CHICAGO BEAT+BEER CLINIC team up for a Beer+Bacon Crawl

by Paul Ciminero - Dr. Carol Westbrook on April 8, 2011

The Object: to visit three to four Chicago pubs where the food specialty is cured pork products, tasting the food and accompanying beers.

The Results: our correspondents review 17 beers and accompanying foods in 2 pubs, 1 gastro-pub, and 1 brewpub.

Throw objectivity out the window when pub crawling. Bring a defibrillator for this pork inspired overdose of food and beer. (Or…at the very least, a bottle of “Tums.”)

photo: Old Town Social, from Chicago Reader

First stop on this beer and bacon/pork inspired mini tour was Old Town Social, a gastro-pub and charcuterie bar. Located on the corner of North and Cleveland Avenues, adjacent to Chicago’s “Old Town” neighborhood, this modern high-ceiling establishment with warm polished heavy wood throughout is Chicago’s latest temple of pig worship. We heard the rumblings, the local hype on WGN’s “Chicago’s Best” program, the numerous write-ups in the local press—now let’s drink the Kool-Aid (err, draft beer)…and EAT SOME PIGGIE!!!

Paul: What is a charcuterie bar? It’s an unusual but unique concept indeed. You’ve seen sushi bars and oyster bars, but a charcuterie bar? As you attempt to push open the 12’ x 4’, enormous and almost airtight outer wooden door, you notice a chef standing parallel to the giant window from the inner lobby to your right, slicing and assembling an array of meats and cheeses in a small, sushi bar-like work station. Welcome! Now Carol, let’s head on in…just…push …the…second glass door…it’s like a freakin’…airlock…taking both of us a few seconds to budge it. Then…Swoosh…it opens. Mmmmmm, the smell of bacon, sausages, curing meats—we’re starving! Just getting past those two huge doors has stimulated our appetites.

Carol: You have given me a very easy task, Paul: pairing beer with food can be difficult for some food, but pairing beer with pork is a slam dunk. Peasant food requires a peasant drink. Any beer goes with any pork, especially if the pork is cured. And that’s probably why pork + beer pairings are so popular in Chicago.

photo: Old Town Social, Chicago IL

This is my first trip to Old Town Social and I absolutely love this place! It’s a beer bar, it’s a whiskey bar, it’s a gastro-pub, it’s a neighborhood hangout, and it’s also a sports bar. It has great ambiance and I could sit here for hours, striking up a conversation with just about any denizen. As a beer bar it has about a dozen taps with a selection of regional, national, and imported drafts. And the bartender is more than willing to let you sample anything you like. As a gastro-pub, it’s noted for its Sunday brunch, which includes generous servings of pork products.

Paul: So what makes Old Town Social a “gastro-pub” instead of a pub, or tavern?

Carol: I’ve given it some thought and here’s how I would define the drinking scene in Chicago.

Tavern (Corner Bar or Saloon) – The standard Chicago bar (bottles) or tap (draft) is a neighborhood establishment and is limited by its storefront lot size (25 ft. lots are the standard in Chicago – hence “corner bar”), with mass produced lagers and may or may not serve snacks or food. Most of the customers are regulars and it’s a place to gather and socialize.
Beer bar
– An establishment with many taps (at least a dozen) and an ever-changing selection of craft and imported beers, a large selection of bottled beer, few or minimal mass produced beers (MGD, Bud, etc.), and food is optional. A good example would be the Map Room.
– A gathering place for folks to enjoy good beer and food (kind of like “YourBeerNetwork”!). The draft selection is partially fixed (for the regulars) and partially rotated with “guest” drafts of craft or imported beers. The food is usually good bar food. Examples would be Duke of Perth (Scottish) or Lashers (German).
– It’s all about the food. There must be a chef on premises. Like a restaurant, you usually have to make reservations so there are a limited number of regulars. The beer menu includes a changing draft list, usually selected to match with the food. Examples would be Old Town Social, the Publican, and the Gage.
Brew Pub
– Features the output of a single brewery (with very limited guest beers in bottles or draft) and almost always includes food. The food should be unique and inspired. Examples of this would be Goose Island and Revolution Brewery.
Sports Bar
– A sports bar can be any of the above but it’s primarily about providing a venue to watch the GAME. The emphasis is the Game or event itself. They have satellite feeds of games you can’t always get on your TV and the sound is always on (many bars have no sound on their screens). There is an emphasis to a particular team (or university loyalty) and usually a particular sport. For example, if you stroll down Clark Street you’ll find bars exclusively devoted to watching Cubs baseball games, but you’ll also find a bar that features Iowa State or Northwestern, or Notre Dame football, or even a bar or two that primarily features rugby, or European soccer. Some Pubs become Sports Bars when THE game is on (like Durkins and Notre Dame football; got it?)!

