I will have more to say about 2010 and the food world shortly (if you recall this time last year, I won’t be alone), but the year’s end calls for a ten best list. (I don’t know who these people are who publish them in mid-December; I was still checking out new restaurants last week, hoping for one last glimpse of transcendence.) If you look at other people’s lists, whether of 10 or 100, there’s one obvious point made which is that this was a great year for casual yet culinarily serious joints, big on pork, beer and ampersands. But where some seemed content to make up lists entirely of these mid-upscale joints (understandably, they’re easy to leave contented), I still have my populist LTH/Chowhound side, too, and I want to make sure to take note of our city’s (and nation’s) richness of ethnic dining and other kinds of small joints, that can’t afford a PR firm… or an ampersand. If that means some much more acclaimed spot gets bumped to the second ten, well, what a great city we’re in that the second ten can have places on it like The Purple Pig or Old Town Social or The Southern or Kith & Kin.
Anyway, here, in reverse order, are my ten best, which as always must be things that were new to me in 2010:
10. Beef shawerma at Taza Bakery. Middle-eastern food had grown increasingly boring. And it seemed boring for the folks making it, too. Then I had the beef shawerma at this place on Devon just east of Kedzie, in a big fluffy blanket of freshly-baked bread called tannur, and it was full of flavorful meat and tart sauce and crisp vegetables, and it reinvented and reinvigorated a staple lunch. And the people aren’t bored, they’re standing there making bread all day long, you can watch them at it.
9. Wild boar or Stromboli at Gaztro-Wagon. Speaking of meat rolled up in bread… much as I like the guys involved in the whole food truck thing and wish them well, I have to admit that not being a barfly, food trucks are not personally critical to my lifestyle. But take Gaztro-Wagon merely as a sandwich startup in a storefront on the way to my kids’ school, and it was one of the best pieces of news of my food year— always interesting combinations served gooey hot in delectable soft and chewy sort-of-naan, for nearly always less than $10 a throw. As with Phillip Foss’s Meatyballs, Franks N Dawgs, or Hot Doug’s, granddaddy of them all, it’s the kind of high-low innovation that makes this city such a great place to eat… too often despite the best efforts of city bureaucracy.
8. Charcoal chicken at Taqueria Ricardo. I actually found Taqueria Ricardo late in 2009, but held off posting about it until I could compose a comprehensive guide to the semi-hidden world of supermercado taquerias, the taquerias inside Mexican grocery stores around Chicago. Several are quite good but by far the most elaborate and interesting and varied in town is this one on Diversey near Kostner, where they make genuinely, no-charcoal-or-gas-involved wood-grilled chicken and even rabbit, along with excellent seafood soups, taco al pastor, and a wide variety of other Mexican dishes.
7. Blackbird. I wanted to finally check out Mike Sheerin’s food at what is, to my mind, the most influential Chicago restaurant locally (even if others have more of a national profile), little suspecting that his era at Blackbird would come to an end fairly quickly. But whatever it becomes under David Posey (seen in this week’s Key Ingredient, incidentally), I’ll remember the unexpected refinement and delicacy of dishes like his marvelous sturgeon and escargot or peanut gazpacho, not to mention the mindbending desserts of Patrick Fahy. And I’ll eagerly await Sheerin’s own venture The Trencherman.
6. Tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay and other dishes at Aroy Thai. After falling into a rut with much-beloved Thai places like Spoon and TAC, dishes like the fiery, pungent soup tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay brought back those heady days when we LTHers were first discovering the world of Thai secret menus and non-Americanized Thai in all its spicy glory. I’ve been back almost half a dozen times since.
5. Doro wat at Queen Makeda. It took going to Washington, D.C., but I finally had a genuinely great African meal at this invitingly homey (despite the big TV playing C-Span) Ethiopian restaurant a few steps from Ben’s Chili Bowl and other tourist magnets.
4. Tete de cochon, and many others, at Longman & Eagle. Lots of places shoot onto national lists and win Michelin stars in their first year, but for a neighborhood tavern to have done it really says something about how the cutting edge of our dining scene is shifting away from traditional fine dining. A lot of people expressed surprise when Michelin honored them, but not me, from a slightly shaky start this gastropub or whatever it is had gotten rapidly and impressively better every time I visited (at least four times this year), climaxing (almost literally) with the tete de cochon, which made Girl & The Goat’s pig face a pale reflection. But it’s no mere porkateria, other favorite dishes have run the gamut from scallops to charry grilled anchovies, all pulled off as if they were the house’s specialty.
3. Willi Lehner’s bandaged aged cheddar. I had lots of great cheese on my cheese jaunt (see here and here), but the one that summed it up for me was this one of Willi Lehner’s, as atmospheric and dense with history as a 12th century monastery. I’m sure tasting it in his actual cave was a big part of that, but it’s just as marvelous at home.
2. Ruxbin. As I wrote: “Ruxbin is not another Schwa— it’s a more down-to-earth neighborhood restaurant, with dishes that sound like fairly plain American bistro food, with a touch of Asian fusion. With its thrift-shop look (like some Korean-American cross between Avec and Chicago Kalbi, with a little Amtrak sleeper coach thrown in), it looks more like the kind of place you’d find in a college town than in money-flashing 2010 Chicago. But besides the similarities to Schwa of being tiny, hard to get into and BYO on Ashland, you get the sense of a comparable degree of intensity, focus, and something like perfectionism in the food.”
1. L.C.’s BBQ/A&M Grill. We had a bunch of barbecue places open this year, and I even like one of them (Lillie’s Q) a lot, but if there’s one thing no restaurateur can do, no matter how savvy and skilled, it’s make a barbecue joint with real history behind it. I tried two places like that this year in which the food came with a side of deep culture and heritage; in Kansas City, it was my new favorite Kansas City barbecue joint, L.C.’s:
While in North Carolina, it was A&M Grill:
There’s so much more than food going on at these places… but there’s also the food, which is wonderful.
• Galley Boy burger at Swenson’s Drive-in (various locations around Akron)
• Goat-pork-veal sugo and a couple of other things from Girl and The Goat
• Eggplant salad, trout and dessert at Ruxbin
• Many many cheeses on my cheese tour (see links above)
• Butternut squash soup, a taste of trout, and goat cheesecake at L’Etoile in Madison
• Shortrib agnolotti at Ceres’ Table
• Some of the new menu at The Violet Hour (we had them as canapes, so I’ve kind of forgotten what they were already, but… they’re good!)
• Beef shawerma at Taza
• Blue cheese-frizzled onion burger at DMK Burger Bar, which is expensive, but easily my favorite of this year’s nouveau burger joints (besides Edzo’s of course)
• Butternut squash-sage thing at The Purple Pig
• BBQ Meatyballs sandwich
• Stromboli from Gaztro-Wagon
• Pizza from Armand’s, old Elmwood Park place now on Western
• The sauerkraut pie I made out of Pig
• Lemongrass tofu banh mi from Nhu Lan by way of Michael Nagrant’s place
• Sonoran hot dog, Big Star
• Corn and pork cake, Ming Hin
Finally, let me note what a great year this has been for Sky Full of Bacon, full of interesting opportunities from the Reader’s Key Ingredient series to doing Grub Street for a week to things like Baconfest or my cheese junket or being the only Chicagoan represented at the Chicago Food Film Festival. I’ve met lots of interesting people in the food world, eaten lots of terrific things and enjoyed the modest amount of acclaim that my modest work merits. It’s a wonderful life that seems to get better and more interesting with every year, and thanks to everyone who stops by to check it out… like you.