Monday, January 21, 2008

The Great Hyde Park Bagel Hunt (Part 2) & Thai Restaurant Debate (Part 1)

posted by chicago pop

Sesame Seed, Poppy Seed, and Everything Bagels from Orly's

The best bagels in Hyde Park come from a very strange place. Orly's Restaurant, at the corner of Lake Park and 55th. It's weird, there's no doubt about it. But this isn't a restaurant review, so I'll hold off on just why Orly's left me wondering whether I had walked into a Mexican restaurant (southwestern murals), a Wisconsin trucker bar (those tinted windows), or a strip club (those tinted windows). Or maybe some combination of all three, with a bagel rack perched prominently by the door.

But I came here to praise bagels, not to bury restaurants. And on that score, I don't differ from the reader consensus that emerged from the first installment of The Great Hyde Park Bagel Hunt, that Orly's has the best bagels -- in Hyde Park. And considering that Orly's bagels became available only as recently as 2006, this fact alone represents quite an advance. (See this very helpful review from the Maroon on just where to find the best bagels in all of Chicago.)

So Orly's get's an "A" for effort. In fact, I just enjoyed a sesame seed bagel schmeared with my wife's amazing chopped chicken liver, and am now quite content. But the fact remains that Orly's bagels are still not equal to our chosen baseline, bagels from The Bagel on Broadway. And, though we haven't had a chance to get up to Dempster this month, reader sentiment was that Orly's would have to work even harder to compete with other North Side bagel kingpins: New York Bagel and Bialy, and Kaufman's.

Let's take a look at what we have:

Egg and Sesame Seed Bagel Halves from Orly's Restaurant

Orly's bagels come close to the dynamic tension that must be maintained by any great bagel, between an outer surface that becomes nicely crunchy when toasted, and a doughy, twisty-chewy interior. On repeated tastings, however, Orly's seemed to push that dynamic too far, resulting in a very crisp shell encasing an overly- fluffy interior. As far as the seasonings, I have no complaint; it was only the dough that was a little too bread-ish.

By now it should be clear that anyone offering bagels in Hyde Park has to satisfy a discriminating audience. That's how it should be, and how we intend to keep it. Dining establishments only offer quality product where and when they know it will be appreciated, and they only maintain that quality when they face the continuing pressure of discerning customers (which is why the Thai food in Hyde Park is so poor, but that's another post...)

Orly's has definitely raised the bagel bar. Now we don't have to bend down nearly quite so far to get one. If they keep it up, hopefully we might have to reach up a little.


Raymond said...

Hey now, I happen to think Snail Thai is pretty good stuff. It's not Arun's or anything, but the soups, fish, and noodle dishes are quite nice.

chicago pop said...

The Thai I've had on 55th Street in Chicago is the worst Thai food I've had anywhere, all my life. That includes both coasts of this continent, and Thailand.

Now, we may be willing to say this is OK fow whatever reason, but I think it's a pretty clear fact.

SR said...

I haven't eaten at the other Thai restaurants on 55th in years, but I think Snail is terrific for Thai food in that price range. It has unusually good customer service for Hyde Park too.

It's also the no.1 restaurant that ex-pat Hyde Parkers want to go to when they visit the neighborhood, I've found.

chicago pop said...

Well, the Snail may be the best of the lot, but the lot is pretty sad. Like I said, there may be plenty of reasons to eat at any of them (for ole' times' sake, back when we were poor grads and valued food-by-the-pound; it's the only Asian food in the neighborhood (aside from Noodles, etc. and now Chant, which is relatively recent) that is palatable; my ex and I fell in love there; the waiters don't accost you, etc), but they're still all sub-par.

I'm not into grade inflation for undergrads or for restaurants. There are decent restaurants in Hyde Park -- one of them reviewed here -- but these are not among them. At least not now.

chicago pop said...

I'm thinking a post on Thai dining in Hyde Park, with some appropriate comparisons from the wider Chicago area, might be called for. Time to move on from the bagels!

SR said...

For me, the Asian food mystery of Hyde Park is: Why aren't there any pho places? (I don't even demand a full Vietnamese sit-down restaurant, it could just be a little booth where they hand it out to you through a window or something). You'd think it would be perfect for students because it's so satisfying and good for you but also pretty cheap, usually.

