The Delta meets Chicago

Mis­sis­sippi red hot tamales are the link be­tween north and south at the new Wicker Park barstau­rant.

Chicago Sun-Times - - SUN-TIME AGENDA - By MIKE SULA @ MikeSula

Chicago is kin to the south. No other U. S. city has more ties to the lower half of the coun­try, specif­i­cally the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, aka the Most South­ern Place on Earth. All you have to do is spend ten min­utes in the pres­ence of Yoland Can­non to un­der­stand this. On the 900 block of North Laramie Av­enue, Can­non is the Ta­male Guy. No one talks about Clau­dio. Most af­ter­noons, weather per­mit­ting, he sells Mis­sis­sippi Delta- style tamales from a yel­low cart parked on the side­walk: ground- beef- stuffed corn­meal magic wrapped in husks and sim­mered in an oily, peppery brew that de­liv­ers the same im­me­di­ate sen­sory im­pact as a shot of whiskey. Many of his cus­tomers grew up eat­ing them in Mis­sis­sippi towns such as Greenville, Le­land, and Vicks­burg.

Eldridge Wil­liams also comes from the Delta— the very tip of it, ac­tu­ally, in Mem­phis. He’s opened a small Wicker Park barstau­rant in trib­ute to the re­gion called, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, the Delta. Wil­liams, a front- of- house vet­eran ( for­merly of Girl & the Goat and nu­mer­ous other spots), is very likely Can­non’s only lo­cal com­pe­ti­tion. He and chef Adam Wendt, late of Dusek’s, Salero, and Bangers & Lace, are of­fer­ing a menu that cen­ters on the Mis­sis­sippi Delta red hot ta­male. ( Not “tamal.” This isn’t Span­ish.)

Wendt has fairly faith­fully re- cre­ated and up­graded the i conic orig­i­nal snack us­ing ground beef brisket en­robed in soft “cush,” aka corn­meal grits, sat­u­rated with a sim­mered tomato brew spiked with chile and gar­lic. These come in bun­dles of three, with saltines on the side to take ad­van­tage of their spread­abil­ity. If Wil­liams and Wendt had stopped right there, they’d have sold me. But a young restau­rant doesn’t grow on nos­tal­gia alone. There are also a se­ries of cheffed- up vari­a­tions on the Delta ta­male, from ve­gan red hots made with mush­rooms to braised chicken thigh tamales drib­bled with off- the- cob elotes and grilled shishito pep­pers to a Mediter­ranean- tinged ta­male with lamb mer­guez over­whelmed by feta cheese, pick­led onions, spicy green harissa sauce, and crispy fried chick­peas. ( Is that a ta­male or an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent?)

Ac­tu­ally, there are two ta­male con­struc­tions on Wendt’s menu that are even more con­tro­ver­sial, with the po­ten­tial to raise the hack­les of afi­ciona­dos of the en­demic foods of the south— south side, that is. The ten­u­ous con­nec­tion be­tween Delta tamales and mass- pro­duced lo­cal com­mer­cial brands such as Tom Tom is best il­lus­trated with the in­fa­mous mother- in- law sand­wich, com­monly a Chicago- style ta­male ( likely a Tom Tom) cra­dled in a hot dog bun smoth­ered in chili, as ex­e­cuted by Bridge­port’s John­nie O’s, the mother- in- law’s am­bas­sador to the world thanks to an ap­pear­ance on An­thony Bour­dain’s No Reser­va­tions. The law of the mother- in- law al­lows for slight vari­a­tions, yet I think Wendt’s de­ci­sion to en­tomb a deep- fried ta­male in a blimpy Mex­i­can bo­lillo un­der an avalanche of Chicago dog top­pings se­ri­ously vi­o­lates it. Along with the ab­sence of the crit­i­cal lu­brica­tive prop­er­ties of chili, this dense, dry carb bomb is tough to swal­low.

On the other hand, his ver­sion of the Jim Shoe— the slightly more ob­scure south- side sub- shop spe­cialty in­volv­ing a chopped and grid­dled hash of corned and roast beef, gyro meat, onions, and cheese plas­tered into a sub roll with ice­berg let­tuce and pink tomato, then pumped with “GUY- ro” sauce and mayo or mus­tard— is a redemp­tion of some­thing that very fre­quently man­i­fests as a sloppy dis­as­ter of a sand­wich. Wendt uses an im­prob­a­ble com­bi­na­tion of lamb and beef tamales as the plat­form, pil­ing them with smoky caramelized chunks of house- made pas­trami, pro­volone, let­tuce, tomato, gi­a­r­diniera, piquillo pep­pers, and “d. a. f. sauce,” a house blend of Thou­sand Is­land and spicy re­moulade. It’s a mess, but a de­li­cious and beau­ti­ful one.

The re­main­der of the menu dab­bles in gen­er­al­ized south­ern stan­dards, many of them deep- fried. Dur­ing my vis­its the small, open kitchen near the rear of the din­ing room wasn’t on its best fry game. Hush pup­pies, served with a Pepto- pink red- onion aioli, were sod­den with oil though crunchy and scar­fa­ble. The breaded ar­mor on fried green tomatoes shat­tered at a touch. A fried half chicken ar­rived at the table one evening bleed­ing raw bat­ter un­der its crispy skin. The house reme­died this sit­u­a­tion with a freshly fried bird, but the amount of fry­ing medium that left the kitchen that evening re­quired a thor­ough post pran­dial hos­ing off.

On the other hand, fried chicken- liver rice with mush­room and ba­con is less a trib­ute to south­ern- style dirty rice than it is to Chi­nese fried rice, but ei­ther way, you’ll want it. Vine­gary braised greens stand out with a dose of nduja, and pa­prika- caramel- glazed baby back ribs are a di­vert­ing but en­joy­able mandibu­lar ex­er­cise. The best thing on the Delta’s menu is a sleeper: a whole grilled cat­fish smoth­ered in a rich- bod­ied beurre monte sauce pow­ered with lemon and chicken stock and sea­soned with chiles and co­rian­der, all of which mar­ries per­fectly with the fatty white flesh.

Beignets and a cu­mu­lus ba­nana pud­ding, short on ba­nana and con­tain­ing enough undis­solved gran­u­lated white sugar to em­bar­rass Paula Deen, made up the lim­ited dessert menu ( the lat­ter has since been 86’ d). There’s also a po­tent rum- amaretto- orgeat liq­uid fin­ish by bev­er­age direc­tor Adam Kamin, who’s also re­spon­si­ble for a lineup of icy smashes that are com­plex and re­strained in sweet­ness, such as the herba­ceous Fer­net Me Now and the in­tox­i­cat­ing Lor­raine, with ab­sinthe and sherry.

Chicago’s affin­ity for the south re­sults in a restau­rant scene awash in ( with no­table ex­cep­tions) kitschy, un­con­vinc­ing adap­ta­tions of re­gion­ally un­spe­cific food. I won’t say the Delta is any more faith­ful to its in­spi­ra­tion, but the cozy space has a vibe: a young, di­verse staff and crowd that keeps things as loose as the menu. While it needs some ex­e­cu­tional ad­just­ments, the Delta’s a fun in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the food of Chicago’s south­ern cousins.

NICK MURWAY

The Delta’s take on the moth­erin- law sand­wich is a deep- fried ta­male in a Mex­i­can bo­lillo un­der an avalanche of Chicago dog top­pings.

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