You may have noticed I have been missing in action for much of the summer. That’s because I just returned to L.A. from a five-week teaching gig at Northwestern University in Evanston. Make that five weeks of sheer food hell. I was forced to eat most of my meals in the 1835 Hinman cafeteria with 88 teenagers who promptly labeled the place “Nastytown.” I have been teaching at the same summer program for the past seven years, but never before have I experienced such a culinary Death Valley. The program has a soft spot in my heart because it’s where Victor and I met. This was the first year that his job prevented him from joining me, which didn’t help matters. I just couldn’t bear writing about the horror show until I knew it was over.
Of course, I did complain about the sub-par chow the first week, and the new Hinman chef and his bosses at Sodexo provided a lame excuse. They told me a “rogue chef” had been at the helm in prior years. His crime? “He tried to make the food too good,” they said. Believe me, this so-called rogue chef was no Thomas Keller, but, apparently, people forced to eat at other cafeterias complained. So instead of raising standards elsewhere, they lowered them at Hinman. Bureaucratic brilliance at its best.
The entrees for lunch one day looked like a menu for a C-rated restaurant called Carbotopia: potato burritos, corn dogs, popcorn, cauliflower and Mexican rice. That was it. The only green vegetable was in a bowl on display amidst this carbo-loading wasteland. A week later, I actually had to call the Evanston Health Department after finding bugs crawling on my breakfast berries. (My apologies to those who just lost their appetites.) Northwestern officials weren’t too happy with me for going “outside the system” to complain. So I told them, “Surely you aren’t opposed to any effort to protect the health and safety 88 minors?” Needless to say, that was my last breakfast at Hinman. They reimbursed me for the unused portion of my meal plan and let me eat elsewhere.
I’d like to thank a handful of Evanston restaurants that helped me through this culinary abyss. Evanston, the suburb on Chicago’s northern border, is not exactly a foodie haven — at least not since Grant Achatz left Trio to start Alinea. But there are a few down-home joints that seemed like nirvana compared to what I had been enduring.
Olive Mountain: This unassuming Middle Eastern restaurant is an old favorite. It has some of the tastiest hummus I have tried in a while — loaded with olive oil, sumac, parsley and spicy lemon juice on top. I can also recommend the pureed lentil soup, the couscous salad packed with veggies, and the combo platter of kifta kabobs, beef and shish taouk with vegetables and yellow Middle Eastern rice. Don’t expect much in the way of atmosphere. There’s a cheesy chandelier and pink and aqua tables. But the service is terrific. The staff is friendly and attentive, and the food is delicious, unpretentious and cheap. Lunch specials are $5.95 to $8.25 for an entree, beverage and your choice of hummus, falafel, Lebanese salad or soup.
Joy Yee’s: Having lived in L.A. for more than a decade, I was a little skeptical about trying Asian food in Evanston — especially at a restaurant that featured Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean dishes. But Larry Yee (no relation), a Chinese student from San Francisco who attended the program last year, had raved about it, and I was seriously jonesing for some noodles. Plus, Joy Yee’s had just reopened after a long renovation and was filled with Asian diners when I walked by. The walls were painted bright yellow, and the modern, web-like plastic chairs were not exactly inviting, but it turned out to be a perfect lunch spot. The menu read like a novel. I finally settled on some Udon noodle soup with soft shell scrab. The crab batter was a bit thick for my taste, but the soup came in a huge bowl with fresh bok choy, carrots and mushrooms. The noodles were thick and slippery. The broth was delicious. It really hit the spot. (Later in the month, when I ordered the same soup for delivery late at night, the broth was overly salty. Perhaps it had been sitting too long.) I also tried the lemongrass chicken and noodles, which was served with green peppers. Solid dish, but nothing to write home about. My favorite discovery, however, was the fresh fruit smoothies, served with tapioca balls. The smoothies were amazing. I tried multiple combinations of mango, lychee, strawberries, coconut and bananas. They’re served at a counter with shimmering rainbow tiles. Maybe the name carries the power of suggestion, but Joy Yee’s really did make me happy.
Union Pizzeria: This new place is a bit out of place in Evanston. Or perhaps it’s a sign of the “new” Evanton — home to skyscraper condos and loads of yuppies. Union has a decidedly urban feel with a large warehouse space, exposed brick walls, high ceilings, chic hanging light fixtures over the bar and modern couches in the lounge. If you live in Chicago, Union is probably not worth the drive, but for Evanston, it’s nice to have a place that could be at home in LA or New York, too. There’s a wood-burning oven that serves nine different pizzas. I tried most of them and can recommend the sausage, sweet pepper, onion and Sicilian oregano, as well as the mushroom with bechamel, fontina and sage. The pizzas don’t rival the ones in Rome or at Mozza. But it’s a really nice change from the huge quiche-like, Chicago-style pies from Giordano’s. The Baccala of pureed salt cod, potato, cream and garlic was sinfully rich. And for health nuts, the white wine-braised Tuscan kale is also a winner. Service can be really slow, but there’s a strong beer and wine list, and this is a nice place to chill for a glass at the start or end of an evening. It is open late, at least by Evanston standards. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded there, and Evanston was a “dry” until the 70s. So Union is certainly a sign of progress.
Despite these bright spots, I have probably never been so happy to be home. — Jenny