Journalists are like rats, not only because we like to eat but also because powerful forces are trying to eradicate us. Ratatouille, an animated film about a cheffy rat and probably the most meaningful movie of all time for food nerds, resonated especially for me because the Reader, my home for more than a decade, underwent waves of heartbreaking downsizing this year. Sure, I identified with the movie’s food critic, Anton Ego—in fact, I dressed as him for Halloween—but I felt more for Remy the rodent, who was under constant threat yet comforted and sustained by his passion for cooking. For my part, I’m grateful for the opportunity to take solace in eating well and writing about it. And I’m encouraged that 2008 is the Year of the Rat. Here, in no particular order, are some people, places, and dishes that made me feel better during the long Year of the Pig. You can read about all of them at greater length online by clicking the links in this piece at chicagoreader.com.
THE VIOLET HOUR
Some people thought I’d lost my bearings when I tried to convince them that Toby Maloney’s neo-speakeasy wasn’t just a set piece for Wicker Park hipsters to dump their money into. But this year in that bar I’ve learned more about how to taste and drink like an adult than in all my years above legal age. Try the Dark & Stormy—you’ll see. a1520 N. Damen, 773-252-1500
Ben Li’s hole-in-the-wall Szechuan restaurant continues to swipe market share from Lao Sze Chuan with aggressively authentic dishes like fish in chile broth and silky pocket tofu, and a few innovative ones like butter-sweet crunchy black pepper-garlic steak. a 228 W. Cermak, 312-842-7818
Despite my misgivings about the all-vegetarian menu, this Gujarati-Jain restaurant in Glendale Heights reminded me that a meat-free meal could be revelatory. a 130 E. Army Trail, Glendale Heights, 630-893-5800
It’s hard to believe there’s no sorcery involved in the creation of Nick and Natalie Zarzour’s superior Sicilian pastries. a5406 N. Clark, 773-989-0662
The Aksoy family brings southeastern Turkey to this bitty Lakeview spot with regional specialties such as the pizzalike flatbread lahmacun and the spicy raw meat and bulgur meatballs known as cig kofte. Their storefront’s so friendly and unpretentious it’s like eating in their family room. a1650 W. Belmont, 773-327-5800
WINGS AROUND THE WORLD
Abeng Stuart’s Bronzeville wing joint dresses chicken pinions, grilled or fried, in 50 flavors based on different world cuisines. It’s remarkable that a lineup so wide ranging is so consistently good. But if you order the Kamikaze, don’t plan on eating anything else for the rest of the day. a321 E. 35th, 312-326-6930
The Chicago area’s only restaurant specializing in the bright flavors of the Yucatan Peninsula always rejiggers my assumptions about Mexican food. It may be that the unbelievably friendly Contreras family has a bit of Like Water for Chocolate mojo working for them—you can taste the love. a5135 W. 25th, Cicero, 708-652-8680
OLD TOWN BRASSERIE
There’s no resisting the viral conviviality of Bob Djahanguiri’s Parisian-style brasserie, a close but comfortable room offering late-night music and classic French food with a few Asian tweaks from consummate pro Roland Liccioni. a1209 N. Wells, 312-943-3000
Now that Timo has closed too, more’s the pity that Wicker Park wasn’t ready for John Bubala’s Piedmontese restaurant, which shut its doors this fall. Inspired by a trip to Slow Food International’s Terra Madre conference in Italy, Bubala showed a commitment to locally sourced ingredients that took homey dishes such as red-wine-braised lamb tongue, sausage-stuffed squid, and tortellini brodo with house-cured lardo past the point of decadence.
KIM’S KOREAN RESTAURANT
Another casualty, this Mount Prospect strip-mall tenant specialized in five varieties of grilled pork belly, or samgyeopsal, from “black pig,” (aka Berkshire or Kurobuta pork). Kim’s treated it with more seriousness and respect than anyplace I know of outside Korea. Unfortunately it seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
AND THEN THERE WAS . . .
Chicken boti at Khan B.B.Q. (2401 W. Devon, 773-274-8600); the Minsk Reuben burger at Kuma’s Corner (2900 W. Belmont, 773-604-8769); pupusas from Pupuseria Las Delicias (3300 W. Montrose, 773-267-5346); the first sign of spring: snow peas at Sun Wah Bar-B-Que (1134 W. Argyle, 773-769-1254); a tissue-thin slice of nutty-smelling jamon Iberico from Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine (2945 N. Broadway, 773-472-4781); Armandino Batali’s mole salami at A Mano (335 N. Dearborn, 312-629-3500); American mulefoot bacon from Tommy Clair of Crystal Creek Farm in Ash Grove, Missouri; a pickled fig from Socorro Vega in Oaxaca City; smoked blue cheese from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery; meat and three at Arnold’s in Nashville; Alice Mine with rye at Weegee’s (3659 W. Armitage, 773-384-0707); one-year-old country ham cured by Doug Freeman in Cadiz, Kentucky; fried chicken from Prince’s in Nashville; an outrageously expensive but perfect Sazerac at Powerhouse Restaurant and Bar (215 N. Clinton, 312-928-0800); deep-fried Caveny Farms Bourbon Red turkey; steak sandwich (yes, without pickles) at El Cubanito (2555 N. Pulaski, 773-235-2555); roast pork bun from KS Seafood (RIP); sausage pizza from Coalfire (1321 W. Grand, 312-226-2625); cornish hen at Al-Khaymeih (4748 N. Kedzie, 773-583-0999); carne en su jugo at El Taco Veloz (1745 W. Chicago, 312-738-0363); and the special banh mi at Nhu Lan Bakery (2612 W. Lawrence, 773-878-9898).v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.