Tag Archive for food

Nature Has Selected Me to Die

Okay, so maybe it’s not that bad.

Here’s the deal: I have several friends who get all choked up when the plants start having sex. The trees and grass start spraying their loads in the air, and these poor bastards start coughing and wheezing and sneezing. I often tell them, “Nature has selected you to die.”

Now it’s my turn. A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with a handful of food allergies. Actually, the nurse’s exact words, “I’ve never seen this many positive reactions before.” Broccoli is on the list, which made happy (never could stand the stuff), but so are things I’d been eating most of my life, like tuna, salmon, soy, and even tomatoes.

Understand, I was raised on pasta twice a week and pizza at least once a week. When we moved out of the Chicago ‘burbs and couldn’t get good pizza, my mom drove the good stuff an hour home after work. When the pizza joint found out what she was doing, they gave us one of their delivery warmer bags, free. If there’s anything I’m immune to, its should be any member of the nightshade family.

Yet here we are. The short version is when I eat stuff I’m allergic to, my esophagus has the same reaction as my friends’ windpipes when they inhale pollen: white blood cells rush to defend our body from the wicked invaders and everything swells up. I’ll get heartburn, and if I keep exposing myself to these things, my esophagus can swell up to the point food gets stuck. Too much swelling, and I’ll have to hit an ER to have it extracted.

Fun, right? Oh, and if it goes on too long and goes untreated, there’s always the possibility it could turn into esophageal cancer. Metal. \m/

The treatment after my initial diagnosis was to avoid all the allergens, take Omeprazole, and to use the same inhaler as the pollen-allergic crowd. Instead of inhaling it, though, I swallow it. Within a few weeks the swelling was gone and I had no trouble eating. The follow-up endoscopy a couple of months later showed a clear, healthy esophagus. Score.

But I’m stubborn. I eventually strayed back to old habits. I still avoid tuna and salmon, and might have a little soy at a Chinese restaurant or sushi joint, but like I said, I was weaned on pizza and pasta. Avoiding tomatoes is a tough ask for me, even when most of the pizza around here is garbage. So here I am, two years later, getting food stuck from time to time.

Stupid natural selection.

Last week, I decided it’s time to get disciplined again. I’m gonna avoid all the stuff that triggers my allergies. For reals this time.

I’ve already blown it twice.

First, we had fish (tilapia) on Wednesday. I was working out after dinner, trying to figure out why I had such bad heartburn. Then it hit me: the tartar sauce is made with soybean oil. I checked the label and sure enough, mystery solved. The second time I screwed up, I had ketchup with a meal, and I just didn’t think about tomatoes. (Visiting Mexican joints is also fun when you’re avoiding tomatoes.)

Which leads me to my next point: If you don’t already have food allergies or sensitivities, you have no idea what a pain in the ass it is to shop around this stuff. I got a small sense of it when we scaled back on our sugar intake and avoided high-fructose corn syrup, but man, soy is in a ton of stuff. Mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and salad dressings are largely made with soybean oil because it’s cheap and it’s stable (it won’t spoil on the shelf).

Try it sometime. Pick something to avoid like soy, wheat, or high-fructose corn syrup, and start reading labels in your kitchen. Good luck! I even tried to make gluten-free chili for a potluck, and only found out after the fact that chili beans have wheat in them.

Beans, man! It’s a good thing I pulled the can out of the garbage before taking the crockpot to the event. Two people attending have gluten-free diets, one by choice and one by doctor’s orders.

Which leads to another problem: the food crazies. I went surfing for a mayonnaise recipe, and while there are several, I had to suffer through a couple tirades about the evils of soybean oil to get through them. I’m all about exploring the flavors of the original tartar sauce and mayonnaise recipes, or making something cheaper than packaged goods, but holy hell, I don’t need a tirade about subjecting my kids to the nefarious soy and gluten agendas of Monsanto and Conagra, especially when it’s attached to some shady pseudo-science even the recipe writer doesn’t understand.

For example, one said, gluten is “like glue for your intestines.” Um, no. You want to go paleo, keto, vegan, whatever, knock yourself out. There’s nothing wrong with making choices out of fitness or morality, or even with making a statement against some conglomerate’s marketing and/or competitive practices. Just spare us the junk science and bullshit conspiracy theories.

Anyway. I have to avoid pizza for a while again. And tonight I learned the hard way that extra-virgin olive oil does not make good mayo (too strong), so I need something lighter. Props to Boar’s Head for not putting soybean oil in their Pub Style Horseradish Sauce, giving me an alternative for sandwich at lunch.

Here’s to not letting food kill me any time soon.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Why the Hell Would You Eat That: Big Chain Pizza

Let’s get this out of the way up front: if you’re getting a pizza from a big pizza chain, you may as well be eating frozen pizza. Don’t trust any pizza place that can “run out of crusts,” because frozen pizza is exactly what you’re getting.

