Sky Full of Bacon


Every restaurant reviewer seems to eventually get around to explaining why reviewing is a crummy job, which flies in the face of the rather obvious facts that it’s 1) free food and 2) writing that people pay attention to; the only way it could seem better to normal people who do real work would be if it included this (remember, Mastroanni was playing a magazine journalist in La Dolce Vita):

Happened to me more times than I can count. The latest is Charleston City Paper critic Robert F. Moss, and if he has one good point, it’s that a lot of hot scenes— like, say, Charleston’s— are not that deep. There’s half a dozen stars and then there’s Contemporary American in strip malls. (Mmm, scallops!) As it happens, I read this piece in Tampa— actually St. Pete Beach, on the Gulf coast just a long bridge or two from Tampa— and I couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of its point. Florida is a place that gets a bad rap for dining, land of early bird specials and unadventurous bargain-minded eaters, generic restaurants that blur the line with retirement community lunchrooms, and I saw some of that, especially at breakfast. You could do some sad, boring dining here, I think, if you had the knack for such, but then that’s true of everywhere in America. But Tampa definitely has its high points and a bit of an indigenous food culture which is well worth exploring, rooted in its immigration patterns (Cuban, Italian, New Jerseyan) and proximity to water, and appreciated enthusiastically by the locals. In five days I pretty much felt like I had had at least one of everything Tampa had to offer; it isn’t deep, but it was enough for us to have a good trip and be glad we chose it.

Galley on the U.S.S. American Victory.

The good news was that our friend the internet made it possible to dine with remarkable efficiency, zeroing in on top places for nearly every meal. In particular I want to give credit to JeffB and others in this thread on LTHForum dating back to 2005; you might not want to take 2005 advice very often, but this is all about places that have been the same since 1965 (if not 1905 like Columbia), so that was fine, and it was cool to think that that dated back to my old LTH days, and to think that it was put there a decade ago like a time capsule for me to open now. Also, this post by Titus Ruscitti gave an excellent overview of the sandwich scene, and it was put to the test as well. One note: we skipped probably the two places you’ve heard of. I’ve been to two different branches of Columbia over the years, and was never wowed enough by its kind of Spanish food that I felt I had to check out the 1905 original in Tampa. And I would have enjoyed Bern’s, the old school steakhouse with the deep, deep wine list (especially dessert wines, eccentrically), but it just wasn’t the place to go with my son. They’ve been there forever, they’ll be there when I get back.

Anyway, the first stop was my own discovery (in the sense that means I found something that everyone locally knew about, of course). We missed an exit but were close enough to drive surface roads, so we got off— and immediately spotted Coney Island Grill in St. Petersburg, dating back to 1926:


This is a Detroit-perfect place serving quite good Coney dogs with beanless chili on it, no fries cheeps (or cole slaw in my case), and root beer floats. We were happy as could be finding this after flying and spending too much time at the car rental place.

It was overcast much of the week. Still better than zero degrees in Chicago.

St. Pete Beach’s main strip is somewhat generic American contemporary restaurants, mostly seafood with some steak places to give you a break, but on the road leading to it we spotted a unique place spoken of highly, which was seafood— but smoked, not fried. Ted Peters serves a pretty simple dinner— smoked fish, salmon, mackerel, mahi-mahi or mullet— with pretty basic but first-class sides (German potato salad, cole slaw again). I’d have gone for a stronger fish, but hoping to get my son to try it, I went for mild mahi-mahi and the smoked fish spread. Liam had hot dogs anyway.



Afterwards we chatted with the guy running the smokehouse and got to see the last of the night’s fish. The fish spread— which was fantastic, even better than the dinner— we learned was, I think, 70/30 mahi-mahi/mullet. This was cracker soul food, and a must stop as far as I’m concerned.


Ybor City, the early-1900s cigar-making neighborhood, looks like it’s become Tampa’s Bourbon Street over the years, with a lot of chain dining and Hey Let’s Get F’d Up! places to drink. Still, there are some places that have survived and are worth a visit, like La Tropicana, which JeffB compared to Manny’s for its cafeteria-like, aldermen-and-power-brokers-and-city-workers feel. I went there first for a baseline on the Cuban sandwich and also a Tampa special, the devil crab, which is a big fried Spanish-style croqueta made of all the scrap meat left in a picked-over crab. It’s a little spicy, a little funky, and tasty though I didn’t feel the need to try one at every stop (for one thing they’re pretty huge). Anyway, the Cuban was nice and I guess I see the difference in bread used in Florida, but it was a little slighter than I thought; I’m ready to say you can get a pretty darn good version of a Cuban here, too, even if it is on Gonnella bread. In any case, the best thing— which you can’t get so much here— was Liam’s fried fish sandwich on the sweeter, yellower Cuban bread. They know how to fry fish here like Memphis knows how to fry chicken.



As demonstrated by dinner at a place called Sea Critters, which I found on Trip Advisor or something when I decided I didn’t want to travel far for dinner, too. It’s in Pass-a-Grille, a little more of a cutesy upscale vacation town area than the generic strip in St. Pete Beach; I didn’t have a huge need to shop for $200 blouses or nautical knickknacks, but Sea Critters was a lively supper club-ish waterfront place where people in their 60s and 70s were actually eating after 7 pm, and they fried a piece of grouper just fine, too.


I’ve looked for barbecue before in Florida without great success, but meeting up for lunch with an online friend near Bradenton, we went to a place in Ellenton called Hickory Hollow BBQ, and it proved to be a pretty good sit-down BBQ joint with a lot of quite good Southern sides (your choices for that day are shown on a pig-shaped wooden board with the specific offerings velcro’d to it).


What to do while waiting to be seated at Hickory Hollow: play with the goats.

