Sky Full of Bacon


Top Ten Dining List For 2018, Or: How To Eat in Thailand

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Sky Full of Bacon exists now mainly to host this list annually (and for its own archive, of course). I figure Fooditor readers have had enough of my opinions and list making by the time The Fooditor 99 is done, and anyway, the purposes of that list and this one were always a little different. The Fooditor 99 is the best 99 places to eat; this was the ten best things I ate. A place that wasn’t great overall, could make one fantastic thing and be on this list.

But as I start trying to figure out what those ten things would be, I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction. Maybe it’s that I’m still in Fooditor 99 headspace. But my 2018 was much less about finding that mind-blowing taste and more about finding that place that takes you, whole, somewhere else.

Nowhere was that clearer to me than when I finally went to Thailand this year, during Christmas break. A few years ago I definitely would have searched for the thing that blew my mind, expanded my idea of what Thai food could be.

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And I know I should have wanted to stand in line for twenty minutes at the place that offers… toast, hand-grilled over charcoal on the street. People asked if I was going to hip new places and Michelin-starred innovators… honestly, traveling with kids whose enthusiasm wanes quickly the longer and fancier the meal gets, made that just too complicated for me. For one thing, honestly, from the Thai food I had in Thailand… Thai food in Chicago is really good, and deeply authentic at its best. So while I’m sure there are new things to be had, and some mindblowers out there, it wasn’t a matter of having “real” Thai food at long last.

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There was a revealing moment for me at a Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, Canton House, when we took a Taste of Thailand tour (as recommended by Steve Dolinsky). We had a spread of dim sum in front of us to sample, some familiar, some new. And the best of it was almost all the stuff we already knew, barbecued pork buns and shrimp har gow and so on. While the new things were less exciting, not as successful or delectable. (It suddenly dawns on me that that was pretty much my reaction to The French Laundry, too.)

Yet I loved just walking the streets, passing vendor after vendor cooking on Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road, and in the side streets that turn off of it, and in the alleys that turn off of them… hundreds of people adding the scent of what they make to the air, and the intensity of their industry to an amazing food scene. I kind of didn’t have to eat (though I did), it was almost enough to simply see it and feed off that energy, to see that life in action. And the sheer fecundity of food stalls sprouting everywhere by the hundreds—not just all over Bangkok but even in small, somewhat tacky Ao Nang, where we stayed at a resort nearby for a few days—makes a joke of ever thinking you’ve had the best of anything. All you can hope for is The Really Good of a thing.

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Anyway, I’m not saying this is a huge change in how I have always explored food… but it is something of a shift, from wanting to eat it to caring more about being in the thick of it as a culture. So these are the ten things that I remember most from 2018, that stuck with me, but not just because of how they tasted—because of what they represent in the lives of people who share their eating lives with us, I guess. Something for which I am always most grateful, living in this great city and getting to visit others.

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10. Carne asada huarache, Taqueria El Katechon.

With everybody in love with Xocome Antojeria, I need a new neighborhood Mexican place to push for wider awareness. This place was on this Fooditor list but finally returning to it, I was doubly impressed by the toothsome housemade tortillas (shown above) and incendiary salsas. The service is friendly as can be, too, even if not much in English. Check it out.

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9. Carnitas tlacoyo, Xocome Antojeria.

Super hearty and comfy dish at a nice family place. Read more here.

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8. Rolled noodle-crispy pork soup, Kuay Jab Nuai Han, Bangkok.

A test for me after trying a bunch of things in one night is to see, a few days later, which one comes to mind first. For our Chinatown eating tour it was this amazing soup of a clear broth tasting brilliantly of black pepper, pieces of crispy grilled pork fresh off the fryer, and chewy rolled noodles. Simple, pure, perfect, a Charlie Trotter level bowl for a buck fifty. (Other top things in Thailand: grilled pork neck (shown above), pork belly at Err Urban Rustic Thai, boat noodles at Ao Nang Boat Noodles. I never thought much of that dish before, now I’m sure it ranks with ramen and pho among the great Asia soups—in fact, sort of halfway in-between the two, fire and five spice.)

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7. Kyoten.

I could try to reconstruct the best fishes and preparations at this new sushi hotspot to name them one by one, but just go there, have it all, experience new things from a rising star with his own way of doing things.

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6. Steak taco, The Laughing Taco, Milwaukee.

Like many chefs today, Justin Carlisle started at the top (Ardent, regularly ranked Milwaukee’s best restaurant) and has worked his way down with Red Light Ramen and now this local taco chain. All the tacos were good but the carne asada one using his dad’s richly flavorful Carlisle beef, same as Ardent does, must be the best steak bargain in the midwest.

5. Saturday afternoon snacks, Bar Biscay.

The best thing is a new restaurant that gets better and better every time you go back in its early months. Bar Biscay was promising at a media preview but some holes showed; much improved at a dinner a month or so later… and, as I tell the story in The Fooditor 99, just perfect one Saturday sipping vermouth and noshing on things from the sea on bread.

4. Orange dreamsicle, Pretty Cool Ice Cream.

Though it could as easily be the Fudgsicle one or the mint chocolate chip one. This place is the charmer of the year.

3. Eggs on eggs (caviar omelet), duck with coriander and India Pale Ale, Band of Bohemia.

The dishes that turned me around on this three-year-old restaurant/brewery (and led me to do this piece about them), from then-brand new chef Ian Davis, who brought the food and its beer pairings new complexity and subtlety.

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2. Foie gras/langoustine courses, Schwa.

It started as a bowl of foie—and I’ve kind of had all the foie I ever need, but this was sharp and on point with tangy citrus notes and deep, oboe-ish chocolate notes. Then I got a spoonful of yeasted ice cream and used it to mop up the last fatty bits of foie, as the rollercoaster slid from hot to cold. Surely now my bowl would be bussed and replaced by something else… but instead I got what looked like a rubber ball with something inside, which went in my bowl and was topped with steaming broth. Now it was a bowl of soup, which continued changing flavor as the ball melted away, releasing a second broth that mixed with the first, and a langoustine trapped inside. (It did not come to life and start growing larger, but that wouldn’t have surprised me.)”

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1. “Ddukbokki gnocchi” with lamb ragu, Passerotto.

I don’t think that’s the actual name but it’s how Jennifer Kim described it to me, the dish that best combines Italian and Korean cuisine in her restaurant, and almost certainly the dish that’s on the most ten best lists in Chicago this year. We ordered it twice back to back! John Kessler loved it!

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Get your copy of The Fooditor 99 here.

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

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