Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good Chow #4: Fixing at the Pita Inn

by Ilana Shabanov

We started making the Sunday pilgrimage for falafel when I was around 5, piling into my grandfather’s Chrysler LeBaron and heading out to the North Side to get our fix.  Mind you, this was decades before hummus was available by the bucket at your local grocery store. My grandparents and my father were from Israel, so the need for hummus and falafel was in our blood, something old and familiar. Put it in a pita, we would eat it.  However, years later, after my grandparents and father passed away, I fell into a falafel wasteland - surviving an eternity without the crisp yet tender chickpea fritters and the mouth-coating bliss of truly superlative hummus. I had tried other places, but they never came close to replicating the falafel of my childhood.  It was always either over-cooked or mealy and soggy. I had started to give up altogether. But this is not a sad story.

Over a decade ago, I was saved.  True story.  While working at a catering company in Morton Grove (I have seen things, oh yes I have...), my husband, who was a chef there, came home one day exclaiming “I just had falafel for the first time.  Damn, it’s good.  You’re people know what’s up.”  My eyes widened, my pulse quickened and I grabbed him by the collar and said “You will take me there.”  And so he did.  We’ve been going to Pita Inn religiously since.

There are four Pita Inn locations, but we usually go to the one on Dempster, in Skokie. We will make the drive from the city on a Sunday without a second thought. Yes, it can get busy there, but I don’t care because I’m in my happy place.  This restaurant is not fancy, though clean and friendly and that is enough for me.  The few times I’ve gone to a white tablecloth establishment for Middle Eastern food, I couldn’t see the point.  When you get to Pita Inn, you simply walk up to the counter and order, then you find a table, sit down, and wait for them to call your number.  We usually end up with two red cafeteria trays of food to haul back. It borders on shameful.  There is a nap required when we get home.  The bonus of going to the Dempster location of Pita Inn is, not only is it the original, it is located right next door to their store and bakery.  Oh yes, you can shop afterwards.  At Pita Inn Market and Bakery, you can stock up on large canisters of zaatar seasoning, pomegranate syrup, marinated eggplant, and my childhood favorite halvah, a kind of candy made from ground sesame seeds that has enough fat and calories in one bite to set you back a good month. Go for the kind marbled with chocolate.  So delicious.     

First of all, the falafel at Pita Inn is smack-a-kitten good.  It is crisp on the outside and flecked with sesame seeds, while the inside is bright green and fluffy.  It’s like I’m five-years-old again. My personal favorite is the Gourmet Falafel sandwich, which has the addition of fried potato slices and a brightly flavored relish with the beloved pink pickled turnips, cucumbers and tomatoes. Make sure and grab a couple of the plastic dishes of tahini and harissa to bring back to your table, because they are a necessary condiment. Warning:  check the harissa first before pouring it on everything.  Some days it is a nice warm heat, some days it is made of hellfire.  Just a heads-up. 

Their hummus is - and I will defend this in a street fight - the best I’ve had anywhere. Period.  It is velvety smooth and creamy and it has the perfect balance of garlic, tahini and lemon.  I think almost every other place kills their hummus with cumin and then the whole thing just tastes like smokey armpit dip to me.  Pita Inn’s hummus is very possibly made with magic. It comes spread on a plate and drizzled with thick green olive oil and spices and served with their homemade, warm pita bread. Other favorites include their chicken and beef shawarma, which is pieces of marinated meat layered and cooked on a spit, much like gyros, and kifta kebab, which is ground beef or lamb formed on a skewer and cooked on a grill.  My only critique is of their lentil soup and yellow rice which could use a slightly heavier hand in the seasoning department.  Otherwise, it’s all good. Even better, their prices.  Less than twenty dollars gets you a feast, and if you go during the week they have combination lunch plates for $4.95. A habit is always better when it is cheap.  I don’t think the husband and I go for more than a month without making the trip to Skokie to get our fix.  If we wait too long, we start getting itchy.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Denver Boot : What Happens When Folks Bring Flasks to the Rapture

by Jeff Allison
Along with great beer, the state of Colorado is also well known for it's mutant goth-country scene. And seeing JD asked me to gab a bit about it in honor of Slim Cessna's Auto Club playing November 1st, at the Empty Bottle, I thought I'd offer a quick rundown of the city's more recent music history.