I didn’t even know this was possible until we moved from the Chicago ‘burbs out to central Illinois. One of the few pizza joints in the area at the time was a Marchelloni’s, which later became Geo’s. They had a thick, buttery, doughy crust most Chicagoans would call pan pizza, and they pretty much sucked. However, their competition was worse, so we gave them another shot one night and ordered a couple of large pizzas.

“We’re out of large crusts,” she tells me.

“Okay, can’t you make more?”

“We don’t do that here,” she says, all snide like I’m the asshole. Turns out the crusts are made elsewhere and shipped in frozen to the actual store. No thanks.

Know who else does this? Pizza Hut. Our local PH had a night donating their proceeds to our elementary school, so we paid them a visit. They were jam crowded with townies and unprepared, so they ran out of everything but regular thin crust (and those were “going fast”).

This is why these pizza joints’ pizzas are nasty, greasy messes. Yeah, Pizza Hut may be edible when it’s hot and fresh, but suck it down fast because it becomes slop two minutes after it hits the table.

Now, I realize some of you are stuck in the wild pizza frontier outside of Chicago and New York City. I realize some of you think Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and the bland bullshit served up  at your local mom & pop dustbowl pizza place is pretty good. I pity you. I really do. When some friends of ours from L.A. first tried Domino’s out in Baltimore and were impressed, I wept for their souls.

See, when the dough is made fresh on the spot, it’s got your standard dough ingredients. If you can see the guy rolling out your dough, you’re in the right place. Frozen dough? Now you’re getting preservatives and shit in it. It’s been processed, just like the garbage pizza in the freezer aisle. Not to mention these big chains need to make sure the crap they’re serving has to taste the same at every location, which means the rest of their ingredients are equally processed and preserved and loaded with things like MSG. Domino’s and Papa John’s can claim “fresher ingredients” all they want, but remember, McDonald’s makes the same nonsense claim about their fries.

I’ve tried your revamped pizzas gentlemen. An improvement? Maybe. Good pizza? Sorry, no.

I’ll admit I’m a pizza snob. Am I a Chicago or New York pizza guy? Both. I love a good Chicago stuffed pizza, and I like the giant slices you gotta fold in half to eat, so long as they’re not hyper-processed chain food disguised as the real deal.

Growing up in the ‘burbs, we could get good pizza just about anywhere, and most everywhere had a signature flavor the chains couldn’t match. Friday nights were pizza night in my family. Even our dog responded to the word pizza with excitement. Most places we called were dedicated pizza joints, but there were a couple bars that had pizza ovens, too.

Unfortunately, the farther I move from Chicago, the harder it gets to find good pizza. Things were so bad my mom, who commuted to the suburbs, brought pizza home with her on Friday nights. One pizza joint gave her an insulated delivery bag when they found out what she was doing. An hour from the oven, their pizza tasted better than anything local.

Out here in Peoria, most of the bars serve frozen pizza. The locals think it’s great, but to be fair, they have nothing to compare it to. In fact, the pizza is so bad out here, people dip it in ranch or Catalina dressing. I was horrified the first time I saw that. If the pizza is so bland you have to jazz it up with a dip, why the hell are you eating it?

The biggest culprit is Butch’s. Peorians love Butch’s because they make their pizzas locally in Morton, and they sell their own hot sauce and seasonings. My theory is they make the hot sauce to disguise the flavor of the pizza: no matter the topping, a Butch’s pizza tastes like a salt lick. It’s good bar food because you’re drunk and hungry and won’t remember the flavor anyway.

Monical’s is the nasty local chain of choice. They’re all over the Peoria area, and if I drive east on Route 24 into Indiana, I’ll pass half a dozen or so of them, all right there on Route 24. Their pizza is a cracker with a little spaghetti sauce on it. Dry and bland. Kids go ape over it, but they’re too young to know better.

Understand, no pizza is going to be good for you. My point is if you’re going to eat something unhealthy, shouldn’t it at least taste good? Shouldn’t it be worth those extra calories? The extra laps around the track you’ll have to punish yourself with?

Choking down a Caesar’s hot & ready just isn’t going to cut it.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Why the Hell Would You Eat That: Bullshit Meat

Processed meat is not good for us. Aside from cutting a hunk of meat off an animal, slapping it with spices, and throwing it over a fire, there’s not much you can do to meat that makes your body say, “Hell yeah, give me more of that!” The abundance of salts, chemicals and preservatives wreak havoc on us.

I get it, though. I’m a big fan of the occasional hot dog, sausage, or deli meat. Chorizo in a skillet? Hell yes. Brats and Italian sausage on the grill? All summer long. A good ham steak? Smoked sausage in a spicy jambalaya? A finger of mozzarella wrapped in fine prosciutto? Some of mankind’s finest culinary discoveries, if you ask me. They may not be good for me, per se, but they’re not going to do much damage in moderation.

That all said, why eat the bullshit meats? I’m talking the lowest of the low. The ones that lie to you when you’re browsing the shelves, hoping you won’t take a closer look at the ingredients list. The ones that should say “sausage*” on the front, complete with the asterisk.

