Sky Full of Bacon


So here we at the end of another year, a year in which I stopped being a Grub Streeter and started being an audio podcaster and a regular Reader contributor. For me the year is summed up by two conversations I had that are on Airwaves Full of Bacon shows. The first was with Lisa Shames, who does CS’s restaurant issue; she said what seemed to be the trend of the year was personal restaurants driven by the interests of their creators. The second, three or four months later, was with Anthony Todd, and we noted the fact that the second half of the year seemed to be much more about big projects, big corporate restaurants.


So which was right? Both in their time, but as I look at the things I like… they’re pretty much all from the former category. The meals I loved were from labors of love, which mostly aren’t big corporate restaurants aiming to pack them in (though occasionally they can be; Three Dots and a Dash, for instance, would fall into both categories). But for me, consistently, the best food and the best experience was also the most personal food and the experience that came most from the heart. And so these are the meals I treasured from 2013 (basic rules: dishes tried for the first time in 2013, nothing against old favorites, and this isn’t a magazine charting the best openings, so if it opened in 2012, or earlier, doesn’t matter):

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10. Pork shoulder tacos, cheesy beef, brisket chili and other things at Cookies and Carnitas— A last-minute fave, too late opening to make all those mid-December “Best of 2013” lists, but this creative taco and other stuff joint is everything good about our food scene in one taco: guys with big name training going out on their own, and taking farmer’s market stuff and making insanely delicious regular guy and ethnic food at affordable prices in an underserved neighborhood.

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9. The French Laundry. With a couple of more weeks to think back on it, I feel that this meal was more of an historical experience more than a cutting edge one, a trip to see where today’s cutting edge grew from. But hey, I like going to places that encapsulate a certain time, though usually it’s more 1929 than 1999. Anyway, I think it was worth it for the classics like oysters and pearls which are genuinely great dishes, and for the overall treatment of the guest which is as good as I’ve ever experienced— but for a great meal of this type, you don’t have to leave Chicago, see below.

8. Midnight Special at Leadbelly. If you liked Kuma’s but didn’t like the scene it became, check out this cheerfully semi-obscure neighborhood joint on the far northwest side with a gentler rock and roll attitude and, frankly, quite a bit better burgers, houseground meat on housebaked buns, a good bottled beer list and some crazy toppings— my favorite, so silly it makes me smile, is the Midnight Special, inspired by Frito chile pie, which has pico de gallo and actual Fritos on it.

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7. Sumi Robata Bar. “In an age of giant restaurantosauruses, Sumi Robata Bar is a little jewel box of a place devoted to the most direct and simple way of presenting beautifully crafted food straight from the kitchen to the diner sitting right in front of it as it’s made. It’s remarkably satisfying to see someone realize the vision in their head so completely and successfully.”

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6. Hot Link at Big Guys I’ve been to this Berwyn place making their own sausages twice, and I’ve written about it twice— for the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago. And in a podcast. And now here. I really like these no-artsy-fartsiness sausages: “My favorite, the Hot Link, is an excellent rendition of a fat, spicy smoked Chicago hot link, topped with barbecue sauce with some kick and soothing pineapple cole slaw. Simple and to the point; it isn’t served from behind bulletproof glass, but other than that it has all the other satisfactions of a trip to a South side barbecue joint on a bun.”

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5. Peekytoe crab in tomatillo sauce, Nordic beet dish and other things at Sous Rising: “I could go on course by course, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise and in any case, it’s sort of not the point, I don’t want to do 7 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AT SOUS RISING RIGHT NOW, because in so many ways it wasn’t about the food in a list-the-ingredients sense, certainly not in any my-carrot’s-morally-superior-to-yours way… It was about the pleasure of experiencing someone else’s pleasure at making food for you, and the shared pleasure at the table as we had each new thing set in front of us… Maybe something in fine dining has gotten a little too pinched and status-driven at times, though I’d blame media at least as much as chefs for looking at food in terms of gets and firsts and musts. But all it takes for all that to melt away is one chef to welcome you into his space and make delightful things for you. Well, two chefs and a server-slash-wife— this was, as much as anything, a meal suffused with the happiness of two people who are happy at home.”

Sous Rising is now gone but it’s becoming a restaurant called 42 Grams; read my interview with them here.

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4. Kouign-amann and other things, including the Counter Culture coffee, at Bad Wolf. “Jonathan Ory doesn’t look like he makes pastry. Corned beef sandwiches, more likely, at first glance. But some of the most gorgeous classical pastry in Chicago is coming from the (large) hands of the big, bearded, balding Ory, in tiny quantities that sell out almost every day at his Roscoe Village coffeehouse.”

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3. Grace. I don’t typically get to go to things at this (price) level enough to have a sense of their development, but I went to Grace three times in the past year (twice as a guest) and so I saw it evolve with practice. What I think I saw, more than anything, was the food move from being more of a visual experience to one that successfully combined visuals and flavor into a unified experience. There were standout dishes from the beginning but a tendency— as in the photos above; I only shot pictures at the first of the three meals— to make everything into a sprawl along the plate, which I guess is kind of an Eleven Madison Park influence. (You see it at many restaurants of this type, not just Grace.) It’s beautiful to look at, and part of what you’re paying for is the sheer pleasure of transient art being made just for you, but the problem I have with this style when it’s applied to everything is that you can wind up eating a whole meal of, basically, little salads.

Over the year I think the dishes have tightened up and gained focus, while maintaining the delicacy and artfully crafted visual effect that Grace had had all along. And at the most basic level, I came away from the most recent menu (officially 9 courses, but there’s always a few extra things tossed in) thinking there were about 4 or 5 wow courses in the meal, not just 2 or 3. Add in perhaps the best service in town— at least the best combination of knowledge and relaxedness— and you have a series of dishes that are always engaging to look at and puzzle out a little, but are also focused enough and varied enough to deliver the flavor pop and lushness that makes it a consistently great journey of discovery. Which to me, is what you pay this kind of money for.

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2. Brisket bibimbap at Smalls Smoke Shack & More. I’ve heard people talk about this place as if it’s promising but inconsistent. Wow, not my experience at all. I’ve eaten from it four times and been deliriously happy every time whether it was pulled pork, brisket, or fried chicken. And I love the combination of Texas BBQ with Asian sides (although the elotes never did much for me); to me that reinvents the genre, accompanying classic barbecue with lighter sides that have some Asian vinegary sparkle. But best of all, orgasmically good, is the brisket bibimbap, which I wrote about here at Serious Eats: “The smoky salty greasiness of the brisket transforms everything it soaks into, imbuing it with a late night honky tonk vibe bibimbap has never known before.”

1. Crazy squid, chili clams and others, Fat Rice. And if meals are a journey… and I said they are so I’m stickin’ with it… the place that has offered the most eye-opening, different and exciting set of journeys this year has been our first and only Portuguese-Macanese Asian hippie cafe. My first review here saw it as more promise than greatness, the second quite a bit better, but I’ve been back several times since then and each time there have been remarkable new things showing different sides of this fusion, sometimes bright and light (like the spicy chili clams), but more often deep and funky and full of flavors to burrow into (most recently, the bacalhau and the crazy squid). Along the way Fat Rice has gotten consistently, and rapidly, better at bringing every dish to a sharp point, using spices and vinegars to make them bright and invigorating. There’s no place where I’ve felt more that my horizons expanded every time I went, no place that I’m more excited to go back to and see what’s new at.

