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The "Cool Dad" Syndrome of Big Star and Belly Shack

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Dec 11, 2009 5:40PM

Big Star's Wood-grilled fish tostada, courtesy of ehfisher on flickr; Belly Shack's meatball-noodle sandwich, tostones with chimichurri and cabbage-fennel kimchee courtesy Rene G on LTHforum.

If you watch television you're sure to run across the archetype of the "cool dad:" the father who stumbles into middle age futilely trying to relate or stay relevant to his kids by adopting their slang and diving head first into their hobbies only to come across as the bumbling buffoon they fear becoming most. Usually you find the "cool dad" in drug awareness commercials, but actor Ty Burrell plays the role perfectly in the role of Phil Dunphy on the ABC comedy "Modern Family." Then there's the other "cool dad," who really was cool back in the day. He smoked, drank, trolled for some strange on the weekends, probably met his wife at some boozy last call at Green Mill one Sunday morning, settled down, had kids and now allows himself a chuckle or three whenever his teenage kids act out, thinking "Yeah, I remember my first beer."

I think each of these "cool dad" archetypes apply to Big Star and Belly Shack, two of the most highly anticipated openings of the season thanks to the star power of the chefs and restaurateurs behind them: Paul Kahan and Terry Alexander for Big Star, Bill Kim at Belly Shack. For both chefs, the restaurants continue their individual trends of simplifying their restaurant concepts. Both restaurants suffer a bit from high expectations, hype and, in the case of Belly Shack, trying a little bit too hard to establish some street credibility.

Tankboy and others have mentioned to me that Big Star seems to have an air of exclusivity for a bar that was modeled on the working class saloons of Bakersfield, CA. Having visited Big Star enough times since it's early November opening, the points are valid. Maybe it's their policy of reserving the handful of booths for parties of 4 or more, the varied mix of foodies, scenesters and assorted folks at the bar who are only there because Big Star is the Newest Big Thing, or the way the sheer size of the in-the-round bar makes the small garage space it occupies claustrophobic, like a A/V nerd who spared no expense to turn his laundry room into a home theater. Looking at some of the impatient looks of guests waiting to belly up to the bar on my visits, it seems as though diners seemed let down by what are overly inflated expectations, when all Kahan and Alexander promised them was a bar that spun vinyl country records, served some tasty drinks and cheap tacos.

In that regard, Big Star is sincere. With a menu of tacos, tortas and other Tex Mex staples created by avec's Justin Large and a simple cocktail program from the Violet Hour's Michael Rubel, Big Star strikes the right note. Al pastor tacos are perfectly seasoned and braised, their pork belly taco is well served with a simple pineapple salsa and Big Star's tostada al pescado is the best under-$5 dish I've eaten all year. The problem with Big Star is in the aesthetics. The in-the-round bar is beautiful, served well with the kitschy value of the warehouse-style light fixtures hanging above it.

Belly Shack, meanwhile, continues the return-to-the-streets aesthetic Kim and wife Yvonne Cadiz-Kim embraced with the opening of Urban Belly last year. The food at Belly shack, a fusion of LA and Asian street food cultures Kim calls "Chino Latino," is a beautifully discordant mess that suffers from the same imbalance of flavors that plagued Urban Belly's initial opening. Sampling dishes like the Belly Dog with kim chi salsa and egg noodle, the "Boricua" (Belly Shack's gluten-free take on the jibarito with marinated tofu and Chinese black bean), and roasted squash with pho spice and maple syrup, there's always one flavor that overpowers the balance of the dish. Seeing how quickly Kim righted the ship at Urban Belly, there's hope here that the kitchen settles into a groove and gets the flavors down. There's no hope for the restaurant's décor, something I would expect if the late Julia Child hired D'Zine to decorate her kitchen and dining room.

So while Kahan and Alexander are the cool dads who've been there before with Big Star, Kim is trying to relate to his charges with Belly Shack. one of them just needs to crack open a beer and relax.

Belly Shack, 1912 N. Western, 773-252-1414.
Big Star, 1531 N. Damen, 773-252-7767