5 Chicago Food Hybrids Worth the Hype

Mash-ups that we would wait in line for
May 29, 2014
by Sarah Freeman

We take culinary disappointment very seriously. There is a certain level of trust that a diner puts into the hands of a chef when they travel to a restaurant, sit down at a table and ask to be fed. Not to mention the financial commitment of a meal. So when we waited in line (albeit, a very short line) at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to try a Wonut, only to be presented with a sugary, soggy mess, we we’re disappointed to say the least.

This led us to the question: which Chicago food hybrids are worth the hype? Which stand up to our high expectations and achieve a fusion of both flavor and texture to create a bite unlike any other? Well, we found five, which in our opinion, are worth not only a wait, but also the national recognition that other, less worthy hybrids have been unnecessarily showered with.

Beef Tartare Burger at Longman & Eagle

New York can keep its ramen burger; here in Chicago we have a beef tartare burger. The dish was a collaboration between executive chef Jared Wentworth and chef de cuisine Matt Kerney. “It's a take on our favorite fast food chain sandwich," Kerney said.

The sandwich deconstructs your typical burger - bun, meat, cheese, “special sauce” and pickles - and elevates it by serving the beef patty raw. The meat isn’t the only component getting the gourmet treatment. The sesame-seed bun is made in-house and outfitted with a soft quail egg, the “special sauce” is a secret combination that resembles 1000 Island dressing, cucumber pickles are replaced with zucchini pickles and that cheese is far from American - it’s aerated Widmer cheddar. No burger is complete without fries, which is why this one is served with shoestring versions.

Pickle Tots at Trenchermen

The ubiquitous pickle tots appeared on the opening menu at Trencherman as a way for chefs Mike and Patrick Sherrin to set the stage for innovative presentations of nostalgic dishes. The brothers had fond memories of devouring tater tots and fried pickles with a side of ranch dressing, so they decided to combine the two into the ultimate bar snack.

To make the tots, local russet potatoes are shredded and tossed with agar agar and steamed until just cooked. The pickle mixture is allowed to cool before Vienna dill pickles are folded in, then the tots are wrapped, pressed, fried and served with red onion yogurt (instead of ranch dressing) made with dehydrated red onions, Greek yogurt and beet juice. “They're delicious,” Sherrin said. “And help tap the nostalgia chord with people in a really positive way.”

Egg Tofu French Toast at Fat Rice

The ultimate sweet-meets-savory brunch item can be found at this Logan Square hot spot. One of the few sweet dishes on the Macanese dim sum brunch menu is a fusion of American French toast with Asian fried egg tofu. It starts with small rounds of tofu that are deep fried. The process brings a rich, caramel flavor out of the tofu, which is traditionally served in savory dishes. It is slathered in maple syrup and served with trumpet mushrooms and scallions.

It may easily be one of the best presentations of tofu and the best presentation of French toast in the same dish. Using tofu instead of bread as a base eliminates the potential for sogginess. And the sweetness of the maple syrup adds flavor to the tofu, which can easily suffer from blandness.

Pretzel Croissant at Beurrage

The experienced bakers here first debuted this sweet and savory hybrid more than a year ago when the bakery was just a pop-up supplying pastries to farmer's markets and coffee shops. Now, the pretzel croissant is the star of the case of the Pilsen bakery. It has the density of a croissant with flaky layers wound into a tight spiral with a slightly sweet taste, but the outside is an entirely different story.  A deep, caramelized brown coating is freckled with poppy, sesame and caraway seeds along with coarse sea salt.

It’s tougher than a traditional croissant, with a slight crunch especially at the ends. This is a result of a key step that makes the pretzel croissant different than the plain croissant - each one is hand-dipped in lye, a key ingredient in pretzels that gives them their “skin.” The inside is also slightly doughier without sacrificing the croissant's distinct pocketed appearance.

Biscuit Donut at Two

The “bisconut” is the creation of chef de cuisine Kevin Cuddihee. It’s a unique dessert that starts with the dough from a biscuit, but is treated like a donut. The biscuit dough, a standard recipe except for the addition of maple syrup in place of one-third of the milk, is combined and then rolled out and cut into rounds. Rather than baked, the biscuits are fried and served with maple ice cream and maple-Templeton Rye syrup.

The dessert is a hodgepodge of textures and flavors. The sugar-coated, ice-cream covered exterior would suggest a sweet-loaded dessert, but the biscuit dough is savory and wholesome. It’s served warm so the inside is still soft and contrasts with the cold ice cream. Altogether, it almost resembles a funnel cake with more density and less grease. In a word, it’s brilliant, and filled the hybrid hole in our heart left by the disappointment of the Wonut.