* * *


There were a lot of lists of the 149 or 212 best things someone ate this year, which is an impossibly large number to deal with (or to have any sense of what it says about the critic). Instead, I’m going to try to make my runners-up as practical as possible. These are all things I was happy to eat and would be happy to return to, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of places to go:

• Best new Korean BBQ joint to open in decades, Gogi
• Pineapple fried rice and other things from Silom 12. A lot of excitement about the Thai food at Rainbow Thai Cuisine from the LTH crowd, and I’m happy about Spoon’s venerable nam khao tod living on there in fine form, but this is where I think new things are happening in Thai food, for me anyway.
• Chicken wings, DAK
• The beautiful bibimbap at En Hakkore (though I am not any great fan of their paratha Korean tacos, which are too sweet).
• Hot and sour soup and Dungeness crab at Go4Food in Chinatown
• Crab and other things at Nha Hang on Argyle
• Shoyu ramen at Ramen Misoya

• Best new Eastern European-Russian joint to open in a long time, Chill Cafe
• Turkish breakfast at Pide ve Lahmancun
• Grilled kabobs at Manara
• Well-made, fresh-tasting old school pizza at Bartoli’s and Pizza Castle, new school at Forno Rosso and the one with grapes at Floriole and, yes, Eataly.
• The sides and oh yes, also the chicken at Honey Butter and the biscuits at Ms. Biscuit (both in this post).
• Butter beans at Parson’s Chicken & Fish
• Smothered pork chops, caramel cake, Macarthur’s
• Meatball sub at Bombacigno’s J&C
• Italian beef at Joe Boston’s
• Cherry lambic sorbet at Jeni’s Ice Cream

• Grilled chicken at El Pollo Real
• La Gringa at L’Patron
• Brisket cemitas from the Smoque-Cemitas Puebla collaboration
• The non-authentic but authentically delicious Cuban sandwich at Sauce and Bread Kitchen
• Anything John Manion puts in an empanada at La Sirena Clandestina

• It’s too late for the unfiltered, mindblowingly un-wine-like Sicilian wine and the clams dish in Telegraph’s Sicilian-themed wine dinner, but I think their monthly wine pairing menu series is one of the best, reasonably priced alternatives for those who find Next too expensive now (or all along).
• No, you can’t eat that, but yes, Next: The Hunt was probably the best Next meal I had, and the climax of my Next experiences— which is why, as its prices rise to a level only Next could command, I feel it’s time to move on.
• I’ve really turned around on Yusho, which I’ve gone from not thinking much of to really liking over multiple visits.
• Out of season, but sure to return: the panzanella at Avec (I know there’s mixed feelings about new chef Perry Hendrix among my friends, but that was flat out one of the best things I’ve ever had there)
• The one cocktail I had at Three Dots and a Dash which I hope will be followed by many more
• The tonics at Billy Sunday, the pickles at Dillman’s, the sort of salad thing at Nightwood, the dessert at Longman & Eagle (the last four all in this post)
• Lamb meatballs, coconut gelato/macaroon dessert, Found
• Shortrib sandwich and brussel sprouts, Farmhouse
• Lobster salad at MK
• And of course, the premiere party at The Butcher & Landan.

No, I haven’t eaten there yet: Tanta, A10, Dusek’s, Nico, etc.


• Brisket dish at Milkwood in Louisville
• Xochitl salami (with chili and a little chocolate) from Milwaukee’s Bolzano Sausage (now at Eataly)
• Pulled pork sandwich from Fatted Calf
• Chocolate croissant, well done, Tartine
• Cheeseburgers from Sport Burger (in an original Valentine building!), Wichita
• Po’ boy at Dommelise’s

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

Ina Pinkney • Daniel Boulud Goes to Milwaukee • Paul Bartolotta on Daniel Boulud • Dr. Bruce Kraig on Street Food Around the World • Big Guys Sausage Stand


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This is the book edition, and first up is Ina Pinkney, whose Ina’s Restaurant will close at the end of 2013. But not to fear…


the recipe for her Heavenly Hots is in her book, Taste Memories. You can get it at the restaurant, order it here, or visit Women & Children First in Andersonville. The restaurant is at 1235 W. Randolph; make reservations through the end of the year at 312-226-8227. Here’s a piece I wrote about Ina.


Next I spoke with Daniel Boulud whose new cookbook is Daniel, My French Cuisine (essays by Bill Buford). The occasion was a trip to Milwaukee, and I spoke to the chef who was hosting him as well, Paul Bartolotta:


Here are Gilles and Kegel’s; I went to Uplands here.

Dr. Bruce Kraig is one of the editors, with Colleen Taylor Sen, of Street Food Around the World:


Some places we talked about include Rickshaw Republic at 2312 N. Lincoln.


Then I spoke with Brendan O’Connor of Big Guys Sausage Stand, 7021 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. I’ve written about it and him for both the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago.

Brendan O'Connor, Big Guys


Four days in wine country at the posh Calistoga Ranch which is pretty much California New Age Heaven on Earth, legal seminars for the wife, arranged dinners and tastings in wine caves for entertainment/networking… to me all that meant one thing: how many other things I want to try can I squeeze in around the planned activities? Stand in line for two hours to get into Mission Chinese or Swan Oyster Depot? No, probably not. Hit Tartine on the path between the airport and I-80 to Napa, Thursday evening? Yes:


Those are ham rolls— or prosciutto rolls more likely— but we didn’t actually have them, that was just the best picture I took in line. Still, it gives some idea of the quality of baked goods at this well-known, cookbook-writing place, darkly-baked flakey crusts shedding a shower of crumbs with every bite. You can’t buy bread there just by walking in— there’s an elaborate, hilarious system by which you order it three days in advance and pick it up after 4:30 on The Day of Baking— but we stocked up on pastries, all excellent, and ordered a couple of sandwiches which seemed overpriced until you got them and they were on such a massive loaf that they made up three sections, each big enough to pass as a sandwich on its own. The place fit my preconception of San Francisco to a T— excellence in the product somehow going hand in hand with a sort of shaggy-haired, spaced-out chaos in which dozens of people seemed to be wandering randomly in and out of the baking area to chat, and no one occupying a seat seemed to have anything resembling a “job” or “somewhere they needed to be.”


On to Napa, and our wine cave-based activities continued until Friday night. We wanted a reasonably laidback dinner and the recommendation I got, for a porky, easy to like place— a Napa answer to Nightwood, say— was Farmstead in St. Helena.


It was a bit more cartoonish than its Chicago equivalent would be— big farm implements hanging from the ceiling, and the waitress looked to be dressed for a more upscale version of the WLS Barn Dance— and it did nice enough versions of good artisanal porky and local vegetable-y food without replacing the best such Chicago places in my heart.

