While attending a film festival last weekend, someone offered me some truly terrible popcorn. It was, in accordance with the recent trend, a bacon-caramel flavor. Each piece had somehow acquired the texture of a wad of chewing gum. A wad of chewing gum that tasted like meat.
Justin Platt, co-founder of Popcorn Asylum, commiserated with my experience. "I ordered a bacon and cheddar popcorn once," he said, shaking his head, "but it was just completely covered in this fake bacon-flavored powder and cheese-flavored powder. It was pretty bad."
His new gourmet popcorn shop is an anti-fake-powder kind of place, dedicated to using real food—from real maple syrup to local beer to fresh fruit dehydrated in-house.
The shop opened in late January, and the weekly menu has expanded to about 10 popcorn flavors and some maple nut mixes. The shop also intrigues with its display of outsider art, which features the work of untrained artists, especially that of the imprisoned, mentally disabled, institutionalized, and otherwise on the outer bounds of cultural norms. As tongue-in-cheek as the shop's name may seem, Platt says "Popcorn Asylum" was just an early, half-serious name for the project that they eventually realized was perfect. The artwork is culled from founder and popcorn visionary Ben Zion's private collection.
Of the gourmet popcorns, birch ($7 for 4 oz.)—made with up-and-coming birch syrup sourced from Alaska—stands out. It gives off just the slightest aroma of woodsy spice when you open the bag, and a good pinch of salt counterbalances the sweetness.
On the other hand, flavors like Temperance Porter ($7) and PB&J ($8) are anything but subtle. The first is coated in a crisp caramelized shell of the Evanston brew, simmered for over an hour and mixed with butter and brown sugar. The result is a definitively beer-forward, malty bitterness. And although the bits of dehydrated strawberry made PB&J too reminiscent of cereal for my taste (my family went through a big Special K Red Berries phase) the guys say the fruity blend is their most popular.
The maple ($5) plays up a classic caramel flavor with a full chord of sweet notes—maple syrup, agave nectar, and brown sugar. But this being Chicago, you can't have sweet popcorn without adding cheesy into the mix. The other half of Popcorn Asylum's menu starts with a base of Vermont sharp white cheddar.
The guys are bagging their own version of the famous Chicago blend ($25 for a really big "pillow-sized" bag), but try mixing and matching your own. The Chili Cheese ($4) flavor is subtle but spot-on, with just the right hit of spice from a housemade chili seasoning, and pairs well with the Temperance.