Sunday, June 20, 2010

Great Lake: Chicago's Best Pizza Made By Detroiters

Some people really like Chicago-style pizza. I do not. And, in case you've never ever read this blog before, I LOVE pizza. What's not to like, you ask? Well let me tell you: super-thick, super-dry crust stuffed full of consistently mediocre toppings slathered in pools of what can only be described as overdone marinara sauce -- which is really just NEVER good by its own nature, kind of like mayonnaise or ipecac -- equals a big fat steaming pile of FAIL.

I've had a historically ambivalent attitude towards Chicago. People like to talk about all the great a long-time retail worker the thought of spending any of my free time utilizing "shopping" as a leisure activity makes me feel not unlike the way I do after a late-night bender: my head throbs, I find it difficult to bend my knees, and I'm more than a little nauseous. People talk about Navy Pier and the river...we have a river. Maybe you've noticed? It's kind of nice; you should check it out sometime. And people talk about the dining.

Chicago and Detroit have a lot in common. We're both Midwestern cities built around a river. We were both made rich by industrialization. But while Chicago was still little more than a meat-packing town, Detroit was flourishing as one of the richest cities in the country (circa late-1800s...throughout the first half of the 1900s we were THE richest city in the country). THEN Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition (designed in large part by Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Belle Isle...seriously, you should go check out our river), and all of a sudden it was all "OOOOOHH, look at Chicago, we all love it now" and it's been that way ever since.

I sometimes wonder how different things may have turned out had Detroit ever bothered to put a bid on that.

Chicago's okay. In current times it has clearly succeeded where Detroit has massively failed. Some of the neighborhood districts are pretty cool -- Wicker Park, Andersonville. But for the most part...meh, it's a'ight. One of the so-called "arguments" I hear fellow (and I wish I didn't even have to designate these people as such) "Detroiters" often make is that the dining scene is sooooo much better in Chicago. This proclammation also makes me feel not unlike the way I do after a late-night bender, but I'll save that rant for the company of the like-minded where it probably best belongs.

Much like Detroit, Chicago is primarily a blue-collar meat-and-potatoes kind of town. I still hear chefs claim that Detroit is still stuck in this mentality, but I actually disagree on that point--our old-school steakhouses have all but disappeared, and we've seen an uprising of boutique bistros and cross-cultural fusion fare that is worlds removed from the steakhouses of yore.

But NOW I digress. Yep--just now.

Chicago is still stuck in that old steakhouse mentality, which makes most of their dining kind of boring. Plus they tout that wretched pizza, and I think I've made it pretty clear how I feel about THAT. So, Chicago--what've you got for me? Impress me. I'm waiting.

Clearly I'm feeling a bit self-indulgent today; how's THAT for an intro?

Thanks to a hot tip provided to me by someone who should damn well know these things, I found my way to Great Lake Pizza. This in itself is no small accomplishment. Located at 1477 W. Balmoral Ave. in the Andersonville neighborhood, anyone staying in Chicago's downtown area must be prepared for a bit of a drive. I was committed to the idea, and so must you be. In more ways than one.

Great Lake doesn't exactly make it easy to visit their restaurant. In fact, I suspect that they actually want to deter you from visiting. They are only open 5:30-9:30pm Wednesdays - Saturdays. That's all. That's it. And with their 14-seat dining room -- 14 seats -- you've got to get there EARLY to get a table. And I mean EARLY. I got there around 4:30, not realizing they didn't open until 5:30 (Who??? Who does that??? On the weekend??? In Chicago???), and already there was a line. The four people in front of me then immersed me in their Great Lake lore: like stories from a bitter battlefield I heard of hour-long drives only to be turned away at 7:00pm because the restaurant was "filled for the rest of the night," and refusals to accommodate a family because the dining room was not equipped for children's seats, nor was there room for a stroller. If you've watched enough Seinfeld then you know where this is going.

At this point on my Chicago trip I was pretty much over the whole "waiting in line for food" thing. I don't even remember the last time I waited in line to eat before this; utterly ridiculous. Chicago, you have too many fucking people. However, you can keep them, because I like always being able to find a seat at my favorite places.

Anyway, I dipped out to make a booze run at the nearby In Fine Spirits wine shop (Great Lake is a B.Y.O.B. kind of place, which is one cool thing that Chicago does that Michigan's irrationally strict liquor laws does not allow), where I found a plethora of MICHIGAN beers! Ironically a lot of my favorite breweries are actually closer to Chicago than Detroit. Founders! New Holland! Oh happy day...Chicago, maybe you're not so bad after all!

By the time I got back (I may have hung around for a quick 6-bottle wine tasting) the line looked like that^.