We needed to have something more casual that night, because we had much more ambitious plans for the next day’s lunch:


We were the envy of others dining at Press or Cindy Pawlcyn’s with our coveted The French Laundry reservation. How did we manage it? Well, my wife explained, Mike knows a guy… I was at lunch with a well-known Foodie and asked him where I should go in Napa. He said, are you going to The French Laundry? I said, yeah right, like I thought to be up at 6 am making the call three months ahead, or whatever you do. He said, let me make a call. And sure enough, we had a reservation for two for lunch on Saturday.


My first thought upon entering the restaurant and being seated downstairs was that I understood better why Keller’s and Trotter’s restaurants were the yin and yang of models to follow for our own leading chef, Grant Achatz, in his early years. They are similar in many ways that make them different from restaurants people open now— from the old house setting with (inconvenient during service) stairs, to the copper pots displayed in the kitchen, they both had a feeling of being twenty-some years old as Alinea, approaching 10, certainly does not (even though it too has stairs and sprawls over multiple rooms in a much more modern space). But more than that, it faces the challenge of having been so influential that you feel like you’ve eaten at The French Laundry before you even sit down to eat at The French Laundry. Could it live up in 2013 to still being top dog in a world it made, as Trotter’s ultimately did not? The meal started with some valedictory courses, dishes that everyone coming there expected to see the way visitors to Orlando expect to see Mickey and Cinderella. We started with the cornet of tuna tartare that looks like an ice cream cone (The French Laundry Cookbook, p. 6) and a gougere (p. 47), we had Oysters and Pearls (p. 23):


We had the parmesan crisps that I tried and failed to make once (p. 37), and the truffle oil infused custard with a potato chip with a chive embedded in it (p. 16):


So this was not Trotter’s world of dishes changing every night, clearly, but there was nothing to mind about this— these were legitimately great dishes, tasty and beautiful to the eye. Might as well ask Disney to tear down The Haunted Mansion after a year. This portion of the menu was, indeed, pretty magical, delicate little jewels of mostly seafood flavors like this yellowtail tartare in a passion fruit foam, probably the best bite of the entire meal:


Food gets more elaborate than that, certainly, but not really prettier, I think.

That was the high point for a meal that got a little rougher as it tried harder to play the luxury card. King crab was beautifully cooked, tender as a baby’s bottom, but the mandarin orange foam sauce seemed a candy flavor that needed something more adult about it, a dash of cumin, a bit of fish sauce, I don’t know what, but something that tasted less like a circus peanut. We had agreed, knowing how absurd it was, to the topping of a fish roulade with shaved Alba white truffles for a mere add-on of $175 per person. There was something giddy about watching the truffle shavings fly like hundred dollar bills, but really, in the end, the thrill is all in the intoxicating aroma and they didn’t add that much flavor to a dish that seemed a conventional old school-French roulade, not terribly interesting on its own:


More surprising was how the “main” courses— the largest meat courses— were so French, not even in a Robuchon-Ducasse 1980s kind of way but flat out turn of the century L’Escoffier. One was a goose forcemeat baked in a shell with a wine-blueberry sauce (seen below), the other a lamb shank also ground and cooked into a sort of corn dog on the bone:


It was a surprise, not only that such old-fashioned classical French food should turn up in the middle of a meal I expected to be more avant-garde, but that one of Keller’s basic principles in the book, which I had internalized through years of tasting menus— that you should have about three bites of anything and then move on as the novelty ended— was so disregarded. At this point The French Laundry was proving to be most like my dinner last year at L2O, where delicate and genuinely magical seafood courses gave way to the businessman’s demand for a hunk of steak and a bite of lobster at the halfway point. (This being Napa, replace “businessman” with “retiree.”) If the dishes had been exceptional in some other way, it would have been less of a surprise, but insisting on forcemeats seemed even to tamp down the original flavor— the lamb shank had little of lamb’s sharp gaminess, the goose was likewise inoffensive more than recognizable. I realize French is in the name, but it was almost unreal to have such antique food in the place you thought would be the furthest from it. There was more than a little L’Escoffier in dishes at Next’s The Hunt, yet they still seemed modern and, more importantly, were focused on getting the deepest meat flavor in an old-time-French way. These seemed to prize making an archaic form (the goose crust was paraded around the room a couple of times to show off) over delivering the flavor.


As at L2O, dessert was the comeback, and we were happy being back in the realm of small, delicate, magical flavors on tiny plates again. We finished up with chocolates— “But they’re waaaafer thin,” I always hear in my head at that point— and were invited for a brief visit to the kitchen, which it will come as no surprise looks an awful lot like Alinea’s, white countertops and drawers, all organized to a rectangular perfection. One thing Alinea surprisingly didn’t copy as it opened Next: the monitor showing what’s going on at Per Se in New York (that’s The French Laundry in the inset image):


Afterwards, Larry Nadeau, who is the maitre d’ (but essentially acts like a GM on the floor), sat and chatted with us for a bit. I’m sure some of that was due to our coming via the famous Foodie, but I will say that The French Laundry bested any restaurant I have been in in terms of service that was welcoming, observant, and personally involved; it really is a model for that, as good as exists in the world.

For cuisine? Dining here clarified something I had thought about the other food I’d eaten in California at our events (where it was catered by well-regarded restaurants), and even about dining in Chicago. I think of Chicago fine dining as having two main schools— the Achatz one, descended from Keller, delicate and conceptual fine dining built on subtle flavors, and the Paul Kahan one, porky and built on bright, in-your-face use of acidity and saltiness. The difference was apparent in most of our meals this weekend— they just don’t salt things as much in California, and they don’t add that acid punch I’ve grown used to in food. Chicago food seems more sharpened to a point— and that was true even as I compared The French Laundry to, say, Grace, which is obviously descended from Keller via Achatz. Curtis Duffy doesn’t add acid to his food in the same way he would if he’d worked for Kahan rather than Achatz, but even so I felt like dishes at Grace are more likely to be brought to a point of tart or acidic contrast with, say, citrus, like the finger limes in his wagyu beef dish (seen in this video). And I liked The French Laundry courses that came closest to working like that, like the yellowtail with the passionfruit foam. That’s the Chicago way— bringing a fruit to a fish flight. Keller’s classics are genuinely great dishes, artistic in taste and visuals, but get away from those and I don’t feel like the dishes are as heightened and rigorously refined as the ones his followers are producing, with 20 years of The French Laundry-influenced cuisine as a baseline to push beyond.


On the road back to the airport the next day, we had more time than I expected, so I sent out an APB on Twitter for quick lunch in San Francisco. Two people suggested The Fatted Calf— a butcher shop and charcuterie maker— and one mentioned the Oxbow Public Market in Napa (the town), which has, among any other things, a branch of The Fatted Calf. And unlike things in San Francisco itself, it would doubtless be easy to get to and park at.

Even more, perhaps, than the Ferry Building’s market, I would recommend the Oxbow Market as representing precisely the state of food and drink at the moment. I could have spent hours perusing bitters at the cocktail furnishings stand, but then how would I have gotten my cheeses and chocolates and muffins and breakfast tacos? In any case, we hit The Fatted Calf and grabbed a couple of sandwiches to go, along with any charcuterie we could put our hands on that would survive travel, and grabbed our sandwiches to dine al airport bencho.

