Sky Full of Bacon


If 2020 was adjusting to a new reality, 2021 was new reality and old reality all mixed together. We returned to restaurants, and we returned to restaurants shutting down because somebody on staff got COVID. We traveled– I even went overseas– and yet by year’s end travel seemed to be shutting down too.

So who the hell knows what’s next. Myself, I didn’t go to restaurants in 2021 nearly as much as in past years, partly because I just have adjusted to a new life doing more cooking at home, and partly because I’ve been working on this book, so I didn’t knock myself out to go to every Esme or Rose Mary that opened this year, and there’s just no way to keep up with all the things that pop up doing Malaysian food via announcements on Instagram, sold out in three minutes. So after two decades of being on top of such things, I yield that floor to others. Still, I ate some good things around the world, here were my favorites:


10. Sochi
This new Vietnamese restaurant in Lakeview just seems a cut above in everything, deeper flavors for familiar things like pho and a bowl of cellophane noodles and grilled pork.

9. Date shake, Shields Garden, Palm Springs CA
Ice cream shakes made with brown sugar-y date sugar are a local treat in Palm Springs. We tried Shields Garden, which has been cranking them out since 1924, and even shows a free film explaining the sex life of the date, hyped in classic roadside attraction fashion.


8. Frenchie, Lardon
The new place I’ve been to the most this year was Lardon, a Logan Square restaurant built on its in-house charcuterie program, by chef Chris Thompson (who was chef at the better-than-it-has-to-be Southport spot Coda di Volpe). They’ve expanded quickly to dinner and other things, but I love their original lunch menu of sandwiches and meat and cheese boards, in particular the Frenchie, crusty French bread with a schmear of pate, brie and their housemade ham.

7. Talard Thai
The best Thai grocery in town also has a cafeteria area in the back that, like Immm Rice and Beyond, serves from a steam table, so things have the long-simmering depth of flavor of the best street food in Thailand. I usually don’t really know what I’m getting there, just point at anything that looks good and get three things for about $10, but I’ve been happy with practically everything I’ve tried.


6. Tasty Cuisine
A couple of friends invited me to a vintage Chinese restaurant in the burbs (Des Plaines). Oh, exciting! you say. Well, it may look like your typical takeout Chinese place, and mostly it is, but they knew the daughter of the family that runs it– an influencer– and that got us the food they make for themselves, like this shrimp-toast chicken, chicken fried with the shrimp paste you put on shrimp toast. It was the most eye-opening Chinese meal I’ve had in some time.

5. Colombia Tierra Querida dessert, Adorn
I consider hotel restaurants guilty until proven interesting, but one that made it this year was Adorn, in the Four Seasons. The chef is Johnathon Sawyer, who won a James Beard award in Cleveland, but besides doing idiosyncratic food for a hotel (you may have tried his vinegar at Publican Quality Meats, you’ll certainly try it here), he hired a terrific pastry chef in Juan Gutierrez (ex of Longman and Eagle and other places), and gives him his head with imaginative desserts reflecting places like Mexico, India and Colombia.


4. Sardinian sheep cheese
I went to Pordenone, Italy in October for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Pordenone is not the most historic place in Italy, but it’s fairly prosperous (they make Electrolux vacuums there), so they make up for it by bringing in festivals of all kinds. One day, in the plaza in front of my hotel, there appeared a regional foods festival, meats and cheeses from Alto-Adige or Sicily or wherever. I brought home some hard cheese but my absolute favorite, but too fragile, I thought, to travel, was the Sardinian soft sheep’s cheese offered by this lady– ambrosia in curdled milk form.


3. Bolognese in Bologna
While in Pordenone, there was one day I felt I could skip the films, and so I took the high speed train 3 hours away to perhaps the top place in Europe I’d wanted to go and never been: Bologna. As you probably know, a town named for lunch meat is going to be quite the foodie paradise, and I noshed and brought home anything I thought could travel, as well as having lunch at a place festooned with many stickers of recommendation from guidebooks called Anna Maria Trattoria, where I had perfect fresh spinach pasta with bolognese, followed by a roast goose leg and potatoes fried in what tasted like goose fat enhanced with butter. Simple and perfect.

2. Mom’s pork nam prik, Hermosa
I finally went to one of the Cambodian dinners at longtime favorite Hermosa, and it was excellent overall, but one thing in particular blew me away for depth of soul, a funky nam prik (I think) with hunks of pork by owner Ethan Ling’s mom. It was worth hanging on to for spreading on other things all night.


1. Oriole
There’s one dish in particular I could name, housemade tofu with fresh herbs and I think a coconut broth– it was very white and green, I know that much. (That’s not it above, but it’s similar.) But really I just have to say that for all I liked new places I tried this year, Oriole remains in a class by itself for imaginative food, warm and well-informed service, and an overall rewarding and appealing experience that, at the end makes you happy to open your wallet and pour out everything you have. They deserve it for making you feel so good!

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003


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.

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.

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.

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.

7. Xi’an bing, Lao Peng You

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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


Sons, at The Loyalist for Son #2’s (left) birthday

It’s a transitional time in life for me—one kid out of the house already, another about to be. They have been such a part of my dining life for so long, my companions on discoveries, the audience I practiced my material on before it went into cold type. Not that they aren’t still—two of the high-end dinners about to be cited here were with Son #1, now old enough to be served wine and beer (and to do a shot with the chefs, which he did).

But even when I traveled the world in the past, it was with them. Yet this year I took two trips without them—once to Vancouver with my wife, once to Mexico City with David Hammond. And son #1 will be taking one without me, studying abroad in Ireland this spring.

Son #1 with bottle of wine I bought shortly after his birth

This is how travel will be, I guess. So this annual ten best list is from a new life coming into view. As always, if you want serious and thoughtful discussion of the restaurants I admire in Chicago, get your hands on The Fooditor 99; this is more an impressionistic list of the things I tasted during the year and still think, damn, I would eat that again right now:

10. Dill and creme fraiche dessert, Band of Bohemia
I forget how it was phrased on the menu exactly, but when I saw those words on the dessert menu, I thought—with a name like that, in which the word chocolate does not appear at all, it has to be good. And it was—bracingly bright, as savory as it was sweet, but utterly refreshing. Jacquelyn Runice, who created it, has since gone on to Temporis, but I’ll follow her there one of these days.

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9. Chiusoni, Tortello
The subject of this Fooditor story, but son #1 had the best comment: “You forget how good pasta can be sometimes.”

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8. Chinese food, Chicago, Vancouver, Atlanta
I’m violating my own one-best-thing-I-tasted rule for this list, because I ate so much Chinese food this year—much of it for this Fooditor piece—and there were many outstanding things, yet no one thing I can say stood above. Instead what I got from it was the high quality of Chinese food in North America (despite what this article says). From the leek and bacon at Szechwan JMC in Chicago to the crispy pork at Hong Kong BBQ Master in Vancouver (the first place David Chang and Seth Rogen eat on that Netflix show), I had an immersion in Chinese food. If you’re going to make me pick one, I guess it would be the lacquered pork (above right) at La Mom Kitchen in Chicago—and there’s a funny story; I skipped it for the Chinese list linked above, because at the time its main focus seemed to be on Asian burritos. A month or two later, it’s the hottest new Chinese restaurant in town, and I missed it.