Sadly, they’re the ones that fill the majority of the meat section at your local supermarket.

I’ve covered supermarket chorizo in the past, so I’m going to focus on hot dogs and smoked sausage instead. The running gag for these things is they’re all composed of snouts and lips, but let’s look past the rumors and check the ingredients.

Ever taken a bite of a hot dog and wonder what the hell you were eating? I did that with Bar S hot dogs.

"Made with chicken and pork." Pass.

“Made with chicken and pork.” Pass.

These were purchased because they were the cheapest on the rack. A relative grilled them. I took one bite and thought I was eating something that had spoiled, so I went and fished the label out of the garbage can. As the print gets smaller and smaller, it gets scarier and scarier. What’s a good hot dog made of? Beef. What’s this crap made of? Chicken and pork. No, correction, “mechanically separated chicken” is the first ingredient. Second? Water. Then pork. There is even more dextrose (sugar), corn starch, and salt than there is beef.

Now we know where the snouts and lips rumors come from.

I should note Bar S is not the only culprit, here. Oscar Mayer doesn’t get a free pass. Nor does Ball Park. They may have their high-end hot dogs that are mostly beef (sometimes with their new favorite beef marketing term, “Angus”), but they’re happy to sell you the bullshit at a far cheaper price because they know most of us just don’t care.

In contrast, let’s take a look at two of my favorites, Nathan’s and Hebrew National. The first ingredient on their labels? Beef. Even better? Hebrew National carries the kosher designation. The ingredients are pretty much beef, spices, and yes, a couple of those scary nitrates. But Jesus, at least you’re getting the real thing!

Even better, look for Vienna Beef. They’re hard to find at supermarkets, but a hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without Vienna Beef signs hanging around the joint. Red Hot Chicago? Okay, fine. But if the place is buying no-name garbage to keep costs down and margins up, walk your ass out. All beef or nothing, people.

Yes, I can absolutely taste the difference, and so will you. Buy a package of Hebrew Nationals and a package of some cheap crap, grill ’em side-by-side, refrain from smothering them in condiments, and take a bite. There’s no way you can tell me they taste the same.

On to sausage. The problem with sausages is they’re so loaded up with spices and other flavorings, they conceal whatever the meat filler is. This is how people learned to choke down things like haggis back in the dark ages where they had to eat every piece of the animal to survive. Got something that isn’t very appetizing? Smother it in potent herbs and spices. All the fat and protein the body needs with enough flavoring to help a medieval man keep it in his stomach.

And this, my friends, is how they get away with lying to you. Even the major labels. The consumer in me is comfortable buying Eckrich because I see the commercials and ads all the time. I’ve been throwing their smoked sausage in jambalaya for a while, but then I took a look at the label.

Et tu, Eckrich?

Et tu, Eckrich?

I’ve been seeing their ads since Saturday Morning Cartoons were a thing. Pork, turkey, and beef!? If I want turkey sausage, I’ll talk up some local hunters. But hey, let’s take a look at what didn’t make the picture, the actual ingredients:

Meat ingredients (pork, beef), mechanically separated turkey, water, corn syrup. Contains 2% or less of dextrose, flavorings, autolyzed yeast, modified food starch, mechanically separated chicken, monosodium glutamate, potassium and sodium lactate, salt, sodium diacetate, sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate, vitamin c (ascorbic acid).

You sons of bitches. Corn syrup? Dextrose? Chicken? Why? Why!?

They want it to be cheap, that’s why. They want it to survive on the shelf, and they don’t give a shit what we cram down our gullets because we don’t give a shit what we cram down our gullets. They have all those leftover bits of meat they can’t sell as steak or pork chops, so they grind it up, put it in sausage, and fill it with bullshit to make it palatable. It’s haggis by marketing rather than necessity.

As an alternative, I tried Aidells all natural sausage. I tasted samples at my local Kroger, thought it tasted great. The difference in flavor was not quite as obvious as in the different hot dog brands, and the Aidells had a texture I’ll describe as “dry.” Not bad, just different. Okay, fair enough, but let’s look at the label.

You had me at "cajun"

You had me at “cajun”

Most of us know “all natural” has been adopted as marketing speak, so let’s just ignore that for now and concentrate on the ingredients:

Pork, water, salt, garlic, spices (including white pepper, red pepper and black pepper), sugar, paprika, celery powder and dehydrated onion.

No corn syrup, no mechanically-separated anything, and no chemical additives my browser’s spellcheck insists isn’t a word. Hallelujah, bitches. Sold. They cost a little more (even after the sample lady handed me a coupon), but they tasted great in our jambalaya and I felt a lot better about inflicting them on my kids.

That’s the great thing about today’s supermarkets and corporate foods: they know some of us are getting educated. There’s a demand for the good stuff, so there’s an incentive for them to produce it. Does it cost a little more? Yes. Does it take a little more effort? Yes. For now. But isn’t it worth it? Between the better flavor (in most cases) and not turning my body into a food lab, I say it’s totally worth it.

