If everything on John Manion’s new menu at Goose Island Brew Pub were as good as his pork sliders (pictured above), Hopleaf would go out of business. Kuma’s might, too. And I’d never think twice about fighting the frat boys to get a seat in this place again. The sliders are tiny things but huge in flavor, a combination of sweet pork and peppery Sriracha aioli. An order comes with three. You’ll want to order at least three more.
Same goes for Manion’s fish tacos. The tortillas are piled with perfectly crisp tilapia, cool cabbage and a spicy chipotle mayo. Other fish-taco purveyors in the city, take note: These things pose a threat.
And maybe the Publican should be worried as well, because Manion seems just as obsessed with pork as Paul Kahan. In fact, the menu seems hell-bent on feeding you pork—whether in ham, bacon or sausage form—in every bite. The descriptions can be excruciatingly hunger pang–inducing: I try to avoid specials, but I couldn’t stop wondering about the ham steak sandwich with pickled ramps and a fried egg. And I have no regrets about ordering it. The ham was impeccable, sweet and juicy, the pickled ramps addictive. The odd dichotomy between the warm egg and the cold ham was the only detraction from its genius. I also fell prey to Manion’s “Ham Burger,” a beef patty slathered with pork rillettes, topped with country ham and finished with a fried egg. It’s a gruesome thing to look at, and it’s so gluttonous that finishing it should win you a prize. But the flavors—extra rich, extra salty—work so well that the sheer excess of the thing is eventually justified.
But the Hopleaf et al. have nothing to worry about quite yet. Manion’s mussels (pictured above), in a coconut-curry broth, are good but not great. His crispy tilapia in the po’ boy is well executed, but the minimally sauced sandwich lacks the punch of the others. Many of his smaller dishes, like the smoked-mozzerella-and-puttanesca crostini, or the Bavarian pretzels with a watery cheese sauce, act more as stomach fillers than food to actually savor. And desserts are dangerously hit-or-miss. One ice-cream float, Goose Island’s orange-cream soda paired with Black Dog’s lemon-ginger gelato, is creamy, sweet, spicy and overall delicious. His dark chocolate bark with bacon is as good as any of the other bacon-chocolate bars out there (which is to say it’s merely inoffensive). But another ice-cream float involving Goose Island’s sickly sweet grape soda with peanut gelato tastes like a mistake. Most of the time, Manion manages to make the combination of high-end ingredients in low-brow clothing work. But this thing, with its grape-bubble-gum flavor, shows what happens when that idea goes too far.