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7. Bread and butter, Middle Brow Bungalow
I like the pizza and salads, I like the chill rehabbed-building vibe, but this place wowed me the most with the first bite of densely brown, nutty bread and salted butter. The second one is a more complex dish (bread with a cured egg on it) but it’s up there too.

6. Kadala Curry, Thattu
If there was more vegetarian food as clean and simple and perfect as this black chickpea curry at Thattu in Politan Row, I’d eat more vegetarian food. Love the spicy biscuit cookie thing, too.

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5. Nantucket Bay Scallops with Paw Paw Pale Ale, Moody Tongue
This just in, too recently for The Fooditor 99, but the two Jareds—brewer Rouben and chef Wentworth—have a winner in the second iteration of the brewery built around food ingredients, which now includes a tasting menu in which elegant dishes interplay with complexly crafted beers to create combinations you’ve never seen before. (Needless to say, that’s not a scallop, but it was the best dish picture I took that night.)

4. Bavette steak with kimchi truffle sauce, Jeong
From Buzz List in March: “The only thing I’d say against the tasting menu is that I’d have liked a little more of the Korean flavors—in fact, the ones I liked the best were the ones that combined tasting menu finesse with the shock of the new, like a hunk of bavette steak with a delicate (!) kimchi-truffle sauce that is likely to be on my ten-best list this year, or the last dessert, a spice cake which had a bit of barley-tea rusticness to it.”

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3. Cambodian chicken sandwich, Hermosa
Mike Sula has done the most writing on what this little food stand with a playful chef (who used to be a host at Next!) is doing, but suffice it to say that in a very good year for chicken sandwiches, this is the one that really blew me away with its downhome Asian spicing.

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2. Bread and butter course, Schwa
“Bread and butter course” would be known as the A5 Miyazaki course in any other restaurant, the usual standout in a tasting menu—but ever-playful Schwa starts you with a more conventional-looking wagyu plate, then leads to a wagyu bao that was the most intensely beefy thing I ate all year, accompanied by butter and cocoa nib-dipped French breakfast radishes—the bread and butter.

1. The Madonna of the Gorditas, Mexico City
David Hammond and I were walking from the Pallacio des Bellas Artes toward the Mercado San Juan, down a street full of shops selling LED lights. There were a couple of street vendors on each block. As we passed one I saw a familiar movement out of the corner of my eye—someone handpatting masa into a tortilla. I made a braking noise like in a Warner Brothers cartoon and convinced Hammond that we needed to sit down for a gordita break (not hard). We watched as the young woman who worked the stand with her mother patted out our gordita, smooshing in whatever we wanted in it (a little meat and cheese), then grilled it. It was made so lovingly, with such devotion to producing the best possible result, that we were charmed, even rendered into a state of grace watching her at her work. And when we got it—for all of about 90 cents—it was everything we hoped and wished it to be. An experience of food grace, to remind us what it’s all about, and how little that can have to do with what it costs.

Here’s Hammond’s version of the same tale.

F99 2020 cover kindle

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:
2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.)”


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

To be entirely repetitive of my 2016 list, I wrote a book of what restaurants to go eat at in Chicago, so I don’t want to repeat all that here. Instead this is a more intimate list of ten things I ate for the first time in 2017, that I’m sitting here thinking about, wishing I had, right now. Sorry to places where I had very good overall meals but not one specific standout thing, but those are in the book and other places I’ve made recommendations. Note: Photos are often the thing talked about, but sometimes just the best picture I had to show.

10. Southside Johnny, St. Gennaro, Tempesta Market
These people who make ten best lists in early December—to me it’s giving up on the hope that something else fantastic might be out there. This year’s mid-December find was this new market/sub shop front for the ‘Nduja Artisans business, which is less Italian subs than composed dishes on bread, using their own fantastic cured meats (read more here).

9. O-toro, Raisu Japanese Cuisine
After our 2016 trip to Japan, my younger son eats exactly one kind of sushi— salmon. And so I took him to Raisu on my second visit and he had a bowl of udon soup, and some salmon nigiri. On the way out he said, “That’s the best sushi I’ve had— in Chicago.” That’s my boy.

Liam repping Birrieria Zaragoza at the Centre Pompidou

8. Picnic in the Centre Pompidou plaza, Paris
So we went to France, and food-wise, it was kind of a disappointment. Well, restaurant-wise, that is—compared to Chicago’s diversity of flavors, France seemed bland, underseasoned (that, admittedly, could be me more than it), a bit stuck in the past. Clown Bar was the best meal we had but I don’t think it would make my top ten overall; I wish I had eaten less French and more north African, as it was certainly more fun exploring and discovering the little street stands than sitting in often stuffy restaurants, especially in 90 degree heat in Lyon.

Sidewalk dining at Urfa Durum, Paris

The best eating in France remained simply buying things at local shops and eating in the open air; some funky charcuterie, some crusty bread, some cheese (when I failed to find a cheese shop open, I simply went to Miniprix, think 7-11, and bought their house brand camembert—and it was glorious); or in Lyons a bit of pate en croute from the Paul Bocuse market. That’s the best, and cheapest, of France.

7. Bell dumplings, thick noodles, A Place by Damao
“A tiny storefront seating about 20 people, specializing in the foods that people buy and gobble down on the street in Chengdu—simple and nearly all dunked in chili oil, for more of a deep, warming heat than the quick burn of fresh peppers, and often mixed with the metallic tang of Sichuan peppercorn. Some of it’s meaty things—braised duck necks, duck feet, chicken gizzards, fried pig ears, rabbit. Others are simple, carb-heavy dishes—pork dumplings, a bowl of fat handcut noodles, wontons in a volcanic-looking broth.” Read more here.

6. Coffee with egg custard, noodles with grilled beef, Cà Phê Dá
I like HaiSous just fine, but maybe because I’ve been eating at its preview dinners for two years (see this story), when I finally ate there I enjoyed it, I love the clean simplicity of Vietnamese food, but I didn’t think “wow, that’s new.”

Then I just popped into HaiSous’ attached cafe… and the movie-set version of 50s Vietnam, the banh mi (a step above what you find at Argyle banh mi shops) and the lushly sweet coffees, a healthy-tasting bowl of noodles and grilled beef… it was restaurant discovery magic for me.

5. Hamachi aguachile, pork collar, Quiote
Two outstanding Mexican restaurants opened just a couple of blocks from each other, and either could have made this list (and did make The Fooditor 99), but I give an edge to Quiote over Mi Tocaya Antojeria for food that just seems deeper, more satisfying, making a stronger case for Mexican (especially Oaxacan) as a great world cuisine capable of doing everything from lighting your mouth up with spice to warming you from the inside out with deep peasanty flavors.

4. Tajarin, beet agnolotti, Daisies
I eat at too many places to have a favorite restaurant, but I had an all-purpose answer at one time, for a neighborhood place of exceptional skill and care with local farm to table ingredients— at very affordable prices. It was called Mado, and Daisies’ handcrafted pastas are the closest thing to at least part of that menu— and very close overall in spirit.