The Denver alt-country scene developed in the mid-Nineties in a city not really known for it's music. There was a small hardcore scene in the Eighties (check out the Rocky Mountain Low or Local Anesthetic comps), John Denver, and some folk music, but for a long time the city was best known for the show Dynasty! Dean Reed (the Red Elvis) was also from Colorado before he left the States to become a huge rock star behind the Iron Curtain and then die mysteriously in East Berlin (there's a great book about him called Comrade Rockstar—apparently Tom Hanks has the movie rights!).

Anyhoo... lots of great music scenes have started in places one wouldn't really expect them to, in somewhat off the beaten path locales, i.e. Cleveland in the late-Seventies, Athens, Georgia, in the late-Eighties and then again in the late-Nineties, and of course, Seattle. And for those who've never been to Denver, it really is sorta in the middle of nowhere (no offense Denverites, but it just is; and this from a guy who grew up more or less in the soy fields of the Midwest). After all, the nearest major cities (Kansas City and Salt Lake City) are hundreds of miles away. So, yeah, you could say it's fairly isolated. And like those other scenes, Denver's music scene started with some great venues and a few sympathetic radio stations.

The first band that I'd heard of from Denver was 16 Horsepower. They combined fire and brimstone Christianity with accordion, banjo, drums, and upright bass to create a very "backwoods" sound. I only saw them once (at the Abbey Pub—one of their last American shows), and live it made for a very hypnotic night. They put out a couple of albums on A&M in the mid-Nineties (including their best work, Low Estate). They then switched to indie labels for a couple more really solid albums and somehow became the biggest band in Holland (?). They broke up around 2002 right after releasing a fantastic live album, Hoarse, and later issued a DVD though Alternative Tentacles, 16 Horsepower Live. Both albums hint at how great this band was! Their front man, David Eugene Edwards, has since formed Woven Hand. Not quite as backwoods sounding as 16 HP, still a great band that has been putting out consistently great albums. Check out Mosaic or their S/T!
Next up is Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The first time I saw the Auto Club was in Austin in 2000, at the SXSW fest. I'd just gotten paid vacation for the first time, and I really dug their latest album, Always Say Please and Thank You, so I figured, "What the hell, I'm heading to Texas!" The show turned out to be one of the best shows I've ever seen. Also on the bill was Wesley Willis, Jad Fair, Victims Family, Black Kali Ma, and the Pattern. Jello Biafra was MC and also did spoken word about the then recent Columbine shootings. At the time I was pretty much just into metal and punk. I rarely went to shows (unless Sepultura or Motorhead came to town), but this show (and the fest in general) really changed my mind about live music. Slim in particular turned in a fantastic performance and was the only band I've seen at SXSW to get an encore, outside of some arena band playing a "secret" show. I saw Auto Club a few months later at the Hideout (another great show), and now I keep seeing them whenever I get the chance, even road tripping to Denver, Pontiac, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Detroit when necessary! A good night at a Slim show is kinda like a backwoods Baptist tent revival (but with a lot more beer). People sweat and groove, the band plays up-tempo banjo songs while wailing about sin and sinners, and all the while the two front men continually accuse each other with pointed fingers. Their albums (and they've made some really good records) hint at their greatness, but live is definitely where it's at! Theirs was the only show I've ever seen end in a giant free-for-all fight (though it did happen in Pontiac where pretty much everything ends in a giant brawl). However, their live album, Jesus Let Me Down, doesn't quite convey the live experience, and their newest album, Unentitled, is a bit of a let down after their career best Cipher. But still I haven't bought a better album yet this year. Also, various band members are involved in a side band called Tarantella, which is very atmospheric "spaghetti western" type music. They put out a album on AT a few years ago that is highly recommend.