A roast beef sandwich was decent, but not nearly as good as The Butcher & Larder’s wonderful one with the house-pickled fennel. So it was reassuring to know that, as gorgeous and enticing as the Napa market was, Chicago is no slouch. On the other hand… the pulled pork sandwich topped with house pickled veggies was as good as any barbecued thing I can think of in town, yet in a way all its own. I was even tempted to call it, for all of $12, the best thing we ate all weekend… okay, different beast than Oysters and Pearls and anyway, we were susceptible to any comfort to be had in an airport at that point. You can’t compare. But it was pretty great. Last minute hail mary pass by the market in Napa to try to steal the game, well played.


Now on display at San Franscisco airport: Japanese toys


In Next’s Kitchen • Mark and Liz Mendez on Vera’s 2nd Anniversary • Talking With Anthony Todd on Trotter, Michelin and More


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Shortly after the latest Next menu started in September, I talked my way into hanging out in the kitchen for four hours (it was really a struggle; I emailed Grant Achatz and he said sure), and produced three pieces for the Reader including this slideshow and a piece about the menu. But there was still more material and, more to the point, the audio I felt had its own interest, yet another way to experience this experience. So this episode starts with a visit to the kitchen at Next, and talking with chef de cuisine Dave Beran (right, above) about the menu inspired by the Bocuse d’Or competition. Here’s the cauliflower custard talked about in the piece:


For more pics, follow the slideshow link above.

Then I visit Liz and Mark Mendez at Vera:


Here’s a review of Vera, which topped my ten best list last year. Here’s one of the best things, sardines dressed simply with olive oil and a little citrus:

They mention two of their blog posts in the conversations: here’s Mark’s with righteous advice to a young cook who bailed on him, here’s Liz’s on their second anniversary.


Finally I talk with Anthony Todd about the whole restaurant scene since we last talked, back in episode #1. We talk about Charlie Trotter, focusing not on his death but on why he mattered…

…the return of giant restaurants and steakhouses, how the media scene looks five months after we bemoaned it in episode 1, and finally, the inevitable Michelin discussion/sort of forecast.

Photo credit: Dennis Lee

I can’t stand the thought of going from one audio podcast to the next (coming soon) without a food post in between. Admittedly I’ve had twenty bazillion things published at the Reader, Serious Eats, whatever, so it’s not like you can’t hear all you want of my voice and more. But I don’t really review at the former (except in the sense that you can tell what I think sometimes, unabashedly), so here are some things I’ve eaten recently, all fairly modest. Let’s go!


Gogi. New Korean BBQ place in the former Hai Woon Dae space, which looks completely classed up and transformed to me, though Mike Sula says the layout is the same and it just got a snazzy black paint job. What’s not the same is that this is a definite step up in ambition compared to other Korean BBQ joints around town, the quality of meat being on par with the superior cuts at Chicago Kalbi, and the variety better than that (and better than pretty much all the others, with their standard repertoire of kalbi, bulgogi, and maybe a little chicken or octopus). My favorites were the galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs); pork belly, which is cooked on a platter rather than over the flame, was more like getting a side of bacon with the meal, but did come with fried kimchi (which was sort of like getting hash browns with it).

Also a big improvement: the service, which takes an active role in at least starting the process of cooking your meat. Which is helpful with things you might not know how to cook like the meat that’s attached to bone; the family who opened Gogi, who own the bar next door, are eager to please and handle that for you. Though you’re there for meat, among the side dishes I really liked both the gyeran jjim, a kind of Korean souffle, and the seafood haemul pajeon (pancake); on the other hand I found the steak tartare (yukhoe) bland and would spend that $18 on more grilled meat instead. The grilling, incidentally, is done by a gas-charcoal hybrid (unlit charcoal dumped on a grill which fires it with gas), which maybe takes a little longer to heat up but works well enough. I’m just happy to see real charcoal Korean BBQ, which has seem a slowly endangered species, making an exciting comeback.

6240 N California Ave
(773) 274-6669

Galbi (beef) and dwaeji galbi (pork ribs) on the grill at Gogi.

Pork belly, samgyeopsal, cooked on an iron skillet in the shape of a pig, at Gogi.

Grill at Cho Sun Ok.

Cho Sun Ok. Another venerable Korean BBQ spot which apparently got a fixup recently is this Korean restaurant on Lincoln, which has been around long enough that Calvin Trillin mentions it in one of his early 70s essays on food (he was taken there by the late U of C linguistics professor James McCawley, a proto-chowhound who sadly died in 1999, just before the internet exploded with food). They don’t cook with charcoal, but their setup is interesting nonetheless, with tabletop grills made of the same kind of heavy pottery as dolsot bibimbop is cooked in; they’re used after some dishes to fry rice in the crunchy residue of the meat. Most tabletop gas grill experiences have been kind of wan by comparison to charcoal places, but I liked it better than I thought I might, and it’s crazy that I hadn’t tried it till now. Service was a little harried, but nothing a little patience couldn’t handle.

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant
4200 N Lincoln Ave
(773) 549-5555

Kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae) at Cho Sun Ok.

Silom 12. So many kind-of-upscaled Thai restaurants open up that are of no great interest— or so we assume; who knows? I ignored this Bucktown spot (in the old Cafe Matou location, no less) until my friend Charlotte ordered from it via GrubHub and praised the wok hay of the Pad See Eiew. Frankly, not sure what that even means, but it was good enough for me to order the same way some night. I really liked everything I got, not only because all of it was pretty good in a Thai funky way, but because it was just different; I love the classic Thai places we all discovered on LTHForum back in the day but it’s been a long time since I had anything new from any of them.

The dish I liked the best, frankly, was the one I thought I was ordering to have something basic for the kids to like. They neglected to mention that “Pineapple fried rice” was also “calamari and other kinds of seafood fried rice,” but it had good seafoody funk and, all in all, I’d put it up against the best thing I had at Mott Street, their crab brain fried rice. An orange chicken dish put some respectability back into that dish (in a way that takeout of the same dish from Lao Sze Chuan decidedly did not), with a bracing burnt orange hint and some Thai depth of flavor; I liked the pad see eiew for reasons that must include its wok hay, and we also had Larb Tod, a ground chicken dish which I can’t remember now but liked. That was all chosen pretty randomly off the menu, so there’s clearly more to explore, and I will.

Silom 12
1846-48 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 489-1212

Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken. There’s been lots of sturm und drang online about the fact that this long-awaited fried chicken place serves most of its chicken deboned; I tried to get basic facts and the owner’s perspective on why they do it that way out in this piece but it rages on. Here’s my basic feeling: yes, fried chicken should have bones, but it’s a big world and it’s not going to kill you if one place does it differently. And I really really liked the sides, the corn with Thai curry flavors or the mashed potatoes made with schmaltz. And I liked sitting on the patio in October. And I liked that my kids liked it and we had a good evening together. I’m as much of a nitpicker on certain things as anybody, but you gotta see past the chicken bones for the forest sometimes.