3. Fried chicken, Husk (Charleston)
You don’t have to do much to get me to like Southern food, and visiting Hominy Grill twice in five days seems like it might be enough to land a good comfy place on the list. But then Husk topped it with sheer fried chicken perfection (making up, by the way, for the disappointment of another Sean Brock restaurant, McCrady’s Tavern).

2. Olive Oil Poached Tuna, Sungold tomato, conserve vinaigrette, Nico Osteria
Farewell Snaggletooth. Long live Nico Osteria under chef Bill Montagne; this dish, suggestive of Spanish canned fish (in all the best ways), was the one that convinced me it wasn’t a bad trade.

1. Fish collar with nam prik, Proxi
I’m not the one who ordered this twice at the same meal. That was Anthony Todd. But I’m not going to say I objected in any way, either. I’ve loved every meal at Proxi, mostly because I love seeing mostly Asian flavors treated with such care, and served at such reasonable prices amid downtown glitz and glamor.

* * *

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

I spent enough of 2016 making a big list—The Fooditor 99, now available at Amazon and for Kindle!—so I’m not going to belabor what’s in that guidebook. But I’ve been making ten best lists for over a decade now so I might as well keep at it. Here are my ten favorite things I ate, most of which will not come as a surprise to readers of The Fooditor 99:

10. Jianbing, as described in The Fooditor Guide to Chinatown’s Richland Center Food Court: “Start with what looks like a burrito wrap, but is actually a flour crepe, fry egg directly on the crepe, stuff it with some things like lettuce, scallions and a schmear of hoisin sauce, wrap it up and you have a simple, fresh-tasting and absolutely delicious breakfast food.”

9. Black and white pizza from Nomad at Green City Market. Never let it be said that the Trib’s an-X-a-day-for-a-month didn’t produce at least one discovery for me. Thanks, Louisa.

8. Cantaloupe with lime leaf and chile, anise-cured egg dessert, etc., The Loyalist and Smyth: I seem to be a bit of a rarity in that I think the fine dining Smyth has great things ahead of it but is a little obscure, a little tough to puzzle out just yet… while I love The Loyalist, the more casual side, pretty much unreservedly. But that cantaloupe, so simple yet magical, stuck with me all year as a perfect example of chefs taking stuff at the high point of its season and dialing it up just a little past nature’s perfection. The burger’s good too, have you heard that?

7. Assorted Thai dishes at In-On Thai and Immm Rice and Beyond. We’re in a little Thai renaissance, including Paula’s, Tom Yum Cafe, JJ Street Food and others, but two stood above the rest. The tastiest one, alas, is closed now because the Lakeview building it was in was torn down—that’s In-On Thai. (There are hopes it will come back; read more here.) Immm Rice and Beyond is more challenging and not always as obviously pleasurable, but as discussed here, the street food-oriented buffet line offers a very different view of Thai food from any other place I know of.

6. Any fish plate at Snaggletooth. To quote The Fooditor 99, “It’s like Jewish deli sushi.”

5. Tasting menu at Hanbun. It was exciting to go to Oriole and Smyth & The Loyalist at the beginning of illustrious careers, but going to the strip mall in Westmont to eat Dave Park’s fine dining food with Korean flavors was in a whole ‘nother ballpark of not-for-long obscurity. Just do it.

4. Eggplant, broccoli with hummus at Giant. You can hear me on a Fooditor podcast a few months back saying I felt Giant was overlooked (which it was by Michelin). To judge by everybody’s ten best lists in the last week or so, it’s everybody’s favorite restaurant now. These are the two dishes that I still think about and want to emulate at home.

3. Plin, risotto with white truffle, etc. at Osteria Langhe/Arancini at Animale. I managed, somewhat by chance, to have three terrific birthday meals—Publican Anker, one of the year-end’s most promising meals; lunch at ever-reliable Sepia; and then Osteria Langhe. And the last, at the height of white truffle season, was just blissfully good and it was a pleasure to share their warm hospitality with my family. I’m a fan of their spinoff Animale, too, even as it continues to evolve its model.

2. Tasting menu at Oriole. Relaxing, people you want to cheer for, deliciousness.

1. Japan. Obviously it’s not fair to put an entire country where you spent ten days as an entry on a list, but just as obviously, what greater food experience did I have, could I have had, than immersion in this food-obsessed, perfectionist country? I wrote about Tokyo here, and my most exceptional experience in Kyoto here, but I think about it nearly every day.

A few runners-up to mention: Justin Behlke’s Thurk pop-up would have made this list except he’s not doing them any more (I don’t think) as he takes on duties at Kitsune, so I’ll save a space for him next year; had an excellent meal at Parachute with a terrific broccoli and date dish that proves it’s only gotten better; I still think about a brisket biscuit at Bang Bang Pie & Biscuit that kind of socked me out for the rest of the morning but was still so good; my new favorite burger is at Small Fry; the perfect whole fish at Leña Brava; El Che, the sexiest new room in town; Hunter Owens won me back over to burritos after years of declaring Chicago a taco town, at Burrito Juarez; Saigon Bistro, much better than those cranky crabs, thanks Keng; I’m glad to see the comfy and utterly agreeable Cafe Marie-Jeanne making other peoples’ ten best lists, and I’d make room for Spinning J’s right next to it; the Quiote pop-up at Eataly; Julbord, for the first time with the whole family, at Tre Kronor; and it was kind of a pop-up (but it comes every year, so you could have it next year), but the cassoulet dinner at Publican Quality Meats left a whole table blissed out, me included.

Ten best for: 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

The lovely Susan, and me in a tux. No Instagram filters, that was actual lighting at this event (at Ravinia).

If you’ve come by here you surely know that the bulk of my activity now is at, but I feel like a top 10 list is a more personal thing, especially if you’re not a reviewer as I’m mostly not. So, if for no other reason than to keep SFOB alive, here’s my personal top 10:

10. Duck hot dog, The Duck Inn— When we finished the Fooditor Radio podcast, I tried to think of places we should have mentioned but didn’t. This is probably the one I feel guiltiest about (so I tried to bring it up on WGN Radio—that’s why we were talking about Bridgeport—but I got sidetracked). But it seems to be getting plenty of press anyway—a near-perfect-for-Chicago combination of old neighborhood atmosphere and well-made comfort food, especially the duck hot dog, which might be the best hot dog in a whole city of hot dogs.

9. Dim sum, Dolo— Nobody knew where the late Josh Ozersky got the idea that there was exceptional food in an unknown joint in Chinatown… except me, who wrote that it had such great dim sum for the Reader.

8. Mushroom dish, Arbor— The last place I need to write more words about; go to Fooditor to find what’s so special and interesting about it, and how a coffee shop served me a dish of mostly foraged mushrooms.

7. Carne asada tacos, Taqueria Traspasada (Ashland)— “Why had I never been to either version of this taqueria? Well, there are just so many to try, and it never made it to the top of the list; maybe I felt like I knew it because I had been to the Carniceria Guanajuato’s taqueria next door to the one on California. Anyway, I was looking for a new place and gave the Ashland and Chicago one, that once was Dion Antic’s late night hot dog stand with stripper pole, a try. It’s fantastic, good enough that no one should miss the two of the three La Pasaditas up the street that have closed. Really flavorful carne asada, good pastor despite the lack of a pastor cone, it’s a platonic ideal level cheap taco joint.”

