Sky Full of Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get your copy of The Fooditor 99 here.

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