What I have to disagree with strongly is the idea, which has come up a few times, that the chicken seems “processed” as a result. No, it seems carefully deboned and brined and breaded and fried, and is in my opinion very tasty… just lacking in the textural variation that a bone gives you. Talking about it as if they’re basically serving you Chick-Fil-A sandwiches minus the bread winds up supporting the sort of people who can’t understand why it isn’t as cheap as it would be from some place that really does use processed industrial horror chicken. Honey Butter buys reasonably humane chicken— Miller’s Amish chicken from Indiana, used by many restaurants in town— cuts and debones it by hand, breads it and fries it with care. If it’s not your thing it’s not your thing, but failing to keep the distinction between that and industrial food isn’t helping the cause of convincing people why they should pay more than fast food prices for better than fast food things.

Honey Butter Fried Chicken
3361 N Elston Ave
(773) 478-4000

Sides at Honey Butter.


El Pollo Real. Speaking of chicken! The name of course basically means “Chicken King,” but I prefer to think of it as the Pollo Real Deal. Titus Ruscitti first called it to attention at Serious Eats, and it is, so far as I know, out of millions of Mexican places promising chicken “al carbon,” the only other one in the city besides Taqueria Ricardo actually cooking over live charcoal.* I like black char bits and this was a little lighter than Ricardo for those. But the chicken was moist and full of flavor (and the air was full of smoke outside), the house salsas are pretty good, and the guys who run it are enthusiastic and happy to show off their cooking setup, so there is everything to like about this place and you should make a trip to Little Village sooner rather than later for it.

* Not counting South American places like D’Candela.

El Pollo Real
3823 W 31st St
773) 847-3907



La Palapita. For various work and kid reasons I have roamed the far northwest side a lot over the years, but though it has all kinds of Chicago realness, that translates into interesting food less than you might think— aside from Polish, it’s unquestionably the champ for that. (I think like a lot of burbs, it’s all homeowners who cook at home, so it doesn’t support as much restaurant culture as you might expect.)

One eternal question: really good Mexican in that area. This place looked promising— the name made me think it might be related to a south side place, which was clearly mistaken, though an old post by Titus suggests it might actually be connected to La Pasadita. Anyway, it’s a tallest dwarf kind of thing; the menu is clearly authentic in a no-concessions-to-gringos kind of way, and both grilled steak tacos and a torta were fine without being special enough to rate much of a drive. It’ll scratch the itch if you can’t travel further, but I’m still looking for the great northwest side Mexican joint.

La Palapita
4263 N Milwaukee Ave
(773) 427-4438


Ben’s BBQ. I was delighted to learn that the owner of this place isn’t actually named Ben— that was just a name that was already on it. That’s in the best tradition of south and west side BBQ places, which tend to run through owners till they find the one who sticks and masters the aquarium smoker. The actual owner is a good guy— he came out from behind the bulletproof glass to offer tastes of the ribs to everyone waiting— and with the closing of the original Uncle John’s there was a lot of enthusiasm on LTHForum for this place being the next great Chicago-style African-American BBQ joint. Maybe in six months or a year; what I had didn’t have the depth of smoke of the best ones, and was a bit dried out (admittedly, it also traveled a half hour before I got it home, but I’ve driven others as long). That’s not to knock it, just to say it isn’t in the top ranks with Lem’s, Barbara Ann’s (which is back with a vengeance, though they still can’t do the links like Mack did), Exsenator’s and the others who have been around for decades. Not as good yet, anyway, but I wish them continued improvement and the customers to sustain it.

Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue Restaurant
5931 W North Ave
(773) 637-0003



Ms. Biscuit. This was a place whose name had registered with me years ago (I think Peter Engler had posted about, maybe even as far back as Chowhound) but I’d never gone, and if I was in that area (rarely), I was more likely to hit Chicago Chicken & Waffles anyway. But it got some recent LTH and Serious Eats attention (the latter by Titus again, who seems inescapable this week), so it was time to go.

Now I wish it had gotten the buzz years ago, because with various new places drawing attention for their biscuits, we need a baseline, and these are, by a comfortable margin to me, the best old school biscuits I know of in Chicago, noticeably better than the ones at Edna’s/Ruby’s. (I’m not going to argue about them vs. the higher-end joints, that’s a different animal.) Breakfast is solid and good quality overall, so I have no hesitation about an overall recommendation, but these fluffy biscuits— available grilled or regular, both terrific— are the kind of thing you think you have to go into the deep South to find. No, just south 54th street. One thing though: as you might imagine, it gets busy on weekends. Saturday morning, we probably waited 45 minutes after seating to eat. I don’t want to even know what Sunday after church is like.

Ms. Biscuit
5431 S Wabash
(773) 268-8088


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Michael Ruhlman, From Keller to Schmaltz • Great Chicago Charcuterie • Road Trip to the Kentucky Ham Lady, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey • Matthias Merges Gets Not Serious


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First up, I talk with one of my heroes, Michael Ruhlman, in the extended version of an interview published at the Reader here. It took place at Balena and followed a public conversation with Chandra Ram of Plate (it’s at their site, if you’re a subscriber). Here’s what it looks like when he’s talking to her:


I’ve made lots of things from Charcuterie, such as this and this, but really the whole site’s existence owes something to my making bacon because Charcuterie said I could.

Afterwards I mention some local charcuterie places to check out, so here are links for those: Paulina Meat Market, Gene’s Sausage Shop, Schmeisser’s, Andy’s Deli, Bari, Riviera, Ream’s, and Dreymiller & Kray. Here’s an old post about the last one, too.

Next, I go to Princeton, Kentucky to learn about Newsom’s Country Hams; regular readers will have already read about my Indy/Louisville trip with my kids. But here are things we saw that you’ll hear about. Here’s Nancy Newsom Mahaffey with a country ham as hard as varnished oak:


Our tasting, preacher ham in front, prosciutto behind.


This spring’s hams in the new ham house.


The oldest hams with their “Civil War beards of mold”:


The hams hanging in the smokehouse (photo by Myles Gebert):


So how do you cook a country ham? Here’s a post on me cooking one according to a recipe from Charleston Receipts. I do this every Thanksgiving now.

Finally, I talk to Matthias Merges about Yusho and other things.


This is from an interview originally conducted for a piece in Where Chicago that isn’t out yet, but I used another chunk of it, about his Hyde Park restaurants, at the Reader here. Ironically, my only review of Yusho here isn’t all that positive, but I’ve been back 3 or 4 times since and liked it better each time, and have no problem joining in the general praise as one of the places you gotta go in Chicago right now.

In life, some are sweet and some are sourpusses.

Lots of reviews, I’ll do a bunch of trendy places here, deal with some less famous places in the next one.

