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Cincinnati Jamie and the Hot Wings of Doom

(Photo: At Pilsen’s Take Me Out, the hot wings are to die for.)

There are many ways a birthday run for Asian hot wings can turn out.  Cowering for your life in the loading dock beneath the Merchandise Mart isn’t usually one of them.

So Yours Truly is 38 now.  I know because a recent count of the rings beneath my eyes came up with one extra, so Happy Birthday to me.

That leaves me one fewer year to indulge my passion for spicy food before I’ll have to start permanently washing everything down with a Maalox chaser.  Could there have been a better day to revel in the legendary little hotties lollipop wings at Take Me Out Let’s Eat Chinese in Pilsen?

Yes, as things would turn out.

The legend of the wings first arose at Great Sea, a long-established Chinese-Korean fushion restaurant in Albany Park. The brainchild of longtime owner Nai Tiao, the wings are fried to a succulent, caramelized, crispy goodness reminiscent of roast duck, then smothered with a spicy-sweet mix of soy sauce, chili, ginger, and garlic.

Tiao’s daughter, Karen Lim, has been serving the wings at her verbosely monickered eatery in Pilsen since opening the oddball storefront this spring.  The design of the space screams chain, but the wings are transcendent.

Pastry chef Chris was still getting over spraining his liberty bone, so Cincinnati Jamie and I took the trip in his soccer-mom Volvo station wagon to 18th and Ashland to score some hot wing goodness.  Silly us, we ordered the family size lollipop wings.

The meat somehow magically pushed to one end, the protruding bone made the wings easy to eat. The fact that there were 12 of them and they were enormous, however, did not.  I knew the wings would be on my short list of favorite Windy City eats when, after I could eat no more, I had an overpowering urge to suck the sauce from the serving platter with a straw.

Mouths happily aflame from the creeping hotness of the addictive molasses-thick goo, we decided to head for ice cream to cool the burn.  On the way to Margie’s Candies, Bucktown’s 87-year-old ice cream icon from which I have been known to stagger away with a sugar coma lasting until the next day, Chris called.

“The sirens are going off all over Oak Park.  The TV says the entire city is under a tornado warning.  Where are you?”


“We’re on our way to ice cream now.  What are you talking about?”

In the pause before Chris answered, I could hear the faint wail of the civil-emergency sirens through the phone.  “It’s the biggest storm I’ve ever seen.  You guys better take cover.  Call me and let me know where.”

And I repeat, huh?

I wondered if that’s why Philosuburban Val had called, too.  I was stuck to the side of a hot wing at the time, so I let the call go to voicemail.  I dialed her number.

“Oh my God, it’s a freak show in Brookfield right now.  The lightning is like strobe lights and the thunder won’t stop.  Honey, you two better get indoors.”

And then she said the words that made it all sink in. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

By now, Jamie had pulled up the weather radar on his iPhone.  Looking at the big, red blotch on the screen, at first I thought he had zoomed in on the storm cell.  Then I realized the big, red blotch was the size of Chicagoland.

“Don’t worry,” Jamie said. “I grew up in tornado alley and we’re in no immediate danger.”

I’ve lived in the Midwest long enough to recognize famous last words when I hear them. “There’s lightning on the horizon,” I said. “Let’s head back downtown.”

I guided Jamie east to Halsted.  We turned left and drove towards the Loop as the wind picked up and the lightning morphed from distant flashes to approaching electrical doom.  Somewhere around Madison Street, the Chicago Office of Emergency Management turned on all 118 tornado sirens within city limits.  Unlike my introduction to the sirens in 2006, at least this time, I wasn’t stuck on the 38th floor of Marina City.

“Roll down your windows and listen,” I said.

Jamie obliged. “Is that what that was? I thought they were birds.”

Raised in tornado alley my ass. “We’re not going to make it back to Marina City,” I said. “We have to find shelter now.”

But we were already past Restaurant Row on Halsted, in the middle of the after-hours Fulton warehouse district no-man’s-land.  As the rain started to fall, we scanned for a place to park and an open lobby to run into.  Right on Wayman.  Left on Jefferson.  Right on Kinzie.  Everything closed.  Fat chance.

