Update 9/13/07: Chicago Tribune writer Kevin Pang and anonymous reviewer are first to review the dish. I personally will not rest until this dish makes it onto The Cheesecake Factory Menu.
Yesterday I received a heartening email about my plea to rid the nation of the tragedy called the Chicken Caesar Salad and my suggestion for a protest replacement. It wasn’t from an esoteric ADD freaking madman cook putting rooster tops on romaine. It was a man of the heartland, a relative unknown, a cook who’s spent a plenty of time in corporate chefdom. His name is Mark Mavrantonis and he’s the chef at Mike Ditka’s suburban outpost in Oakbrook Terrace, a half hour outside Chicago. (You gotta trust a chef who goes after his own king crabs.)
It’s proof that some of these guys and girls serving the masses their cheesecake and broiled salmon, they do care. Mark does 2500 covers a week, caters to a crowd that likes BIG portions, includes lots of ladies who lunch, favors the "pot roast nachos" and doesn't order things with funny words in the title (confit, charcuterie). Mark smokes his own bacon, 40 to 60 sides a week he says, and cures and smokes his own hams.
Mark took it upon himself to get his own version of the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar on the menu. After we exchanged ideas about terminology, I got this email from Mark:
Cæsar with “Chicken Fried Pork”
Flash-Fried “Bacon-Cut” Confit of Pork with Shredded Parmesan & Focaccia Croutons $8
I charged less for it than we do for the chicken Cæsar, but we still make more money on it. Go figure.
We fried some confit earlier and it was awesome. If you cut them in cubes, they look just like a crouton, but better. When they hit the salad, they sizzle and pop just like the old Rice Crispies commercials.
Sold two on the first ticket- just thought you’d appreciate that.
Most gratifying, indeed. Keller and Vongerichten and that crowd may be moving the food intelligentsia forward, but who is feeding The People? Chefs like Mark Mavrantonis.
I urge all who are within an hour's drive of Mike Ditka’s Oakbrook Terrace restaurant (2 Mid America Plaza—mid america plaza! how perfect!—Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, 630-572-2200) to venture forth and loudly order Coach’s Kick-Ass “Bacon Cut” Caesar (“flash” fried—beautiful!). (Download ditkasmenu.pdf
A call for a critic: I will send a signed copy of Reach of a Chef to the first person who posts a review here of this dish (receipt signed by Mark if you really want the book!). Honestly—it’s a deal. I want to know how it tastes. A BONUS book will be included if the critic finds anyone else eating it and gets a man-on-the-street comment (customary journalistic rules apply, name, age, from where, verbatim quote, etc.).
Remember, this is not just a protest gimmick to rid the world of an outwardly heinous and inwardly evil offering—it’s really tasty as well. And, it works as a canapé—perfect finger food, cold lettuce, make the dressing mayo thick, a crouton of pork belly, parmesan on top, and you’re good to go (I was setting some up for some friends recently, very easy and a great canape because the fat stay hot for so long).
Chef Mav, an inspiration.