6. Hellcat, GreenRiver— For not being any sort of cocktail maven, I had three exceptional cocktail experiences this year. One was finally going to The Office, twice, long after shooting video but never actually drinking there. I’ve never been to a place that was so good about asking you a few questions and divining a perfect drink for you based on the results. One was going to the insanely expensive but insanely groovy Milk Room at the Chicago Athletic Association, drinking their antique hooch in an atmosphere that’s more like meeting with your spiritual adviser than sitting at a bar. But the best of all was a single drink, the Hellcat, at GreenRiver, a masterpiece of multiple drops and tinctures and flavors made into a complex, beautifully balanced drink. Others have complained of service issues at the instantly-swamped bar—but we snagged two seats by luck right at the beginning and had a great hour right at the bar.

5. Oxtail taco, Cantina 1910— I’m just going to have to be bummed that what seemed like the beginning of a new direction for Mexican food in Chicago got cut short after a couple of months. No telling what either side of the divorce—the chef who left or the massive restaurant with no chef—will do now, but I’ll remember the wonderful oxtail taco on its handmade tortilla, among several others. That said, Cantina 1910, good as it was, was not my favorite Mexican meal of the year…

4. Goat tacos, “Miel” popup by Jonathan Zaragoza and Charles Welch, held at Birrieria Zaragoza— Birrieria Zaragoza is, as everyone should know by now, quite possibly the best mom-and-pop ethnic restaurant in the city, but here was son Jonathan, who’s worked around town from Sepia to Pearl’s Tavern, the new Cajun place in Edgewater, taking the family’s cuisine to another level with a popup dinner devoted to goat, from tartare to carne en su jugo. Miel dinners are not exactly open to the public, but they’re not that hard to track down and get on the list for either, so try.

3. Milk/beef dish, Ardent/Red Light Ramen— Milwaukee’s Ardent boils down, for me, to one dish that was dazzlingly conceptual, yet likable and comforting enough that Liam, my pickiest son, talks about going back to have it again: the one that combined milk bread, butter and cheese all from the same batch of milk, plus a beef tartare with bone marrow from the same steer—raised by chef Justin Carlisle’s father. But there was so much more to this meal, including returning with my other son to cover midnight ramen (for Fooditor here).

2. Pastas, Monteverde— You can get good enough Italian food all over Chicago, you can get pretty darn good Italian food at Eataly and a few other places, but I had one meal that reminded me of everything there is to love about Italian food—not just the comfiness of braised meats and hearty tomato sauces but also the stern Catholic simplicity of hard sheets of pasta and tartly elemental cheeses. You know it’s just going to get better and better, too.

1. Egg with caviar, The Blanchard— The most magical meal I had; I went in with moderate expectations—I like French food, but don’t necessarily worship it—yet one thing after another was just blissfully perfect, delicate and poised, more beautiful than I thought possible—the Audrey Hepburn of meals in 2015.

But wait, there’s more… It’s become a thing for writers to list dozens, even hundreds of dishes, after their top 10— I can’t read a list that long, personally, so I’m going to put them in categories for easier reference. Many link to Reader pieces, because even if they weren’t top ten material, they deserved a day’s acclaim, anyway:

Official Number 11: Eggplant parmigiana at Formento’s—either that, or chicken-fried pheasant at Cindy’s

Best restaurants where I felt you couldn’t quite eat a meal: I found this easier to forgive with (the lamented RIP) Bom Bolla which really was a bar, but it was a little frustrating that you could eat a bunch of tasty things but feel it didn’t quite add up to a meal. I find it much more frustrating at Band of Bohemia, because a couple of things were top-ten worthy—I had the best steak of the year there, and the dessert guy (forgot his name) is an instant star. But is a meal really a steak (with no accompaniments), a plate of octopus (fair) and a plate of sweetbreads (not good) plus a dessert? That sounds more like finishing off leftovers than something you set out to have in a restaurant. I’m an adult, I want to eat dinner in a civilized way—and I want Band of Bohemia to achieve its full potential, because it seems like the best opening of the fall/winter after Monteverde.

Runners up for Italian food: Osteria Langhe, everyone (but Joe Campagna) likes it, but also what Johnny Anderes (RIP Telegraph) is doing at The Kitchen (above).

Underrated burger of the year: Little Bad Wolf

Sorry, but pizza that didn’t make my list: Side Street Saloon. But cool bar anyway.

Best half a restaurant: DeQuay. I liked the Dutch dishes a lot. The Indonesian ones? Well, there’s this place called Devon Avenue where they make complex curries…

Hippest places I ate in 2015: Fulton Market Kitchen; runner up, CC Fern

Unhippest place I ate in 2015: Took son to Joy Yee on Irving Park, and actually thought it was pretty good

Out of Town RIP: The Magpie, Richmond VA. I will remember that summer tomato custard.

Thing I Didn’t Worry About: What Mast Brothers chocolate says about us

Other things that I liked this year:

• Xi’an lamb sandwich at Xi’an Cuisine
• Pho and banh mi at Coco
• Dumplings and lamb skewers at Qing Xiang Yuen
• Ramen at Furious Spoon, and at Ramen Takeya
• Fermented pork, beef salad, In-On Thai
• Lagman, Luzzat
• Hmong Market in Milwaukee
• Scott Malloy’s rustic miso at Momotaro, and Meg Galus’ dessert with Okinawan black sugar
• Going to Kurumaya with Scott Malloy

• Chicken at Pollo Express
• Chicken in mole at Ixcateco Grill
El Comalito

• Sausage pizza at Orsi’s/Chester’s in Summit
• Pizza at Craft Pizza
• Slice of the Roland at Dough Bros.
• Deep dish pizza at Pizza Barra in Oakbrook
• Deep dish pizza at Louisa’s, Crestwood

Some Random Cool New Things

• Short rib sandwich and housemade chips at Wyler Road
• Pork belly at Claudia
• Hot Brown sandwich at Stock
• Rye spaetzle at Boeufhaus
• A rye flour croissant at the public market in Columbus, OH
• Nutella brioche thing at Baker & Nosh
• Steak tartare at Swift & Sons

Old School
• Smoked fish, Ted Peters, St. Petersburg FL
• Pita (burek) from Caffe Slasticarna Drina
• Cheese danish from Pticek’s on the far south side
• Gyros at the Parthenon (for this list)
• Gyro-Mena
• Hienie’s fried chicken on the southeast side
• Sammy’s Kitchen

Drinks and Eats
• Pickled egg rolls or whatever those were, Thank You, and whatever I drank at Lost Lake to go with them
• Drinks and fondue at Punch House
• Ethiopian coffee at Sparrow Coffee
Boeuf-amann, Bad Wolf Coffee

Ten best for: 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

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Liam’s top 7.

I think this was a great year for food in Chicago—so great that everyone knows what was great about it and more or less agrees already. Who can’t love 42 Grams and Parachute and Baker Miller and so on? For one more list to justify its existence at the very end of the year— when it feels like they’ve been steadily appearing since October, like Christmas ornaments at Target— it has to show rigor and novelty and not just look like a subset of the monster lists of 100 best things that suggest we live in such a renaissance of culinary wonders that we don’t even need to make choices at all.

