May 2013

I’ve previously written about my friend Ben Starr, a former contestant on Masterchef.(1) Through watching the show, getting in contact with him, and trading ideas back and forth about travel, cooking and life, we’ve developed a kinship in our parallel existences. He has inspired me to further experiment with the aspects of food that I find fascinating, and I’ve been encouraged through meeting and hanging out with him to more actively pursue my goals in the kitchen.
In addition to being a friend of mine, Ben is also a travel writer, one who takes the greatest joy in combining his passions for exploration and food. Following along on his Youtube Channel, I’ve gotten glimpses of myself in what he finds so wonderful about life through his instructional videos on cooking with new ingredients such as Kangaroo Loin, how to quick thaw a turkey, (we’ve all been there), and the delight with which he hunts morel mushrooms and explores caves in Arkansas is infectious. Take a watch:

Ben is the reason why today’s post is titled thusly. Recently, he was shortlisted for a position with Tourism Australia, given the opportunity to compete for six months as Tastemaster of Western Australia, going around the country profiling where to eat and drink, foraging local bounty, and promoting Western Australia through their partnership to showcase the “Best Jobs in the World”.

When I first met Ben, he had come through Chicago on business, still maintaining ties with the cooking and television world. In between gigs, he was all over the map, and texted me from the far Northwest side of town at a pizza joint, in the loop at lunch, and a Brewpub around dinner time. Not letting the busy schedule stop him, nor the fact that he had spent the wee hours of the morning up talking with his friends and hosts, we met in Pilsen at Del Toro for a later dinner.  He showed up with a 30 lb. backpack and a phone almost out of juice. After exchanged hugs and pleasantries, he beelined to the bartender and talked his way into outlet access for a phone charge, just because that’s the type of person he is.

For the next couple of hours, we talked about all the places we’d been, all the experiences we’d had, and things that made us smile about our normal lives. The conversation flowed with ease, and there was never a dull moment, and this was a guy that we’d just met. What better ambassador for adventure than this new person who just walked in the restaurant, knowing neither me nor my lady personally at that point, but leaving the evening as though we were old friends.

A little over a month ago, he put out the feelers to find some great places to eat in New Orleans. I could have just told him what everyone else with no idea would say, “Get a Po’ Boy in the French Quarter, Go to Emeril’s”, etc. I told him to check out the restaurant where my old friend Tony was working. Sure, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two, but I hold Tony in high esteem, so anything he was associated with had to be good.

I got a text around dinner time one night when Ben was supposed to be down there, and through a little bit of wiggling, we found that Tony was indeed working that night. The messages I received from both Tony and Ben over the next couple of days were great. Ben and crew had tried everything on the menu, not wanting to miss a bite of all New Orleans had to offer, saying that Tony played a gracious host, and Tony said that they really enjoyed their meal and time there. It’s all about meeting new people and experiencing new things, from what I can gather.

We’ve kept in contact since then, talking about other endeavors, but this most recent opportunity he has is monumental. From a pool of over 600,000 people, Ben is a step away from getting a dream job, and I want to do something to help, so today I’m writing this and spreading the news. Go to his website, Youtube channel and read or view some of his material, like or comment on it, and if you’re on Twitter, further spread the word by posting something along the lines of “I hope @TheBenStarr wins #bestjobs #TasteMasterWA in @Australia! #Ben4TheWin @WestAustralia”. 

I like it when good people receive good things due to their hard work. Let’s make some dreams come true.

The last post I wrote had me zipping about town on my handsome new bike. Every one of my days off, I want to explore a new neighborhood. Today, what started as a light drizzle turned to a rain wet enough to thoroughly soak my jacket and pants. Why would I go out on a day like today? The only reason anyone else would go out: To return my library books.
Already taking a detour here. Folks, visit your local library. There are literally dozens of books to read, and if you’re like me, you can choose a good one based on title and book jacket color alone. Just get a library card. Read a book.

I had originally planned to visit Publican Quality Meats again, because I really enjoyed that sandwich. It came with a cute plastic ramekin of coleslaw and a pickle spear in a tiny ziploc bag that made me want to rinse and reuse it for more pickle spears. I’ve discovered that the fifth pocket in a pair of jeans is the perfect size for holding one emergency pickle spear.

Still, with the rain, my bike trip up north was not to be. I spent the morning indoors, making mustard and chocolates, just biding my time until the conditions were perfect. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. With my books stowed away in my backpack, I made an early afternoon mad dash on the 3/4 mile sprint down 18th street to the library.
Keep the butt on the seat so it doesn’t get wet. That was my mantra.

Surprisingly, all the bike racks were full. My bike got parked on the street, leaning up against a stopsign. I ran in, passed my books off, and went back outside again. Of course, in the 30 seconds it took me to return my books, the seat was soaked.
The ride back down 18th was ridiculous. When it rains in Chicago, everyone forgets how to drive. People parked in the bike lane (don’t do that, jerks), a woman turned her car around mid-block, cutting off traffic in two directions (don’t do that either, jerks), and horns were blaring. I didn’t want to be part of this any more than they did, and I was getting hungry and cranky from the moisture.
About two thirds of the way home, after passing Don Pedro’s, Honky Tonk BBQ, Simone’s, and countless Taquerias, I remembered the new place, the one right by the tracks. We had seen it on our walk to the Pub Quiz the week before, just a tiny little storefront with a big picture window. Tamales.
Dia De Los Tamales just opened up what looks to be a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen them at the Pilsen Community Market, but now that they’re so close and available at any given time, it spells trouble.

I walked in, and three smiling, eager faces greeted me. Two large screens with the day’s offerings shone brightly above their steam tables and drink coolers. They had about a dozen or so different kinds of tamales, most of which I’ve forgotten, but that included Cuban Pork, Buffalo Chicken, and a couple of sweet dessert tamales.
I went adventurous. I ordered an Atomic Pork (with spicy club sauce), an Italian beef tamale (with housemade giardiniera), and a Bacon and Goat Cheese tamale (with Bacon Leek jam). Really? COME ON! I love tamales, and I’ll eat them at any time, but most of the time, they simply offer the description of filling, either pork, chicken or beef. Here, I had many different options, and in fact too many to try on my first trip in. (Yes, there will be more.)
In the couple of minutes I was waiting, the man behind the counter explained a little bit about the menu, and gave me a sample of the house made garbanzo bean side option they had available. “From a family recipe,” he said. “It’s really good.”

He proffered a spoonful with a big piece of pork in it. I tried it. It WAS really good. I packed up my backpack with my tamales and rode the last three blocks home, ready to enjoy my lunch.
There are no pictures of this meal, because to properly capture a tamale in its deliciousness is impossible. They look the same, from the wrapper down to the filling, always that same shade of brown. I don’t care. From a picture, you can’t tell if it’s dry, or if the filling is savory or sweet. I’ll tell you- it’s fantastic. All of the tamales were toothsome and light, without being oversteamed. The giardiniera was pickled and crisp, and the bacon leek jam, it should go without saying, was a bacon leek jam.

I want to take people there, namely the lady in my life. I asked if the vegetarian tamales used vegetable shortening in the mix. Indeed, they were fully vegetarian. This spells trouble. I could end up eating here twice a week for the foreseeable future.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
A huge, delicious mistake.

Addendum: Next Friday, during Pilsen’s monthly 2nd Friday Artwalk, Dia De Los Tamales is having their Grand Opening. To see some artwork while you eat some delicious tamales, spend your time wisely on the beautiful and culture filled Near South Side!