Have we reached peak food list yet? There’s no surer vehicle for clicks than lists, however Pavlovian they may feel when you’re the one clicking on them, and food media have taken to them with a vengeance, announcing the ten best burgers and the 11 sexiest pho joints and the 12 chicken ‘n’ waffles you must eat now to be a playah. I could certainly make a case that lists are edging more substantive food-related content out of the marketplace—”I’m gonna write about sexism in wine selling just as soon as I finish ranking Chicago’s ten hottest somms”—but I’d be a hypocrite for doing it because I write them too. Though I didn’t write the one that incited the most anger last week: Chicagoist’s list of the 12 best tacos in Chicago. If we’ve hit peak food list, it’s clear that we’ve hit peak skeptical commenter on food lists too.
On Twitter and in the comments, Chicagoist was served supersize portions of all of the grief that many list makers grow used to: basically, your choices suck, your choices are so white, your choices are all on the north side. The first is just your opinion, man, but the latter two are fair—though I’ll tell you, I can write a list that’s half south-side joints and I’ll still get a scornful comment saying that I didn’t list anywhere to eat in Pullman, and therefore I know nothing about Chicago and must be from Iowa. (Hey, there isn’t anywhere to eat in Pullman. I’ve tried!) There are days I think the most prominent geologic feature on the south side is the chip on its shoulder.
Still, when the list is Mexican and there’s no sign of Pilsen or Little Village on it, they begin to have a point. (It did list two stands at Maxwell Street, and past editions of the same list have included places on the south side.) The thing is, I actually kind of like this list—its problem is just that the headline is inaccurate about what it’s promising. If the people behind the list had described the assignment (which according to Chicagoist food editor Melissa McEwen came from Gothamist in New York to all the affiliated local sites) as what it really was—We Asked Staffers to Name Their Favorite Taco Joint, What’s Yours?—it wouldn’t have set itself up for all the abuse. But then it also wouldn’t have had an SEO-friendly title containing the magic word “best.”
“Best” is the most important word in any list headline, because that’s what people search for—”best doughnut in Wilkes-Barre,” “best place to get wasted in Provo,” and so on. So you want your list to not only come up in those results, but to look like the most definitive, unimpeachable source among them. The reality is, though, that just because a publication called it that, the reader doesn’t really know how much of an expert the list compiler is. There’s an awfully good chance that, working for peanuts, some writer just took the results off previous lists and scrambled them around. That’s especially true of national lists—look, nobody travels around and eats cheeseburgers constantly enough to really tell you what the 100 best cheeseburgers in America are. A list like that is basically created entirely out of Google searches, and mostly represents the places that had hot reputations a decade ago and linger online. Kuma’s will stand in for Chicago forever—that is, assuming the compiler is hip enough to know about that place and isn’t still hyping the Billy Goat.
Locally made lists certainly can be better, but it’s up to you to be a savvy reader and judge how much actual tasting rather than just googling went into the list. I only write about places I’ve really been to, and I use an assignment as an excuse to finally try some places I’ve been meaning to get to forever (Mabenka was really good), but any review represents a specific point in time and there’s no telling if my visit, which could have been in 2009, represents today accurately. But then there’s no telling if my visit last Tuesday does, either. Restaurants are ever-changing things.
The most rigorous person about this at the moment is Steve Dolinsky. If you follow the ABC 7 food correspondent/the Feed cohost right now on Twitter or Instagram, you can follow along as he tries pizza places for an upcoming Pizza Week on his blog, and offers blunt commentary on what he likes or doesn’t like along the way—several times a day. I went with him last Tuesday as he hit four pizza joints plus a Sicilian bakery with sheet pizza, and after I went home stuffed, he hit two more that night. When I suggested that surely there were places he knew well enough to skip returning to, he said no, he felt he had to try, say, Vito & Nick’s alongside the others within a fairly confined period, to judge them all fairly against each other.
That’s how it should be done, but it’s exactly what few have the budget or time for, not only to pay for all those meals but to bring everything else to a halt so the writer can do nothing but eat pizza for a month. Dolinsky is doing it because when he tackled Italian beef with similar rigor a year ago, it produced the most traffic his site has ever had by far—and from my own experience with beef-mad Chicagoans, I believe it. So pizza seemed a logical next topic for such devotion (though he doubts that many other popular foods, like hot dogs, really have enough variation to be worth such an effort).
To return to the Chicagoist list, the issue is, as I said, that it’s billed as a 12-best list when that’s not how it was compiled. Contributors to all of the site’s sections were asked to name their own favorite taco spot. Turning that into “the best” would have been like asking me for my favorite Lolla act and then doing the same at the Reader, because I’ve totally heard of at least six or seven of the roughly 300 bands that played this weekend and my opinion is completely expert. The results were, indeed, almost all north side and often not all that “authentic,” but then, that wasn’t really the question. We all like things and find them comfy without any illusion that they’re “the best” in any culturally valid sense. I would have been fine with that list had it been correctly billed precisely because it would have represented the opinions of some real people, which is the antidote to the same ten places getting googled and regurgitated over and over.
So in the end, we can’t live with lists and we can’t live without ’em. A well-constructed one, especially if it covers a less familiar area or breaks out of the “best” straitjacket, is fun to create, fun to read, and fun to check off your own experiences against for all the reasons that we feel compelled to turn the world into lists that Nick Hornby explained in High Fidelity. And on that note, as you may have noticed, I’ve sprinkled throughout this post ten tacos worth checking out on the south side, a subject I happen to have both choices and copious photos of mainly thanks to another, long-ago list assignment. The best? Better than anything on Chicagoist’s list? Nah, just a list that might be helpful if you’re ever down that way, presented in no particular order by a guy who knows some places down there and knows there are more yet that he hasn’t tried. If you’ve got a tip on some good ones, tell me about them too.