Pete Wells introduced his New York Times list with a similar viewpoint, and in particular called out the first fish-or-cut-bait point for a critic or, in my case, a reporter who attends media dinners: “Have I gone back, or wished I could?” Which of course really means, would I spend my own money there? In several of these cases I attended media events or tried the food for free while taking its picture or something, but in every case that made the list, I returned happily on my own dime. Believe me, food writers don’t get any more sincere than that.

That helps get you past the other moral speedbump, which is that all these places are run by really nice people who are trying really hard and you want to be nice to them and like what other people like. Pick the place that everyone likes and no one will question your judgement, but no one will notice it that much either. So I try to name the places that really struck me, even if it means consigning some places I liked a lot from chefs I know to the seeming purgatory of a runners-up paragraph. I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me! But the heart wants what it wants, and it wants different things from all over town and at all levels, and a true list for me has all kinds of food side by side, and the presence of one is not an aspersion on another. I come back to what Duke Ellington said (but I got from Peter Schickele) about music when whether jazz could be as good as classical was a serious debate: if it sounds good, it is good.

As always, my only rules are that the citation is for at least one specific dish I loved (and more to the point, still remember), even if it’s also for the restaurant as a whole; and the dish has to be something new to me this year (so I couldn’t really credit Paulina Meat Market for the fact that their housemade pastrami seems to have taken a leap up in quality of late). Here goes:

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10. Fried chicken threeway tie: [Evanston] Chicken Shack, Five Loaves Eatery, and Fork. Hey, I didn’t say only one restaurant per entry on the list was a rule! I did two fried chicken lists for Thrillist and tried a bunch of fried chicken that was new to me this year, and three standouts deserve shared praise for being nearly as good as the platonically perfect homemade chicken in my head that I work to get ever closer to at home. The first two (one in Evanston, one a sweet breakfast and lunch cafe on 75th street) earn it for not only frying well but seasoning properly; so much fried chicken is texturally right but needlessly bland, but these places know how to use their salt and pepper shakers, and the smoky sweet barbecue sauce at Chicken Shack is the best argument high fructose corn syrup ever had for itself.

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The third, a perennially overlooked farm to table place in Lincoln Square run by a former Lettuce chef, takes a far more baroque approach to the chicken half of chicken and waffles—it’s marinated in black tea and ginger and who knows what all—but the result is wonderfully complex and crispy. Also, it comes with candied bacon.

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9. Kohlrabi salad, gemelli with sundried tomatoes and bottarga, A10. Chicago has lots of Italian food and yet I seem to have more and more friends who find it disappointing. Worse yet, I have to agree with them at least a good deal of the time—Chicago knows how to make a lot of B level easy to like Italian (-American) food, not so much A level Italian cooking that shows the Italian love of beautiful ingredients highlighted simply like jewels in a setting. The A though is well placed in the name of Matthias Merges’ Hyde Park spot, which to me, more than Yusho, fulfills his promise of bringing Trotter-level technique and precision with flavor to reasonably priced, accessible food.

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8. Pate de campagne, tagliatelle with beef heart/pig’s blood ragu, etc. Tete Charcuterie. I tried Tete Charcuterie’s food at a preview where I took pictures, and found it very well crafted but thought, well, here’s a heavy meat palace I’m not likely to go back to over and over. And I’ve been back twice myself, and set up a business dinner for my wife there as well. So I guess I liked it more than I thought! Yes, it’s devoted to meat, often pretty strongly (I had a pork liver pate there with two other diners which was a bit too strong for all of us), but the chefs are clearly guys with high overall skills who can not only make a beautifully balanced pate or sausage, but do the same with a salad or a plate of pasta, too. We remain desperately short on French restaurants, but in its own, straight-out-of-the-butcher-shops-of-Les Halles way, this is the best French restaurant opening in some years.


7. Pancit noodles, kare-kare, fried kawali, etc. Isla Pilipina. It may have been one step back for Filipino food with the quick closing of Laughing Bird, but a cuisine that baffled me for years is finally making progress toward becoming widely accepted like other Asian cuisines. For my own part, I’d tried Isla Pilipina years ago, as chronicled in a post at LTHForum that was mainly about the transsexuals who dropped in for fried chicken the same night, and not been inspired to return for a good decade. But the place soldiered on, in a Lawrence strip mall, and especially under the second generation, grew its skills and improved its menu—and returning at long last, I loved the homey yet brightly flavorful food as much as Chinese or Thai.


6. Oatmeal, toast, Baker/Miller Bakery & Millhouse. Okay, I’ll be a partial exception to the universal love for this place, even as I know and like the owners—I’m not wild about the muffins and baked goods. They seem heavy and a bit hippie coop-whole-grain-good-for-you-ish. The bread is heavy, too, but in a good way, as in, a slice of this is like eating a bread steak. It’s the closest we’ve come to lembas bread, a few nibbles filling you satisfyingly for the whole day. As for the lusciously creamy oatmeal, how often do you eat something that’s an entirely new texture? It’s miraculous.

5. Miso ramen pozole at Arami, by Rick Bayless. I considered leaving this off because it was a one-off at Arami in October, which happened because Arami chef Fred DesPres is married to one of Bayless’ chefs, but I decided, why not mention the kind of serendipitous collaboration that happens on our scene all the time? Anyway, it was the best of miso ramen, and the best of pozole, made into one hearty Japanese-Mexican dish with all the soupmaking chops of a chef who I think is sometimes more seen as a curator of food culture than the kitchen master technician he (also) is. I just remember on the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless was kind of condescended to by all these French and Italian food chefs, like you’re gonna win this with tacos pal, and then they’d go feed the people passing by or at an event— and they all went goggle-eyed when they tasted Bayless’s stuff, and he won the whole season. This was the kind of dish that did that.

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4. Dim sum in Toronto. There’s a whole post about that here, but to summarize, best xiao long bao I’ve ever had at 369, great pork dumplings and other things at Dragon, and the amazing King of King’s Pork candy at John’s. Thanks Renee!

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3. Bing bread, pork belly mung bean pancake, pat bing su etc., Parachute. I’ve believed Asian food is the future of American dining for a long time, but it took until Fat Rice to have a place in Chicago that hit the sweet spot of hipster, almost comfort food atmosphere with bright, sometimes challenging Asian flavors. And one of the joys of Fat Rice was watching it improve and grow more confident with each meal in its first year or two. Now I feel the same way about Parachute, which is one of our best new restaurants and gets better and more interesting each time. If you want to subscribe to a place that sells tickets for a new menu every four months, that’s all good, but for the same kind of experience, don’t forget to simply try a rising star like this place every few months during its most fertile early days of self-discovery.


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1 (tie). Charcuterie, Thuringer, Fried Brussel Sprouts, etc. at The Radler; and tasting menu at 42 Grams. I went back and forth on what should be number one before finally deciding to do the cop-out and call them a tie. The thing is, they’re such perfect examples of opposing approaches that they sum up so much about how I think about food. 42 Grams is ambitious, daring, a look-at-this! menu of magic tricks; it’s just fun to go on a journey like this, be part of the show, agree to be wowed time and again. Where The Radler is unassuming by comparison, so relaxed a neighborhood place that I feel it is underappreciated because it demands nothing of you, yet the skills at every level are so high and the finesse so exacting that you should pay it more attention. One is a special occasion, the other makes an ordinary occasion special; they’re both experiences I’m immensely glad to have had.


