CHICAGO — On Sunday, I hopped on the Harley, motored east to the Red Arrow Highway and snaked through the Indiana Dunes toward Michigan wine country, the late morning sun on my face.
In New Buffalo, Michigan, the familiar roadside diner that always seems to change names had yet another new sign — “Jackie’s Café” — and that seemed like a good enough reason to check it out.
It didn’t look all that different, but the menu — packed with Latin, pan-Asian and French-inspired dishes for brunch — put last year’s Grateful Dead-themed greasy spoon to shame.
After ordering the "eggs benito" — jalapeno cornbread topped with ham and poached eggs covered in a spicy cheese sauce — I hit the restroom to wash the road off my face.
That’s where I saw it hanging on the wall: An old menu from a long-gone Lincoln Park fine dining spot signed by two of my favorite famous Chicagoans.
“Jackies? What kind of joint don’t serve no cheeseburger? Well, your chow ain’t half bad. It’s even terrific,” Mike Royko scribbled on top of the fillet of French dover sole entrée listed for $11.50.
Studs Terkel signed his name, too, adding, “For Jackies, Here’s to good living — good food — good friends.”
I immediately considered, um, liberating it, and even checked to see if it was screwed into the wall — which it was not — before ultimately deciding to just go back to my table and eat my eggs.
For folks unfamiliar with New Buffalo and the string of cute beach towns packed with bed and breakfasts, vineyards and pick-your-own orchards along the southernmost Lake Michigan shore, it’s a favorite summertime spot for vacationing Chicagoans.
I figured the Jackie’s menu in the john was a Chicago artifact void of sentimentality that some interior designer discovered at one of the many antique stores on the main drag.
So I asked the waitress, “How much for the menu hanging above the toilet?”
“Oh, you’ll have to ask the chef,” she said.
When the café’s namesake chef, Jackie Shen, stopped over, I inquired about the bathroom decoration that was just a tad too big to fit unnoticed under my motorcycle jacket.
“Oh, that has special meaning,” Shen said.
Shen told the story of how she met Judy Royko at a Lincoln Park laundry and the two became friends.
Some days, Shen brought freshly baked cookies over to Judy’s place while Mike wrote his column, and she became pals with him, too, and they were regulars at her tiny French bistro at 2478 N. Lincoln Ave.
What Shen didn’t mention — the one thing foodies in this town know all too well — is that she is THE Jackie Shen, the “queen of fusion,” a celebrity chef before Chicago became the fancy pants culinary mecca it is today.
“I don’t like to brag,” she said when I talked to her again Tuesday. “I figure sooner or later people will find out.”
Shen got her cooking start as an apprentice for the late Jean Banchet, considered by many the original celebrity chef, a man who the Tribune said, “almost single-handedly raised Chicago's dining reputation from a steak-and-potatoes town to a serious restaurant city.”
By age 30, she naively opened the original Jackie’s, which got rave critical reviews and was a favorite of movie stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman, with a parade of regulars that included Royko, Terkel, Ann Landers and Roger Ebert.
A bookkeeper with sticky fingers, among other things, forced her to close up shop. She took a job with Levy Restaurants and later was the executive chef at Red Light on Randolph Street.
“Those were the two best restaurant experiences in my lifetime that educated me on running a proper restaurant,” Shen said. “Nine years at Red Light educated me on how to cook Asian cuisine. All my training up until then was in French cooking.”
And last year, she was called on to help revive the popular Stray Dog Bar and Grill in New Buffalo, a popular place that had to completely rebuild after a fire.
“I wanted the challenge of opening up a massive restaurant and training people and challenging myself,” she said. “People look at me — 4-foot-9 and 62 years old — and think how is she going to run a massive volume restaurant that gets 3,000 people a day in and out without a flaw. It was the biggest challenge of my life, and I did it.”
And now, there’s Jackie’s Café, which really is her shot at culinary redemption with a menu that’s best described as “Jackie’s greatest hits.”
“Jackie’s Cafe is something that I’m proud to say comes from all of the bad things that happened that I learned from, and the education that I got that was good, and I’m able to apply those things to make it better,” Shen said.
“I put my 25 years of cooking experience into the café menu, knowing people like to eat light, more go for vegetarian dishes and are more sophisticated at dining and educated on how to eat. I’m able to take the last 25 years and apply it into the menu I have now.”
Since opening this summer, Shen says she’s served more than a few former customers from her city days at the new restaurant that sits at the corner of Chicago and Buffalo streets — an irony the chef takes great pleasure in.
But don’t expect the fusion queen to plan a big-city comeback; she likes the Michigan beach town so much she sold her Chicago house and moved there.
For her, it’s a little like going back in time.
“From 1982 to 1995 there were only 10 or so fine dining restaurants in Chicago. Now, there’s so many, and they all compete against each other,” Shen said.
“In a sense, opening Jackie’s here is almost like going back to the good ol’ days on Lincoln Avenue. Only now, I’m much smarter than I was before.”
And the smart thing to do, chef Shen, is to screw that special menu into the bathroom wall before I come back for seconds.
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