Back when I first started palling around with other Chowhounds, and especially when we launched LTHForum, those of us who were the core group were seriously hardcore— we were crazy, in that we thought nothing of driving an hour each way to go eat Tacos del Pacifico on the southeast side. As soon as Vital Information or Erik M. or Rene G or whomever found something, we’d take off for it, we had to have it, whatever it turned out to be. And we thought that we’d flush out dozens more crazy people like us over time, and to some extent we did, but we also had to adjust to the fact that not everyone who wanted to participate would turn out to be as willing to accept anything as we were. We had to adjust to people who wanted to tell us how wrong it was the way Burt ran Burt’s up in Morton Grove, and that he really needed to become more like other, normal pizza places— when it was the non-normalness that we loved about his place. Certain threads became dominated, not by people who had been there, but by people who hadn’t but who wanted to vet a place as thoroughly as possible before they went. It was a strange attitude to those of us who loved to take off for places in order to be surprised.

But apparently all that was nothin’ compared to how batshit people have apparently been getting at Brendan Sodikoff’s Dillman’s when they find that the deli— sorry, deli-inspired American brasserie— doesn’t have a deli case and sell corned beef by the pound. Outrage and personal offense, screaming and yelling, apparently. But Manny’s doesn’t have deli cases… yeah, but they aren’t in a location (the former Steve’s Deli) that used to have such things. Apparently these people have shown up wearing their jacket with the plastic pockets for carrying soup home, and they’re furious and confused by Dillman’s lack of a retail counter, and the overall look which is part Italian coffee bar, part power lunch joint with red leather booths, part Admirals’ Club at the airport… and no part the deli they expected.


Me, I just don’t see what they’re getting so nuts about. Dillman’s aims to put a new Sodikoff spin on deli classics and I was mostly pleased with the changes (and accepting of the prices the changes came at). Delis may not abound, but there are enough traditional ones that it’s certainly worthwhile to have one place taking a fresh approach to the genre. And jeez, it’s not that hard to figure out; yeah, it may have a Sodikoff look (the enormous chandelier and so on) but there are plenty of traditional visual cues, like the checkerboard tile, that say old school deli, too. Also, they put the actual list of food items on a piece of paper for you to look at. It’s not that hard.

Anyway, I had the reuben, an order of potato pancakes and the pickles. In order of satisfaction: the potato pancakes are basically the very thin-cut (almost hairy) potatoes from other Sodikoff-restaurant dishes, like the duck heart gravy hash at Au Cheval. More hash brown cake than latke, so fine, but not really a latke. (Hint: a little egg would help.) The reuben was quite good; the corned beef had a rich, quality-beef flavor (much as Au Cheval’s vaunted burger does) but what really made it was the fact that the bread might have been, at the outside, four hours old when my sandwich was made. The freshness of the bread really lifted this sandwich up.

And the pickles were spectacular. I “demanded” my pickles like the sign says— they’re free but you have to ask— and there are two kinds. The “fresh” pickles taste as good as those ever do, at Kaufman’s or anywhere, and the sour ones taste even better, though not for the faint of heart. (They tasted, in fact, a lot like Jonathon Sawyer’s beer-garlic vinegar, which Publican Quality Meats sells, though that could either be because they actually use that, or simply because they had a similarly fresh garlic-vinegar bite.) Anyway, that so much love went into the thing you don’t pay for is a good sign indeed. Dillman’s is a new kind of deli. If you can’t hack that, your loss.


How come The Little Goat Diner doesn’t stump people in the same way? It surely breaks the diner mold as much as Dillman’s does the deli mold, yet somehow it’s universally loved. As you may recall I had lunch there a couple of months back and liked the food as food fine, liked it less as an expression of a chef’s philosophy. I returned for breakfast recently with my son, figuring that if Little Goat was going to shine at any meal, this would be it. I ordered something called Bull’s Eye French Toast, which proved to be toad in the hole and chicken and waffles (but with French toast) all in one, with slices of fried chicken breast and topped with strawberries and “bbq maple syrup” (Blis maple syrup which they add smoke flavor to). There’s no middle ground on a dish like that— it’s either going to be delicious or a godawful train wreck. It was the former; here was the working man’s version of Izard’s culinary philosophy of something sweet, something savory, something acid on the same plate. I would have preferred a real chicken leg and thigh, say, over this sliced up chicken breast thing that came a little too close to being chicken fingers to me, but apart from that, it was the rare cheffy, reinvented-breakfast dish that didn’t have you grumbling for them to leave breakfast the way they damn well found it.


However, I did find execution from the busy (but not, just then, slammed) kitchen a little sloppy in spots— home fries came out sitting in a gross quarter inch of oil, and surreally, my French toast was topped with a single… kidney bean. (No harm, but odd.) But it certainly wasn’t, at least, because Izard isn’t onsite personally keeping an eye on the operation— while I was eating in the diner, I saw her go up to the pass and taste a dish (which she tweeted later that afternoon) and talk with the cooks about it for a bit, and by the time I got to the bakery next door, she was right there in the front window, kneading dough with one of the bakers.

Around the time of Pete Wells’ famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square, I tried to think what would be the closest equivalent to that in Chicago, and I guess it would be this, in terms of TV celebrity having a splashy, tourist-friendly mid-priced spot. Except theirs is cynical to the core about providing a packaged pseudoexperience, and ours is sincere as can be about making happy food that’s easy to like and a little quirky. Chicago 1, New York O.

Speaking of drawing crowds, there’s been a lot of commentary that it’s more pleasant to go to Three Dots and a Dash at an off time, rather than Friday night at 8 p.m. when it’s full of frat boys, which is treated as if it’s an unusually keen insight into the nature of popular bars. Anyway, I went one relatively quiet Tuesday and on the plus side, my one drink (I was planning more till I tasted how strong that one was) made a strong case for Tiki as not just a silly fad, but a legitimate area of mixology. At least in Paul McGee’s hands, it wasn’t just fruit juice with lots of rotgut in it but a subtle and balanced drink of some complexity. And the soundtrack seemed appropriate to the vintage theme, which it apparently isn’t always (it is, after all, a project of the younger Melmans). What I don’t think it achieves— what popularity keeps it from achieving— is the intimacy which would allow a communion of drinkers and mixologists over tiki’s lore. I kind of think that already happened, back at The Whistler, and Three Dots, its Tiki drinks nailed down neatly on a printed page, is the final result of that shared interest, not a place for further colloquy.

Beyond that, my only complaint is… it’s not Tiki enough! It starts out well with the torches hilariously decorating a downtown alley way, and the entrance down a stairway decorated with skulls, but the room is just too orderly, a rectangle with tables set on a grid. It needs more wackiness, a big water feature in the middle or hula girls or something. Tiki is over the top, but Three Dots and a Dash is just a little too tidy— at least for what was, after all, the 1940s version of tune in, turn on, drop out.


Matthias Merges’ second bar-restaurant (after Yusho), Billy Sunday, aims for classic Americana, and the interior looks like an old time ice cream parlor gone Goth. In a town where drinks are too often overly sweet, I really admired the simple tartness of many of the cocktails, including a whole list of tonics which ain’t kiddin’ about being tonics, not cocktails by another name.

