When I last ate at Big Bowl a few years ago, I disliked the bland food and dubious claims about use of local ingredients. It's possible that my negative opinion was biased by the fact that the place had been touted by a prominent LTHForum poster and suburban food writer whose opinions have not often matched up with mine. That said, the tasteless stir fry and clueless staff spoke for themselves.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and I start hearing more claims about natural or sustainable this or that - this time on Twitter from a different prominent food person (Ellen Malloy) - and once again I expressed my doubts. Big Bowl is a 5 minute walk from my office and it's not as if decent dumplings are easy to come by in the area, so it was with low expectations but little effort that I gave it another try.
This time I was wowed. Transluscent, tender dumplings with a flavorful minced pork and shrimp filling were better than any similar specimens I've had recently in Chinatown, and they simply blew away the miserable shumai down the street at The Slurping Turtle. They were served with a terrific black vineggary sauce studded with scallions. Even better than the dumplings was the hot and sour soup, which was neither particularly hot nor particularly sour, but was just enough of each to complement a rich, thick pork stock reminiscent of those elusive bowls of ramen that everyone seems to be trying to find in Chicago. Add in some tender slices of the twitter-advertised "herloom pork" which indeed tasted like real pig rather than chain meat, and this is a hell of a bowl of soup, which I have now had three times in the last 10 days.
Big Bowl wasn't the only chain I visited for lunch recently. I accidentally ate at Mercadito too, thinking when I walked by that it was the tapas place that Ryan Poli just helped open (That's apparently Taverneta, which I guess is owned by the same people. Who can keep track of this stuff?). By the time I figured it out I was already seated at the bar and making small talk with the staff, so I decided to stay.
I still want to try the Poli place, but lets just say I hope he wielded enough influence to distance that place from whatever the owners of Mercadito are going for. Mercadito is the Mexicanish version of a more expensive Applebees. Nicely fried plantains are served with a dipping sauce that advertises potent spices but delivers nothing but watered-down crema that's tinted light-green. A torta with tasty, shredded short ribs delivers little of the flavor from the advertised mole, and while the meat's good one can't help but note that it isn't half as beefy-tasting as the one around the corner at Xoco. And at Mercadito, the tortas are served with some Applebees-style seasoned fries, with a seasoning that's bright red in color but delivers nothing but a salt lick of flavor. Maybe this is better drinking food than lunch food, but it was inedible at noontime.