Munch goes to the Smiling Moose

When Munch was a small fry, writing scathing reviews of Happy Meals, doing exposes on Lunchables' string cheese and getting loopy on Little Hugs, there was a silly "Sesame Street" song that Munch totally dug:

"One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn't belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?"

A googly-eyed Cookie Monster might sing it while comparing different plates of cookies, or maybe Big Bird did the same when contemplating various sized bowls of bird seed. Munch couldn't help but think of this jaunty kiddy's ditty this weekend while eating some excellent quasi-gourmet food at the most unlikely of places: The Smiling Moose, a hard rock bar on the South Side with something of a horror movie theme. The bar has been around for about eight years, but only started offering food this winter.

As the song goes, "One of these kids is doing his own thing," and that's true of the guiding force behind the Moose's cuisine: Christopher "Lock" Cook, a longtime member of the culinary team at the excellent Cafe Du Jour just down the street, who by all accounts, just wanted to do something different.

And he has. The Moose's menu is very simple, comprised of salads, snacks, sandwiches and sliders, but the execution and range of ingredients are what makes them special.

To wit: a mixed greens salad with apple, orange, carrot, cilantro, and toasted peanuts ($7); squash and corn fritters, with lemon mayo ($6); polenta fritters with olives and garlic marinara ($6), a black and cannellini bean "meatball" sandwich, with grilled peppers and onions, mozzarella and garlic marinara, served on a fresh baguette ($8).

Munch and Roommate of Munch (ROM) dug into a plate of sliders -- three mini-burgers -- seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder, peanut sauce, cilantro, and a sweet chili mayo ($8).

ROM enjoyed them so much that he ordered two more plates of sliders for his entree, the vegetarian black bean and corn "burgers," with pepperjack, tomato salsa and citrus sour cream ($7) and an order of sweet barbecue burgers topped with onion straw, bacon and cheddar ($7). ROM inhaled all six sliders, stopping occasionally to breathe and repeatedly tell me how good they were.

The kitchen ran out of the roast pork sandwich, topped with orange and mustard sauces and apple and carrot slaws ($9; served as a chop for $15), so Munch settled for the chicken, bacon, and cream cheese sandwich, topped with sweet chili and cabbage ($8), and was not at all disappointed. The sandwich had a ton of different things going on taste-wise, was very filling and, combined with its soft warm baguette bun, had Munch drifting towards a food coma later in the evening.

The Moose has a nice beer selection, and pints of the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Ale ($4) helped Munch's grub go down the gullet, while ROM kept it real with a few Iron Citys ($2.50).

Potential visitors, beware: the Moose permits smoking, an irony given the number of vegetarian-friendly meals on the menu. But irony abounds at the Moose: a place with Evil Dead posters and autographed pictures of Leatherface on the wall, a heavily tattooed clientele, and Ronnie James Dio's "Holy Diver" on the jukebox, that offers unique, near-gourmet fare with an artistic flare.

Munch isn't casting aspersions here. I mean, I wear a bag on my head. But let's be honest, appearances are influential -- Munch wouldn't expect a glass of Chateau Lafite Rothschild to go with the hard-boiled eggs over at Jack's, so Munch was shocked by how good the food was at the Moose.

Even the employees Munch spoke with conceded that they wouldn't expect food in a joint like this, let alone really good food.

Not that they're complaining. And neither is Munch.

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