Hanging Out in Rockford: Party on! Rockford is acting first class with passage of sales tax

I am at the international produce market in Chicago. My cell phone rings. Rebecca Kopf wants to know if we will host the Paving the Way celebration. Of course, I say yes. She says she will get back to me about appetizers. I start to think about it almost immediately. I need to do some planning because Troy, who has cooked for me for the last three years, is leaving. I have to be more involved than usual. I could count on Troy for things like this, but he has moved on.

I wrack my brain for something to do. Then, I have an idea—we will do tacos. Virtually everyone likes tacos, and we will do a variety. Steak, chicken, fish and cactus. I feel very comfortable, once I have made the decision. Actually, I have to think about the kind of tacos I want to have. I ponder that for a while. But I want to do something fairly authentic. I would like to make homemade tortillas, but there isn’t enough time to experiment, and I won’t do it scratch without time to experiment, so I decide to go with ready-made. But I want to do the thick or family-style tortillas.

I talk to Jose and Maria about it, and they say the Millagro Tortillas are thicker, and they sell them on South Main. I run down to South Main and buy a packet of the Millagro to try them, and I am not all that impressed. I decide to roll the dice on picking up some of the homestyle at Del Rey in Chicago. Maybe they will have the “gorda” tortillas. Tuesday, the day of the event, I stop at Del Rey on 18th Avenue in Chicago. I negotiate in pigeon Spanish. No, they do not have the thick, family-style tortillas. I settle for a case of the fresh regular style, but I get a case of their excellent homemade chips, which are, in my opinion, almost as good as if you fried them yourself.

I score 15 pounds of fresh ocean fish pieces from Wabash Seafood (airline trim, they cut for first class and there are pieces left over; I buy from the fish they cut that day). For the beef, I call Ron at Economy Packing on Fulton. They do a lot of beef for the Mexican restaurant trade, and they carry an item called hanging tenders, wonderful for steak tacos. We used them when we did a taco tent with La Voz Latina a couple of years ago, and we got rave reviews.

I decide to go with all-white meat chicken from Economy Packing, and that is a mistake. I should have gone for dark meat, as I intended to in the first place. Dark meat makes much better tacos. White meat is good for a lot of things, but definitely not for tacos. But, all in all, it wasn’t too bad; at least it was freshly cooked.

The cactus goes largely unappreciated. The crowd isn’t that sophisticated about Mexican food. I find myself explaining it endlessly. I had thought it would be the most popular item. Shows you how wrong you can be. But we had rice and beans, and they were fantastic, as good as any place in town. I felt like Bobby Flay, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Actually, on a scale of 10, I would say we hit an 8. But as my friend Doug used to say, I am my own worst critic.

I’m standing with Jim Thacker and Chuck Sweeny. Chuck says the first line of his column the next day, the rage against the machine thing, and everybody laughs. Chuck is full of it, and it seems almost very Irish and very endearing. I pat him on the belly like an Irish father. He takes it well.

But the rest of the night is a bomb. The forces of the mayor have organized and done their job. The east side of Rockford looks like “Morrissey for Mayor.” My friend Jim Thacker is quietly confident. He is predicting a 55-45 win. I, too, think we will win, but I have lost before when I thought we were going to win. I have learned it pays to be humble. But, fortunately, humble is for another night, and the forces of the mayor are victorious. I say to Jim Thacker, in the manner of my Irish mother, that I would like to be a mouse in the corner wherever a certain alderman is hiding out on this warm spring night. He only smiles in return.

Later, I get to stand with Jim and the mayor. I think that one of the things I like the most about our mayor is that he never gloats. We talk about it as a success, and Rockford stepping up to be first class. I can feel this same swell of success infecting our downtown. Almost every day I hear of a new project down here. I think in the totality that will affect the success of the whole community. Rockford is acting first class.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

from the April 25-May 1, 2007, issue

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