with every course, just to have pictures for his website. So I didn't want to do that.

    On the other hand, you're correct, the big block of text needs a little visual variation.

    So I scrounged up a handful of relevant pictures from elsewhere on the web, and threw them in here and there. Your point is well taken: It helps the onscreen appearance a lot.

    Thanks again, and no insult is taken; all feedback is welcome.

  3. That's cool you're cooking recipes from a cookbook. At least you won't run out of ideas of what to eat for a while. You should definitely add some pics of your final masterpieces. Glad to see another Seattle-based food blogger.