Serious Eats: Chicago
Bar Eats: 3 Floyds Brewpub Worth the Trek to Indiana
Being The Best means you don't have to apologize. It means you make any ridiculous rule you see fit and set prices a little too high because you know people will pay them. Because you are the best. And yes, it means a little arrogance. That attitude often begets haters, which in turn begets a take it or leave it attitude from The Best, which ultimately begets scathing Yelp and Beer Advocate retorts and strained customer service relations. Just ask my beloved, bygone Pasticceria Natalina or Great Lake. Just ask 3 Floyds.
There is so much I want to say about 3 Floyds I'm not sure where to start. The grumblings of a satellite location in Chicago, the attitude, the insistent rumors that the brewery has burned down all come to mind. But the beer seems the most logical place, as 3 Floyds is, first and foremost, a brewery. Started in 1996, the Floyd brothers' "not normal" style is characterized by aggressive, hoppy beers with names like Arctic Panzer Wolf. They are now, arguably, one of the best craft breweries in the country.
The brewpub in nearby Munster, Indiana has been open for just over seven years now, and it's been fascinating to watch it grow up. The menu has changed along with the décor. Long gone are the crusty, thrift store couches, graffiti-encouraged bathroom walls, and Any Dorm Room, USA vibe. There's soft lighting now. An organic herb and veggie garden. Cloth napkins. It's like the place won Extreme Brewery Makeover, except for the constant pulse of death metal.
About that menu: They've gone through a couple chefs and menu changes, but hopefully this one sticks. While the beers are a bit pricey, considering you are at the source, the food is very Munster-ly priced. The menu, like the beer, is unapologetically in your face with flavor you can't avoid. What hops are to the beer, salt is to these dishes. Let's dig in.
I have to start with the lamb meatballs ($8), because they are one of the best things I've eaten in a while. It is worth the drive for these gems alone. Moist, full-flavored without being heavy, these tasty morsels come atop warm ricotta, and are gussied up with fried kale, toasted pistachios, and preserved grapefruit. First off, lamb has a very distinct flavor, but it is toned down here. And just as the best fish is the least fishy-tasting, this is a compliment. The pistachios add a crunchy texture, and you get the sweet and sour grapefruit at the end. The kale's bitterness is balanced out by the flash-fry. It reminds me of a savory cannoli, but in such a good way. Just outstanding.
Sometimes good things come in bad presentations. I'll use the crispy French fries in herbed butter ($4) as my example. They arrived ensconced in sheet paper spiraling out of a draft mug, so that we couldn't even see them. But as soon as they found their way to my mouth, all was forgiven. They are rich, crunchy, double-fried, and then tossed in butter. I'm a ketchup guy, but I didn't even make a move toward the bottle. Hints of thyme and oregano kept wafting off these things, and, like a Dreadnaught or Zombie Dust, I could have just smelled them all day and gone to bed happy.
The mac'n'cheese ($6) is a gooey blend of Havarti, Gouda, and provolone over shell pasta. It is thick and creamy, with garlic and salt coming through the baked, crispy finish. And the fresh chives work to cut the heaviness just a bit while adding some great flavor.
The fried rice ($10) is a nice hangover helper, featuring basmati rice, finely-diced green and red peppers, black-eyed peas, pork belly, a sunny egg, and a cilantro gremolata. The thick hunk of pork belly sits there like the feather in the cap of this dish, though it was a little tough. The egg was nice and runny, and the black-eyed peas give a wonderful counter-texture to the rice. It is super savory, a bit greasy—everything you want to make you forget last night and order some hair of the dog.
I loved the idea of the chicharron nachos ($7) more than the actual execution. Queso fresco, pico de gallo with red pepper, and guacamole top these housemade, translucent chicharrones, which kind of look like the love children of honeycomb and bubble wrap. And indeed they are delicate, not an adjective you would normally associate with pork skin. The flavors are good and fresh, but the texture is kind of like, um, the lovechild of honeycomb and bubble wrap. Like some of their experimental beers, glad I ordered it, but there are too many other good things on the menu.
What sets 3 Floyds apart from, say, the $9 cannoli undoing of Pasticceria Natalina is that they have realized that it is possible to compromise a little and still keep your integrity intact. Tattoos are big around here, and tattoos tell a narrative. I was writing before about bars with identity crises, and the sun-faded tattoos of Simpsons toys and soccer club flags seem somewhat incongruous now. But it's only because they are part of the process, they are part of the growth, and they are part of the Floyds. It makes sense in its own way. It's who they are, with no apologies necessary.
Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.