This year marks the 27th in a row I’ve contributed, in one form or another, to an alternative weekly’s Best of issue. Most years, the reward for engaging in the tedious process of validating all the things readers like is the opportunity for us to tell them where they’re wrong. When it comes to the endless Food & Drink category, I’m sorry, readers, but you get an awful lot wrong.
Some of it isn’t your fault. Every year, the results of this popularity contest are thrown off by the time-honored practice of campaigning—or outright ballot stuffing—on the part of aspiring winners and their minions. How else to explain the dominance of Pizzeria Uno, aka Uno Pizzeria & Grill, that venerable tourist trap with the somewhat dubious claim of having invented deep-dish pizza, the city’s unquestionably most dubious signature food? Uno was a finalist in a whopping 15 categories this year, including best overall restaurant, best pub grub, and best fancy restaurant. But while Uno upset Reader staff writer Leor Galil for best pizza (see Staff Pick: Third runner-up, best pizza), it only placed first in a single category: “Best bang for your buck.” Perhaps the oddest thing about this organized effort is that Uno’s backers give nothing to Pizzeria Due, its sibling across the street.
The chutzpah of these pizza partisans is matched only by those pledged to Funkenhausen, a legitimately commendable West Town restaurant that managed to place in 12 categories, most suspiciously best barbecue and best soul food. This is a German restaurant, people. Furthermore, while Funkenhausen’s Mark Steuer is a great chef, he’s been around the block for awhile—definitely not “up and coming,” as many of you seem to think.
You didn’t do all bad, though, readers. I fully support your choice of Smyth as best fancy restaurant (beating both Uno and Funkenhausen). Of course, Lost Lake is a great tiki bar. Dark Matter Coffee is easily the most interesting and worthwhile coffee shop and roaster at our disposal. And while you clearly aren’t paying any attention to the exciting stuff in Chinatown I’ve been begging you to check out, I love that you love the throwback magic of North Center’s House of Wah Sun.
But do you really think the skinless mush tubes at Superdawg are acceptable hot dogs, or do you just think hot dog mascots Maurie and Flaurie are adorbs? If you voted Portillo’s for best Italian beef, you’ve never been to Johnnie’s Beef. If you continue to insist on Opart Thai for best Thai, you’ve never been to Aroy Thai, Rainbow Thai Cuisine, or Paula’s Thai Kitchen.
My theory for the perennial dominance of the thin, watery pho at Tank Noodle that always wins best Vietnamese is that every time some reporter with a freshly deployed parachute asks Grant Achatz for his favorite restaurants, Tank is what he comes up with. In fairness, workaholic chefs don’t get out much and maybe don’t have the bandwidth to walk a minute down Argyle to Nha Hang Viet Nam. What’s your excuse?
Apparently, readers, you don’t get out enough either. In no category is this more evident than “Best Greek restaurant.” I guess because Chicago has a designated Greektown, the hive mind can’t jump its figurative fence. This year’s popular winner is Greek Islands, with its faux Doric columns a veritable Parthenon of flaming cheese. Here they’ve been slinging saganaki for close to half a century, but for much of that time two usurpers were operating within.
In 1979, a young Thanasi Bournas arrived in Chicago from the tiny mountain village of Magouliana and found work at Greek Islands as a busboy. His brother George came in the next year, and over the next three decades they worked their way up in the front and back of the house, respectively, until they could go no higher. Seven years ago they seized the opportunity to buy a spot on an unlovely stretch of Touhy next to the expressway, far from Greektown tourist money, but close enough to the Greeks that migrated to northern suburbs via Lincoln Square.
The restaurant, Psistaria Greek Taverna, actually got its start in Lincoln Square—at the time, Chicago’s actual Greektown—before relocating to Lincolnwood years ago. But it seemed to have lost its way by the aughts, when a Reader reviewer said it had “seen better days.”
That was before the Bournas brothers came in, however. In the kitchen George has instituted a rigorous from-scratch approach to everything from whole lambs, butchered in-house, to yogurt and gyros—no mass-molded meat cones here—to the “Chef George Special,” a labor-intensive village salad of feta, beet, and arugula, to the sweet and savory pastries made daily by George’s wife, Dina.
Thanasi, aka Tom, has applied the same efficient but warm Greektown service regimen: white-clad servers blaze through the dining room, spreading out a deep selection of dishes over the tables like card dealers, yet still dissect fresh whole fish flown from the islands with the grace of heart surgeons.
And yes, they’ll light your saganaki on fire if you like, but the relative absence of nonnatives who make their way to Lincolnwood guarantees commensurately fewer opahs! on any given night. That doesn’t mean Psistaria isn’t regularly packed.
So where have you been?