Need to Know

Need to Know

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Have you ever eaten raw shrimp on accident? Opened a new cheese for a cocktail party only to find it’s the stinky kind? Wound up with too few steaks at your cookout or rubbed them with spices so strong your guests sneezed until they went home? Most of us can make a mean box of Rice-A-Roni. But certain specialty foods and beverages are a little more challenging. We don’t buy or serve them very often. They’re packaged with lots of unfamiliar words—just what is shade-grown coffee anyway? There’s a certain level of knowledge required to choose a wine or cheese, meat or seafood, and there’s a certain cost…we really don’t want to mess up those purchases.

Never fear, intrepid foodie hopefuls. We’ve sought out specialty experts and asked some of those never-a-dumb-questions for you. Don’t be shy—each pro we talked to has been asked every question in the book. They’ve seen it all…including the man who went home and ate his shrimp raw. And they are happy to help, eager to share their expertise.

Here, a few things to know before you go, based on the most-asked questions from six Chicago specialty retailers:


3501 N. Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657

How much do I need?

Buy a pound per person if it’s a bone-in cut; a half a pound per person for boneless cuts. Those are generous portions—if you’re serving light eaters, figure 14 oz. per person with the bone in; 6 oz. without. Buy one and a half sausages per person, unless they’re all women or children; in that case, one per person should be enough. When it comes to chicken, allow for four ounces per person.

Your question for the butchers at Paulina Meat Market will elicit a whole lot of questions in return: What are you using it for? What else are you serving? “It’s all about preparing the item from beginning to end,” says Bill Begale, who started at Paulina as a butcher and is now owner of the full-service meat shop and gourmet market in Lakeview.

“It’s pretty easy for us to answer all their questions,” Begale says. If one butcher can’t offer advice, another can. “Since everybody here likes to eat—all of us butchers—it’s really good.”

His store is often a resource for people shopping for meat for the first time; people who don’t often buy different cuts; or vegetarians cooking for someone else.

“We’ve got a lot of people behind the counter,” Begale says. “If we don’t have the answers, we get them.” If you’re trying something new, bring in the recipe, Begale says, and the butchers can tell you what you need based on the picture. If customers get nervous at home, they can go to Paulina’s Ask a Butcher service online at and get a response from a real butcher.

The newest common question at Paulina: Where does your meat come from? “Beef recalls have people worried,” Begale says. “They’re concerned about what’s going into their body now more than ever.”

All of the meat at Paulina is humanely treated and locally raised (with the exception of the lamb, which is from Colorado), he says. And Paulina grinds its own meat.

Customers begin to rely on their Paulina butchers with blind faith. One regular customer moved away and went to her new neighborhood butchers for a “honeymoon pot roast,” Begale says. They could only stare—they had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out a honeymoon pot roast is the fancy name Paulina Meat Market managers had given to a big pot roast cut into a steak-shaped-portion-for-two when bigger roasts stopped selling as well. “It’s not a cut you can get anywhere else,” says Begale with a smile in his voice.


800 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

How do you cook it?

That depends on what you’re buying. The store has recipe cards at the counters that tell customers how to cook most items they sell.

Customers’ questions about preparation are followed in short order by “When did it come in” and “Where is it from,” says John Poulos, operations manager for Isaacson and Stein.

The shop gets fish in fresh on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. “Wednesday is a good day,” Poulos says, “because we have a big container of seafood come in from the Mediterranean.”

Isaacson and Stein also gets shipments from Alaska, Hawaii, Ecuador, shrimp from Nigeria that weigh in at a half-pound each, and salmon from New Brunswick, Canada. “We try to bring in the best of everything,” Poulos says.

Because of that diversity, the oil spill in the Gulf this summer didn’t affect the store’s supply, he says. Shrimp prices went up a few dollars, but the shop’s oysters are from the East Coast.

Isaacson and Stein’s customers are from all kinds of places as well, Poulos says. Tour buses come from Lafayette on Saturdays full of shoppers with coolers. People from Nebraska drive in overnight, he says; others come from Michigan and Indiana.

Locally, the shop is a popular spot for cooking schools, who bring their students to show them seafood from all over the world. And their Chicago customer base is representative of an array of ethnicities, Poulos says. The one thing they all have in common? Return visits.

