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[Photograph: Josh Conley]

How do I begin to describe Three Aces? A friendly rockabilly/punk/hipster-esque neighborhood joint, with an almost speakeasy feel, a pool table in back, and a menu of tatted up Italian fare that may cause some double-takes. Fennel pollen? Hops pickles? Bolognese fries? The words all make sense, but when you put them together, you get something they self-describe as "the Italian countryside meets the American farmhouse...in Keith Richard's basement bar."

The duck fat chips ($5) are problematic for anyone with a mouth, in that they just keep flying in there. So very salty, with hints of duck fat and the awesome addition of the "magic fairy dust" that is the slightly sweet, delicious fennel pollen. They are crunchy and not greasy; I was at one point fully conscious that I was shoving them in my piehole with complete avarice, yet I couldn't bring myself to stop.

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The rye gnocchi ($16), from the 'Mill' section of the menu, features massive gnocchi, delicately plated with braised oxtail, fingerling potato chips, smoked pecorino, parsnips, and mushrooms. While the presentation was great, it was a bit tough to get all the pieces together in single bites. The gnocchi, though a bit too soft, have a nice bite from the rye. The oxtail is rich, fatty, and delicious. The fingerling potato chips add a nice counter-texture, but there are not quite enough of them to make a huge difference. The parsnips and smoked pecorino also get a bit overshadowed, but the mushrooms add another great layer of savory.

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I don't know why, but I never considered dipping popcorn in anything before this place. Yet, their popcorn ($2), generously topped with fresh scallions and grated parmesan, is served with a side of roasted garlic hot sauce that made me wonder why not? Though the logistics are a bit unwieldy, the vinegary hot sauce was the perfect complement to the buttery corn. This is going to start some wicked Jiffy Pop experimentation, I can already tell.

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Their arancini ($7) comes standard with attitude. Fried until crisp on the outside, the risotto melds with the barely-melted fontina cheese inside, giving an overall creamy texture. The arugula in the pesto adds a bit of extra bitterness, that, while good, when paired with the parmesan, makes for a sharp on sharp experience, where I think a nice, garlicky marinara could come in handy.

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The black kale salad ($10) is an example of one that didn't quite come together. The kale is sautéed and has a nice texture, and is not too bitter. The honey pecans add some sweetness and great texture, and the roasted beets go well with the lemon and olive oil. But despite the salmon roe and goat cheese, an assertive salt profile is what this dish lacks.

Three Aces also has a solid craft beer and cocktail lists, and specials like the Unholy Trinity (Double Double burger with fries, can of PBR and a shot of Old Crow for $10) and half-off pizzas on Mondays. It draws a mixed crowd, but they blend as well as the $5 daily punches, like vodka and house-made lavender lemonade. It's funky, unpretentious, and the food goes for big flavors. They're not all perfect, but I'll take bold and brash over politely mundane any day.

Three Aces

1321 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map)
312-243-1577
Three Aces

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.

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