Places I feel guilty about leaving off:

Boka, especially after a more recent meal, Lee Wolen is making beautiful plates that are as finely executed as at any of the tasting menu joints, but in a more easygoing setting with the more traditional app-entree-dessert format. That is deservedly a recipe for packing the house every night.

MFK, which makes such nice simple stuff, I love the philosophy but maybe the very fact of being simple and direct like that makes it hard to say, “This was a wow!” about any one thing. It’s sure nice to go to and hang out in, though.

River Roast, I’m the last guy to just want a steak for dinner but I used my son’s birthday as an excuse to go here a second time and eat all the meats

Cellar Door Provisions: I have certain Kenny Z-like issues with $14 open face sandwiches with three slices of beet on them, but that great dark crusty bread and those great dark crusty croissants are, well, great, dark and crusty.

Low-end places I seriously considered: Red Hot Ranch for the fake In’N’Out burger that’s better than In’N’Out, Mezquite Pollo Express, this chicken soup

Place I just went that I’m still processing: Oaxaca

Ten best for: 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Hanging with the makers of Chicago’s modest ethnic cuisines.

This is my tenth ten best list (links to all are at the end of the post) and one that marks a significant change. When I started compiling them a decade ago, it was very much with an eye to advocating the little joints, the ethnic spots, the finds to be found in the urban wilderness (or on trips to areas of regional specialties like Austin). I praised fine dining when it was excellent— Trio under a young fellow named Achatz, Avenues under Bowles, Spring, Moto, Schwa, Blackbird, Vie, beloved departed Mado, Longman & Eagle and Ruxbin all have turned up over the years, among others. But the real point was to call out the wonders of everything from TAC Quick to Burt’s Pizza to Smoque to Sun Wah to Taqueria Ricardo to Taza Bakery to Khan BBQ to Pleasant House… all those little places that everybody knows, now, as part of the fabric of the city.

And now I have a job which is primarily engaged with the world of fine-ish dining, or “chef-driven restaurants” in the too-precious but somehow unimproved-upon phrase, and I get to go to a lot of fine dining places… and guess what, there’s a lot of that on my list. Okay, so I guess that means, middle age happens, you go from one side of the political spectrum to another, from being current with music to satisfied with the oldies, you eat at fewer hot dog stands and more white tablecloth places, right?

Some of that, probably, but I don’t think it’s that easy. The thing that happened to fine dining in this same decade was that it got funkier, realer, more attuned to the things that made that ethnic food great. And the places I really loved this year and thus made this list bridge those two opposites— they make straightforward food rooted in tradition, but because they’re from people with more formal training and expertise, who shop at farmer’s markets and all that stuff, they are faster than the mom and pops to reach the sublime. (Not always— it remains true that a $1.50 taco is nearly always better than a $3 taco in this town— but in the best cases, yes.) So here’s my list, no longer mostly cheap but still, I think, mostly funky; as always, this is stuff new to me this year, don’t assume that I don’t still love Butcher & Larder or whomever:

10. Grilled langoustines, brussel sprout salad, merguez empanada, seafood moqueca, La Sirena Clandestina. I’ve been surprised to see middling reviews for John Manion’s South American place, which scored 4 out of 6 dishes for terrific funky, get-down flavor for me. Maybe there’s some inconsistent execution in a new place, maybe it helped that Manion told me what to order (the middling reviews had none of the above in them except the risotto-like moqueca, which they all praised), but order the list above and if it doesn’t make you happy from the inside out, I don’t know what would. The next night at L2O, as exquisite as some of those seafood creations were… Manion’s charred, funky langoustines kept popping into my head.

9. Bacon bread, brussels sprouts with kielbasa, Allium. I’ve had other plenty good things at Kevin Hickey’s reinvention of the restaurant in the Four Seasons into a high-end tribute to his south side origins, but these two seem the most iconic because they show off the remarkable trick he pulled off, bringing a pure shot of authentic Chicago (the bacon buns inspired by Bridgeport Bakery, the coarse, porky Polish kielbasa tossed with charred crispy brussels sprouts) into the most generic of environments, the international hotel dining room, and appointing himself the south side’s culinary cultural ambassador in the process.

8. Phil’s Last Stand. Phil’s imitation In-N-Out burger is my favorite burger of the moment, but most of what else he does is dead-on (char dogs, crispy fries)— while I admire that his media-savvy doesn’t extend to irony. This isn’t a reinvented stand, or a take on a stand; it’s just a stand, and glad to have it. (Curious note: I wrote the foregoing, then a few days later had a chef say almost exactly the same thing to me about a completely different kind of place.)

7. Steelhead trout, Kai Zan. Okay, so when I finished Next Kyoto, I was pretty sure it would be on this list. Beautifully crafted, well-researched, full of interesting surprises… and I have to think about it to recall something from it. But mention Kai Zan and I instantly see this suggestively silky and supple square of fish, dressed with admirable restraint. Not only see it, but remember what it was like to put in my mouth. If I’m still thinking about something two months later, how can it not be on my list?

6. Manila clams with merguez broth and other things, The Purple Pig. The first couple of times I ate at The Purple Pig, I found it a clever downtown imitation of a real pork-lovin’ place a la Vie or Mado or Avec. Seemed like a nice job by some sharp guys of concepting up a restaurant for the Michigan Avenue crowd, much like all our new diner places. Slowly, each time I’ve returned, The Purple Pig has labored to convince me it’s the real deal, and I accept that now. Did it get better, or did I get better at ordering from it? Maybe both; I kind of ignore the charcuterie, for instance, and pay more attention to vegetables or seafood, and that great not-too-sweet dessert of faro in a mascarpone-like cream. This clam dish was a marvel, porky and briny at the same time, and it is not alone on this menu in being wonderful.

5. Kentucky Bourbon dinner at Big Jones. I’ve always liked Big Jones but, you know, it’s easy to like southern food, doesn’t mean you think it’s great great. Where chef Paul Fehribach soars is in his regular historical dinners, which recreate recipes from specific places and eras— doing what Next does in a single night. This 1830s Kentucky bourbon dinner was fascinating for serving things people would be afraid to eat now (calves’ foot jelly, which was pretty wonderful, actually), things that tasted more like honest home food than restaurant food (mutton barbecue), a door opened into another world that was completely unlike anything else on our food scene this year.

4. Anise hyssop and others at EL Ideas: “I gathered that this is a problem he’s had with some local critics, too— not being sure his restaurant is real enough and serious enough to be worth the investment, of time or money… Let me cut to the chase and say that you have nothing to fear and a lot to anticipate excitedly from EL Ideas. If it’s not a “real” restaurant, then too bad for real restaurants, because in so many ways it’s a warm and engaging experience like fine dining has often forgotten to be. I didn’t entirely buy Foss’s line of patter about the setup overlooking the kitchen space being cozier and more welcoming and erasing the barriers between the chefs and the diners, but that was, in fact, pretty much exactly what it was, and what it did; even if you don’t leave your seat and wander into the kitchen while they’re working, you have no more distance from the chefs, physically and otherwise, than you do from a friend throwing a barbecue in his backyard.”

