Sky Full of Bacon


Top Ten Dining List for 2020, or: The Post-Food Era

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My sons hand-pressing tacos for a lockdown meal

I’ve always been interested in food; I moved to Chicago in part for deep dish pizza and all those other exotic things to be had here. (The other part was to be able to see obscure movies without having to book and project them myself.) But my life took a turn in 2002, when I read Calvin Trillin’s piece on Chowhound in The New Yorker and I discovered that you could devote your life to hunting such stuff out, and you could write about it on the internet, and meet up with other people—met on the dangerous internet!—to share what you found and learn from them, to explore the city together. To make friends in the anonymous city over the rich tapestry of food here.

The last was no small thing; it became my social life. In ten years in advertising I’d maybe made two lasting friends here. Suddenly, starting with meeting David Hammond at La Quebrada, I had a whole crowd to run with. And I passed it along to my kids, who define themselves, as I did, in part by the foods they love and love to share.

That way of approaching the world took a blow in 2020 with the lockdowns of restaurants, and another recently with a health scare that told me I needed to clean that act up. So here, my 18th annual top ten of what I ate, marks the end of an era. I’m not saying a blessed rib tip will never cross my lips again, but I’m going to be doing far less of that kind of random scouting, eating tacos on the off chance they’ll be outstanding. I will let others guide me to the ones worth the physical price.

So, last top ten list ever? Perhaps. I still believe, as Kinky Friedman put it, that the point of life is to find something you love and let it kill you. But I’m not going to help it do the job as much as I have been.

Here’s my list of the best new restaurants of 2020. This is my list of the best things I ate.

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10. Fish in Chengdu style pickled cabbage broth, Tan Lu

The standout of the revision to my Chinatown guide that I completed just before lockdown was a whole fish cooked in a pickled cabbage broth, well outside my usual comfort zone of Chinese food yet gobbled happily by me, my younger son, and a visiting niece.

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9. 1949 sub, Paulina Meat Market
I don’t recommend eating this unless you have hard physical labor to do after, but a sub bearing things like pork sulze from Paulina is a real blast of early 20th century Chicago.

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8. Thin crust pizza, Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream
So many new pizzas this year so to some extent this stands in for them all, but I was wowed by the well-done crispy take on tavern cut Chicago pizza from this Bridgeport spot.

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7. Xi’an bing, Lao Peng You

Bright flavors and obviously handcrafted foods made this Ukrainian Village dumpling joint a new favorite.

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6. Fish boil, Pelletier’s, Fish Creek, WI

I’d never been to a Door County fish boil until this year’s only travel. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap, solid regional cuisine and history.

5. Grilled chicken, with hummus and pita, Avec
I had a lot of pretty good takeout from sitdown restaurants—Elske, Le Bouchon, mfk., Duck Inn, Virtue, Aboyer and others—but in terms of satisfaction, two orders from Avec, nearly identical, involving chicken and housemade hummus and pita were the best nice-restaurant takeout I had.

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4. White gazpacho, The Bristol
A quintessential farm to table restaurant reinvents itself again with new chef Larry Feldmeier, ex of The Albert, staying true to its mission of honest, superbly-crafted food never too far removed from its source, even when it’s this visually impressive.

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3. Halloumi taco, Evette’s.
I will miss Finom Coffee but the loss is tempered by the Lebanese-Mexican fusion tacos at this new spot from Finom’s Rafa Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra. The chicken shawarma tacos off the spit were very good but the standout that wowed me was a hunk of grilled halloumi cheese on a tortilla.

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2. Corn side dish, Kasama
I loved Genie Kwon’s pastries and the entrees like chicken adobo (pictured)at this Filipino restaurant, but it was a side dish, no picture available, of corn, full of umami flavor, that wowed me the most.

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1. Custard with tiny popcorn, Brass Heart
I actually ate three upscale Mexican meals this year which could easily have made this list—Topolobampo in the Frontera library, Geno Bahena’s Mis Moles and the new iteration of Brass Heart under Norman Fenton, ex of Schwa, which was last year’s #2 meal. Fenton’s time in Tulum showed itself in Mexican flavors poking through fine dining dishes, as I wrote in September: “I really liked the way dishes would just hint at some jalapeño here, some mole flavor there, without ever doing so strongly enough that it overshadowed the next course; it really brought some fresh air to the genre.”

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

 

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