The big corporate food conglomerates today are no different from RJ Reynolds back in the day. Sure, they know some of this shit is bad for us, but nobody’s stopping them yet. I wasn’t thrilled to see a ConAgra Foods logo at the bottom of the Hebrew National page, but that’s the way things are going; big corporations are buying out locals and organics in an effort to pad out their portfolios with the good stuff.

You can still do one better by hitting your local butcher. We’ve got an IGA store nearby with a butcher, and they make fresh-ground Italian sausage and chorizo. Both are terrific. I can also go to Peoria’s Alwan & Sons and get some killer cuts of beef, pork, and chicken. This costs more, too, so I can’t do it all the time, but the taste and quality are there.

I’m no health nut, I’m just a dad who spent too much time on the Internet and started reading the labels. I’m not necessarily anti-big corporation, and I’m not going to call you an idiot for not shopping exclusively at farmers markets. I buy the good—okay, better—stuff because it makes sense, and I’m willing to sweat a bump in the grocery bill.

If enough of us do the same, maybe those costs will come down.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Why the Hell Would You Eat That? McD’s Fries

It doesn’t take a genius to understand McDonald’s food isn’t great for you, and after seeing Supersize Me, I tend to avoid the golden arches as best I can. There are times, however, I’m in a hurry or I want to let the Rugrats abuse the McD’s indoor playplace, so I cave and order something.

This time we’d just finished a veterinary visit for our cat and needed to grab something quick on the way home. McD’s was handy and convenient. As I ate my fries, I recalled a claim that, “McDonald’s fries haven’t been within two miles of a real potato.” I was never sure that was accurate, but the fries certainly don’t look or taste like fresh-cut fries I get at some restaurants, or like fried potatoes made at home.

I know someone who worked for McDonald’s briefly in the ’60s, and she said potatoes used to be delivered directly to the restaurants. Today, a manager I know says the fries are delivered pre-cut and ready for the frier. So what’s really in them?

To the Internet! Here’s a video of how McDonald’s fries are made, courtesy McD’s Canada:

At first, it seems all is well. Lots of potatoes, peeled and sliced and sent off to the restaurants where they’re fried in canola oil. Okay, fair enough. But let’s listen a little closer, shall we?

At the 2:10 mark, Mario says:

Once the potatoes are cut, we push the strips through a blancher to remove the natural sugars from the strips. This will prevent some variation in our color once we re-cook the product.

So McD’s fries are blanched to remove natural flavoring? WTF?

So following the blanching process, we add a dextrose solution to add that nice even coat we see at the restaurants.

They “remove the natural sugars” but then turn around and add dextrose, a sugar. And then it gets a little scarier:

We also add an ingredient to our strips to make sure we prevent the graying of our product throughout the process.

Note he doesn’t tell us what this ingredient is. I’d have to guess it’s some kind of preservative, or something like a bleaching agent. I’m no organic nut, but it seems to me we just don’t need that crap. McD’s, if you’re going to go through the trouble to tell us how you’re doctoring up our food, at least have the balls to fess up on the mystery ingredient.

Keep watching and we learn after the fries are sprayed with the mystery ingredient, they’re dried, fried, and frozen. In other words, they’re cooked twice before they leave the factory, then they’re re-fried (read: re-heated) at the restaurant.

I don’t get it.

Their point to this video seems to be, “Hey, look, we use real potatoes!” My takeaway is more like, “We care more about how the food looks than what’s in it.” Most of the flavor in these things is the salt. Hold the salt and a McD’s french fry doesn’t necessarily taste bad, but it sure doesn’t taste like a regular potato. Most of their flavor is marketing.

There’s a bar not far from here that slices their potatoes in-house. Order them loaded and you get real shredded cheese and chopped bacon, not cheese sludge and bacon bits. They cost a little more, but I’ll take their fries over McD’s any time.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The 5th Quarter Drops the Ball on Beef

A friend discovered an eatery over in East Peoria had changed hands and become The Fifth Quarter Sports Bar & Pizzeria, and they had Italian Beef on the menu. We’re both Portillo’s fans struggling to find quality Italian beef sandwiches in Peoria, so we jumped on our motorcycles and took a ride out there for lunch today.

The place is a former garage converted into a bar, but it looks like they’ve made some improvements since I was last in there a few years ago. The place used to be Vertucci’s, which also claimed Chicago-style eats but fell short. Where Vertucci’s felt darker and dingier, The Fifth Quarter felt open, cleaner, and more modern. The roll-up garage door dividing the two sections is still there, but it blends in a little better.

The menu offered a good selection, but we jumped straight to the Italian beef sandwiches. They offer the traditional all-beef sandwich, of course, but they had two combos: the standard beef-and-sausage combo and one they called the “Cat Daddy,” consisting of beef and gyro meat. I’d never even thought of such a combo, much less seen one on a menu, so I ordered it with hot peppers and provolone (no mozzarella? tsk).