Back in Tampa, one place I definitely wanted to check out was a busy lunch spot called Brocato’s, located in some metal sheds by the highway. Amusingly, there was an interview I had to do which was held up the previous week, and so I wound up standing in the muddy parking lot of Brocato’s after lunch, interviewing by phone Chef Blaine Wetzel, a Noma and Manresa veteran who runs the ultimate farm to table getaway 2 hours from Seattle, Willows Inn on Lummi Island. This is the life we’ve chosen! But farm to table though it wasn’t, I knew my choice of Brocato’s was good because when we were leaving another parking lot later, the attendant saw our leftover Brocato’s drink cups and complimented us on our tourist acumen.


Anyway, two things I knew I needed to try: the Spanish gallego soup (basically pork and garbanzos) and their Italian deli version of a Cuban. The soup, alas, was not that exciting; I have a feeling it would have had more flavor, and softer garbanzos, about four hours later.


The Cuban, though, was terrific. One thing I’ve always kind of held against the Cuban sandwich is that it’s pretty sparse— a thin strip of ham, a thin strip of pork, it just doesn’t live up to my ideals of sandwich excess. But this one did, this one was fat with ham and cheese and especially dripping juicy pork, as indulgent as a wettest Italian beef. (It doesn’t look as huge, somehow, but it was.) This is my idea of a(n inauthentic) Cuban sandwich, one that tastes like American capitalism.



The next day I couldn’t face another Cuban, as we went to another Titus recommendation, Wright’s, so I had The New Yorker, basically a pastrami combo sandwich. This is a funny place, packed as can be, the line having a little Soup Nazi demandingness to it– if the Soup Nazi was instead a sweet Southern lady. (Don’t ask me how that makes sense, but it did.) They griddle most of their sandwiches, served on their own perfectly round bread:


Anyway, a good place though Brocato’s would be first choice for its total local flavor. Titus’ old post says they had one in the airport, too, so I planned to get a Cuban and take it home to my other son, but alas, that seems to have been replaced by lesser chain dining.

I mentioned that breakfast was the least exciting meal overall, and we tried a couple of local spots that were nothing special and slightly generically depressing, plus a Waffle House which was, well, Waffle House. The one breakfast spot I wound up liking and returning to was an Italian cafe and bakery in St. Pete Beach called (what else) La Casa del Pane, which did nice versions of Italian pastries including a highly credible sfogliatelle. I’m not the only one who thinks well of it, it was packed every morning with older folks who, nevertheless, were standing up for eating good things and being sociable over espresso and refusing to give in to wheat toast and egg white omelets. Rage, rage against the dining of the Lite, good people of New-Jersey-Sur-le-Gulf.


Coney Island Grill
250 Doctor Martin Luther King Jr St N
St Petersburg, FL 33705
(727) 822-4493

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave S
South Pasadena, FL 33707
(727) 381-7931

La Tropicana Cafe
1822 E 7th Ave
Tampa, FL 33605
(813) 247-4040

Sea Critters
2007 Pass a Grille Way
Pass-a-Grille Beach, FL 33706
(727) 360-3706

Hickory Hollow BBQ
4705 US-301
Ellenton, FL 34222
(941) 722-3932

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop
5021 E Columbus Dr
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 248-9977

Wright’s Gourmet Cafe
1200 S Dale Mabry Hwy
Tampa, FL 33629
(813) 253-3838

La Casa del Pane
7110 Gulf Blvd
St Pete Beach, FL 33706
(727) 367-8322

Not the old friend we met up with.

I’ve been asked this more than a little, and back when I was mainly in advertising, I was asked the same thing about that field, too, and really, the advice isn’t all that different, though the economic conditions are. On the minus side, it’s not a great time in history to make a living at writing about food and drink, but on the plus side, at least it’s never been easier to break into the field. That’s because it’s never been easier to get people to see your work without already having been published.

The first thing is that you simply must write. Writing is not just about being smart and clever, it’s about having the energy and focus to do a lot of it, and quickly. So go get yourself a free blog at Blogspot or Tumblr, and start writing. A lot. Write about what you eat, but also start doing the kind of thing that someone would like to publish—interviews, lists, think pieces, whatever. Blogging about your personal experiences is good practice, but you need to show you can do more than talk about yourself.

Yes, it’s true you’re working without getting paid. You and everybody else. Every mathematician started by doing geometry in high school. Every baseball player played it in the street with other kids before signing with the Yankees. You need to do a bunch of writing for free first, to 1) get better at it 2) prove you can do it, day in and day out. That’s the way the world works. (Believe me, a year from now you’ll be glad some of what you wrote wasn’t paid for, or seen, by anybody!) Don’t think of it in terms of a living yet, because that’s too depressing— the only way you’ll make a living at it right now is with the rare staff job at a paper or magazine.

In fact, I’m all for having a different job entirely when you’re young; I think you’ll be a better writer for being out in the world, working and interacting and gaining a wide range of skills, than if you spend 12 hours a day typing inside the cramped confines of your own head. Go work in a cannery like Steinbeck or sail on a whaling ship like Melville or whatever it takes to have some experiences and observe other people. (Tending bar is good too, especially for food writers.)

Two more things: learn how to promote your stuff in a non-obnoxious way on social media, and use it to make new contacts online. And if you can take pictures with a decent camera, do. Being able to supply photos with an idea always makes it easier to sell. One more thing to start getting practice at now.

A few months pass, you’ve got some pretty good pieces, and you want to actually get published. There are a lot of places that will give you a shot… for free. Well, eventually you’ll want a firm policy against doing that, but for now, the exposure is worth more than the tiny fee you’d make anyway. So look for publications, see what they actually publish—don’t pitch Best River North Bars For Hooking Up to a publication that focuses on recipes for moms—and pitch them ideas that are like what they do, but not exactly what they’ve already done.