“Usually people are really satisfied,” he says. “We have third-generation people shopping here. It’s like an institution.”

Poulos recalls one customer who wasn’t so satisfied at first. He had purchased a package of brown shrimp from Brownsville, Texas. Soon after, the man brought it back in and said it was no good. The staff asked a few questions about what he did with the shrimp…to which he replied that he took it home and started eating it. He thought it was cooked.

The staff explained that the shrimp was raw, Poulos says. He could prepare it many different ways, the staff explained, but he did need to peel and de-vein it and then cook it. Clearly, there is something to fear more than asking a “dumb” question.


Three locations, including
53 E. Lake St.
Chicago, IL 60601

What wine goes with what cheese?

A crisp, dry Spanish rosé served alongside fresh goat cheese with herbs de Provence and Picholine olives is a classic pairing of simple flavors that play well together.

Buying the right cheese is challenging enough. Buying cheese and wine together is another thing entirely, says Greg O’Neill, cofounder and co-owner of gourmet food shop Pastoral with Ken Miller. For many customers, “putting the two together is the height of uneasiness,” he says.

That’s why Pastoral offers TLC service: tasting, learning and converting. They offer a tasting of the week and post it in their store, on their blog and on their Facebook page so customers can try their recommendations.

As for the learning part: “We try to tell the story a little bit about our products,” says O’Neill. Staffers describe the family farms and small producers who supply Pastoral. “We want (customers) to understand the value proposition of what they’re buying,” he says. “What goes into making it and what makes it so special.” The store also offers classes.

Converting customers into regulars is the goal of all these efforts. “We want everyone who walks out of here to be delighted by the experience,” O’Neill says.

Pastoral is a particularly valuable resource for world-be hosts. “People want to be successful in entertaining,” O’Neill says. They want something that offers a high probability for a successful event—“not too wacky and not too pedestrian.”

In this case, Pastoral takes a 360-degree approach. “We carry things that work well together,” O’Neill says, such as baguettes and olives. “We try to send them home with the whole package. … We’ll send them home a hero,” he says.

Often, a customer’s guests will come into the store a few days later asking for more of what they had at a party.

“When I hear that, it warms my heart,” says O’Neill. “I feel like we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.”


802 W. Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

What’s a good wine?

The answer? More questions. How the wine is to be enjoyed? Are you having food with the wine or is it an aperitif? The weather also is a factor, says Craig Perman, owner of Perman Wine Selections. “Certain wines evoke enjoyment during a particular season.”

Yes, your visit to Perman Wine Selections may start with a bunch of questions—not yours, but questions from owner Craig Perman. Never fear, says Perman. “This isn’t a test. I just want to get as much information out of them in order to get that right bottle in their hands.”

For the novice wine-buyer, one piece of information, however, is key: “Try and remember the name—including producer name and wine name—of one or two favorite wines,” Perman says…and even a few you don’t like. If you can share this information with a wine expert, he or she can help you find—or steer clear of—something similar.

“This is very important, because most people use wine terminology differently,” Perman says. “Sweet and fruity is a classic example. People may call a certain Sauvignon Blanc sweet, and then say they don’t like this. In reality, while some Sauvignon Blancs technically do contain a bit of residual sugar, the majority are considered dry, but with an overt fruitiness that the consumer terms sweet.

“By telling me a few favorites or dislikes,” Perman says, “I can always get a clearer sense of what wine is better fit for the customer’s palate.”

At the same time, he says it’s important for consumers to remain open-minded. Perman may be able to suggest a similar wine that’s a better value, or a new region or grape with a similar profile. “Also, if there is one thing wine people love to do, it is offer a wine that is off the beaten path and every bit as good as the more well-known name,” he says. “Diversity in choice is fun, and what wine is all about.”

Perman encourages diversity with his weekly pick of six out-of-the-ordinary wines for $60, a low-cost way to broaden one’s palate. And he’s always in the store to answer all kinds of questions.

“I deal every day with a wide range of customers, from those who ask technical questions about Ph levels to one gentleman who had never tried a white wine before,” Perman says. “You know what I’m happy about every day? That people are drinking wine on a regular basis! It really is an integral part of the joy of life.”


1039 W. Granville Ave.
Chicago, IL 60660

How should I store my coffee? In the freezer?

