Update 9/13/07: Chicago Tribune writer Kevin Pang and anonymous reviewer are first to review the dish. I personally will not rest until this dish makes it onto The Cheesecake Factory Menu.

Yesterday I received a heartening email about my plea to rid the nation of the tragedy called the Chicken Caesar Salad and my suggestion for a protest replacement.  It wasn’t from an esoteric ADD freaking madman cook putting rooster tops on romaine.  It was a man of the heartland, a relative unknown, a cook who’s spent a plenty of time in corporate chefdom.  His name is Mark Mavrantonis and he’s the chef at Mike Ditka’s suburban outpost in Oakbrook Terrace, a half hour outside Chicago.  (You gotta trust a chef who goes after his own king crabs.)Got_crabs_iii

It’s proof that some of these guys and girls serving the masses their cheesecake and broiled salmon, they do care.  Mark does 2500 covers a week, caters to a crowd that likes BIG portions, includes lots of ladies who lunch, favors the “pot roast nachos” and doesn’t order things with funny words in the title (confit, charcuterie).  Mark smokes his own bacon, 40 to 60 sides a week he says, and cures and smokes his own hams.

Mark took it upon himself to get his own version of the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar on the menu. After we exchanged ideas about terminology, I got this email from Mark:

Cæsar with “Chicken Fried Pork”

Flash-Fried “Bacon-Cut” Confit of Pork with Shredded Parmesan & Focaccia Croutons  $8


I charged less for it than we do for the chicken Cæsar, but we still make more money on it.  Go figure.


We fried some confit earlier and it was awesome.  If you cut them in cubes, they look just like a crouton, but better.  When they hit the salad, they sizzle and pop just like the old Rice Crispies commercials.


Sold two on the first ticket- just thought you’d appreciate that.

Most gratifying, indeed. Keller and Vongerichten and that crowd may be moving the food intelligentsia forward, but who is feeding The People?  Chefs like Mark Mavrantonis.

I urge all who are within an hour’s drive of Mike Ditka’s Oakbrook Terrace restaurant (2 Mid America Plaza—mid america plaza! how perfect!—Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, 630-572-2200) to venture forth and loudly order Coach’s Kick-Ass “Bacon Cut” Caesar (“flash” fried—beautiful!).  (Download ditkasmenu.pdf


A call for a critic: I will send a signed copy of Reach of a Chef to the first person who posts a review here of this dish (receipt signed by Mark if you really want the book!).  Honestly—it’s a deal.  I want to know how it tastes.  A BONUS book will be included if the critic finds anyone else eating it and gets a man-on-the-street comment (customary journalistic rules apply, name, age, from where, verbatim quote, etc.).

Remember, this is not just a protest gimmick to rid the world of an outwardly heinous and inwardly evil offering—it’s really tasty as well.  And, it works as a canapé—perfect finger food, cold lettuce, make the dressing mayo thick, a crouton of pork belly, parmesan on top, and you’re good to go (I was setting some up for some friends recently, very easy and a great canape because the fat stay hot for so long).Chix_caesar_set

Says Chicago-based Mike Nagrant: “Mark is also known locally as the ‘oyster whisperer’….works in big places with the heart of a craftsman….”

Chef Mav, an inspiration.


24 Wonderful responses to “Pork Belly Caesar Reaches the Heartland”

  • French Laundry at Home

    I wish you’d issued this challenge BEFORE Congress was back in session, because I’d’ve been on the first plane out of DC to go try this Caesar.

    Ruhlman, you are the wind beneath his wings. And that is good.

  • njg

    Ditka. Ditka. Ditka. Bears. Ditka. Polish sassage. Ditka. Ditka. Bacon Cut Caesar. Ditka.

  • Colleen

    Wow! I never thought I would be so lucky! I live about ten minutes away from Ditka’s in Oakbrook, IL (the building is actually named after Mid America Bank). Hopefuly I can get over there to try this soon! Do you know how long it will be on the menu? I’ve only been there once and I remember our waiter saying that Ditka’s menu changes daily.

    Seriously, I am psyched!

  • Carri

    I just read in Food Arts about Charlie Trotters deconstructed Caesar with the 8 hour egg poached in a…what? and the olive oil and anchovy ice cream…one can only ask…where the heck is the PORK, Charlie? oh, it’s in Chicago! Rock on Chef Mav! One question, where are you on that Crab boat?

  • JoP in Omaha

    Ah, leave it to someone in Oakbrook to come through. My old stomping grounds. Where I grew up. Are Chicago-surbanites cool or what? I’ll eagerly watch for a review of said dish.

    I’m still looking for a local source for pork belly. I must give it a try.

  • Daniel K

    I work 4 buildings down from Mid-America Plaza. It’s actually named for Mid-America Asset Management (property managers/owners) and not the bank franchise.

    Back to the food….I’ll try to get out there this week. Anything with the words ‘bacon’ and ‘fried’ HAS to be good. Of course, I’ll need to jog back to the office.

    As for the book, keep it. It’s currently available for $0.99 on ebay. 🙂

  • Tana

    You know I’m gonna ask this, right: where are the pigs from that the chef is using?

    Probably not your Amish guy, but it would be heartening to know that they were pastured and raised sustainably and humanely.

  • szg


    I had to cancel my upcoming Chicago trip (I was supposed to fly in Saturday). Not only am I missing a whole bunch of cool places recommended by Mike Nagrant, but now I can’t even take a side trip for this.

  • Nic Heckett

    I love crispy pork cracklin’s as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Ruhlman, Bourdain or Symon) but my business partner Chuck Talbott and I believe that crisping pork fat destroys any complex flavors that it may have. Probably a good thing if the pig has off notes associated with factory farming (methane, anyone?), but not so much for a speciality finished pork. To taste the subtle difference between our Woodlands Pork summer harvest (field corn, sunflowers, fresh pasture grass and barley forage) and our fall harvest (acorns, hickories, persimmon, pawpaw, squash)you would need to cook the bellies lightly, leaving the fat translucent. Any chefs or foodies here like to comment?

  • Victoria

    This almost makes me wish I still worked an old, crappy job that was in that area. And since Chicago is deep in “construction” season and every major road seems to be under construction, you might want to make that “two hours away.” But it can fly in Oakbrook Terrace, someone bring it to Schaumburg!!

  • FoodPuta

    Oh for Pete sake! you all act like Pork-Fat is a new invention, discovered by the North.

    Comon down to Austin, We replaced milk on our Wheaties, with pork dripping’s.

    It’s always got to be about you!!

  • Bonbon

    I know Mark…this is so up his alley.
    Kudos for giving the world what it wants. Bacon, bacon and more bacon.

  • Judith in Umbria

    It sounds to me like a lot of folks here are expecting bacon — it isn’t. It’s the uncured part that gets turned into bacon. It’s a bit like fried lard in essence. That said, it is one of my favorite winter foods, but I do long, slow cooking with a fair amount of spicing so that a lot of fat goes away.

  • Claudia

    Way to go, Mav and Rule-man! You’ve not just saved Caesar salad, you’ve elevated it. How can we handle all that porcine goodness? (!)

  • Tags

    You haven’t slept since Tuesday? Let me get CF on the phone. This is an emergency.

  • Susan

    Has anyone reviewed this yet? Way to far away in Texas to get up there. One of you Bear’s fans post your blow-by-blow so we can live the pork belly vicariously.