Here’s the secret of pitching (indeed, any job search). The person who hires is not looking for someone who is fabulous to be their new best friend. The person who hires has too much work and is looking for someone who can take a chunk of it out of their hair and come back with a finished piece. That’s it. Be their no-fuss solution, show them you can solve that problem for them with no drama and minimal help from them and return with a perfectly good piece, and you’ll soon get more assignments than you ever expected.

Respect the parameters of the assignment. If they say 500 words, turn in 475 to 510, not 1200.

You’ll get edited at this point, and one important thing is learning how to respond to editing. Some of it will be very good advice about sharpening your points and making your writing more compelling. That’s the best thing that can happen to you, even if it stings a little; that kind of editing is your grad school. Some of it, alas, will be somebody who knows less than you about your subject, screwing your well-thought-out piece up. Learn the difference and how to take it in stride. If someone is really hard to work for, simply fade out of their pool of pitching writers without a fuss, getting a reputation for being a pain to work with will get around.

Now you’ve got half a dozen pieces published. It’s time to professionalize your online image. This could be your blog, or it could be on a new site, but you need to find a way to look like a pro, not just a blogger, and to highlight your published work and direct people to it. The game here is, you pitch an editor who never heard of you, the first thing she’ll do is go to your site and see who you are. You want her to see your published pieces and instantly know you’re a pro who can get assignments done (see previous point about “solving that problem”).

And from there, it’s just a matter of getting better at writing and at networking over time— and pitching places that pay better. The things writers have always done, but you happen to live in the time that offers more online tools for doing it without having to have gone to the right school and made the right friends than ever before. Good luck.

Finally, the world is full of more advice about actually writing than I could ever repeat, but when it comes to food writing, an especially sensual subgenre, you can’t do better and pithier than Mr. Samuel Clemens:

Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. —Mark Twain


I popped into Vera one morning recently for coffee. A couple of my friends were already there, chatting up Mark and Liz Mendez about the new coffee and doughnuts they’ve started serving. It didn’t feel like being at a restaurant, though, which is to say, it felt like what all restaurants should feel like, hanging out with friends. The Mendezes were talking about the coffee they had selected, the one that came the closest to the perfection they had in their heads. Mark talked about making coffee and how the tiniest changes—quantity of beans, water temperature, etc.— could radically affect the final beverage. He weighed out the water on a scale, he weighed out the beans, he took three or four minutes to pour me what turned out to be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.

A bit later I decided I might as well eat lunch, so I ordered a tortilla (the Spanish potato-egg-pie kind). A perfect simple little plate, with a perfectly-dressed salad on top. Do I really mean to use “perfect” this many times? Am I not setting off a round of adjective inflation? No I am not, and yes I do. Everything tasted the best it could ever hope to be, not because it had shaved truffle on top but because it was itself, in perfect balance and harmony. Mark said of the tortilla he made that he didn’t even like that kind of cold snack, he doesn’t like cold leftover pizza. Think about that. He made the best example imaginable of something… that he doesn’t even like.

This is why I love Vera. In a show-offy scene, and I’m all for that so far as it goes, he’s seeking the perfection of humble things, he’s obsessive in pursuit of the small details that mean everything. He’s Hattori Hanzo, making the best swords on earth. To eat food of such unassuming quality in a setting of such easygoing welcomingness is the thing all of us who love restaurants love, love to fall in love with. We search for new places to fall in love with. Sometimes it happens, sometimes you only see how easy it is to fall short…

This post needs another picture. Chocolate doughnut at Vera.

Charlatan. I’ve liked what Matt Troost does with Italian food since the short-lived Fianco, and I’m far from alone in my love for Three Aces. Service there has always been, charitably, random at best, but it was a bar so you took it in stride. Charlatan is still something of a bar but generally seems to be more of a restaurant. This is news that has not entirely reached the service staff. I’ll take it in stride when I’m greeted, as you so often are, with a puzzled, increasingly hopeless examination of the reservation system— “You say it’s… Gebert? And you have a reservation… here?” I think that’s an unforced error— is it that hard to have passing familiarity with your 6 pm reservations at 6 pm, or at least pretend, “Ah, yes Mr. Gebert, your table is right this way”? That would go so far to set the evening off on a welcoming note, rather than one that feels like getting stopped at Immigration.

But that happens everywhere, almost. I have to say, though, there was one thing that really put the vague service in perspective. A plate of octopus was brought to the table with the customary greeting, “This plate is really hot,” and set on a corner by me and Liam, my 13-year-old. And then… our waitress walked away. And I realized I had no way to share it with anybody else at the table who might actually want it, like my wife. I didn’t have a spoon; I couldn’t pass the hot plate. They might as well have delivered it in a lockbox without the combination. I had to flag our waitress like she was a cab to get something to serve it with, a request that seemed to strike her as no more than a harmless eccentricity to be indulged in a customer.

The octopus, by the way, was terrific. Mike Sula described it as “the beefiest-tasting octopus you’ll ever encounter,” which I took to mean that it was big chewy pieces like octo-steak, but no, clearly there was all kinds of rich beef stock this stuff had been stewing in until it was marshmallow soft and tasted like an octopus that had been clutching a Christmas roast. There were some fantastic glazed carrots in it and a sort of romesco pesto all around it, looking like ground circus peanuts. This was a dish that promised all kinds of wonders and made you want to keep Charlatan close to you forever.

Surprising, then, that the star attraction— pasta— fell short in varying degrees. A plate of rabbit casconcelli (imagine really long agnolotti) had beautiful supple texture, but the meat was lost in mascarpone and golden raisins, sweet wrestling savory to the mat without much of a fight. Still, the silky texture of the pasta was entrancing. My wife and one son both ordered different dishes of spaghettini, though, and in both cases they quickly solidified into solid clumps of pasta. I debated with some friends on Twitter the probable cause— too much starch left in the water by a busy kitchen? Fresh pasta not sauced fast enough? I don’t know, but after 5 minutes you had to saw this stuff like a pork chop, and one of them which promised a sprinkling of chili powder was showered in snowdrifts of the stuff the way the beignets at Cafe du Monde are coated in powdered sugar.