I should say first I don’t understand the pricing. A gyro is $5.95, but the Italian combo is $7.95. Throw on the provolone cheese and it jumps to $8.90. Okay, extra meat, price goes up, but I then expected a big sandwich and heaping helping of fries. I was kind of disappointed when the waitress served up a short sandwich and a small handful of fries.

Cat Daddy at 5th Quarter

The Fifth Quarter’s “Cat Daddy”

On the plus side, the sandwich was juicy and I was pleased to see actual giardiniera instead of sport peppers. However, the pink hue of the beef and the pre-sliced gyro meat (blasphemy!) set of alarm bells. On tasting, I found the beef gravy far too salty, and the seasoning in the gyro meat overpowering. Both tasted a lot like the pre-packaged meats folks can purchase in a pinch from some Chicago stores, making MSG and/or preservatives responsible for most of the flavor. It didn’t taste bad, and boasted more flavor than some of the other alleged Italian beef in the area, but it’s still a pale imitator of Portillo’s, or even the spicier beef at Al’s.

The menu boasts Devanco Gyros, whoever they are. In Chicago restaurants it’s Kronos or nothing. If it’s not coming off the rotisserie, it’s crap. I’m going to give The Fifth Quarter the benefit of the doubt and assume some vendor came in and told them this prepackaged beef and gyro meat is what everybody else serves up in Chicago. If that is the case, I suggest the owner take a drive up to Shorewood and order the Italian combo at Portillo’s (dipped, hot & mozz) and taste the difference himself. Then, if it’s still there, there’s a good gyro joint with Kronos Gyros just a few blocks off the return trip.

I’ll give The Fifth Quarter big points for the fries, though. It looks like they run an actual potato through a slicer and drop it right in the frier, and they came out  to the table crispy, not too greasy, and not over-salted. They’re the kind of fries the drive-up joints in the Chicago area serve in a brown paper bag with your Vienna Beef (don’t even bother with anything else) hot dog. Excellent.

While I may not buy their beef again, I do intend to go back. We received good service from the waitress, and if the Bud signs on the walls aren’t a lie, they show the UFC fights. I’d still like to try their burgers, and judging by the pictures, their pizza is worth trying if only because it isn’t the Butch’s frozen bullshit most area bars serve.

With luck I’ll have a new, closer, more affordable haunt to catch the fights in.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

I Ate a Frickin’ Shark!

Okay, so it was just an iridescent shark.

swai

Still sounds a lot more impressive than “swai,” anyway

This thing is basically an Asian catfish. I picked up a bag of filets cheap, and today I broiled one up with some salt and black & red pepper. You know what? It tasted pretty good. It didn’t have that dirt flavor that often comes with American catfish or tilapia. Tomorrow, I think I’ll try pan-frying one.

Point is I’m massaging the diet a bit again. I’m still stoked about completing the Warrior Dash, and my weight lifting and karate have both been progressing well, but the results haven’t shown on the scale. Even running a couple of times a week isn’t quite cutting it, though it’s worked in the past. Some of it may be added muscle (judging by some of what I see in the mirror), but to make the doc happy and to see real results, I’d still like to shed a few pounds.

I see the consequences on the scale after a night of even one beer and a greasy burger and loaded fries at the bar with friends. Pizza or Chinese food with the family? Even worse. It’s a temporary spike, usually gone in a day or two, but the effect is definitely there. So it’s back to basics with making sure I get a solid breakfast and not overdoing things at lunch or dinner. We already cook most of our dinner meals, but at lunch I want to shoot for more fresh fish or chicken rather than the prepared things like processed fish sticks or chicken nuggets and mac & cheese the kids favor during the summer.

Sushi!

Now if only I could afford to do this all the time…

I don’t drive myself insane counting calories, and I’m not about to start weighing my food and watching my macros like a bodybuilder. I’m going to exercise a little restraint and see how things go. Eat as clean as I can as a guy who’s not fond of most vegetables and is picky with fruits.

And I’m going to eat some more frickin’ shark.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to team up for workout motivation, check out Fitocracy. Some of my friends and readers are already aboard, and the more the merrier. Hit me up for an invite if you like. If nothing else, it’s a great way to track workouts and progress. I’m also on RunKeeper, but try not to laugh at my pathetic little entries there. If enough people do the Fitocracy thing, maybe I’ll start a The Pack group.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Back Away from the Chorizo

I like chorizo. I’ve had it in fajitas, burritos, chili, appetizers, and omelettes. Spicy pork? Yes, please.

The local grocery stores sometimes stock fresh-ground chorizo, but more often than they just have your standard country pork sausage or Italian sausage. As a result, I finally decided to pick up a tube of this stuff:

Pork Chorizo

Pork? Not so much.

That soylent orange color? Yeah, pretty accurate, unlike the lies the fast food giants like to tell us.

I got the package out to make an omelette this morning. The instructions say to “remove from casing” before cooking. Apparently they meant the packaging, because there was no casing around this pasty muck, near as I could tell. I squeezed it out into the pan and tried to ignore the funky lumps as I attempted to crumble it for cooking.