I turned to see a giant wall of black could behind us. “Blow the stop sign and go!”


“Trust me!”

We sailed over the Kinzie Street Bridge and into River North as darkness fell. “Where am I going?” yelled Jamie.

I could see the comforting hulk of the Merchandise Mart looming larger.  Formerly the largest commercial building on earth, I was pretty sure we’d be safe there.

“Turn right into the loading dock!”

“The sign says No Entry” Jamie protested, as a curtain wall of water slammed into the car from behind.  He made the turn.  We drove as far underneath the structure as we could without coming out the other side.  We looked back to see rain falling sideways.

We turned on the radio and Twittered our whereabouts.  As the rumbling intensified outside, I tried not to pee my pants for good measure.

Chris called again, “You have 10 minutes before the heart of the storm gets there.  Stay where you are.”

You mean it gets worse?

“I love you, you know,” I said.  Then I returned to my smirky self, “I’ll let you know if we live.”

As I hung up, Jamie tried to comfort me, “Don’t worry, we’re fine.  This is a Volvo, nothing’s getting us in this tank.”

We sat tight and listened to radio alerts from nervous reporters giving a very literal blow-by-blow of every alleged funnel cloud sightning across Chicagoland.  Ten minutes later, right on schedule, the little bit of the sky that we could see turned a deep, roiling green and even the bowels of the Mart were shaken by the non-stop peals of thunder.

When water started shooting upwards out of every manhole cover in the loading dock, I had to laugh.  I had the feeling I was living through a particulary cheesy after-school special about weather awareness.  I could just picture the rescue team finding our lifeless, waterlogged bodies clinging to the remains of our little hotties with one hand and our iPhones with the other.

And then it was over. Jamie dropped me off at my Marina City high-rise home, where several residents were still too afraid to head back up to their apartments.

“You could feel the buildings swaying,” one of them said.

Safely upstairs, as I surveyed my waterlogged balcony, I knew I had just lived through Chicago history. Although meteorologists warn us not to, we Windy Citizens tend to live under the faulty assumption that for some mystical reason, tornadoes cannot enter the city limits.

Monday night, many of us shared that collective moment of fear that Californians long have known well.  With every major rumble in that state, until the shaking stops, your heart is in your throat as you wonder, “Is this the big one?”

A lot of people wondered the same thing in Chicago Monday night as we took shelter in our own personal Merchandise Mart loading docks.

And that’s about all the excitement this old body can stand for one birthday.

Categories: Adventure Food and Drink Weather

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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28 replies

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  5. It’s human nature to fear only what we know after experience, but I believe the feckless intentions of some result in Karmic due diligence. Whether it’s 5-star resorts built along S.E. Asian island coastlines, large cities knowingly maintained in areas below sea level or towns built on top of ancient ruins in nearby volcanoes, I am amazed at our collective loss for preparedness and passion for throwing caution to the wind. Hyperbole aside, the storm last week interested me, but it did not scare the ca-cas out of me like it seemed to do to a lot of Chicagoans. Cataclysmic weather events usually have names–those which eerily sound like childhood names, or at times, ethnic. If there was an algorithm used for high wind+rain=downtown wailing tornado siren, the summation was appropriate. During the 18 years I’ve lived here, there were only a couple of times the city was forced to remember its siren mathematics.

    Personally, those 3rd grade “duck and cover” civil defense drills almost came in handy, as my apartment windows bowed a bit, and lights flickered to the point of rushing me to my apartment’s loadcenter box to shut off the power…just in case. My memory is long; the tornado that ripped through Ft. Worth back in the 90s and the recent funnel cloud in Miami a year or so ago redeemed my interest in reading city newspapers other than Chicago’s. The storm came and went within a couple hours. For me “this one” was only an annoyance and nothing more; I’m sympathetic to what will happen in the future. Tornado Robert, when will you strike?

  6. Cheryl, there were two on April 18th of this year both centered near Evansville, IN: a magnitude 5.2 earthquake at 4:36 a.m. on the Illinois/Indiana border sometime after 4:00 a.m., and then a 4.6 aftershock at 10:14 a.m. People in Chicago reported feeling the first one, primarily.