(A couple of the faux pho dishes at Noodles are kind of nice in their own way, but they are not really pho.)

chicago pop said...

the Asian food mystery of Hyde Park is: Why aren't there any pho places?

I started drooling when I read this and I'm afraid I may have trashed my keyboard. But I will persevere through the spittle. A good Vietnamese place/takeout/hole-in-ze-wall would be awesome. There aren't a lot of Vietnamese places in Chicago, really. Just compared to the coasts, and the West coast in general, it's a smaller population and so the food is just not as competitive (to say, so-cal, where it really is like eating in Vietnam). But hey, if anyone is looking for a start-up idea, here is one ripe for the picking. In fact, I was kinda thinking about doing this myself...not Pho, but something else (top secret).

chicago pop said...

I'm still trying to get over the fact that, in a post about Orly's, a throwaway line about Noodle Row caught everyone's attention.

Something tells me this can't be good for Orly's.

Rosemary said...

I like Snail and Siam very well. For those less traveled, I guess, it's pretty tasty Thai food.

Also on the top of my list is Cedar's. Great food at great prices.

What we need in Hyde Park is a deli! A good place to get a corned beef sandwich.

chicago pop said...

I think what's going on here with Thai food is what may be going on with bagels for a lot of people. If all you know is Einstein's, well then they're great! And then Orly's comes along, and shazaam it's bagel paradise. But you've been to Dempster, if not New York, and have a different standard. And there are a lot of people like you who agree that local stuff does not meet that broader standard.

It's the same way with Thai food. However, Noodle Row on 55th can sell what it does because -- surprise! -- they have no competition from better restaurants, or customers who prefer those better restaurants. The Thai that is offered in and around the Vietnamese area on Argyle is much better than anything in Hyde Park. My guess is that this is chiefly because diners up there are more demanding and have more choice.

I don't imagine Chicago will be receiving an influx of well trained Thai chefs anytime soon (too damn cold), so people will continue enjoy what they have grown familiar with, but even so, for the bedroom community of a cosmopolitan institution such as the U of C, the record on our Thai restos has to be set straight. They are cheap and filling. But not great Thai food.

chicago pop said...

What we need in Hyde Park is a deli! A good place to get a corned beef sandwich.

What follows is not shameless product placement, but I happen to know that beginning this week, Orly's is introducing a real deli menu that ranges from matzoh ball soup and kreplach soup to roasted brisket, as well as real pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. Drop by and ask for their new deli menu. I only just found out.

If they know what they're doing and it turns out to be any good, this could be a huge advance for the Hyde Park dining scene. A real deli in HP only makes sense.

It would mean more people eating in, however, and Orly's sorely needs to update it's decor. If they're successful with their deli menu maybe this will give them the cash and incentive to do so.

Czech it out.

SR said...

FWIW, I've had better Thai food in other parts of the city, just not at under $8 an entree. If you're aware of a Thai restaurant that does better in that price range (and I think Snail is much better than just "filling"), I'd love to hear about it.

If it's convenient to get to, I mean. I think another question might be, do you expect all of your neighborhood restaurants to be as good as what you'd travel to another neighborhood to get, or do you accept that not every neighborhood restaurant really needs a Zagat rating to justify its existence? There's also convenience, price, etc.

chicago pop said...

At some point, it's true, what you eat is what you pay for, which is fine. Cheap eats are cheap eats. (Rajun Cajun is way better on that measure, so it is possible). But at a certain point being cheap denatures the food, and then when everyone grows accustomed to that, wow, that's sad.

But why there are 3 such institutions, which give one the impression, as an acquaintance put it, of being served from a common kitchen located somewhere underneath 55th St, is somewhat baffling.

I don't think there's anything really surprising about this reality, though I'd like to see it diversified. (Folks can keep the 3 mediocre Thai places, I'd like to add 1 good one). The ethnic restos on State Street in Madison are uniformly atrocious, as are the dives along Telegraph in Berkeley. The same problem exists with Chinese in most neighborhoods. But it doesn't have to be that way; witness La Petite Folie, product of a U of C culinary adventurer who knows her work will be appreciated. We need a Thai culinary adventurer who knows the same.