After a few minutes over heat, I noticed no change in color or consistency. Meats are supposed to brown, right?

Time to look at the packaging again. “Cook to an internal temperature of 160°.” They don’t seem to care how. Okay, the stuff is sizzling and parts are starting to look a little crispy. Gotta be done.

Still bright, nuclear orange. Hmm. Are we sure this is pork? To the ingredients!

Yes, first ingredient is pork. But then came the dreaded parentheses. What, pray tell, pork products are included?

“Salivary glands, lymph nodes, and fat (cheeks).”

Back up, Mr Butcher Man! I don’t even know what salivary glands and lymph nodes look like! A series of tubes you just chop up and spice to hide all hint of flavor? I understand you want to use as much of the animal as possible, but is this really necessary anymore? We’re not all Andrew Zimmern or Bear Grylls. You know why? Because we’re not paid to be!

But hey, I can be adventurous. Is this how it was done back in the day? Maybe it’s like pig’s feet or haggis, a remnant from a time people really did have to find a way to eat every bit of an animal to get a meal. Maybe this is what I’ve been eating all along at Mexican restaurants and just didn’t know it. Ignorance is bliss, right?

So I poured in my beaten eggs, cooked it up, flipped, added cheese, and slid it onto the plate.

Understand, chorizo is greasy. Just like any other sausage or fatty meat, you’re going to get some runoff. This stuff took it to a whole new level by leaving a liquid even brighter and more orange than the original product.

Okay, okay, thought I. Let’s not panic. It’s wrapped in egg and cheese. Man the hell up and take a bite.

I tried. I really did. I even had myself psyched up enough I expected a pleasant surprise. Sadly, this tasted nothing like the stuff I got in the local Mexican joints, nor was it anywhere near as tasty as the ground chorizo I bought from the grocery stores. Maybe it was just the thought of the ingredients getting to me, right? Took another bite. Now that it didn’t catch me by surprise, is it really all that bad?

Yes.

Okay, one more bite.

No. No, no, and hell no. Just plain wrong. Into the garbage can.

Just to be sure, I consulted Wikipedia for a second opinion. The chorizo article has a history of the meat from several countries, but nowhere does it mention goddamn salivary glands. From the “Mexican chorizo” portion:

Based on the uncooked Spanish chorizo fresco, the Mexican versions of chorizo are made from fatty pork (however, beef, venison, kosher, and even vegan versions are known). The meat is usually ground (minced) rather than chopped, and different seasonings are used.

Fatty pork. Like where the bacon comes from, perhaps? Or at least somewhere where there is actual meat, not just leftovers. It’s no wonder the taste and texture of the stuff I’ve been eating is completely different from this spicy sludge.

Learn from my pain, my friends.

Next to the pork chorizo I bought is a tube of beef chorizo. I haven’t gone back to see what it’s made of, yet, but I can’t imagine it’s any better.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Continued Quest for (Proper) Italian Beef

I think Italian beef disintegrates into nothingness after it gets a certain distance from Chicago. After several attempts, I have yet to find a place in Peoria that gets it exactly right. There are places that come close, but there’s always something off.

Case in point: Famous City Bistro. The concept of the place is simple: serve up famous sandwiches from various locales around the country. They have Philly cheesesteaks, Miami Cubans, New Orleans po’ boys, and from Chicago, the infamous Chicago-style hot dog and the illustrious Italian beef.

Famous City's Attempt at Italian Beef

Awww, man...

I’d been waiting for this place to open for a few months now. When opening day finally rolled around this past Tuesday, the rugrats and I stopped by to try it out. I immediately ordered the Italian beef, and the pic above is what I was served.

First, let me say the amount of beef in the picture is deceiving. I asked for it “wet” (the term they’re looking for is “dipped”) and most of the meat sagged through the crease in the bun. They had proper giardiniera, which you have to ask for, and the green peppers come with their recipe. No options for an Italian combo (beef and sausage) or options for mozzarella or marinara. It’s served on a soft hoagie roll instead of a hard Italian roll (which helps soak up the juices, especially when dipped) and the flavoring is not as distinct as what you get at a place like Portillo’s.

Let me be clear: it wasn’t a bad sandwich, but it’s sure not the Italian beef one can get in Chicago.

As for the rest of the place, it’s not bad. They had a kids menu, and my kids enjoyed the cheeseburger and mini corn dogs, but there are no kids’ drinks; they were served adult-size glasses they couldn’t finish. My sandwich was $6.99, and that doesn’t include any sides. The potato salad? $1 extra. At least it was good potato salad. We also ordered chili cheese fries, and the fries were good but the portion looked about half the size of what we get at places like Chili’s. The chili was okay, and probably just heated out of a can. The cheese was your standard “cancer cheese” as I call it: that faux-cheese sauce that you get on movie theater nachos or at ballparks.