So I’d love to love Charlatan, there’s huge potential here and some dishes that I’m sure on some days are great, since I had at least one. But I suspect it’s a place that became a hit faster than it could learn its own ropes and assure a constant level of quality. I’ll go back in three or six months and see where it is then.

Uni toast at The Izakaya at Momotaro.

The Izakaya at Momotaro. I wrote a lengthier review of this at the Reader, so go there for that. Short answer: atmosphere and cocktails only go so far to take you to Japan, but the food is really well executed. Interestingly, when I left the place I said to my dining companion “I really liked that, but we kind of ate everything I would want to eat on the menu, I don’t know how quickly I could go back. In the week since then, though, I’ve felt love growing in me. The big Momotaro upstairs is kind of intimidating, flashy and noisy and expensive; the downstairs feels like where you could go and be one with your Japanese food experience. And that seemed to be how the servers and cooks acted, too—like they knew that the real communion with their food was happening in this quiet, more contemplative space. The zen at Momotaro is downstairs.


Dal Paeng Yi. There’s a Korean strip on Bryn Mawr that I try every few years. It seems like there should be some real family-run charmer along there, but I have yet to find it. I hit this place with a friend for lunch one day, it was friendly and they could use the business, I wanted to be charmed, but it was just fair. It claims to be a Korean noodle shop, though noodle dishes were mostly crossed off of the most-crossed-off menu I’ve ever seen. Anyway, my friend had soup— I think hanjae guk, I forget— which he didn’t think much of, I had bibimbop in a stone pot which was decent, too much sochugang (hot sauce) in it but it at least developed a little bit of a crispy rice crust, though not like the fearsomely crisped-up crust I cut my teeth on at the late Kang Nam in Chowhound days. So it was just fair, I think the couple who run it are well on their way into retirement and its better days are behind it.


Scofflaw is an old vet of our scene by now, but I’d never been there, partly because I’m happy for good cocktails but not so much on the prowl for them that I’d find myself at Kedzie and Armitage wanting them. But I’m working on a piece about a certain food item for Thrillist right now, and they were reputed to have a good one. All the internet affirmed this, so of course I get there and it’s been off the menu for a year. But I’m told, the burger is good, it’s like their take on an In’N’Out burger. Well, it’s not bad, but it kind of shows how getting that kind of balance with things like lettuce and tomato on a burger is hard; I don’t get as much burger out of the burger as I’d like, I get a lot of lettuce and tomato dressed with mustard. The most basic of American dishes, but not always that easy, it turns out. They get the fries right, but the pimenton sauce that comes with them is oddly flavorless; if you’re going to replace Heinz, the replacement actually has to be better than ketchup. Easy to see why people love a neighborhood place serving high level craft cocktails for $8 or $9, but based on what I had this isn’t much of a food destination— at least not until you’re looking at it through a couple of cocktail goggles.

Dough Bros. This has gotten relatively little notice, except from my friend Ken Zuckerberg, and at first glance it would call for little notice. It’s a nondescript Formica-clad pizza slice joint downtown, on a low-rent strip of State Street next to some bar you never went into on your way home after work or whatever. If the name registers at all it’s probably because of the really odd fact that one of the guys who developed it was Roland Liccioni, as in, the classical French chef of Les Nomades, etc. (See Mark Mendez talking about him here.) I don’t know if he’s still involved, though there is still a pizza slice called The Roland; in any case, to me it just looked like a typical slice joint doing something kind of like New York style, stiff, slightly burnt-looking slices in the case. They didn’t look like a minute or two in a hot oven would do much more than dry them out even further, but I figured it was worth a $4 experiment. I ordered the Roland— lemongrass-tinged sausage and a criss-cross of Sriracha atop it; the pizza went in, and came out surprisingly quickly. No way this could be anything special.

From the first bite of the crust, crackly-crispy and yet with some deep chewiness, I was in awe. I was in love, in this unlovable space. The lemongrass sausage and other stuff on top were tasty, fresh, well-balanced, but above all that crust was just amazing, even more amazing for having come out so beautifully textured out of reheating. This is one of the best pizzas in the city, no joke. If you work near there, you need to go there today, and often.


Hienie’s Shrimp House is a fried chicken and shrimp stand on the southeast side— we have a southeast side, you ask? Yeah, basically it’s what you see from the Skyway just before you cross into Indiana, a deeply unlovely declined industrial area that once was the neighborhood around the steel mills. Anyway it was one of the places Titus Ruscitti did on this Thrillist list we each did half of, and Myles after reading it wanted to try some wings, so we decided to make the long trek there.

It’s a nothing place— I thought it’d at least be a bar, but it’s just a bare takeout place with a few tables— but the chicken was great. We ordered it both fried and as wings, and either way crispy and lightly seasoned, as good old school chicken as you’ll find in Chicago. The other thing Hienie’s is famous for is a luridly orange sauce for the chicken, in a color and consistency I last saw when my mom bought us a set of fluorescent paints in the 70s. It’s a local favorite on the southeast side (after it got some LTH attention, Kevin Pang wrote this piece that pretty well sums up its history, including that it doesn’t actually originate at Hienie’s, but never mind). It’s pretty easy to tell from your first taste where that tomato soup color comes from— it’s basically yellow mustard with bright red hot sauce in it. At first taste I didn’t think chicken needed a mustard taste, but it grew on me, and I wound up taking some with some chicken I made to a Super Bowl party so friends could sample the authentic taste of 103rd and Torrence. I love this town.