We're far from being swamped by Zagat. I think a little more attention from them would only be a good thing.

chicago pop said...

Let me just add that it's not about "pricey" vs. "cheap," humble Snail vs. bourgy Arun's. It's about restaurants maintaining a level of quality that would let them compete with the real deal elsewhere. You can get good, reasonably priced Vietnamese entrees up on Argyle for a steal. But there's a clientele up there that demands that level. Restaurants, like any place else, can take the easy road if they don't think their clients care.

LPB said...

I love discovering the little ethnic gems -- often times small, unpretentious restaurants that offer *authentic* Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Afghani, Indian, Japanese, fill-in-the-blank food for reasonable prices. I'd put Thai Pastry & Restaurant in that category.

Sadly, I wouldn't put any of the Thai restaurants on 55th in the same bucket (though I agree that the service at those restaurants is very good). It almost seems like these establishments have watered down their ethnic authenticity in an effort to appeal to more mainstream patrons. I say this having grown up in my family's Chinese restaurant business located in mid-Michigan. Even though sweet-and-sour chicken was a huge seller through the 1970s and 80s, I can guarantee you that wasn't what the Chinese employees were eating in the kitchen.

Considering how sophisticated and wide-ranging people's tastes have become over the last 20 years, and the fact that we're in Chicago (not a Michigan backwater), I would think there would be plenty of demand for an authentic Thai restaurant in Hyde Park, or on the near south side period.

In my view, there is such a gap in authenticity between the neighborhood Thai places and some of the northside Thai restaurants that it's honestly worth the time/travel involved for me to get there.

J/tati said...

I agree with pop on the Thai places on 55th, which is especially horrible for me as I work on that block and can't stomach any of them. At least a dozen HPers instructed me to try Snail and I've sampled a dozen different dishes there, ranging from ridiculous to mediocre.

Pho would be great, but I'd even settle on Vietnamese sandwiches. But then again, the food forces me out to Argyle a couple times each month, which isn't a terrible thing. A couple of those places are competitive with west coast dives.

J/tati said...

Also, I'd love Rajun Cajun even more if they dropped the frozen samosas and naan!

Otto said...

I'd love Rajun Cajun even more if they dropped the frozen samosas and naan!

I don't think they pretend to make naan.

I have a soft spot for the place because they spotted me a dozen (dried, but I was in no position to argue) curry leaves many years ago, but the one time I ordered delivery, it was difficult to parse. I do not think of saag paneer as a soupy, tomato-based item, for example.

ScottM said...

To get back to the bagels. The one thing I don't like about NY Bagel & Bialy is that they don't have a deli license so that can't smear your bagel for you. (I know its a real petty problem but the first time I was there it was a real shock.) Also their everything bagel doesn't have enough kosher salt on it.

As a defense of Snail I find some of the things they do there pretty good (especially the Hot & Sour Scholars Soup), but the thing that has won my family over is the fact that the owner hugs my daughter everytime we go there. Rajun works to on that level, a few savory items and a lot of daughter attention.

bornatreese said...

How cool would it be if you could eat in on non-styrofoam plates at Rajun Cajun. It always seems to me that they just don't want to rock the boat and risk losing their shirt.

For deli: not in Hyde Park, but not too far away, is the Sinai/Best Kosher outlet at 1000 W. Pershing. You'd get good daughter attention there, too.

Raymond said...

Seriously, chicago pop, I'd love to get your recommendations on where I should go on Argyle St. I've got to try out the food you are so fond of!

chicago pop said...

Raymond: As far as Thai on Argyle goes, LPB got it: Thai Pastry on Broadway. It's not like Bangkok, but it's noticeably better than 55th Street. But if you're up there, forget the Thai and go for the SE Asian. My favorite place in the area for Vietnamese (and maybe j/tati has his own) is the Vietnamese/Laotian Nhu Hoa. Two fu dogs out front, can't miss. Don't go for white-linen table service, go for the food.

Greg said...

Hey chicago pop, you're doing extremely well if that's the worst Thai you've had in your life. Next time you're on the East coast be sure to avoid Cambridge. None of the places I've tried here come close to the Snail.

chicago pop said...

greg: it's sad to hear that it gets even worse; only confirms my opinion that as Asian food goes, one can plot a linear function of diminishing quality along a directional axis moving from west to east.