The atmosphere is kind of like taking a neighborhood grill-style restaurant and cramming it into a sandwich shop. It’s small, but they have nice tables, leather seats, a full bar, and three flat-screen televisions. The waitresses wear black collared shirts and loosened ties, and your order is taken at a table like any sit-down restaurant. I’m guessing this is why the sandwich prices are higher than I expected, and I’m curious to see how this concept plays in Peoria.

I will go back and try some of the other famous sandwiches and see how they are. Will the Reuben be any good? Will the BBQ sandwiches stand up to places like Hickory River and Famous Dave’s? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the quest for proper Italian beef continues.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Vertucci's Chicago Style Eats

Vertucci’s Italian Combo
Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.

After last night’s disappointing Italian beef outing, I decided I had to try again. This evening, the Midget and I dropped by Vertucci’s Chicago Style Eats in East Peoria to see what they’ve got.

They definitely play up the Chicago angle: they’ve got signage along the road announcing things like pizza, Polish sausage, gryos, and yes, Italian beef. The interior is a modest sports bar setup adorned with Chicago Bears posters and memorabilia and a Red Hot Chicago neon sign.

The waitress asked if we needed a moment to order. Nope! I ordered the combo with hot peppers and mozzarella, onion rings and a cheeseburger and fries for the Midget. A few minutes later, I got the basket of food pictured above (I added the ketchup).

“This was supposed to be a combo,” I told her. She said they built it with the beef on the bottom, and sure enough, I found some beef when I spread the bun. Not a good sign, as I’m used to then being packed full of beefy goodness.

Before I get too far, I’ll say that the Midget’s cheeseburger was excellent. I stole a bite and it reminded me of another restaurant who boasted Alwans burgers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Vertucci’s uses the Peoria Heights butcher as well. The onion rings were top notch, and the fries were sliced from the potatoes right there in the kitchen. Good stuff, Maynard.

The Italian combo, though…

I wanted to love it. I really did. On the plus side, this sucker was wet, and though they offer all kinds of peppers and onions and they offer mozz or provolone, I was able to get the proper hot peppers. Slices of mozzarella meant less cheese than I’d prefer, but I’d live. The real bummers were most of the flavor came from the peppers, and there couldn’t have been more than two or three slices of beef hiding under there. This was by no means a bland Italian beef sandwich like I’ve been running into in Peoria, but the flavor still wasn’t very bold, and the minimal beef meant a few bites that were mostly bread.

The final verdict: a decent sandwich and a good effort, but still not quite the quality you get in Chicago. You’re killing me, Peoria!

I wasn’t up to ordering a gyro, but I did order a 10″ sausage pizza to take home for the family to sample. Good news here: the Wife and I agreed it’s great pizza. Between Vertucci’s and Leonardo’s, we’ve now got a couple of options for proper pizza. (The next problem will be finding a good stuffed pizza.)

I’ll be bringing the family back. It got a bit pricey compared to a typical sandwich shop, but for the most part they live up to the Chicago Style label and I’m betting they are as close to the real thing as I’ll get in Peoria.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Quest for Italian Beef

Spotted Cow Italian Beef
Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.

Why is it so hard to find a good Italian Beef sandwich around here?

The first person I asked where I could get one thought I was looking for an Arby’s. Talk about a bad omen! Three years later I’m no closer to finding anyone in the Peoria area who knows how to make a proper Italian beef sandwich.

Since the last time I blogged about this problem, Gracie’s closed up shop and became a sports bar, ditching the Vienna hot dogs for some off-brand sticks of balogna. I never did get a proper beef sandwich and their prices went up, so we stopped ordering from them.

I started asking life-long Peorians where I could get Italian beef, and they typically just shrug their shoulders. Most of them seem to think it’s just a crockpot recipe, not the food of the gods it really is.

Then last week we walked into The Spotted Cow Cafe & Creamery for ice cream. Their ice cream was very good, but their menu boasting Italian beef, Italian sausage, and Red Hot Chicago hot dogs caught my eye. I spent all last week thinking about my return.

We went back today. They didn’t offer an Italian combo (gah!), but they did offer the Italian beef with mozzarella cheese and peppers, so that’s what I ordered. A few minutes later, they brought out the plate in the picture above.

I don’t know why they cut it in half, but that wasn’t the end of the world, especially as packed as the sandwich was. Nor was the fact they use shredded beef instead of sliced, or pepperoncini instead of the hot peppers you’d get in a Chicago restaurant. I feared the sandwich was dry at first, but the bottom proved nice and juicy. The mozz was also down on the bottom, but rather sparse.

I took a hopeful bite.

What a letdown. Despite the juicy composition, the sandwich was bland. Sure, it tasted like beef, but it didn’t have that seasoned quality that makes it an Italian beef sandwich. We’ll be back for the ice cream and the rest of their food (the Wife really enjoyed the pork tenderloin sandwich she ordered, and they cut potatoes on site to make fries), but the quest for a good Italian beef sandwich will continue.