Myles takes the white bread from an order of wings, and some of my chicken from an order of chicken, and invents the Hienie’s Chicken Sandwich.

1023 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-9770

1329 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 818-2073

The Izakaya at Momotaro
820 W Lake St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 733-4818

Dal Paeng Yi
3236 W Bryn Mawr Ave
Chicago, IL 60659
(773) 588-0305

3201 W Armitage Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 252-9700

Dough Bros.
400 N State St
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 600-9078

Hienie’s Shrimp House
10359 S Torrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60617
(773) 734-8400

Airwaves Full of Bacon 16: Greg Biggers of the Sofitel Vs. The City • What’s Next After the City Shut Down Underground Chef Julia Pham • Kevin Hickey Returns To Bridgeport • Kate Bernot Leaves Chicago For Beer

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.


It’s the city episode! All the stories have to do with dealing with this city… and the City.


(1:16) First up, chef Greg Biggers of Cafe des Architectes in the Sofitel Hotel takes me inside their circuitous kitchens to tell the story of how he had to work with the City to get to do the things he wanted to do… notably, make cheese. It’s a great look inside the health and regulatory process in Chicago.





(20:06) Then I talk with underground chef Julia Pham, whose Relish Underground Dining came to a halt when she was busted by the City.

After that, I list some of my favorite Asian restaurants in the Argyle area. I wrote about Nha Hang here, and made this video about the old Sun Wah. Here’s more about Double Happiness, where we met up.


(35:05) Kevin Hickey’s the Duck Inn marks his return to Bridgeport. We talk about that most traditional of old school Chicago neighborhoods, including mentions of Ricobene’s and Bridgeport Bakery. A much longer version of this ran in two parts here and here at the Reader.

Here’s the original Duck Inn, c. 1935, owned by his grandmother (the lady behind the counter).


(50:01) And finally, I talk with Kate Bernot, late of Redeye, about leaving Chicago. Here’s her farewell piece.

The church of Santo Domingo, with the most spectacular interior in Oaxaca.

The cloister at Santo Domingo, now a terrific museum containing the major artworks from Monte Alban, the Zapotec city overlooking modern Oaxaca. We also saw an excellent exhibit devoted to the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci and one of his recent books.

A Nativity scene in the Zocalo in front of the protest banners about the murders of the 43 students in Mexico, by a gang allied with the mayor of Iguala. This is the kind of thing that makes you think the parts about Herod in the Nativity story probably hit home harder in some countries than others…

So we had plenty of time to eat at many levels in Oaxaca, and with my first post devoted to the low end, this one will cover off the higher end in various forms. Oaxaca apparently is convinced that it’s the next hot dining destination, or so I read somewhere, and I’ll say this for it: it may not be as polished as current dining capitols, but the prices are so reasonable that you can experiment with little fear that you’ll get ripped off. It’s hard to complain that execution is a little below Chicago standards, as judged by a pork dish fairly crudely butchered, or that service is a bit rushed at a tasting menu, when it’s going for, at most, about a third of the cost in Chicago. Restaurants here have the kind of enthusiasm that forgives a lot.

I mentioned that Rick Bayless was not far from where we were—to judge by a tweet, I missed him by about 20 minutes in the Zocalo, the central square, one day—but I already had some advice about where to eat from him, by way of Topolobampo’s chef Andres Padilla. So I made reservations in advance for two of them, Origen and Pitiona, though as it turns out, even in the tourist-heavy Christmas week it seemed like you could pretty much walk into any place in town.

The main thing was just knowing where to find them—the fine dining Oaxaca is kind of in a different area than the busy everyday tourist Oaxaca, centered on the bustling Zocalo. The restaurants around the Zocalo are, according to most guidebooks, kind of middling, but we visited one called Del Jardin a couple of times for quick meals and local atmosphere, and it was quite decent—Liam discovered a love for Oaxacan tamales here. Honestly, there’s almost no such thing as a bad mole negro in Oaxaca, though I think this one was sweetened up a little for the presumed American palate.


But if you want food at a higher level than that, you want to go north from the Zocalo. Just a few blocks and you hit the square around the church of Santo Domingo, which seems to also be the heart of upscale tourist Oaxaca. The square is quieter and less frantic with peddlers, all around it are better restaurants, coffee shops (otherwise often rare in Oaxaca) and the better shopping for Mexican clothing, jewelry and knick-knacky artworks. Also a very happy find in this area on some of the days were street markets devoted to locally produced goods and artworks; we picked up everything from handwoven cloths to carved figurines a cut above the usual tourist geegaws, to local chocolate and manzanilla (apple) jam.

Calle Macedonio Alcala, the main shopping street near Santo Domingo, a couple of days after Christmas.

We bought several excellent carvings from this stand, though not this guy, alas.


Origen is a restaurant you can certainly see people like Rick Bayless admiring, because it was the most serious about exploring Mexican flavors and not just doing a Mexican spin on continental cuisine. I couldn’t tell you what the seven moles are, but I’d bet I had more of them here than anywhere else, tasting a variety of sauces (which is all a mole is, really) in conjunction with a lot of locally grown things, from squash to quinoa. The downside was that I felt the execution level did not always match the ambition of the dishes; there were at least one dud (a charred romaine salad, which came out a neat rectangle of mushed lettuce with the consistency of a peat bog) and a very good dish of pork rib meat suffered from the meat having been roughly hacked off the bone, fat untrimmed. Still, at about $130 for 4 people it was a creative meal offering a lot of insight into Mexican flavors we didn’t get elsewhere, and I would recommend it.

Pork rib meat with chicatana sauce, yucca and squash.

Tortillas at Pitiona made of different kinds of corn—the top one made with agave (in some form).