So it was a surprise that all the sweetness seemed to go into the menu, which is short but so scattershot that it’s hard to pick out a theme in a bar snacks menu whose Americana ranges from a hot brown to baked gnocchi (actually, it doesn’t range, that was the entire entree list right there). Both of the “Things in Jars” we ordered were too sweet to finish, even with very good La Fournette bread—a sweet onion and eggplant marmalade, sure, that was expected, but chicken liver with “curried raisin mostarda” shouldn’t have been as sweet as jam, too. Off the “Snacks” menu, there were many ways one might have expected chipped beef to be reinterpreted, but the deconstructed version shown above, a canoe of rye toast topped with clotted cream and cold slices of dried beef, had to be one of the least comforting, about as “Americana” as a modern art exhibit.


So my fellow diner and I were about to write Billy Sunday off for food, except we were still hungry, so we ordered one more thing. The hot brown wasn’t canonical (no bacon, the smokiness supplied by the turkey itself, and with perfectly in-season tomatoes on top) but it was terrific, exactly what one would want upscaled, modernized comfort food to be, and more understated and well-balanced than the excess that often passes for comfort food these days. How do you sum up a restaurant where you had three things that didn’t do it for you at all, and the fourth that you’ve been thinking about ever since, and that might end up on your ten best list for the year? I don’t know how to guide you; go have that hot brown while tomatoes are still good, and beyond that, you’re on your own.

Another item that said “hey, remember me for your ten best list” as soon as I ate it: a panzanella salad at Avec, now under Perry Hendrix, formerly of Custom House and Eggy’s Diner (which I liked a lot). This despite the fact that it barely lived up to its billing with corn and blueberries or something in-season like that; there were a couple of each, not enough to matter. What mattered was perfect farmer’s market tomatoes, garlicky dressing… it was summer in a bowl, as perfectly as you could ask. How is Hendrix changing Avec? I have no idea; the menu looked exactly like what I’d expect it to be at the beginning of September, many familiar things still on it, other things coming in with the season. Taking over Avec is maybe a little bit curatorial at this point, a non-broken restaurant that doesn’t need any fixing, just a sure hand to maintain it at the top of Chicago’s gastropubs, the top of our more casual chef-driven restaurants… the top of our restaurants, period.


Speaking of catching our farm to table restaurants at their high points of in-season produce… we went to Nightwood for my wife’s birthday. I finally had the pork off the spit, which was melty tender and good, and other things I got a bite of here or there were mighty fine too… but again, it was a simple and vegetable-based thing in season that wowed the most. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what it was— kind of a salad, I guess— I just remember sungold tomatoes, and corn, and little nubby bits of wild mushrooms, and… who knows what all. Just gorgeousness. I’ll have the gorgeousness, please.

I wrote a review of Longman & Eagle— first visit in over a year— but wound up putting all the good stuff into this Reader piece. Here’s the review part, reverse-engineered out of it:

I hadn’t been back simply because, by 2012, Longman & Eagle’s progeny were all over town (especially Logan Square) and I was trying them… Longman & Eagle was the rare restaurant that spoke perfectly to its moment—comfy porky small plates with fancy, we-could-make-everything-like-this-if-we-wanted touches, encyclopedic seriousness about beer and whiskey, a uniform of flannel shirts and alt-country on the sound system, a whiff of Portland “Don’t like it? Fuck you” attitude (though the Longman folks showed some very Chicago sardonic good humor in reprinting their worst Yelp review and handing it out as a postcard). Even Michelin realized that they needed to notice it if they wanted to look up-to-date, giving Longman & Eagle the only Michelin star won by a place that would piss off your grandparents.

Returning the other night, I found a Longman & Eagle that for the first time, ever so slightly, seemed to be preserving a lifestyle moment rather than embodying the current one…

But, as I said at the Reader, the dessert (“warm, squishy squares of doughnut in a mad Technicolor knife fight of bursting, wildly contrasting flavors, black sesame puree and coconut sorbet and puckeringly tart lime-palm sugar granita”) was spectacular.

Chicken at Owen & Engine.

That said, as much as I admire Longman’s creativity and bold way with flavors, I have to say that two other places that plainly kind of followed in its path impressed me more recently than the things I had that night there. Pan-roasted chicken at Owen & Engine is a simple dish, but so beautifully done that it made me instantly regret having eaten so much of the very good grilled octopus that preceded it. By comparison, Longman’s chicken galantine was three times the work for less satisfaction, as much as I admired its smoky saucing and such. And The Fountainhead under Cleetus Friedman is quickly becoming my go-to neighborhood spot— partly because it’s far enough (a mile and some) that at least I get a good walk in. I think Cleetus is a great maker of housemade ingredients more than he’s a great chef, but any straightforward thing you have there— a burger, even a turkey sandwich— is going to be, to use a cliché of the moment, elevated by the care he took to make it what it is in-house. (A turkey sandwich sounds like boredom on a menu, but note that somehow this review has two of them in it— the hot brown is the other.) Add that I can always get a decent seat there (at Longman I am guaranteed the last, worst seat at the bar whenever I walk in) and the beer list is at least as good, and it’s a place that deserves loyalty in a transaction that’s entirely free of ‘tude, dude.

Disclosure: although I’ve met or worked with a number of the above chefs, all of the above were anonymous except Nightwood where we had a reservation, and all were paid for (though a birthday treat was sent out at Nightwood).

The Beer Episode: Nathan Sears Revives the German Beer Hall • Jared Rouben’s Moody Tongue • The State of Chicago Beer with Karl Klockars • Golden Shrimp Mystery Solved


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Beer and food go together in this episode like something to drink and something to eat.


First up, Nathan Sears, who I’ve known as Paul Virant’s #2 at Vie for years and years (he appears on camera in this Sky Full of Bacon video from 2008). He’s opening The Radler and DAS, a German beer hall and restaurant with a ten-seat chef’s table (DAS) in Logan Square. That’s him in front of the mural he talks about, for Bohemian Beer.


Next, I talked to Jared Rouben (seen at right in a photo with Allium chef Kevin Hickey from this Grub Street shoot I did), longtime brewer at Goose Island Brewpub who is launching his own “culinary brewing” brewery, Moody Tongue, in Pilsen. (Parts of the same interview were used in this piece at the Reader.)

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 4.38.11 PM

Karl Klockars (of Guys Drinking Beer) wrote Chicago magazine’s current cover story on beer, which you can check part of out here.


We talked about beer and beer media at Four Moon Tavern at Roscoe and Wolcott; his recommendations for underappreciated beer bars included The Green Lady and The Local Option. Some of the other things mentioned along the way: here’s an interview with the guy who revived Bäderbrau, here’s Ten Ninety in Zion, here’s Good Beer Hunting, here’s The Beer Temple’s podcasts, here’s Begyle Brewing’s subscription program, here’s The Fountainhead, and here’s The Huettenbar.

And finally, we solve the golden shrimp mystery from last time.

So the Reader, where I’ve been foodblogging for the past few weeks, runs a thing in its print issue showing what the most-read blog posts— across all sections, not just Food & Drink— were during the previous week. Here’s how I did:
Week 1: The top two most-read blog posts for the whole site, #1 and #2.
Week 2: #2 and #4.
Week 3: #2 and #5.
Week 4: no ranking, not shown.
Week 5: #1.

reader most readreader most read2Reader rank 3Reader rank 5

Week 6: #1 again, third time in six weeks.
Week 7: #2 and #5.
Week 8: #4.
Week 9: no ranking, not shown.