It’s been suggested I check out a place called Vertucci’s in East Peoria, which boasts Chicago-style eats. I tried corroborating the story, but other people I’ve asked haven’t even heard of the place. Their menu boasts Italian beef, sausage, and combos, so I have cautious hope (Gracie’s claimed to be Chicago-style, too).

Maybe I’ll even try them tomorrow, because this is just getting depressing. We’ve solved our pizza problem through Leonardo’s — even though they’re 20 miles away and believe God proclaimed there shall be no pizza on the Sabbath — and we’ve got a reliable lead on good gyros, but it amazes me how elusive Italian beef is.

I’m not quite ready to give up, though. Stay tuned.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Substantialiscious

According to my Snickers wrapper, “substantialiscious” is the weight of something when you weigh it with your tongue.

Uh, sure.

I didn’t want a king-size Snickers, but that’s all I could find at the local Casey’s when I picked up one of their shitty pork tenderloin sandwiches for lunch. (It’s a long story, but I was stuck.) I bought it, went home and ate the sandwich, then started looking over the wrapper of the candy bar.

Now, to me, a candy bar is supposed to be a small snack, not a meal in itself. You want to know why Snickers really satisfies? Because a king-size bar is loaded with 510 calories! You see it says 170 calories in the listing, but then you realize a serving is only 1/3 of a bar. Yikes!

Nothing like blowing out a quarter of your day’s calories (or a third if you’re on a diet) on a frickin’ candy bar. To put it in perspective, a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 510 calories, too.

No wonder we’re a nation of fat bastards.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Almost Paradise

Gracie’s

Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.


You know it’s a bad sign when you ask a local “Where can I get a good Italian beef sandwich?” and they reply “You mean like an Arby’s?”

After I sent flowers to that guy’s funeral, the Wife and I vowed to find a place that sold proper beef sandwiches, Vienna Beef hot dogs and Kronos gyros. We don’t eat them frequently, but every so often you have to satisfy a craving and Portillo’s is just too far away.

There were several places touting their gyros, sure, but there’s a simple test: if they don’t have the shank on the spit, turn around and get the hell out of there. There’s nothing so disappointing as ordering a gyro, only to have some lip ring-wearing piece of human filth hand you a few strips of pre-sliced meat warmed in the microwave and wrapped in a limp pita slathered with dog snot. Sometimes it’s worth a shot at a sit-down family restaurant. If you’re really lucky, the guy who owns the place is Greek (that’s common around here, anyway), and the meat is actually cooked up on the grill. It’s probably even spiced the right way, even if it does turn out a bit dry in the end.

By the same token, none of the hot dog joints had the familiar Vienna Beef logo hanging on the wall. There are passable dogs, of course. A good restauranteur knows Oscar Meier just isn’t going to cut it. Even worse, if they serve a certain horrible brand that shall remain nameless (once served by an eatery in Wilmington, Illinois), they’ll be out of business in ten minutes. It’s a rare dog indeed that can compare to the flavor and pop of a proper Vienna dog.

Then there’s the Italian beef, the most depressing of all disappointments. I soon discovered the first man I asked about Italian beef was not the norm, for a proper examination of the menu at the local pizza place (dubbed, in fact, The Pizza Place) showed they indeed carried Italian beef. I promptly ordered one that very night.

Bah. Sliced roast beef with bland au jous, nothing more. Other menu claims came up similarly short, and I have taken to carrying a Sharpie to edit the menus of these establishments as I encounter them.

The Wife and I resigned ourselves to the fact we were strangers in a strange land. If these people can’t cook up a proper pizza (a subject for another post), how can they be expected to serve up proper Chicago-style eats? For over a year we had gyros only on the occasional visit to my in-laws’ place, and I had Italian beef even less frequently on trips to the ‘Burbs.

Then the Wife took one of her adventure trips. When she’s bored, she goes for a drive and explores yet-unseen avenues off our beaten paths. Thus it’s by chance she discovered Gracie’s Chicago Style Grille in Washington, IL, and the Kronos sign proudly hung in her front window.

We visited it for the first time last night.

Vienna Beef hot dogs? Check. Kronos gyros on a spit? Check. Italian beef? Check and double check for the presence of Italian sausage and the Italian combo. (No pizza puff, but this is more easily forgiven.) We chose to trust the Vienna Beef claims and ordered instead a gyro for the Wife and an Italian combo with hot peppers for myself. We hustled them home with as much speed as a winter storm would allow.

The gyro was exactly as advertised, and it was good.

The Italian combo… I guess we’ll call it halfway to glorious. The Italian sausage was excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again. What’s more, they served it up on a proper bun and may have put some garlic butter on the insides.

The beef, unfortunately, was dry. There was a neat pile of it, and it was both hot and tasty, but there were no juices. Not even a spoonful.

I could have wept.

We will return to Gracie’s, I have no doubt about that. I’m sure we’ll try their hot dogs and their hamburgers, and explore the rest of the menu in time. The marinara sauce with our mozzarella sticks was good, which gives us hope for their pizza as well. When I order the combo, though, I will ask the grill man to dip it.

And if he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I will teach him.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.