So, Old Town Social probably qualifies as a gastro-pub, while Paddy Long’s is a pub, and Revolution Brewing is a brew pub.

Paul: Thanks for clarifying those differences, Carol.

We find a seat at the bar, belly up, and begin questioning the bartender. He’s an affable person, and we have a general idea about where to begin, but even those decisions are extremely hard. Chef Jared Van Camp sources all his ingredients locally, and is a true “Wurstmeister”—grinding, smoking, curing and aging his meats in-house. You can even order an entire salami or two online (selection varies with three or four being available at any given time) but you have to come in and pick it up when ready as they don’t ship any items and some are custom made-to-order.

The menu consists of a Starter selection, Sandwich selection, (referred to as “Between Bread”), a Sides selection (with everything from a Stilton, Gruyere, and Cheddar Mac-n-Cheese to Deep fried Bread+Butter Pickles), a creative Salad selection and a separate “build your own page,” i.e., the Ploughman’s Platter.

The starter selection of either the “Grilled Smoked Sausage N Waffles” plate, the “three mini house-made hot dog” plate, the “Spicy Duck Wings,” and the “Crispy Merguez Lamb Sausage flatbread (with goat cheese, of course) all sound amazing. However, we’re here for PIG today.

I didn’t notice BACON listed anywhere as a “side” but no worries—it’s “Industry Sunday” and that means free bacon with ever order of beer, bourbon, or cocktails. YUM!

The “Between Bread” selection is where we look next after the bacon no-brainer. I ask and the barkeep concurs that we MUST have the Pork Belly Rueben sandwich. Side note: last year I trekked Chicagoland in search of Chicago’s greatest burgers and I’m sure Jared’s burger’s (ground daily from grass fed beef) are amazing, but I’ll return to confirm that soon.

We decide to take the bacon with the “Pork Belly Rueben Sandwich” and the Charcuterie selection from the Ploughman’s Platter page. It seems we’re already in trouble as the “smoked, salted, and cured meats” section has 16 items (choose 1 at $4 or 5 for $16). I definitely want the Lardo (“whipped Italian butter”), the Soppressatta, and the Mortadella. Now we haggle for 10 minutes over the last 2, settling on the Toscano Salame and the Chorizo (the Breseola – an air dried beef – we wanted was out and besides, this is a pork outing). So here’s what we finally ordered:


Pork Belly Rueben Sandwich – The Homer Simpson drool begins flowing down my chin. Now it’s all over my shirt, my pants, and the floor. Drool puddles! Gee, maybe I should HAVE A BITE! Made with succulently moist, 1/3 inch cut pork belly pastrami, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, and soft marble rye, I give Carol a 1” square, circle my arms around the plate (like I used to do to keep the other siblings from TOUCHING my food as a kid) and begin to devour what is MINE. I think I may have just found the SANDWICH OF THE YEAR (yet it’s only January 2011).
– It’s dry and chewy with loads of flavor. I’ve discovered Old Town Social’s biggest secret. BACON JERKY!!! OMG, it’s really good.


The Charcuterie selection arrives on two wooden planks (see picture) and was accompanied by mustard piccalilli relish and grilled bread. Starting on the left plank at the top, here’s what we ordered:

Lardo – I’m sure this stuff is served in Heaven on the side with grilled Fois gras (in Hell they serve cold “Big Macs” on stale, dry bread and cold French fries – it’s HELL for Crissakes- what else do you think they’d serve you for eternity??) The Lardo is light as air and fluffy; an explosion of subtle pork flavor that just melts on the tongue. Hmm, Lardo milkshakes…oh wait, I think Graham Elliot has those at his new carryout joint. To quote Carol here (loudly) “Oh my god, I’ve died and gone to heaven and am sitting on a white, fluffy cloud.”
Toscano Salame
– Ground pork, chunks of fat, red wine, garlic and pepper. This three inch diameter salami has subtle spice notes with the garlic and chunks of fat adding a slight creaminess to the finish. I take a gulp of the “Two Brother’s” Illinois made French Style country Ale and grin like a Cheshire Cat.
– When I think “Chorizo” I think ground up Mexican sausage but here it’s a 1-½” diameter pepperoni-like tube with loads of flavor and a very spicy finish, courtesy of the healthy dose of dried chilies and smoked paprika.

