Sky Full of Bacon

UPDATE: see this Menu Pages post if you didn’t just come from there.

Confronted with my earlier challenge not to go all New York-snooty on us and mock pizzas as thick as Stephen King novels, Serious Eats went out and picked somebody with Chicago street cred to make their list: my quasi-doppelganger (except for the part about being a decade younger), Mike Nagrant.

My verdict on their verdicts? Right choices, not right categories.

We match up on a number of choices.  This is no surprise, since a lot of places have sorted themselves out as the best in the foodie community and Nagrant doesn’t want to be contrarian for the sake of contrarianism.  At most, you can sense that he was probably going to come to the same answer I did (eg, Scooter’s for best ice cream) but decided to provide a broader answer with more choices.  And there’s nothing wrong with more choices, well chosen.

Where I still have a problem with their list is that, hot dogs, burgers, late night, it just doesn’t accurately represent the real diversity and interest of dining in Chicago to me.  Commenters have already called out the absence of Italian beef, which is like leaving cheese steak out of the Philadelphia one, but Nagrant had to invent (I suspect) a category for non-sushi Asian to get a Thai place in [CORRECTION: it was in the original NY list, and mine too], he has to turn Best Taqueria into Best Mexican to cover it adequately (which is like putting all Italian food under Best Pizza, basically), he has to sneak Indian food in by placing Khan BBQ in under late-night dining (as someone who’s never eaten there past 3 in the afternoon, it sure isn’t that for me) and Eastern European, which is everywhere here, and which Nagrant has written about before, is pretty much absent (there’s a category called “Eastern European Butcher,” which he picks Paulina and Gepperth’s for, both of which are, of course, Germanic and thus western European, if we’re being picky).  Ignoring Eastern European is no small thing because I have an east coast friend who, first thing he wants to do in Chicago is go eat Polish food, precisely because he can’t get it there.  It may not be something we think of as being as distinctive as the Bayless school of fine Mex, but it’s still a real strength of ours.

In short, I think Serious Eats has somewhat missed a chance here by picking the right guy to pick the answers—but not asking the right questions, at least not all of them.

Helen at Menu Pages plans to compare our choices head to head, so I’ll let her do that first, although I’ll say one thing about deep dish pizza— yeah, Burt’s is great (although I find the harried service post-Saveur rather offputting), but this isn’t a deep dish pizza:

That’s a pan pizza, which is what we train New Yorkers on before we reveal to them the full majesty and glory that is…

The Hallelujah chorus made edible in cheese and dough.  Spinach deep dish from Art of Pizza, the best pizza in Chicago.

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UPDATE: Helen at MenuPages has been blogging this deathmatch but Serious Eats actually responds in a shockingly reasonable way.  That’s no way to run a feud, guys!  Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie didn’t become famous by shaking hands and saying “Good game!”  (I realize you’ve probably never heard of at least one of those guys, but trust me, they were famous once.)  There’s somewhat more nasty fun to be had in the comments below.  

I will quibble a little with the idea that any list like this can be “authoritative”; I think any list like this is worthwhile only in that it gives you a strong selection of places to try for yourself, but the question of best can never be settled, should never, except personally.  That’s why the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant awards don’t pick the best Thai restaurant in Chicago, they give awards to four different ones (I think) which each represent a very high level of achievement above the pack.  I know which of those I think the best is, I named it below, but all that is is my choice.  So, we’ll look forward to what Serious Eats’ Chicago guy picks across the board… and we’ll maintain our private opinion that there would have been a lot more slagging on the idea of deep dish if we hadn’t called them on it in advance.  Take that, Winchell!

*  *  *

Ed Levine is a smart guy who loves New York pizza and food generally, and has a blog called Serious Eats which (MenuPages informs us) now intends to provide a guide to essential eating experiences in major cities. (You can see New York’s here.)

The problem is, Ed Levine hates Chicago pizza. No, perhaps it would be fairer to say Ed Levine has a blind spot for Chicago pizza. As in, Ed Levine, looking at a map of the United States, would not see anything between Brooklyn and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, basically.

So Ed Levine writing about essential Chicago foods is going to be sort of like Sean Penn’s guide to Great Republican Secretaries of Defense. There are many things I would like to hear from Ed Levine, but I can’t see how this list is going to be anything other than tired old rehashings of tired old New York-Chicago rivalries. Anyway, in advance of Levine’s list, I’ll use his categories for New York (don’t know if his list will use the same ones, but whatever) and offer a non-jaundiced local’s alternative set. If anybody else wants to play the game, do so in comments, I’ll be happy to see your list too.

Best Pizza: deep dish, Art of Pizza spinach. Thin, Vito & Nick’s sausage.
Best Burger: Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly.
Best Ice Cream: Scooter’s.
Best Late Night Eats: I dunno, I don’t eat out late. Kuma’s, since they didn’t make the burger spot?
Best Bar Food: Avec, in a walk.
Best Date Night: Surely this category says more about you than about the restaurant scene, depending on how you determine what makes an ideal date night, but I’m going to say that the most romantic place I can think of, good food in a great building, is North Pond Cafe. If you want energy and scene, though, you’ll want something else entirely.
Best Japanese Food: Katsu.
Best Cocktails: Just to be difficult, I’m going to skip the obvious choice (Violet Hour) and plug the surprisingly great natural-organicky cocktails at Crust (though it’s not much of a bar).
Best Market: Again, what do you want precisely? I suppose I’ll say Paulina Meat Market, a Germanic place being quintessentially Chicagoish.
Must Eat Before Leaving City:
see Best Pizza.
Best Bagel: Ironically, NY Bagel & Bialy on Touhy. Or go have an apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts.
Best Eating With a View: Long time since I ate with a view I paid much attention to. North Pond again? Mercat a la Planxa? (Though I’m not convinced you actually get that view from most of the tables; it’s best when you walk in.) Tank Noodle?
Best Chinese: Sun Wah! Well, for that style, anyway.
Best Old School [Chicago] Landmark: We’re kinda shy on those any more, there really isn’t a Peter Luger of Chicago (yeah, Gene & Georgetti, I did remember you and I still stand by it). Manny’s?
Best Deli: Manny’s. Gee, that was obvious.
Best Streetside Bargain Lunch: Humboldt Park vans.
Best Fancy-Pants Bargain Lunch: huh?  (EDIT: My wife suggests Trotter’s To Go, where she eats soup for lunch practically every day.  Makes sense to me.)
Best Brunch Without the Wait: Go early, sucker. Over Easy Cafe.
Best Bargain Italian Food: I’m not convinced there is one.
Best Barbecue: Uncle John’s.

I guess New York doesn’t have a Best Indian place. Too bad, Ed, maybe next time you can skip pizza you don’t like, and eat at Khan BBQ. Then have Best Thai at TAC (there’s something I have, if not before leaving city, certainly after spending any length of time in a Thai-deprived zone), and Best Mexican at Maxwell Street on Sunday morning. (I have to say, a New York list that’s focused so much on burgers, Italian and old school fancy pants dining seems a little fusty to me. That’s just not the food that keeps me prowling this burg. Here’s hoping Chicago isn’t forced to follow New York’s categories exactly, and can shine on its own in a few specific areas.)

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