3. Nathan Myhrvold’s dishes at the Charlie Trotter 25th anniversary dinner. Well, here’s the exception to my general theme. As much as I’ve enjoyed molecular tricks in the past, Myhrvold’s ultrascientific approach took it to a new level— as in the centrifuge-spun caprese salad which was only a tiny shooter of tomato water and separated whey… yet tasted like the most amazing caprese salad you ever ate with an actual fork. It was a real mind bender, to have so much real flavor in such a disembodied form— but it’s not just about tricks; Myhrvold’s pastrami, which happened by some process too complicated for me to recall after a couple of glasses of wine, was utterly delectable as, unmistakably, meat.

2. Publican Quality Meats. Given what’s going on here with housemade sausage and bread and so on, I wanted to love the first round of sandwiches, and I… liked them. None was as good or rich or multidimensional as the one bite of the cocido I had one day, which had the benefit of that more deeply flavorful sausagemaking downstairs. I’m not saying I didn’t go back there a lot, but it wasn’t with quite the rapture that others felt for this place, based on the sandwiches. Then came the chicken parm, and then the PB&L (a pork belly and lamb sausage), and for me PQM hit the magic sweet spot of blue collar food made with artisanal care… and now I would tell anyone that PQM is on the short list of true must-visits in Chicago.

1. Vera. People ask me if I have a favorite restaurant. I don’t, really, because I have to always try new places; I’m not a guy who has a place that he goes back to over and over. But I had a favorite restaurant, once: Rob and Allie Levitt’s Mado. I loved the freshness and simplicity of how they treated things from the farmer’s markets. I loved the spirit of adventure in the air. I knew them and trusted them, and I mourned Mado not being in my life even as I admire what they’ve done next (The Butcher & Larder). And the closest I’ve come since then to feeling the same about a place has been Vera, Mark and Liz Mendez’s restaurant, which is officially a Spanish tapas bar, but to me is just a place that does kind of Mediterranean stuff with whatever’s at the farmer’s market, sometimes makes great things, sometimes makes just pretty good ones, but the great ones are terrific (boquerones, grilled tongue, and whatnot) and everything speaks of simplicity and honesty and directness in its path from the soil (or the sea) to my mouth. It’s my favorite restaurant. I think.

Other things I thought seriously about putting on here, besides Next Kyoto: Next El Bulli (at least what I had of it); Nellcôte for rabbit sausage and Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza; L2O for the earliest, most delicate courses, like the cauliflower mousse; crispy tripas at La Chapparita; chicken soup with crispy rice at Lao Shanghai; pizza from Armitage Pizzeria; braised escarole at Eataly; fried pickle salad at Stout Barrel House; polenta with pork belly and schweinekopf at Table, Donkey and Stick; fried dino-chicken wing, Golden Palace.

Best Things Eaten in Late 2012 List (click Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately under Categories to see all these lists):

• Grilled langoustines, brussel sprout salad, merguez empanada, seafood moqueca, La Sirena Clandestina
• Red skin mashed potatoes, The Southern
• Fried chicken, Macarthur’s
• Pollo tinga, La Catrina (3658 W. Diversey)
• Maultaschen with chicken consommé, schweinekopf, polenta with roasted bacon, Table, Donkey & Stick
• Mussels with coconut broth, Libertad
• Pastrami hash, Eggy’s Diner
• Doner, Iskender doner, falafel, Zizi’s
• Edwards Surryano ham, both by itself and at Avec
• Lots of things at L2O, almost all on the delicate small piece of fish side, but the desserts are pretty great too
• Greens at Pecking Order
• Grilled sardine, African chicken, Fat Rice
• Gyros, Covo Market
• Ramen at The Aviary
• Ramen at Ginza

Ten best for: 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Let me end with a toast to using the internet to share the delight of food and good company; I raise a new Chicago brew I can’t wait to try with Thai food…


At some point at dinner at Elizabeth a thought crossed my mind: is this the end? This was not a comment on the imaginative and thoroughly interesting meal, but rather on myself, as I waited for the next entirely new and novel taste sensation to cross my palate. We had the deer menu, which is the foraging-based one, and while there were many things in it which were familiar— I believe I’ve had carrots before— there were also some that had come out of a forest one way or another, from autumn olives to matsutake mushrooms. And forest food has a distinct difference from plant or root food— it’s intense, woodsy (well duh), and… not exactly food, to our sensibilities. More like something between food and not-food. So when I ingested something like spruce soda, part of me was excited to be opening new territory on the border between food and the country next to it, but part of me was haunted by a thought… so have I exhausted the world of food? Are there no new flavors left in known cuisine, that I have to go hunting for novelty in a land beyond food?

Iliana Regan’s response to this would surely include the observation that many of the things I’m assuming to not be food have been food for other cultures and eras— spruce, to name one, was used like hops are today in beer around George Washington’s time. Or they’re simply other forms of food— those carrots are wonderful, but when their familiarity is joined with Queen Anne’s lace jam, all you’ve done is reunited today’s carrot with its grandmother’s flower. (At the bottom of that Queen Anne’s stalk is a little bulb that would eventually be bred into the modern foot-long supermarket carrot. I learned that in a Sky Full of Bacon video.)


The other thing is that if you want to talk not-quite-food, there’s plenty of modernist manipulation going on in this meal, in which twigs and sprigs rest atop emulsified stabilized this or that. So if you think Elizabeth’s little storefront is doing a sort of eccentric, primitive folk art food— a reasonable impression from media and Regan’s deceptively dreamy manner— there’s also plenty of cutting-edge technique under the Etsy-obsessive picnic in the woods image that she’s constructed.

But how was the food, you ask, suspecting I could go on for paragraphs in this vein. And you’re right. This is a meal that everyone who thinks about their food should have in order to think about it, and conversely, if you’re going to go there because it’s new and trendy but you’re going to be disappointed that it didn’t hit familiar notes, please, spare us all and go have a steak at Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf.


Elizabeth has its moments of conventional comforts— a ragu on top of polenta is warm and comfy, and without being told you’d never know the odd thing about it, which is that that’s not beef, it’s raccoon. Right where you want a red meat course comes a course of venison, both loin and a sausage wrapped in cabbage (which led to the only real executional misstep of the night, in that my wife’s wasn’t warmed properly). Matsutake mushroom tea isn’t expected, exactly, but it’s certainly warm and nurturing. But most things are out to surprise you in some way. I loved a bite the menu simply calls “rice crispy,” which had puffed rice and other savory flavors topped with a single chip of air-dried… did she say bear? I think she did. The meal ends with a caramel whose comforts are instantly undercut by a livery tang. Even at the end, you’re not getting out of these woods easy.


All this happens in a small storefront where the kitchen is entirely open to the dining room; the obvious comparison that everyone makes is Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas, but I compared that experience to a backyard barbecue and it has a definite party-at-Phil’s-place vibe, a downshifted haute cuisine that says “I could make you the most precious thing you ever ate, but I’m just going to make something that sounds good to me.” Elizabeth by comparison looks as quietly, seriously efficient as surgery back there, and if the welcome is genuine in its desire to make us part of the family— at one point, we’re moved up one communal table, to the one the Owl menu diners have just left, to be closer to the kitchen and the other remaining diners— well, Regan seems relaxed and whimsical when she comes out to introduce a course, but everyone else works like they have a boss who wants things just so. (People have worried that her scant kitchen experience suggested that Regan was taking on way more than she could manage with the three menus running side by side. Talk to her for five minutes and you realize that, like Grant Achatz, she’s the type who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t screw up anything, ever.)


