Popcorn Asylum Opens on Lincoln Ave. With Corn Syrup-Free, Artisan Popcorn

By Serena Dai on January 21, 2014 7:15am 

 Ben Zion owns Popcorn Asylum, a new artisan popcorn shop that uses real butter and shuns corn syrup in its popcorn flavors.
Ben Zion owns Popcorn Asylum, a new artisan popcorn shop that uses real butter and shuns corn syrup in its popcorn flavors.
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DNAinfo/Serena Dai

LAKEVIEW — A former attorney has dropped his law briefs to open a shop in Lakeview to sell what he's calling artisan popcorn. 

The secret to the label? Real butter and no corn syrup, said Ben Zion, owner of Popcorn Asylum, 2823 N. Lincoln Ave., which opened this week.

Many caramel popcorns use butter-flavored oils and corn syrups, which can lead to a greasy, less flavorful product, Zion said.

Instead of corn syrup, Zion said he flavors popcorn with maple syrup, agave nectar or birch syrup, a specialty liquid made from the sap of birch trees in Alaska. And instead of flavored oils, Zion uses real butter. 

"We use a lot of it," Zion said with a laugh. "It's not health food, what we make for you."

Zion worked as a law clerk for the city about three years ago but soon realized he enjoyed bringing in food for co-workers more than he enjoyed arguing in court. The Wrigleyville resident signed on some partners, including his brother, and decided to look at selling the popcorn full time.

Now, with two 80-gallon kettles in the shop's kitchen, Zion can deliver a rotating variety of caramel and cheese popcorns each week, including experiments with new flavors. 

So far, Zion's testing has created a mix of high-end caramel and cheese popcorns.

The signature popcorn, a spiced maple, resulted from a mix of maple syrup, vanilla, butter and spices for a savory-sweet caramel corn. He added orange to the mix and created a dead ringer for Fruit Loops.

And with a new dehydration machine, he's created a peanut-butter-and-jelly popcorn with dehydrated strawberries and a poblano cheddar with dehydrated peppers. 

"I'm not a trained chef or baker, but I try to brainstorm solutions," he said.

Zion soon will be supplying a beer-flavored popcorn to Evanston craft brewery Temperance.

Despite his affection for a rich butter flavor, Zion said he's been experimenting with a coconut oil for vegans. But corn syrup won't be showing up in those caramels, either, he said.

"A corn syrup is sweet, but without much flavor," he said. "Agave, birch and maple are flavorful in addition to being sweet. It makes it a deeper flavor."

Popcorn Asylum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Bags cost $5 to $15, depending on the flavor.

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