Pitiona was in some ways less adventurous in cuisine, but moreso in form—the chef worked at El Bulli and there was a lot of Adria-esque playfulness in the form of the dishes, and as the first full-fledged tasting menu for the kids (Myles and I went to Ing once, but that’s it) everyone had a good time waiting to see what they’d bring out next—usually, curiously, plated on something the shape and size of a brick, like the paint-covered block this plantain fritter arrived on.


Highlights included a venison taco, another with tocino (pork belly)…


and the most El Bulli-like item of the night, a tomato noodle soup with a spherical ball of cream in it, which you broke and stirred into the soup.


The meal was fun, the restaurant which rambled over several rooms of an old colonial era house was charming, the only downside here wasn’t execution but service, which raced through the meal and couldn’t wait to remove any plate that seemed possibly finished. I’m not sure what the cause of that was—it seemed unlikely they were desperate to turn the table. I think the kitchen probably wasn’t pacing it as well as they should and the servers were scrambling to make it work. Nevertheless, I’d recommend Pitiona too; not to dwell on price here, but $300 for four compared to the $500 and up for two you’d pay in the U.S. for a tasting menu goes a considerable ways toward covering your airfare to dine like this.


I hadn’t planned to eat at Los Danzantes, named (somewhat macabrely) for the most famous carvings at Monte Alban, of captured, castrated rival chiefs, but on the last day before our evening flight, it was right there and seemed like just the place to kill 2 hours at lunch. Which it was; the room could not be more dramatic, surrounded by three-story concrete walls with a catwalk wandering through foliage to a lounge and the bathrooms. Choose your own movie descriptor for this space—Bond villain HQ, the wall of Kong, no matter what, it was undeniable spectacle. (I especially loved that the bar turned out to be made of cars crushed into cubes. Wild!)



The food would have trouble living up to this and despite a Slow Food designation and a high rating (from Americans, presumably) on TripAdvisor, it wasn’t as artful or intriguing as Origen or Pitiona, tasting more like upscale Mexican flavors on American-style dishes. An appetizer of duck with Mexican spices was best, a white ocean fish rubbed with ash and Myles’ steak were fine, but something advertised as somebody’s grandma’s mole rojo didn’t have the kick or funkiness you’d hope for. This was the first that seemed more tourist-oriented than a local expression, but still, a grand setting from which to salute Mexico and say goodbye with a daytime drink in hand.


Other than taxis taking the shortcut over the hills, Itanoni marked my only venture even further north, into a neighborhood near the Park Llano that seemed sort of like the Upper West Side of Oaxaca, plenty of upscale shops and a relaxed air. Itanoni wasn’t nearly as upscale as the places above, but Alice Waters is said to have called it her favorite restaurant in Oaxaca and it’s easy to see why—it’s very serious, almost curatorial, toward the tortilla and what goes in it, dividing the menu by different kinds of corn from different microclimates, and the fillings specific to those (micro) regions— which you order like dim sum, checking them off on a sheet. (That said, my main inspiration for going here was less Alice Waters than Nick Kindelsperger and what he had to say about it here.)


Could I really taste the difference in tortillas made by hand between corn grown on the mountains and corn grown on the isthmus? No, but everything bespoke really careful craftsmanship, everything tasted clean, the way Rick Bayless’ Mexican food often does, and when I peeled open this flor de la calabaza tortilla to see its gorgeous petals inside, I felt like the peasant Juan Diego when the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was found on his cloak.



One last food experience, which both kids would rank among the best things we did on the trip. Belatedly I had the idea of doing a cooking class for the four of us, and found this blog post which talked about five popular classes. A couple were booked all week, one didn’t respond to the email form I sent through its website—and then I saw Casa Crespo as we were walking to Santo Domingo from the bus, across the street from Pitiona.

It was an American crowd doing it, save for one Swedish woman, including a couple from Logan Square—who asked me if I knew Grandma J’s in Humboldt Park. Talking to another couple, a police officer from L.A. and his wife, they mentioned a recent trip to Chicago and how they liked going to places on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—and said they’d been to Cemitas Puebla. I told them I’d had comments from Tony Anteliz, its owner, in response to my Tweets about this trip.

Anyway, we started off by going to a nearby mill to grind the corn for our tortillas, and then to the Sanchez Pascuas organic market to shop for ingredients (and sample some fruits you can only find in Mexico, like black zapote, which is like a plum filled with squid ink).



Back at the school, we began making an ambitious lunch ranging from handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese, flor de la calabaza and other ingredients, to chicken with mole, a cold avocado soup, and chocolate ice cream. I was really happy that the kids got into it and were proud of what they contributed to making. Gotta do more of that at home. It was a tasty lunch and a great experience.


And after working themselves up to it for most of the week, they tried bugs. At least, Myles put chapulines, grasshoppers, in his tortilla, while Liam at least tasted a salsa that had agave worms ground into it. Dad was proud.



A couple of final notes:

• Coffee. We didn’t have a coffeemaker in our villa so getting coffee before too much of the day had passed was a constant struggle. The only places serving anything like American-style coffee seemed to be in the touristed area between the Zocalo and Santo Domingo, so I pretty much had to be in one of those areas by lunchtime; finding caffeine in the rest of the city could be very hit or miss, or at least require you to sit down for a substantial breakfast to get a cafe con leche (not a fan, but it’ll do in a pinch). I relied mainly on two Italian-style chains, Cafe Brujula and The Italian Coffee Co., with multiple locations in this area.

• Baked goods. One thing I’ve never been wild about is Mexican baking. Mexicans can make really nice French pastries, but their own styles seem bland and flavorless to me, and it was disappointing to see so much of it in the markets and never find anything particularly good. The Italian-style coffee shops were your best bet for sitting down with something to nosh on; buying in quantity, the best French style pastries we found were just west of the Zocalo on Independencia at Pasteleria Carmelita, while we got a nice panettone and some crusty bread for Christmas at Pan & Co. near Santo Domingo.