The best way to store your coffee is at room temperature, away from direct sunlight and in an airtight container. If your coffee comes in a bag with a one-way valve, you can keep it in that bag on the counter.

Ideas and air aren’t the only things that should be fresh. For coffee, freshness is imperative.

“That’s the reason we won’t sell coffee at our store that’s over a week past the roast date,” says general manager Seth J.A. Alexander.

Even the best bag of coffee will lose something with the passing of time. If it’s more than six months old—or if it’s been stored improperly—the flavors will be compromised or depleted, Alexander says.

And no, you should never store coffee in the freezer. “I know this from experience, because my parents insist on storing their coffee in the freezer no matter what I tell them,” Alexander says. “If you store your coffee in the freezer, it’s going to start tasting like whatever you have with it in the freezer, and nobody wants that.”

Rather, you want to taste your coffee in all its bright or bold glory. Each varietal has a unique flavor that can range from a rich earthiness to sparkling citrus, Alexander says. “Try a lot of different kinds of coffee, especially light roasts, and I think you’ll be surprised by the range of different flavors you’ll find in them,” he says. “Once you’ve gotten some experience with it, you might find certain growing regions that you prefer over others or certain characteristics that you like.”

Metropolis hopes to get a tasting program off the ground. In the meantime, they are happy to let customers try out the coffee on tap every day. They also have a different French press choice every week that features one of their single-origin coffees or blends.

Metropolis’s website at is a great teacher, too. Check out the Coffee and Tea University for descriptions of growing regions and harvesting methods, as well as tips on coffee storage and brewing. There’s even an essay on the roasting process by an expert brewer. Read it and you’ll never keep your coffee with your frozen peas again.


Five locations including
1512 N. Wells St.
Chicago, IL 60610

What do you have that is good on steak?

The No. 1 best seller is Back of the Yards, Garlic Pepper, Butcher’s Rub, named for the neighborhood that was once home to many Germans and Irish immigrants who worked the stockyards of Chicago. It’s a coarse-cut seasoning rub—it has two particle sizes of garlic and two of black pepper, which means each releases its flavor during different stages of cooking. Put it on steaks before you put them on the grill or under the broiler, approximately a teaspoon per pound. The blend contains black Tellicherry pepper, which is ground in-house, along with garlic, kosher flake salt, sugar, red bell peppers, shallots and parsley. It’s $1.89 per ounce, or 4 ounces for $5.29.

What’s the difference between these three types of cinnamon? How long does dill last? And what is that yellow stuff in that jar over there? The most frequent question at the Spice House might be about steak, but many questions will follow as you explore their dizzying array of jars and canisters.

Fortunately, staffers are culinary school grads and foodies who are eager to help. “I try to direct my staff to assume every person walking into the shop does not know how it works, and to make them feel at home,” says Patty Erd, who owns the family business with her husband, Tom. “Essentially, we work just like a deli. So we have about 350 beautiful apothecary jars filled with spices, herbs and seasonings. Each jar has a story on it. You can read it if you want to browse on your own, or you can simply ask anyone on our staff whatever is on your mind.”

Once you’ve settled on a few spices to try, the staff can measure portions as small as an ounce into a plastic bag or, for longer storage, into a glass shaker. Ground spices, blends and seasonings have only a one-year shelf life.

“If you are a new customer, and you love to cook, many people go crazy and want to buy everything,” Erd says. “Limit your enthusiasm to maybe a dozen items, work with these, and then come back for the next dozen.”

“Old spices will not make you sick, they just will not deliver any flavor to your food,” Erd says.

The Spice House makes seasoning easy with a number of blends to match any food. The city’s chefs prefer to come in and buy their spices straight to create their own blends, Erd says. “The exception to this would be our curry powder; we can’t tell you how many restaurants buy this from us. When Julia Child was alive, she ordered curry powder from us,” Erd says. “We mix our curry powder 1,500 times by hand, and it is triple-sifted to achieve the ultimate flavor unfolding.”

The newest thing people are asking about is black garlic, says Erd. A package holds two garlic bulbs, fermented for a rich umami flavor. It can be added to noodles or risottos or eaten straight. “It has been flying off the shelves,” Erd says. “One advantage of a small family shop is that if the customers are clamoring for it, we can normally get it in—quickly!