As in the movies, where a “personal vision” these days is something a director brings to a corporate property like Batman, the restaurant scene has gotten so good at blending chef’s strengths with huge commercial projects that we take it for granted that any chef’s goal is to get to the 500-seat restaurant which updates the traditional genre with farm to table ingredients or a knack for charcuterie or whatever will keep the chef happy cranking it out night after night. Elizabeth is a restaurant not so much opposed to thinking about a restaurant that way as simply existing in another dimension where the question doesn’t make sense. As with a Terence Malick movie, either you’re in for trying to keep up with a completely personal journey, which will sometimes frustrate you but promises showing you something you’ve never seen before… or you shouldn’t even start. Part of the thing about going in the woods is that people do get lost there.

* * *


Of course, we haven’t really exhausted the world of food at all; even when we’ve tried something, who’s to say we’ve really had it? Surely part of the fascination with food comes from its evanescence— one person says X is the greatest barbecue place in the universe, but on the day you go it isn’t and some other place blows you away. In Spain I had delicious iberico ham at every opportunity, but transcendent iberico ham only once, at an upscale restaurant. What was the difference?

I went with two friends to Kai Zan, the new sushi restaurant of the moment, at least the moment between B.K. Park leaving Arami and the launch of his upcoming Juno. It’s a tiny place, where I was wedged into a table like I haven’t been wedged into anything since my late grandfather’s early 60s British sports car. We ordered the omakase, which starts at $50, telling the waiter that we’d pay a little more for something exceptional, we weren’t afraid of anything, and we didn’t want to just see tuna and salmon all night. He immediately called our bluffs by saying that they had live uni (sea urchin) tonight, would we be interested?

I’ve eaten uni. I think I even liked it once, at NoMI Kitchen where it came with iberico ham and avocado on toast. I’m not opposed to it, but let’s face it, it’s got all the squishiness and fishiness that says to a westerner, you’re eating something that you shouldn’t be and you will be paying for it later. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt ill off it, only during it.) But I was in the kind of company where we all felt, if you’re promising us a better uni experience— it wasn’t actually live so much as “extremely recently dead”— then we should, in the name of our honor as gentlemen and officers of her majesty, eat uni.

As it turns out, we ate a lot of uni. Possibly 50% of all the uni I’ve ever eaten, in fact. One grade of it was in the cup above, alongside a scallop and a shiitake mushroom. More of it was in something else, and then finally came our live uni, half a dozen pieces draped on a plate. I would have happily not eaten any more by that point… but I also would have been sorry not to have had this uni. Squishy, yes, fishy, no, it was mild and tasted of the sea in a clean way. It was the best uni of my life, in the sense that it explained why I disliked previous uni but not, entirely, why anyone should really want uni— why it’s a food at all (except for desperation by seashore-living peasants millennia ago). But that is part of what I find fascinating about Japanese food— they seem to live much closer to the border between food and not-food than I do (though quite possibly they feel the same way about westerners).


Another thing I had I have no such ambivalence about. It was some kind of wild trout— I forget the exact descriptor, but this was plainly cold-water fish, muscular and yet ribboned with lush layers of fat. It was easily in the five best pieces of sashimi I’ve ever eaten, delicate yet firm, fatty yet meaty, containing contradictions and multitudes… and, significantly, prepared with a confidence that it needed nothing more than the sprig on top and the lemon below.


Sushi falls into two schools these days— there are a few minimalists remaining, like the great Katsu, but the trend these days is to gussy fish up with other flavors. The late Kaze restaurant (Kaze the chef is now at Macku) was a notorious practitioner of this with his banana toppings on tuna and the like, those rolls full of mayonnaise and sticky-sweet sauce are the ubiquitous offenders, and I wouldn’t say this kind of thing is strictly unknown at Kai Zan, but it’s kept from overwhelming the fish (or the fresh wasabi, which made many appearances, unmistakable both on looks and the lack of the instant horseradish burn). A couple of dishes got out of their control— a starter with a raw quail egg in it was like taking a swig straight from the soy sauce bottle— but most were simple and successful. On the whole, they’re buying beautiful fish, treating it with respect and enhancing it in only small ways. And the final tab for a meal which wedged us even further into our tiny table was all of $75 per person (it’s BYO), even with every special in the house thrown in. I tweeted this when someone broke the news of B.K. Park leaving Arami:

BREAKING: Katsu back to being only place to get sushi in Chicago

Which may not have been strictly true, but came closer to it than you’d wish. Kai Zan steps us that much further back from apocalypse.


Disclosure: my meal at Elizabeth was comped, as a media guest. Kai Zan was paid for.

* * *

Well, I’m a full month behind on tracking my favorite things I ate this year, so here’s the list for July through now:


• Cheese curds at The Old-Fashioned in Madison, The Brewery in Mineral Point
• Ribs, 17th Street BBQ, Murphysboro, Illinois
• Filipino soup at Max’s
• Grilled beef tongue at Vera
• Fries at Au Cheval
• Fries at MBurger
• Beet, chicken tacos, Bullhead Cantina
• Manti at Afghan Kabob
• Margherita, sausage at Armitage Pizzeria
• Nathan Myrhvold’s modernist pastrami, caprese salad shooter, Trotter’s beer-can squab with tripe ravioli, at Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary dinner
• Tea-smoked duck at Lao Yunan (former Spring World), different from other Tony Hu versions
• Bonsoiree a la Beverly Kim: Chawanmushi, smelt, makkoli cake
• BLT dog, Bill Kim’s Urban Belly Dog, Franks N Dawgs
• PB&L (pork belly & lamb) sausage at Publican Quality Meats
• Phil’s Last Stand’s imitation of an In’N’Out burger
• Burger with tomato jam at Burger Bar
• Fried Dill Pickle Salad, Stout Barrel House & Galley

Armitage Pizzeria.

Trenchermen: bacon cured sweetbreads, smoked sturgeon dish, heirloom tomato salad, coffee cake with smoked meringue
• Choucroute garni at Everest
• Sopa Azteca, Masa Azul
• Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza, rabbit sausage, Nellcôte
• Deep Purple Poutine, iNG
• Rice Krispy, carrots, raccoon ragu and polenta, Elizabeth
• Salmon from Ming Tsai’s new book at Takashi
• Lots of fresh uni, wild trout, Kai Zan
• Not-perfect-yet chestnut pasta with guinea hen sugo, Avec
• Duck and vinegary slaw ordered by pointing at what someone else was eating, Pho Xe Lua
• Ramen, Ginza
• Chicken soup with crispy rice, Lao Shanghai
• Enormous roasted chicken wings, Golden Palace
• Calamari dish, Bar Ombra
• Chicken boti, Ali’s BBQ
• Butternut squash velouté, fall chocolate dessert, Acadia
• Miche, La Fournette
• Hard kiwi-quince jam, from Orianna Kruszewski at the Green City Market
• Smoke cocktail, Allium
• Something from The Aviary… wish I could remember what…

Beets, Vera.

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