Now to the right plank (from top to bottom):

Mustard Piccalilli Relish and Grilled Bread – What?? No individual mustard(s)?? No Cornichons?? Our bartender tells us that they prefer to serve the wonderfully tart and crunchy mustard based relish on its own to cut back the fattiness of the meats. All I can say is, “COME ON MAN!” They happily supply us with more buttered and grilled bread but NO MUSTARD! Please, Old Town Social. Mustard! And not the yellow crap found at every hot dog stand under every “L” in Chicago, Gourmet mustard’s please! It’s really our only criticism of the entire visit.
– Originating in the Italian city of Bologna, Mortadella has roots that may go as far back as Roman times. It’s traditionally a blend of pork with black pepper, myrtle berries, and can have up to 15% neck fat, with pistachio’s/green olives embedded in it. (The most popular American version is a Boloney named “Oscar”.) Old Town Social’s version is four inches in diameter, mild and flavorful, with pistachios, chunks of lardon (fat), and coriander spice in it. It’s very subtle and tasty.
– Since this is made with Calabrian (part of my southern Italian roots) chili peppers, garlic, and white wine, I had to try it. Originally it was made from what’s left over after the pig is slaughtered. Everything was ground up coarsely, encased, hung and dried for several months. Soppressata is truly Italian “peasant” salami. Here it is dried for 60 days minimum and “pressed” into an irregular shape. Jared Van Camp’s version is delightful and uses “high quality pork and spices.” Reddish in color, with fatty marbling throughout, his Soppressata had well balanced tanginess with not too spicy overtones.

Carol: Are you finally finished? Really?? (Just kidding.) Now let me focus on the beer selection. Like most of the patrons, we are here to indulge in the Sunday brunch, which is slanted toward cured meats. We are sharing a plate of charcuterie and the pork-belly Reuben sandwich (if you call sharing a sandwich a “one-inch square”). The guy two seats over is eating the sausage-and-waffles with what looks to be an IPA.

Since it’s still early in the day – technically still breakfast – I’m leaning toward easy-to-drink beverages that are lower in alcohol, maltier in flavor, but without overpowering hops. In addition to low hops, I apply what I think will match well with the food. No insipid “light” beers here. (Well, to be honest, Paul asked to sample the Victoria Mexican Lager and the bartender brought us a two ounce taste – beer rookie!) As always, we’re drinking only the drafts.

Rogue’s Dead Guy Maibock – This is a traditional bock, somewhat lighter in color. Though Bock is usually a spring beer, this beer was actually created for autumn, to celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead (November 1st) and thus the name. It’s high in malts and only mildly hoppy, with mostly European hops (40 ABU). It exhibits a hearty flavor, great with spicy pork.
Victoria Mexican Beer
– As most Mexican lagers, this beer is brewed in the style of a Vienna lager (as is Budweiser). It’s made by the Modelo group in Mexico City, and only recently available in the US. At 4% ABV, it resembles similar Mexican beers – having recently returned from a Cancun vacation, I can guarantee it. What’s good about this beer is that it’s on draft, rather than poured from a bottle, so it is fresher and more drinkable. Otherwise it’s not distinguished but easy to quaff down with a Rueben sandwich.
Wells Bombardier
– This one is my pick of the bar. It’s rare to find an English Ale on draft in the US that tastes like a typical English Bitter. This one does, and it is a perfect session beer, at 4.5% alcohol. I could sip it while munching on spicy sausages all day.
Two Brothers Domaine DuPage Biere de Garde (French Style Country Ale)
– This beer was fun, and reminiscent of a good Belgian beer without the yeasty taste. At 5.9% ABV this was the highest alcohol beer in this set. Not distinguished on its own, this ale is made for drinking with food and is a perfect complement to charcuterie or a meaty sandwich.
Duchesse De Bourgogne
– Who can’t love the Duchesse? This red Flemish Ale has moderate alcohol (6.2%) but is low in hops. It is extremely flavorful due to its malty characteristics, unique yeast, and long aging process. This beer is not brewed with fruit, but it tastes reminiscent of a cherry soda. This ale pairs wonderfully with the sausage and waffles.
Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
– This I chose as my contrast beer; a hoppy American IPA. Just to remind me of my mission, I had a sip of my (current) all-time favorite draft ale. This is a moderately high alcohol (7%) highly-hopped IPA, full of American Centennial hops. It was almost overwhelming, compared to all of the other ales we drank at the Old Town Social. You could pair this with anything, but then again, I’m biased.

Next stop: Paddy Long’s Irish Bar and the Legendary “Bacon Bomb.” Pass the TUMS. It’s going to be a great afternoon!

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