If there is such a thing as foodie heaven, then Chicago’s City Provisions and Publican Quality Meats (PQM) could be its official delicatessens.
These two compact spots are not where you would go for your cheeseburger in paradise. They are helping redefine what the word “deli” means, with their emphasis on house roasted and cured meats, innovative combinations of flavors and textures, and the priority they place on obtaining ingredients from farmers in the region surrounding Chicago.
Both places are a little off the beaten path, with City Provisions hard by the Brown Line “el” tracks in the Ravenswood neighborhood about eight miles from downtown on the North Side, and PQM in the West Loop, where some of the city’s top restaurants have popped up over the past few years, amid the food wholesalers and processing houses that long dominated this area.
The price point — $8.50 to $12 for a sandwich at PQM, $10.95 to $13.95 at City Provisions — might be a little sticker-shocking. Until you bite in, and taste ingredients that would cost multiple times more if plated at a white tablecloth restaurant.
City Provisions is the sole outpost for chef-owner Cleetus Friedman, whose devotion to environmentally sustainable practices has earned him the Guaranteed Green seal from the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition. Friedman says his sandwiches and the house-made charcuterie, salads and deli meats he sells are a bit pricey because of the craftsmanship that goes into them. He and his staff butcher and prepare all the meats in-house and also make all of their condiments, dressings and sauces.
You might, however, be able to sum up Friedman’s innovative approach in two words: parsnip guacamole. If you are devoted to buying only local, seasonal produce, guacamole would seem out of the question because it requires avocados grown in faraway places. But Friedman invented an adaptation that uses the typical Mexican guacamole seasonings but replaces the avocados with parsnips. The earthy sweetness of the root vegetable provides a startling and delicious contrast to your guacamole expectations.
Friedman also broke some ground by developing beer recipes and collaborating with local and regional craft breweries to produce them. Anaphylaxis, an item he created with Solemn Oath in suburban Naperville and rolled out recently, is designed to taste like carrot cake.
Publican Quality Meats is part of a much bigger restaurant family, owned by chef Paul Kahan, that includes The Publican — PQM’s fine-dining cousin across the street — as well as Blackbird, Avec, Big Star and The Violet Hour. Its deli case of fresh meats, sausages and cheese is even more extensive than that at City Provisions, and the soups, salads and sandwiches served to go or in the small community table seating area are worth the trip.
The rustic Italian ribollita, prepared at PQM with scarlet runner beans, cottechino sausage, country bread and braised greens, is so delicious it almost defies the humble name of soup. Once an occasional offering, its popularity has made it a fixture on the deli’s menu.
PQM’s sandwiches in December included two takes on pork belly and a BLT made with house-cured bacon, a perfect medium-rare roast beef comes on that country bread decorated with roasted cabbage, gruyere and Russian dressing, and Tinka’s Tofu (marinated tofu, carrots, celery root, spiced peanuts, jalapeno, flax seed tahini dressing on a baguette) for those seeking a meatless alternative.
Neither place is the spot to go looking for a $5 foot-long, but as splurges go, it’s a pretty affordable one.
1818 W. Wilson Ave. (at Ravenswood Ave.), Chicago
Publican Quality Meats
825 W. Fulton Market St. (at Green St.), Chicago