• And one more ice cream place, just north of the Santo Domingo plaza: Manolo Nieves. This place had a somewhat unfriendly system— you had to order the quantity you wanted and pay for it, then tell them what flavors you wanted— but the flavors were top notch, a simple vanilla was terrific with burnt sugar notes. I had a rose petal one, which I knew I wouldn’t like but it was recommended by a woman there, Spanish or Italian or something, and as someone who gives a lot of advice, I sort of felt I had to take it. I’m still not a huge fan of rose flavor, but it was probably the most I’ve ever liked any thing rose flavored. By the way, tuna is not tuna ice cream—it’s prickly pear.

Zapotec foot bowls, in the museum.





One of the things I most wanted to see in Oaxaca was a single hallway in the markets just south of the Zocalo, the main square, lined with meat vendors and blazing charcoal grills. Yet when I got there, it was frightening and overwhelming, a Dickensian vision of bloody carnage and belching inferno, vendors swirling around me telling me what to buy (onions from him! tortillas from her! drinks from him!) as I could barely keep track of it all. Oaxaca’s market wasn’t magical, as the equally frantic Grand Bazaar in Istanbul had been, it was oppressive, a maddening hive of activity and din.

In another couple of hours I knew why I was having such a reaction: I was coming down with the cold two of my family had already had, coming down with it fast and hard, and my senses were already closing up shop in anticipation. The next day one son and I barely went out, and I was faced with the prospect of spending my entire time in Oaxaca in a hotel room as deprived of my customary diversions as a jail cell, while the very idea of spicy Mexican food turned me slightly green. To add to the postmodern preposterousness of my situation, one of the people whose Oaxacan recommendations I had followed, Rick Bayless, was tweeting from within a mile or two all the things I should be doing, as he lived in social media a Martha Stewartish vision of the celebrity’s glamour-filled, perfect in every way visit to Mexico:

Seeing the families turn out in the zocalo, the square, for Christmas Eve had been one of the goals of the trip— but we’d have been courting pneumonia to be out that night. Instead we found the only subtitled movie in town— El Hobbit— and plopped into chairs for three hours with big soft drinks on Christmas Eve, as if we were the stars of a Family Channel holiday special called “The Most American Christmas In Mexico Ever.” For dinner I ate a prefab ham sandwich at the movie theater. It was great.

The zocalo, facing the Cathedral of Oaxaca.

And happily, that and 12 hours of sleep seemed to break it. I’m still snuffling— I can’t put out my next podcast until my nose and throat clear enough to record the narration— but energy and interest began to return on Christmas Day and stayed with us for the remaining week of the trip. By the end, Oaxaca had gone from a fate I was cursing to a place I was halfway in love with. The first day back in Chicago, I regretted not being able to wander down the street to a tent hawking tacos al pastor. It seemed so quiet, having to have actual buildings for restaurants, after Oaxaca where they sprout between cracks in every sidewalk.

Before I got sick, we managed to see the Noche de Rabanos, carvings from locally grown radishes which line all four sides of the Zocalo, which are displayed on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve.



Anyway, despite losing a day and a half in the middle to the cold, and operating at half speed for a few days after that, we saw our way to a lot of really enjoyable food in Oaxaca, a town of about 400,000 which sprawls over the valleys and hillsides a couple of hours inland from the southernmost side of Mexico as it curves toward central America. Booking late, we couldn’t find anything in the central area, and wound up with a condo in a hotel complex up on 190, the Pan-American Highway, in an industrial/residential district of no particular loveliness. But in a lot of ways that was good; instead of being in an American B&B bubble in town, we took the Mexican buses (about 50 cents) into town and got to see things like the Sunday used car market— where everybody with a used car lines up along 190 and, of course, taco tents sprout everywhere.

The Mexican buses alone were worth the opportunity to take— they’re a whole community unto themselves, the expression of the driver’s personality, decorated up in various fashions, often with a buddy riding along to call out the stops and occasionally picking up vendors demoing the latest release by local musicians or selling trinkets. Other than the fact that they’re built for people on average a foot shorter than me, they were always interesting to ride.

We’re all riding on a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus. This was actually a tour bus to Monte Alban, not a city bus, but you get the idea.

The Best Tacos in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is so fecund with itinerant taco stands that you could spend a decade here and not sample them all— on the way back from Monte Alban, we saw an entire taco row we’d never had a glimpse of until then, which had the best-smelling rotisserie chicken of the trip. Another time! The point of taco-hunting, I think, is less to look for some internet recommendation of the very best in town, than to have a sense of how to taco-shop. Look for places where things are being freshly made in front of you, like tacos al pastor being sliced off the cone, or carne asada sizzling on the grill. Up on 190, this friendly place made very good pastor:

Cafeteria Los Dos Angeles, Oaxaca


Taqueria El Grillito, alas, did not grillito.

but another fooled us with the cone sitting out, but the meat being cooked on a griddle. Even there, though, we found something kind of interesting, tacos de papas— what would potato tacos with meat turn out to be? The answer was great drunk food, a baked potato finished on the grill and then topped with meat and cheese.


On the weekend, amid the used cars, a row of Michoacan-style carnitas and taco tents popped up. The carnitas were fantastic, pink as ham and maybe the best I’ve had, and the taco tent to its south not only served excellent carne asada but “enchilada” (which I think is just the same thing with a hotter seasoning). I’m not really recommending that you hop a bus out of town a couple of miles to try these specific places, but rather showing how high the level is, that almost anywhere you find a few tents making food, it has a good chance of being this good.

Carnitas de Michoacan.