    Charles is right, we get so much vibration from trucks at Marina City that even if I had been awake, I probably never would have noticed.

    What I wonder is how loud the swaying was in Marina City on Monday. A moderate storm can make the towers audibly displace back and forth. You can’t feel it, but it can sound like a very loud, slow rocking chair squeaking in the walls. I can’t imagine how fast the sway would have been on Monday, but I’m glad I wasn’t here to find out.

  7. We had an earthquake? When was that?

    Mike, you have to realize I’m an old, old woman with memories of the tornado back in ’67 that hit the high school, the Catholic school and a bunch of houses in my southwest side suburb before it finally petered out over Marquette Park. Yes, they come into the city. People of a certain age and from the Southside know that.

  8. I was wide awake for the earthquake – but I had no idea that’s what it was!

    I was sitting at my desk trying to meet a 9 a.m. project deadline. I live directly above Dearborn, and I often feel vibrations when large trucks drive past. When the building started shaking, I glanced out the window and over the north edge of the balcony, and sure enough, there was this very large truck carrying one of those large concrete dividers they use to cordon off construction areas. I said out loud, “Damn, that’s a heavy truck” – then went back to my work.

    It was only when I browsed over to the Trib’s website a few hours later that I found out it was an earthquake. Just my luck – my first earthquake, and I didn’t even realize it!

  9. That’s ok, Charles. I slept through the earthquake earlier this year. Friends in other high-rises felt it, and Chris–a former Californian–called from Oak Park to ask if I had, too.

    I was sound asleep. It wasn’t the first time I missed and earthquake. A few years ago, after a 12-hour day at Disneyland, I returned to my 9th-floor hotel room and plotzed exhausted on the bed. I thought the room was spinning because I was so tired. I found out the next morning southern California had an earthquake at that exact moment.

    I guess it has to be a real impending disaster for me to really take notice. Boy, doesn’t that make me a Chicagoan!

  10. Am I the only one who slept through it all?

    I was lying on the sofa reading a book and dozed off before the storm started. I woke up about 10 p.m. when a friend in Lakeview called to see how I had weathered the storm (pun intended). Like Mike, my response was, “huh?”

    I opened the drapes (I, too, live in Marina City) to find a lake on my balcony and all my balcony furniture in a pile on one side – only the second time the wind has been strong enough to move it, the first being the storm we had in August of last year (slept through that one, too).

    With the balcony door closed and the a/c on, I don’t hear much from outside. Totally missed the sirens.

    I’ve lived downtown for six years, so I don’t even notice the sounds of the city anymore. (People I’m talking to on the phone will mention the noise coming through the open balcony door – noise I don’t even hear until they mention it.)

    I crawled into bed and was fast asleep before the second wave of the storm hit – which I was informed the next day arrived around 11 p.m.

    Guess I would have woken up if the balcony furniture had crashed through the glass wall…

  11. Cheryl, I’d like to think that, too. But natives I know from all over Chicagoland still tell me they believe that, even after Monday.

    Matt, are you crazy? You could have ended up in a memorial episode of Survive This. Never choose a car over a sturdy structure. You can’t outrun a 75 mile-an-hour storm. We didn’t. I’m glad you guys are ok.

  12. I thought that ‘tornadoes don’t come into the city’ was a myth exclusive to native Northsiders–and that it was laid to rest finally in ’06.

  13. As I had Twitter’d, I wasn’t all that concerned at first because I thought, “Eh, just another storm.” And, as you pointed out, I was convinced that the city had some big tornado forcefield around it.

    When I heard the sirens, I was confused. “What’s that?” I think deep down, I knew what they were, but I was confused. After all, I had NEVER heard those before. Ever. That’s when it clicked. “This is serious.”

    My partner and I had a short discussion on where we should go. “Stay here!” “Too many windows!” “The basement!” “No radio or phone signal!” “The car!” So, down to the car we went, listening to radio reports, prepared to drive as far and as fast as necessary.

    The street lights flickered a few times, but we kept power fortunately. We both called our families to check up on them. My mother managed to distract me with the figurative storm of family drama while the real storm passed over.

    I still think we should have just stayed in the apartment, but oh well. It was definitely one of the most intense weather-related adrenaline rushes I have experienced.

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