Speaking of Auto Club side projects, their other front man, Munly, has quite a few albums out. His earlier CD's were strange folk albums (stripped down, violent lyrics, baritone voice; Galvanized Yankee is the best of them) until a couple years ago he worked up a old-timey type band (two fiddles, upright and drums) called Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, which is a great throwback to pre-bluegrass-style country while still retaining some of the violent/cryptic lyrics of his older albums. I saw them a handful of times during their tour and they were hit or miss. However, seeing them at the South Side Arts Center in Chicago (in an old church, seated on old pews) made for a great show. At present, I'm not sure if the Harlots have broken up (whenever I ask him Munly's typically cryptic on the matter... and in general). His most recent album (and by far his best) is Petr & the Wulf. Petr is one of those albums you always want to crack. And though I'm pretty sure I'll never "get it," it still makes for an enjoyable try every time. My favorite song of his has been done live but never recorded. So here it is!

The other big band (and the best known) band from Denver is Devotchka. I saw them open for the Auto Club the first time I saw them at the Hideout. They sounded/looked like a mariachi band playing Buddy Holly (and I mean that in the nicest way possible). I borrowed most of their CDs from my friend Bill a week ago knowing I was going to be writing this, but I still don't feel qualified to write about them. Maybe some other time when I've more of a grasp on what they're doing.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say on the subject of Denver and its quirky goth-country music scene. See you all at Slim next week. And until then, sing us out Munly!

Click here to have Munly sing us out.

Click HERE for nothing to happen while Munly stares off into worlds simple folk like us could never possibly fathom.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On The Quick #2: Primus in Madison, WI, at the Orpheum

Larry Lalonde guitar, Les Claypool bass, Jay Lane (admirably replacing the nonetheless missed Tim “Herb” Alexander) drums. Attended on a whim, for a little nostalgic fun after exploring Wisconsin beforehand (stopped in New Glarus and had a great bite and beer). Primus was a favorite as a kid—used to rush home from school to spend hours learning Herb’s beats.
First set was something of a best-of menagerie, a lot of it from their major label debut Sailing the Seas of Cheese. All systems were go; overall even better than when I’d seen them as a kid. Lalonde, head down over guitar and effect boards that rivaled Jonny Greenwood’s, used such complex techniques as harmonic swells and chicken picking to create uncanny textures atop the songs’ dense thumping rhythms. I’ve heard people say they wish ol’ Larry would “play along” with the band more. Never made sense to me. This would make the songs sound carrion-pecked and skeletal, as Lalonde has always been the trickster element who dances around and over the beast, frightening off the crows. His playing also fleshes out the world in which the beast lumbers, with distant atmospheric sighs, tree-top warblings, and starry-night fret taps. It even occasionally changes the direction of the animal's stride with an impish yank of its tail.
Claypool was Claypool: he slapped, he grooved, he soloed, he crooned nasally (waxed on about dairy products, weed, and fishing), and he whammy-barred thick, distorted chords. He was, as ever, the goofy yet impressive front man. While Lane did a fair job of filling Herb’s shoes with his prog-ish polyrhythms and heavy foot on the one, the only thing to be desired was for him to make it a little less easy looking, to be less diffident and breach Claypool’s rhythmic sovereignty with some fiercer attacks.
Then intermission: vintage Popeye cartoons, a half-hour’s worth. Grainy, black and white, very little dialogue, almost no adherence to what would be considered remotely PC these days—a few gasps from the audience. Quite a treat, actually.

Set two turned out to be a performance of the new album, Green Naugahyde (which I’m ambivalent about), in its entirety. And seeing that at its current rate it appeared the show would run over three hours despite there being no opening act (it in fact clocked in at three and a half hours), I prepared to beat it after a few more songs. After all, it was a long drive back to Chicago. But I got back to Chicago late, very late. That is, I stayed to the end, as it quickly became apparent that the second half of the show was, without exaggeration, bordering on transcendent.
Live, the new material expanded with a life not found on Naugahyde—or on any of their albums, for that matter. The songs were stretched, caressed, lacquered, stripped, and tinkered with until something wholly new emerged, something hypnotic and ghostly and charming without slipping into the oft-indulgent “jam band” category. “Why didn’t they play that on the new album?” I heard many people ask while later shuffling from the venue. Because—I supposed while walking back to the car, past the illuminated capitol building that recently served as the site for so many differing opinions—sometimes a song or story (or pot roast recipe, for that matter) isn’t fully formed upon its creation, isn’t quite ready when it needs to be. Sometimes it takes a few tries or another set of hands (such as being covered by another group—by Dylan’s own admission, plenty of his tunes—or receiving a little advice from a friend or editor—Fitzgerald cut the head off The Sun Also Rises, as did Pound from The Wasteland) before it comes into its own. I was just glad/grateful to get a chance to hear these songs as they found their stride. And for the first time since I was a kid practicing their old tunes on my even older kit, I’ll be searching for bootlegs—perhaps bartering with a copy of Todd Haynes’ Superstar, or a few flasks of my old man’s bathtub gin.
(band photo provided by Jon-Robert McDowell)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Won't End Well — Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses

The Play: Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses

The Playwright: well, Sophocles, with a very lively assist from Sean Graney

The Venue: The Chopin Theatre

The Gist: The Hypocrites Theatre Company, in the span of about four hours with two intermissions, performs Sophocles' seven surviving plays, Oedipus the King, Oedipus in Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Philoktetes, Elektra, and Women in Trachis.

Thoughts: Sean Graney’s adapting and conjoining of these seven surviving Greek milestones is often masterful. While Graney and the cast inject a good deal of humor and quirk not in the original pieces, they mostly do so without straying too far from the dramas’ kernels, the reasons they've remained relevant for over two thousand years.

The setting is a hospital outside of time but fitted with the paraphernalia found in modern ERs. Characters from the various plays, usually while bleeding profusely, stumble in and out of the ER, at times acknowledging its and the two staff nurses’ existence, other times sure they are elsewhere, such as out in a pasture slaughtering sheep they think army bureaucrats who have recently screwed them out of their rights and glory (how things have changed in two millennia….).

Ryan Bourque, who aside from being a very charismatic and surprisingly (due to his shock of red hair and mischievous grin) protean actor, choreographed the program’s indispensable and well-executed violence. Over the course of the production he does an admirable job of playing the aloof slacker son of Heracles, a hilariously effete and dapper Theseus, and the devastated husband to the recently buried alive Antigone. After this performance, Mr. Bourque’s name on a marquee may very well be that which tips the scales on whether I attend certain productions or not.

Also on the bill is the raspy-voiced Walter Briggs, who recently co-starred with Bourque in Inconvenience's excellent production of Brett Neveu's The Earl. Briggs is a very capable actor and artfully lends his physicality and lumbering presence to his embodiments of two of the Greek’s strongest (if not brightest) heroes, Hercules and Ajax. However, be warned that Briggs possesses the sort of menacing demeanor that may give one, especially those who had a low social standing in junior high, the phantom sensation of being held upside down and shaken for change before having one’s head deposited in an active toilet bowl.
And though for me these two performers were the standouts, perhaps partially due to my growing familiarity with their work, that is not to say the rest of the cast did not offer many strong performances. Others include Jeff Trainor’s fine balancing of the blinded and bereaved Oedipus’ endless woes and Robert McLean’s resisting the slippery maudlin slope by not overstating Philoktetes’ stings from betrayal (or having one doozy of a gaping wound cauterized with a common clothes iron). Also Erin Barlow and Tien Doman give their characters a goodly blend of strength and vulnerability, all the while wielding the kingdom-damning sexual prowess thrust upon nearly all tragic Greek female roles with about as much grace as one can ask those operating such an antiquated (though integral to the plays’ surviving integrity) device. And then there’s Zeke Barlow, who in addition to his admirable comic timing, does the seemingly impossible by taking the smarminess of his Odysseus and raises it to even smarmier peaks with his Creon. Robert Downy Jr. could learn a thing or two about oozing complacency from this actor.

