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When Every Restaurant Is Struggling, Which Do You Help?

A food critic finds himself in a moral quandary while ordering carryout from his favorite restaurants.

Big Jones fried chicken   Photo: Jeff Marini

Many restaurants have pivoted into carryout and delivery — anything to raise a little capital during this crisis — while others are trying out different approaches. Some throw their whole menus up online; some offer daily meal packages or even new, travel-friendly dishes they had never attempted before.

Pacific Standard Time in River North is selling simple and homey family dinners like braised short ribs and shrimp linguine that serve four people for $40. (Smart: the downtown office workers who love this restaurant likely have families to feed, and they buy out the restaurant’s allotment days in advance.) Alinea proposes a short rib Wellington, a grand gesture that has always been as much a part of its brand as its technical prestidigitation. Five Loaves Eatery, a longstanding breakfast and lunch café in Chatham, has a message on its phone from owner Connie Simms-Kincaid telling guests to place their to-go orders precisely 30 minutes before pickup — an echo of her sunny promises of a table during a busy lunch hour when clearly none are available.

Yet for consumers here in week two of planetary crisis, Chicago edition, all these choices are difficult ones. Whom do you help with your patronage when everyone so desperately needs it? Is ordering a delivery meal still a matter of hangry convenience (like any Thai place with a less than 45-minute wait) or is it better used as a chance to show your favorites your love?

My first thought went to one of my favorites, Le Bouchon in Bucktown, where the French onion soup is a hug and the server will generously top off a pour of wine in order to kill the bottle. Sadly, Le Bouchon has closed for the time being, and my best chance at helping out was to send an Instagram message asking to buy a gift card. But that exercise made me think about where I’d be spending my carryout dollars first: places I know well enough to picture the faces of its people.

Which is how I found myself on the website for Table, Donkey and Stick. This Logan Square restaurant has forgone its regular Alpine-inflected stylings in favor of a special menu of Sicilian pan pizzas they’re calling pizza asino — a good idea for curious regulars, who know this kitchen’s bona fides with bread and charcuterie. You press the button on the homepage that takes you to Tock, suddenly in Grubhub drag with clickable menus instead of prepaid reservations. When I booked a pizza dinner for two to be picked up at 5 sharp, it responded with a cleanly designed page declaring “Excellent Choice.” Next, it sent me to a menu where I could order from a choice of four fine-sounding pizzas that came with a gratis vegetable or salad.

I scrolled down to the almost-secret menu, which includes a charcuterie plate (get it for that duck liver mousse alone) and their burger, recently ranked best in the city by the Chicago Tribune. Also smart: the $22 bottles of no-name reds and whites “selected by our owner and sommelier” to complement the pizza. If there’s anyone I trust to sell me good $22 glou glou, it’s Matt Sussman.

He does not disappoint with a bottle of Fumin from Italy, perfectly slurpable with an order of this great chewy-crunchy pan pizza. Toppings of ‘nduja, smoked onions, and mushroom delivered the bold flavors this crust wants. When my wife took a bite of the duck liver mousse with toasted grain bread, she kind of melted. It was a moment of communion with our life before. And these pizzas are popular. Sussman posted this message on Twitter:

Then, I would have recommended my takeout from Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar in Bucktown on the basis of one dish — its dan dan noodles. They were definitely not the thin-pasta-with-pebbly-meat-bits kind of dan dan noodles, but rather thick, chewy udon in a kind of spicy, oily sugo that holds way more ground pork and peanuts than it has any right to.

Alas, after that first promising bag of food, the restaurant stopped offering carryout. Co-owner Jason Vincent said in a text message that he “wanted to help by getting out of the way.” Fans can still buy gift cards and contribute to its employee fund.

Virtue in Hyde Park has its own online ordering system, which I think needs one major tweak. I went online late hoping to place an order for the next day, but when I clicked the button, I got a little picture of a closed sign hanging on a door and a message that online ordering is currently closed; you must order during business hours. What a treat it would be to plan tomorrow’s dinner after another endless, anxious day.

At least you can look at the following day’s menu, which reads like love poetry for these times. Consider this, from last week:

roasted pork chops

cheddar grits

red cabbage

gem lettuce salad, ranch dressing, cherry tomato, fried black eyed peas

strawberry shortcake

William Carlos Williams has nothing on chef–owner Erick Williams.

Big Jones in Andersonville has also devised a takeout menu that it’s calling Little Jones. It is basically a variation on its regular menu of Southern fare, with a few to-go items like pimento cheese–stuffed tater tots. We were able to place an order the night before and rolled up at the prescribed time to find the kitchen just packing our bag. On the car trip home, this big, hot bag smelled like a tailgate at Ole Miss, and we pretty much leaped on the food when we got home. A good scoop of pimento cheese topped with sweet-tart chow chow tasted as good with the saltines in our pantry as it does with their housemade crackers. A pint of vinegary, highly seasoned gumbo z’herbes seemed too sharp at first but had a stealth umami that made each successive bite more soul-satisfying.

No order is complete without Big Jones’s fried chicken sided by pints of red beans and rice and turnip greens. Chef–owner Paul Fehribach understands something important about frying chicken, which is that fryable skin should never go to waste. You may get a thigh sporting a piece of skin that juts from it like the prow of a baseball cap.

As good as it is right away, best to order extra: If you are a fellow fan of cold fried chicken that stays a little crisp after a night in the fridge but firms up the right way, start jonesing. Leftover fried chicken is one of the small culinary luxuries left right now.

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