4002 30th Street, North Park
With the soft opening of another donut (or in this case doughnut) shop, North Park seems to be the city's new breakfast pastry destination. StreetCar Merchants becomes the second such spot to open on 30th Street this month, and like Nomad Donuts up the street, it offers an upscale take on fried dough.
But wait, the full name of the place is StreetCar Merchants of Fried Chicken, Doughnuts & Coffee — an appropriate if excessively wordy moniker. If that didn't tell you right away the place is going for style-savvy clientele, the décor sure would. There are unpolished wood and exposed brick walls, oblong Edison bulbs, a bar façade comprised of resin coated pennies, and barstools backed by old plumbing fixtures. One corner depicts a giant photograph of a small child smoking a cigarette while sitting in a chair next to a rather large rooster. These guys clearly care what the place looks like.
The "doughnuts" themselves follow suit. Made from brioche dough that spends nearly a full day rising before getting a relatively healthy dunk in rice bran oil, many of them are crafted in a square shape. There's still a round hole at their center, but also right angles uncharacteristic of traditional donuts.
The exceptions are those with no holes at all. The Berry Delicious option actually looks like a small round brioche that's been drenched in jam and topped with black- and raspberries. The Nutella-and-Boston-cream-filled also go round. However, flavors like Horchata, cinnamon sugar and the Fruity Pebbles-topped Saturday Morning Surprise are firmly square. So were my choices: the Chocolate Lover's and Dutch Apple, which fills its hole with a sort of al dente apple pie filling.
I've recently lamented the loss of partially hydrogenated oils from the California donut landscape, though I know it's for the best. This brioche dough in rice bran oil approach should catch on — the results are light, flaky and while not as overtly creative as Nomad's, pretty tasty at 2 to 4 dollars per.
The coffee here comes from well-known Chicago third wave roaster Intelligentsia. I grabbed a well made pour-over and made a mental note to return for fresh beans from time to time, as they ship here fresh once or twice a week.
Of course, it's the fried chicken I most wanted, and I was surprised to discover this isn't the Deep South buttermilk and paprika style I usually imagine. Rather, StreetCar goes the Korean route. They won't say what type of oil (or oils) they use to fry it, but whatever it is it works. I grabbed a 9 dollar double fried quarter chicken dark meat – fried first at a lower temperature, then moved to a high temp oil for added crispness. The light batter found a beautiful golden crisp, with nicely moist meat inside. The flavors don't scream Korean, butthe choice of dipping sauces goes a long way, ranging from a sriracha mayo to my choice of Bulldog, a Worcestershire-meets-sweet barbecue sauce that worked well with the lightly seasoned wing and thigh.
I can't imagine why Korean fried chicken and donuts would ever be paired in a highly stylized package, but here we are, on the verge of 2015, and this sort of thing happens. Another mystery lies in the back room of StreetCar, which features a bright orange ceiling covered with dozens of analog clocks. The proprietors apparently have something special planned for it that has little to do with chicken or donuts, but won't yet say what. Welcome to North Park.