Bun Bo Xao Nam Bo at Buncha Hanoi Credit: KRISTAN LIEB for Chicago Reader

People always say to me: “Mike,” they say. They say “Mike, how do you maintain your waifish figure?” My answer is always the same: housing fistfuls of sugar-free gummy bears.

But that’s just one of the reasons I managed to lose 30 pounds in 2019. The primary one is that journalism is on a starvation diet and as a result I don’t eat out nearly as much as I used to. Consequently I don’t have an end-of-the-year hot list, but at least I can breathe when I bend over picking half-eaten burritos off the sidewalk. Another upside: I have no idea what kind of aural wallpaper restaurants are overworking on Randolph Street playlists these days.

I also lost my once formidable tolerance for unhealthy volumes of whiskey, but now I have my memories! Here are the top ten:

1. Getting my face lasered onto a slice of cheese at the National Restaurant Show.

Credit: MIke Sula for Chicago Reader

2. Cherries jubilee at Mirabella.

3. A chef calling me a dick in the best way he knows how.

Credit: MIke Sula for Chicago Reader

4. Amish donuts from a parking lot in semisuburban Virginia.

Credit: MIke Sula for Chicago Reader

5. Cooking at home again on a regular basis: whatever I want, whenever I want. If there’s something wrong with dinner I know exactly who to blame. My phone is full of weird and occasionally wonderful things I cooked and ate that I’ll never write about. A fellow needs to keep some secrets.

Okay, I did do some food writing this year and the nice thing about how things are going is that it’s less of a roll of the dice. In most cases I’m writing about subjects I can be pretty enthusiastic about, rather than grappling with interesting ways to explain why something isn’t worth your hard-earned money. You’ll just have to read about Tao on Yelp.

From left: Wagyu brisket, smoked lamb terrine, cannelloni, porchetta, confit potatoes at Flat & PointCredit: Sandy Noto For chicago reader

6. Only three restaurants I wrote about this year went out of business, which feels pretty good relative to previous bloodbaths: Pink Salt (when Fulton Galley went bust), Umacamon (which closed just two weeks after I wrote about it—that explains why they were so reluctant to work with a photographer), and WokNChop, which, on the bright side, begat Sheeba Mandi House.

7. Ripping dabs with Mindy was fun. Impending legalization made for a more permissive atmosphere in which to write about getting high, so Mom’s Purple Kush cream puff and Dark Matter’s Supernova Bar were no big whoop. Expect to see a lot more of that stuff coming up (as soon as next week even).

8. The jury is still out on whether the food hall is a good business model for budding restaurateurs, but at least in the case of Politan Row it brought some stellar and previously underground chefs into the limelight, such as the folks behind Mom’s, Bumbu Roux, and Thattu.

9. If all I had to write about was sandwiches I’d be happy. I still dream about the CFC sandwich at Hermosa, the Cubano at Mima’s, the doner at Ali Baba, and the lecsó sandwich at Finom.

10. Best of all, giving love to the sort of places that don’t retain publicists makes it all worthwhile: such as El Sabor Poblano and Kizin Creole in Rogers Park, or Flat & Point in remote western Logan Square, Café Antigua in Jefferson Park, Slab in South Shore, and Hermosa in Hermosa. Ask me what the hottest dining neighborhood is and I’ll say suburban Glenview, home of Kairali Foods and Buncha Hanoi.

Annual year in review columns are usually a gimme for writers; an easy rehash of work already done. But looking back on this year was sobering, realizing that Amazon reviews of sugar-free gummy bears are the highest form of food criticism I can aspire to. v