Reader rank 6Reader rank 5dReader rank 5b

Two sort-of Asian places have opened recently and occasioned back and forth on Twitter and such outposts of cutting-edge discussion. Mostly negative. I’m more okay with both, though less than enthusiastic:


Lao 18 is Tony Hu’s new sorta-posh River North spot. It has come in for plenty of beating from people who think it’s dumbed-down Chinese inferior to his Chinatown spots. Okay, it probably is. The extremely Caucasian waitresses in their Suzie Wong outfits probably don’t know jack about real Chinese food or drink. The giant upside down soup cups that decorate the lounge are goofy, but c’mon, they’re funny. All that said— it’s not bad. When you consider the kind of gloppy Chinese that Hu himself was recruited to dish out by the gallon at House of Hunan a few blocks away 20 years ago, this is amazingly decent for vaguely authentic Chinese food in this Disneyland neighborhood. I tried four things— some dumplings, that old favorite black pepper short ribs, twice cooked pork belly and salt and pepper squid. To a man (or a squid), they were about 80% as good, or hot, or funky, or whatever as they would be on Wentworth or Archer. And of course, given the location, they cost more. But they were not a mockery of what you’d get there. They were a pretty good lunch for downtown. (The short ribs might have even made it into the 90th percentile.) I mean, sure, if you can hop the red line to Chinatown, do that instead, but it’s not a crime to open a Chinese restaurant across the street from El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria. I feel like the scorn is a preview of what Mario Batali’s in for when Eataly pops up and starts making Italian food a few blocks away.

18 W Hubbard
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 955-8018


Mott Street has been praised as the hippest coolest newest thing from the hip owners of Ruxbin, and blasted as bland and underwhelming and bearing no resemblance to whatever the pre-opening publicity about serving “Asian night market food” implied. I’m of two minds about it. Mind #1 says that this is a pleasant place to hang out with a cool design, a nice patio, good drinks and very good and concerned service. Mind #2 says that there’s nothing here for $10 that is as good as something you can get for $6 somewhere else. (But give it credit for being $10, not $18.) The whiskey-soaked pork neck above, for instance, was chewy (maybe because it was cut in such thick chunks) and not very whiskey-soaked; you’d be better off with pork neck larb at TAC Quick. The Harry’s Butter Thighs:


was a real dud, Trader Joe’s-level depth of Indian flavor, you could have two really good things at Ghareeb Nawaz for the price. The fried rice with crab brains:


came closest to being an original and interesting dish, but didn’t have enough funk to get there. This “funky miso” broth:


was too bitter to eat. A few vegetables floating in the pungency of a household cleaning product, $8.

Okay, jeez, that was pretty rough. But I could still see going back with Mind #1 to hang out and have a drink and nosh on stuff. It’s just, if anybody tells you this is an exciting new addition to the local Asian food scene… no, not yet at least. Fat Rice is an exciting new addition to the local Asian food scene. Rickshaw Republic is. This is a nice place to have a drink, so far, and I hope the folks behind Ruxbin, which I do like a lot, can make it better for food over time.

1401 N Ashland Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 687-9977

So is there anything new and Asian I have liked lately? Yes:


People love the fried chicken wings and bowls of Korean stuff at Crisp on Broadway. Those people are not me. The wings are okay, the bowls are bland, like the Japanese place in the Northwestern station food court I used to order from because at least what they offered had vegetables in it, a novelty in the late 90s west Loop. I suspected the same of DAK Korean Chicken Wings up in Edgewater, which opened around January, had a brief flurry of enthusiasm, and hadn’t been heard from since.

Wrong. I loved these giant, soy-garlic and gingery pterodactyl wings, and I thought the bowl of bulgogi was pretty tasty for simple lunchtime fare, too. It’s pricy, perhaps, but I’m happy to pay more for what I like than scratch my head again at what everyone thinks is so great.

1104 W Granville Ave
Chicago, IL 60660
(773) 754-0255


I’m probably going to be accused of dissing a new LTHForum fave for reasons of contrarianism or worse, so let me say that the last place somebody there (who has no love lost for me) found on 25th street, I loved and recommended unreservedly. (If the link doesn’t go directly, it’s slide #11.) A great find transcends earthly concerns. I had similar hopes for Taqueria Las Barrilitos, starting with the al pastor trompo in plain sight. Add in the housemade pickled onions and such and this looks like a place that cares a little more, which is the gist of the acclaim it’s gotten on LTHForum. Alas, my experience was more in the nature of a nice try; the pastor meat looked nice and crispy but didn’t have the rich, citrus-tinged flavor I was hoping for:


while the steak on the carne asada taco was overcooked nubs of again, underflavored meat. Thinking of La Chaparrita not far away I also gave crispy tripas a try, but the funky-not-in-a-good-way rings had none of the bacony deliciousness of that gem’s. Off days are always possible but this looked to me like how they like it, and I didn’t.


That said, I did spot and try a nice find on the way back to the car (besides this story, which I also came up with while down there to try Las Barrilitos), so the trip paid off— more on that shortly.

3518 W 25th St
Chicago, IL 60623
(773) 673-0102


Circling back to River North, Fabio Viviani is the celebrity name behind Siena Tavern, a massive operation routinely packed to the gills every night. The menu has some goofy modern touches— pasta in a jar— and things whose Italianness is questionable (they move a lot of crudo ahi tuna topped with salsa verde), but order to what they are likely to do well and they do well enough— everything executed pretty well, but not exemplarily well. Fabio’s mother’s gnocchi are beautifully tender, so one wishes the cream sauce they come in too much of had more of the other things on the plate (fried sage or parmesan) to give it flavors beyond, mostly, cream. A side of escarole with white beans, likewise, was a bit too bitter, swimming unsubtly in too much lemon, but you don’t order escarole because you don’t want bitterness, and with the occasional pop of a sweet tomato, it was a good, fresh-tasting summer dish. This has gotten some pretty tough reviews, and there are some misbegotten-sounding things on the menu that may well deserve that, but sticking to the hard-to-screw-up I thought what I had was about as good as most other downtown Italian places— though the fact that a Davanti Enoteca has opened a block or so away raises the bar for good enough Italian, for sure.

51 W Kinzie Ave
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 595-1322


Note: I’m writing for both the Reader and Serious Eats Chicago now (congrats to Nick and Abby on the birth of Mira!) and turning out more than I need to link to every one, especially since you can just click on my name and see everything at each site. But I’ll recommend a few things like this piece about unsuspected family disputes at the much-beloved Cemitas Puebla or this think piece about celebrity chefs (occasioned by Siena Tavern above) at the Reader, or this account of the nearly lost dish Akutagawa and this tribute to an underappreciated Loop-area shop, Bombacigno J&C Inn, at Serious Eats. And of course, the most important thing you can do is listen to the most recent, Tiki-focused episode of Airwaves Full of Bacon.