People tell me you can't get good Thai in NYC anymore.

SR said...

Well, ultimately there’s no accounting for taste, I guess, but I was nonplussed enough by the opinions here about Snail to post a link to it from my personal journal. I’m posting the following collection of comments I got back from Hyde Park ex-pats as a PSA for people who might be persuaded to either deny themselves a great meal in Hyde Park or do an hour and a half of pub trans for a rather disappointing one in a neighborhood that has much better to offer, if for whatever reason they treat all the comments upthread as gospel:

“Personally, I'd rather eat at Snail than Thai Pastry (not that Thai Pastry is bad). I'm not sure what chicago pop's issue is. After all, he doesn't get into any specifics, just that Snail totally sucks and he should know, because he has eaten in Thailand.”

“Same here--and I live around the corner from Thai Pastry. Last time I was there, I made what I thought was a reasonable request for a vegetable side. Marisa would've fulfilled it without an eyeblink (even for someone without Known Client cachet) but the first two waitresses didn't even understand what I was asking and the third did but was unwilling to accommodate me. And on top of that, the food isn't even any better! I've tried the tom yum at restaurants around the city looking for one that's the equal of Chom's and been disappointed every time.”

“I like Ruby of Siam's food better than Snail's, but I'd put Snail ahead of the Thai places I have easy access to in Oak Park and the Loop. And the value of friendly service, especially in HP, can't be overstated. I've always been amazed at their ability to remember P. and me and our regular order, even years after we moved.”

“I used to love Snail when I lived in HP years ago. I had lunch there this past October when passing through the neighborhood and thought they still had the best drunken noodles in the city, at least of the half-dozen places where I've had the dish.

As for Thai Pastry, I have eaten there twice (last time this past summer) and do not understand why people seem to like it. Not being any kind of gourmand, maybe I am misinterpreting the "authenticity" of the cuisine for mediocrity. But I'm pretty sure I correctly identified the lousy service. In contrast, I have always found Snail friendly and efficient.”

I’d second the Ruby of Siam recommendation, (it’s a bit better than Snail, but also a bit more expensive, though not by much), but it has the disadvantage of being way the hell and gone up in Skokie and not very accessible by pub trans. (It was the place we’d stop into when they used to hold the Brandeis Book Fair up in the Old Orchard Mall, so I always managed to get a car ride to it).

Some further prompting from me turned up another recommendation for cheap Thai:

“I absolutely adore Joy's Noodles on Broadway on the north side... it doesn't even bill itself as a 'serious Thai' restaurant, but it essentially is, and they have a unique and flavorful (if less spicy) way of doing things there that I just can't get enough of.”

Tom Yum quest guy thirds the preference for Ruby of Siam over Snail for Thai food in that price range, and adds:

“I also remember a great meal at some Lakeview place favoured by a friend, but I can't recall the name. Indie is better for some dishes, but inconsistent overall. I still haven't tried Sticky Rice, which is said to have them all beat for authenticity.

Pho Hoa used to be my favourite for pho, but now they're under new ownership and the soup isn't what it once was. Pho 777 is where I find myself ending up more often than not these days because they're good in a variety of areas. Tien Giang is very strong overall and may have a wider selection, but it's just a little pricier than other storefronts and doesn't compensate by having the sprucer atmosphere of Hai Yen, which I favour when I have guests in tow.”

(All of the Vietnamese places mentioned above are in North Chinatown, I believe).

chicago pop said...

After all, he doesn't get into any specifics, just that Snail totally sucks and he should know, because he has eaten in Thailand.

Yup. Been several times. That's my baseline.

I also remember a great meal at some Lakeview place favoured by a friend, but I can't recall the name.

If you mean P.S. Bangkok up on Clark Street near the Red Line, I'd say that's even better than Thai Pastry.

Cheryl said...

Ok so it's been nearly a decade since I've been to Snail, but as I recall they have a great Mamasan Curry with substantial potatoes, a rich and flavorful Lad Nar, and decent Pad Thai.

As far as HP is concerned & on the budget of the Proletarian/nazi-hobo/artist type that I am, I can't even afford to eat at Noodles, etc. which I think has the super-est chicken or tofu Pad Thai in the world. Ever.