As for the writing itself, for even attempting such a massive undertaking Sean Graney deserves a Coke. That most of the time he pulls off his fusion of modern parlance interlaced with lines straight from the original plays (granted, after having been translated several hundred times between their inception and now) and still manages to retain the plays’ original pathos is impressive.
Yes, there are some missteps. Sometimes the bouts of one-liner zingers and fourth-wall breaking asides amass a density that would give Groucho Marx pause. And, yes, the nurses’ nearly constant presence on the stage with their incidental actions can at times be terribly distracting. But considering the production’s otherwise surefooted dialogue and pacing, its ability to remain wholly entertaining over the span of three lengthy acts, and its remaining true enough to the source material for viewers to walk away confident they are now familiar with the surviving works of one the three great Greek tragedians — well, I’d say all of this combined equals a hell of a feat.
And did I mention they serve free falafel during intermission? I should have just started there and you could have skipped the rest of the review, right?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fiction #6 Only Lately by JD Adamski

JD Adamski has had a lot of jobs in his life. From packing trucks 3rd shift in the UPS yards with the ex-cons and the tweakers to slinging stouts to hawking vitamins and other panaceas at the medicine show, he’s tried his hand at many things. Along the way, he got a degree in Religious Studies and a minor in English at DePaul University. Currently, he fancies himself something of a writer and helps curate this site.

Only Lately

When I get up the sun is already high. I’m on the couch. I’m usually an early riser, without an alarm clock. In the kitchen I toast a bagel and flip on the coffee maker. Take two bites of the bagel, think better of the coffee, which somehow is twice as full as it should be anyway and looks watery and grey. Almost overflowing. I put the plate with the bagel in the sink and find it full of others, each hovering at an angle over the next. Doesn’t smell great either but I ignore it for the time being as I’m supposed to be at the café in a half-hour. We’re chatting again.

On the street it’s warm. The lawns are very green, the sun so bright sprinklers project full rainbows in what moments ago were just fiery arcs of static. Then they’re gone, signal lost, static again. And while the houses’ siding looks warped and soft, especially those dressed in raw cedar rather than tight-lipped aluminum, the concrete is very hard. My knees, still stiff with sleep, ache with each footfall. I pause and stretch and my back pops so loudly I wonder if I’ll collapse like a robe falling off its hook. The thought and heat and sound make things dim for a moment. But then I’m off again, everything again bright and swaying.

On the next street life rattles on, echoes in the stalls, in the shops and alleys. Everybody talks and laughs quickly, at the same time. They all understand without hearing. Or have memorized the bit. Or imagine it now, reply at random to whatever and whenever, past or present or around the bend. Pat each other untouchingly.

Pets sleep in the doorways. Children run and snarl amongst the wares but nobody minds. The mothers know their brood has more rights than we, while shop owners bank on this flimsy dogma, hence all the artfully balanced gewgaws out front. The breeze edges one piece into a better position. If the kid’s within a yard when it goes, it counts. I step around onto the street, as my funds are sort of low lately.

Up the block a dolled-up tranny with glossy legs and enormous tits marches past me and half throws a shoulder when we’re caught between two vendors and I don’t stop to let her past but just tuck in my arm. Apparently of two minds today, or several. I almost fall into a web of rickety dreamcatchers and peace pipes whose owner, a turquoise-laden white guy with his long grey hair in a thick Cherokee braid, attempts to reel me in the rest of the way with his eyes and a nudge from behind by either carrion-craving bastard Coyote or Raven. I catch myself instead on a cast-iron Kokopelli, which is thin but doesn’t bend. The shop owner checks. Disappointed, he scowls then bitches at me while I wipe my hand on the next stall’s shutter, what used to be a cigar shop run by a shrewd-looking man from India.

After this I decide I need a cup of coffee after all and dip into a shop. While perusing the menu I hear, “There you are,” and turn to find Marie sitting at a booth. “I already ordered you something.”

I sit down. She looks sad. I rest my hand on hers because she looks so down but she pulls it away and says don’t and the diamond chip nicks my palm. I shrug. My coffee arrives, which is very black and strong looking, like the tranny who accosted me for being unchivalrous. I take a big sip, burn my mouth, but it’s still good. Marie frowns. “No cream or sugar?” she says.

“Not a chance,” I reply, afraid of breaking its proud back, or turning it into the dirty bath water sitting in my pot back home. I hate it. A whiff of the dishes stinking in my sink finds me—a memory, a trace on my sleeve—watering my eyes.

“How are you?” she asks

“Slept late today.”

“You look tired.”

“Too much sleep always does me in, but you know that.”