But I promised the best tacos in Oaxaca and maybe I can fulfill that promise. Here’s my theory— food gets better with close competition. So if you were going to find a great taco place, it would likely be in an area dense with competing places, close to the heavy traffic of downtown. The epicenter of tacodom, then, seemed likely to be a specific spot just south of Trujano on the Periferico road that half-circles the central district, a 30s-Shanghai-like warren of stalls next to the enormous Abastos farmer/flea/fenced goods market and right where both the buses and the ride-share taxis all come together in the most harrowing clusterfark of traffic I’ve ever seen. Naturally, my older son and I took off one night to explore it.

Working the comal at Taqueria Los Cuates.

The taco stands here are more permanent, often cramming into a tiny space both a pastor cone and a metal comal, sort of like a convex wok, on which different kinds of meat will be sizzling. One guy operates the comal, another the pastor cone, slicing off meat and then flicking off a slice of pineapple from the top onto the tortilla held a few feet below. Tacos here are small and dirt cheap— two or three pesos, which is 15 or 20 cents each, though like sliders, you’d probably order a bunch at once, meaning a full dinner could run to as much as $1.50. At the first we tried pastor and tasajo, which is chopped beef (but pretty much has the texture of hamburger):

Our first stop— which part of the sign is the name? I’m not sure.

It was very good, but then we reached the next, Taqueria los Cuates. This time I ordered cecina, marinated pork. The pastor was letter perfect, crispy and with a citrusy tinge, but even better was the cecina, cooked with bits of grilled onion which made it taste like a 30s-style hamburger. The meat was flavorful, the tacos, warmed on the center of the comal, were crispy with little toasted edges… this was truly, The Best Taco in Oaxaca that we would find that night, or ever. We tried other things that night, including an empanada from a very peasanty-feeling stall which was however just fair (we abandoned it after a few bites), but nothing would top Taqueria los Cuates, and a few days later, we’d swing by there for another round, just as good, as a pre-dinner amuse-bouche.

I liked the Achewood-like mascot.

Flicking the pineapple.


Empanadas on a comal.

Myles and I making notes on video before we forget what we liked.

A few more notes on low-end dining:


• We only tried Pollo a la Lena, grilled chicken once, on Christmas Day, and encountered an odd situation where they didn’t want to sell us any of the chicken because they were already out of tortillas. At that point I’d be giving the stuff away rather than waste it, but we eventually succeeded at talking them into charging us the full price without giving us any tortillas. Victory! It was perfectly fine, but you’d have to take another trip to try more chicken places to get a sense of what makes for the best.

• There was a Tacos Arabes place I saw, near the Abastos area, selling that doner-inspired precursor to pastor, but he must have taken the time after Christmas off, because it was closed every time after that, alas.

The Mercado de Benito Juarez/Mercado de 20 Noviembre


And what about that Dickensian meat hall I mentioned at the beginning? If you’re not out of sorts as I was, it’s a must-visit just for sheer chaos and atmosphere, as is the entire market complex just south of the Zocalo. There are actually two market buildings; the northernmost, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, is full of vendors of trinkets, sombreros, mezcal for tourists to take back, and so on, but it also sells a lot of retail foodstuffs, from chickens and fish to baked goods, the local quesillo cheese (which is a million times better than any Mexican cheese you can get here) and moles, and ladies selling chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers.



The southernmost, the 20 de Noviembre, is full of restaurant stands serving comida (a homier sitdown lunch than taco stands), usually Oaxacan tamales, Sopa Azteca, that kind of thing. To be honest, although we had a nice meal or two there, after we had been to some of the other markets in the area the 20 de Noviembre seemed grimy and oppressive with both the restaurants and the vendors constantly hawking you (and some elaborate system of hoses bringing up foul odors from the nether regions of the building), and I’d recommend a much more relaxed experience at one like the Sanchez Pascuas organic market a few blocks north.

A pleasant comida of Oaxacan tamales and soup in the 20 de Noviembre market.


But there are two food stops in the first building, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, that you want to make. One is the aforementioned meat hall, which is somewhat separate and difficult to find from the inside, most easily found by looking for its separate entrance on the east side of the building. It’s an elemental food experience well worth having, though I was a bit disappointed that all the steak seemed to be thinly sliced and grilled to chewiness; I’d have loved a thicker cut cooked to medium rare. You order by the kilogram; we got one kilogram, 1/4 the balls of spicy chorizo, 3/4 steak, plus onions, salsas and tortillas, each ordered from and paid to a different person, in an atmosphere of complete frenzy where it seems hard to imagine anyone really collects all the money they’re due, but apparently they do.


La Chagüita.

The second is La Chagüita, an equally chaotic ice cream stand. Rick Bayless talked about this on The Feed but was vague about the precise location, and the rest of the internet is vaguer yet when not flat-out wrong (like Google Maps), so let me tell you the easiest way to find it: it is inside the Mercado Juarez, which has five main aisles, and the stalls in each are numbered something like 15, 115, 215, etc. La Chagüita is #27, so enter at the southeast corner, where the fresh fish are, and look for the first aisle, the two-digit numbers. Go straight north in that aisle and you’ll soon hit it (and other ice cream places).


Anyway, the reason that you want to do this is for the wildly exotic array of flavors of— what is it exactly? Sorbet? A slushy? I’m not sure, but it’s pretty great and the scene is highly entertaining. I ordered mango with chile and guanabana, which for some reason provoked hilarity from the staff, but I was happy as could be with my tangy, slushy choices.

That pretty much covers cheap eats; a post on fine-ish dining will follow. But I took two things away from taco hunting in Oaxaca— one, how good the street food is, but two, how good the Mexican food in Chicago is, in that I didn’t have things that made the food we have here seem a pale shadow of the real thing. Our batting average isn’t as high, but you can find things here that are about as good as most of the food we ate. Oaxaca is one of the great Mexican food cities, but in its own way, so is Chicago, don’t let anybody kid you. Well, except for the Mexican cheese.