For the last few years, folks have debated whether Chicago has matched or eclipsed great North American food towns like New York, San Francisco, or Montreal. While the debate rages on, one factor against our pre-eminence as a serious food town was our lack of fringe specialty food shops.
Everyone knows the real top food cities reach a point of saturation where all the mainstream good restaurant ideas are taken and have been replicated a hundred fold and tweaked with zany minor iterations. Thus, the only way to be successful is to pursue culinary improbability, that brand of foodie entrepreneurship that spawns BLT cupcakes, deep fried mayonnaise, Kobe beef and foie gras-topped hamburgers, and Krispy Kreme milkshakes.
While it’s true Chicago has staked its claim to more than a few post-modern/molecular gastronomy emporiums, we’ve generally continued to cast our lot with an unending line of taquerias, hot dog stands, pizza shacks, and sushi joints. But, last week we finally entered the big time with Lakeview’s Meatloaf Bakery. While it sounds like the drug fueled dream of a character in some big ticket Hollywood movie, it’s the real deal here in Chicago—a storefront emporium that sells no less than eight types of gourmet meatloaf in appetizer form (aka "loafies"), full loaves, and, yes, the meat cupcake, aka "meatloaf baked in cupcake forms and piped with mashed potato frosting."
To me, the idea seemed an absurdity on every level. Why would I pay for something I could ask my mom to do for free? I had more faith in the three-legged blind nag in the tenth race at Arlington than on the Meatloaf Bakery lasting a year.
But then I checked it out. Unless she’s an editor at a major food magazine or Martha Stewart, this isn’t your mom’s meatloaf. From Loaf-a-Roma featuring oozy mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, basil, and red wine-infused beef and Italian sausage, to the Omega-3 Loaf featuring a fluffy salmon croquette perfumed with lemon, parsley, and dill to straight up beef, pork, or the Mother Loaf featuring veal kissed with onions and herbs, the meatloaf here is killer haute. More importantly, the meatloaves are universally well seasoned, balanced, and the recipes are smart and satisfying.
The prices, which average about $9 for a cupcake-sized portion of meatloaf to a full loaf at around $35, seem a little high. But, then again, we’re talking loaves filled with fresh herbs and top quality meat and fish, not to mention lots of extras like bacon, chorizo, and Yukon cheddar mashed potato frosting. Ultimately, my guess is the great taste of the Meatloaf Bakery’s wares and the universal need for a small dose of edible comfort in these trying times will supercede all—the Meatloaf Bakery, against my early predictions, will be around for a while.