“Not really. You never slept in. Barely slept at all sometimes.”

“Well, I do now, making up for back then, I guess.”

“Does that mean you’re off…?”

“Doesn’t mean anything! Can’t a guy just sleep in once in a while?" I lower my voice. "Maybe if I’d slept more we wouldn’t have argued so much, and now we wouldn’t be in this position, you know?”

A hipster on rollerblades stirs honey into his drink to the side of the barista. Blood runs down his arm into his cup.

“Do you see that?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“That guy’s bleeding all over the place.”



“It’s a tattoo.”

“What… no, it…. Well, it must be fresh. Looks like it’s stained the lip of his cup.”

“Christ, Martin,” she sighs, adjusting her bracelets and the chip on her left hand. “You know, Kevin called and said he hasn’t heard from you in weeks. Left you messages but you never called him back.”

“I called you back.”

“No you didn’t, you….”

“So you’re still talking to Kevin?”

“He was my friend, too.”

“Well, he’s a liar. And a sonofabitch who’s probably trying to double-cross me, now that you’re kinda on the market again. Always had an eye for you.”

What are you talking about, Martin? We’re talking about Kevin, right, your oldest friend? And even though he and Jeff were once close too, because of you he won’t talk to him anymore now. He only called me out of concern. And clearly I’m not on….”

“Yeah yeah yeah. I know, you’re right and see the good in every one, and I’m just being paranoid. Sorry….”

Marie rubs her brow. A moment later her lower lip starts to quiver. This upsets me because I know it’s just a ploy to get me to agree with her. If I’d agree with her everything would be fine. Not just now, but before. Forever. And sometimes I hate myself for not doing it. What does it matter what I believe? It’s all just something to say because silence is so unfashionable. I mean, her opinions and my opinions are all clearly of the same mode, more or less, will keep us in the good with our present camp. So why not take up her slant and leave mine on the curb where I found it in the first place?

I don’t know. I just get attached to things, I guess. Would rather lose something out of forgetfulness than have it taken from me. It’s a form of materialism, this stupid pride.

“Anyway,” I say for no reason, leaning back in my chair.

She raises her head. “Martin, maybe you should….”

The worst possible follow-up to the parading her correctness and quivering lips. Should. I cut her off by slapping the table. Then a few tears fall, as does my bright red coffee cup onto the floor. I’m sorry as hell to see it smash like that. I watch it do it several times. It never gets easier.

Someone puts their hand on my shoulder. I can’t tell who because I’m still watching the cup explode, which looks new, or at least well taken care of. Pristine. Maybe it’s the rollerblader, as something warm is on that shoulder other than the hand, onto my clavicle, oozes down my chest. It turns my stomach. Then some bad noise, a few jolts and flashes. Marie yelling people away, telling them to back the fuck off, growling sort of, then turning on me once outside the café.

“What the hell, Martin? Really!” It’s even brighter out now, and warmer. Then: “Oh, fucking Christ… Look what he did! Just spends his life waiting for damsels in distress, I bet, the asshole. Come here. Hey! Where are you going? Come back. Martin? Martin! Don’t be a jerk, okay? Please. Hey! I’m calling your parents. I’m not kidding. I am!”

I mean to walk back home and clean the dirty dishes I can’t get out of my mind or nose, but instead find myself at the lakefront. The beach is again closed with E.coli. Gut flora run rampant. So I don’t dip my face into the water, attempt to soothe its ache. I sit on a slab of rock instead and wish Marie had come along. She’s good with cuts and stuff like that. Used to let me rest my head in her lap, even when I wasn’t hurting, or away, and that’s probably why.

I watch the small waves break at the beach’s hem, curl back with their cache of infection. But they look too small and frail to carry any real danger. Still, I resist running up to them, letting them lap upon my feet and lower me by minute increments into the sand. Then I remember the cut on my palm and examine it, which now is all that burns. I lick it once, twice, but it doesn’t help. I raise up my hand and let the breeze blow on it with puckered lips. It only burns more, starts traveling up my arm. Starts to make me anxious, like I’m out of options, breath. My vision shrinks to a pinpoint. The beach trembles. Desperate, I reach out for the sea.