Okay, seriously, it's 14 seats inside. This is what 14 seats look like when you can't do a panoramic view. Kind of cute, very simple. They serve water in carafes with plastic cups, the silverware is rolled in hand towels, and they charge a corking/disposal fee for any alcohol you bring in. They also have a selection of various randomness for sale (pasta sauce, a book on bacon, purses), which I can only assume is a small collection of "shit the owners like" which has really no practical or feasible commercial purpose. That right there sounds like a great way to run a business -- the whole ethos is reflected throughout the place.

The daily menu is posted on the wall. Those are your options. That's all. That's it. Don't you DARE try to order a pepperoni pizza, or God save your ever-loving soul, supreme. These are your only options: 1, 2, and 3. If you look closely, you'll see that you are given the choice of adding certain items to certain pizzas. I tried the tomato, homemade mozzarella, aged Dante cheese and herbs PLUS the cremini mushrooms.

I did not order this correctly.

When you walk in, you must line up single-file at the cash register. If you have someone with you, he/she is responsible for securing you a seat, should you be so lucky as to find a table open. The dining room consists of 3 2-tops and one 8-top, making communal-style seating pretty much your only option (unless you get there at 4:30 in the afternoon and wait in line for an hour). You then sidle up to the register when it is your turn. You will know it is your turn because owner Lydia Esparza will look up and glare at you. At this point you must open your mouth and place your order. Do not stutter. Speak loudly and clearly. ANNUNCIATE. When I sort of stammer over the "plus cremini mushrooms" part, I get a terse "What.", but not like a "What" like an "I didn't hear you, can you repeat that?" -- a "What" like a "I goddamn well heard you but I'm going to make you say it again so you will learn to speak more clearly next time." "PLUS CREMINI MUSHROOMS" (SIR YES SIR!). I then present my credit card as a form of payment, a Visa logo being the intangible representation of money which can be exchanged for goods and services.

This was not the right time to do this.

Lydia looks at the card. Then looks at me like I might possibly ACTUALLY be the most ignorant and irritating person who has ever walked the face of the planet EVER, and that by just having to acknowledge my existence she is putting herself out greatly. "You don't pay until you get the pizza," she says through gritted teeth as she glares at her next victim.

"Oh. I'm. Sorry." I slinked off to my hard-won seat, scolded and ashamed.

Then I took this picture (above). Lydia was not happy about this. I received a glare so almighty it made the unused eggs in my ovaries uncomfortable. I slowly put the camera down, bowed my head quietly and put my hands in my lap. No pizza for you, one year.

But despite my most obvious blunders, the pizza came. And OH did it. Piping hot. Fresh, gooey cheese. Decadent cremini mushrooms (one of my favorite varietals, if mushrooms can be called such). Delicate tomato sauce -- as in TOMATO, as in fresh, ripe, red and juicy tomatoes plucked and diced, NOT marinara sauce, nonono. And a crust that must surely have been made with the touch of a god.

What Lydia Esparza (along with her husband, co-owner and co-chef Nick Lessins) may lack in tableside manner she more than makes up for with her dough. That whole coal-burning-oven, brich-oven, stone-oven craze that's happening in the pizza world right now? Pshaw. Lydia and Nick scoff at your stinking stones and bricks and coal. This is all done in a gas oven baby, and at 650 degrees F. They use more than one kind of flour...and that's about all anyone seems to know. But that crust...thick on the outside with a delicate crispness, though still tender and chewy to the tear, and dough-soft on the inside where it cradles the exquisite toppings (all either made in-house or sourced locally, with all of their suppliers listed on the menu board)...this may just be one of the most divine pizza crusts I have ever experienced. No wonder Alan Richman named it Number One Pizza in the Country. My heart will always lie with Supino Pizzeria, but this was other-wordly.

And of course, it takes a Detroiter. Nick and Lydia are Detroit transplants, she from the city and he from the suburbs. So while this may appear to be a win for Chicago, I consider it to really be a win for Detroit. That's right, folks: it took two Detroiters to show Chicago how pizza should be done.

Some things people might not like: Limited hours, limited seating, high prices ($19-23 for a 14'', and that's the only size they come in, that's all, that's it), limited options, no alcohol, and the Soup Nazi takes your order. (Full disclosure: she did warm up a bit as the meal progressed, even smiling at me at one point. I suppose we all have bad days--I was rarely a ray of sunshine when a customer would yell "EXCOOOOSE ME!" from across the store and I would spin around and say "YEAH." with a grimace.) But for pizza lovers...TRUE pizza lovers...this place is worth a pilgrimage.

Just try not to make eye contact.