Sky Full of Bacon

Top Ten Dining List for 2022, or: My Year of a New Normal


2022 could have been the year that everything went back to normal. But of course it was never going to be that—we’re still figuring out what the new normal is. For me, my habit—of twenty years, as the list of past top tens at the bottom shows—of scouting the city for new things, which sometimes pays off, often does not, came to an end with lockdown. Not that I still don’t try more new things than most people, I’m sure, but with my book to work on I’m no longer driving up and down, say, 43rd street in Canaryville looking for new awnings indicating new places to try. I’m more likely to explore like that on trips these days.

Which is to say that this year’s list, as far as Chicago goes, is lacking in new south side Mexican spots that I’ve discovered, new pizza places, new Asian restaurants. Someone else can find those at the moment—I’m hanging out in the 80s with Chuck Trotter and Jean Banchet for my book of Chicago restaurant history. So much of my list involved making a reservation at a mid-to-upscale place for a special event, or being invited somewhere. Not so much the modest-priced places in the neighborhoods that I’ve been a champion of for so long (though I’ll tell you to go eat dumplings at Four Seasons Dumplings, on south Halsted). And if you’re looking for startups serving one night a week out of a ghost kitchen or at a bar pop-up, well, I just didn’t have the energy to go chasing such elusive things this year—nor do I consider them on the same level of “exciting new restaurant” as places that open with a full kitchen five or six days a week, and still exist three months after getting that rave review in a big publication.

So, anyway, here are the things I remembered best from 2022:

10. Roasted squash with salsa macha, skirt steak with chipotle chèvre, Libertad.
I’ve been a modest fan of this pan-Latin restaurant in Skokie—not the first suburb that says pan-Latin—for years, mainly because it made an easy fall back choice for dinner after taking the family to a movie theater in that area. It rose to new heights with a new chef—Mark Mendez, former owner of Vera (and veteran of Carnivale). Like with his deceptively simple Spanish dishes at Vera, Mendez is a master of cooking that underpromises and overdelivers with bright, precise flavors.

9. Hot fudge croissant, bananas foster kolache, Mindy’s Bakery.
All these new bakeries, the Tribune has been trying hard to sell us one called Sugar Moon Bakery as the miracle of the year, but give me an older (well, not as old as Dinkel’s) bakery that has opened a new, bakery-only place (it used to, of course, be a restaurant as well, Mindy’s Hot Chocolate). Of all 2022’s bakeries, Mindy’s has the broadest choice of interesting and outstanding baked goods, the highest batting average in results—and not surprisingly, the biggest line out the door.

8. Tasting menu, Indienne.
From my newsletter: “One of the most intriguing and eye-opening modernist meals I’ve had in many years. It’s located in the space on Huron where Graham Elliot once was, redesigned with classily understated taste that seems compatible with Indian cuisine without consciously calling out the cliches of that culture. And that location is fitting, as it seemed one of the few meals in recent years (the modernist take on Yucatan food at Brass Heart would be another) that evoked the playfulness and imaginativeness, the sense of something new, that modernist cooking promised back in Graham Elliot’s c. 2008 day here.”

7. Ratatouille pithivier, Obélix.
“Pithivier”—a type of spiral pastry used with savory as well as sweet dishes in classic French cooking—is a word I had not encountered much before I was writing about Chicago’s French restaurants of the 70s and 80s. But pithiviers were apparently common then at places like Le Francais and Le Perroquet. Anyway, I really liked Obélix stuffing one with ratatouille, a classic French vegetable dish. Not what Banchet or Jovan would have done with it, but…

6. Fish sauce on everything! at Marjie’s Grill, New Orleans.
Taking a trip there early in the spring with Son #1 and his girlfriend, we ate at a bunch of places I liked a lot in New Orleans—Coquette is probably what I would have said was the best for more upscale dining than fried chicken at the time, but one that stuck with me a few weeks later was this sort of good ol’ Southern take on funky Asian food, from a couple of Herbsaint vets (but a familiar Chicago name has also passed through the kitchen—Jeff Pikus of Alinea, Rootstock, etc.) It seemed like a Vietnamese/Southern version of what Fat Rice was when it first opened, a hipster version of classic Asian flavors in a setting that seemed decorated by a flea market. To me, it felt like the funky future of dining.

5. Coal-roasted beets, charred brussel sprouts, tuna crudo, Rose Mary.
One of 2021’s hottest openings, Joe Flamm’s restaurant is still a hard-to-get reservation if not quite so much as before. In any case the combination of Italian and Croatian food is hearty and of broad appeal, at least in Chicago where we know what cevapcici is, but what pleasantly surprised me was that a delicate tuna crudo with beef fat vinaigrette and some vegetables done on the restaurant’s open hearth were just as satisfying. (Photo of me and Son #1 at Rose Mary by Susan D. Snyder).

4. The Big Sandwich, Publican Quality Bread.
The new bakery run by One Off baker Greg Wade has a confusing schedule of different things available throughout the day; mid-day there’s a huge sandwich on crusty housebaked bread that’s sort of like pizza crust, with ham and cheese and housemade mostarda, sold by the pound. How good is it? There’s a bakery near the theater in Pordenone where they make the exact same sandwich. There is no higher praise for me than “this tastes just like I had in Italy.”

3. Tasting menu, Elizabeth.
Sorry to see that chef Ian Jones is leaving Elizabeth and it will be reconcepted as a place called Atelier; we went in the summer because I hadn’t heard anything about it in its then-current form, and discovered a gem bringing back the conceptual dining of the late 2000s/early 2010s with inventive foraged cuisine and playful ideas (we got one course in a lunchbox, a la Next: Childhood).

2. White beans, radicchio, and bacon, La Ferrata, Pordenone, Italy.
I went to this northern Italian town for a film festival for the second year; the food is always happy, but had not really been distinguished until I went to this place specializing in cuisine of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region and got this dish—white beans, radicchio which I think wasn’t even cooked, just stuck into the hot beans to get softened a little, and “bacon” (I assume by bacon they meant pancetta). Earthy and fantastic, peasant food at its best in a place old enough it still has the kind of restroom where you just stand and pee into a hole in the floor, something I haven’t seen in Western Europe since the 80s.

1. Fried chicken, vegan red beans and rice, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans.
It was still winter up north when we left for New Orleans, and ran into enough hurricane-like weather when we were there (not a hurricane, but strong rains which made plenty of noise on tin rooftops) that it canceled the Mississipi part of our trip. Still, I enjoyed New Orleans so much more this time, and hardly ate a bad thing, unlike our trip a decade ago that made me think I’d found all the tired, overhyped tourist places in town. Easily the best thing we had—we had it twice, the second time at a food hall—was fried chicken at this famous place. How much better could one fried chicken be than the countless other fried chickens I’ve had? Well, it was, that’s all I can say. We grew very quiet and exchanged secret smiles and whispered to each other, “This just might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.” Same for a bowl of red beans and rice, rich with meaty flavor except it wasn’t—it was vegan.


I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

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