Lucky for you, Lao Peng You’s dumplings are still available for carryout. Credit: jeff marini for chicago reader

Usually I spend a couple sentences in my look back at the year in food mourning the new places that, despite my earnest love for them, didn’t make it past that first critical year or so. It’s by that standard that I’m going to declare 2020 one of the greatest years in Chicago restaurant history.

Kidding! We all know how much it sucked.

Even if the Powerhouse, Julia Gham’s Cameroonian restaurant, was the only wonderful new restaurant in Chicago to fall victim to the virus, that would be enough to make this an awful year in eating. 

But it was much, much worse than that, wasn’t it? You struggle for words to describe it. Catastrophic isn’t overwrought. And it still isn’t over. The bailout the restaurant industry so desperately needs is nowhere in sight, and what’s happening now as a result has been loudly predicted since March. Everybody knew carryout and a summer of patio and limited indoor dining would not be enough, and now we’re watching all the awful predictions unfold in real time. 

If Powerhouse suffered the curse of being the second restaurant I write about in a year, at least the first, Lao Peng You, is still cranking out its magnificent dumplings, if only for carryout. Andersonville’s Little Madrid is still serving tapas, and Lincoln Square’s Serbian O16 is still kicking too, converting to a sandwich shop next week. I’m nearly convinced the white ma po tofu ramen at Des Plaines’s Chicago Ramen inoculated me from COVID-19 because shortly after I sucked it up, everything fell apart really fast. I’m grateful to it, and all the others that have persevered. 

There were so many closings, permanent and hopefully temporary, but there was still just too much good food to write about, from Mickey Neely’s pizza at Ludlow Liquors, to the new deli Jeff and Jude’s, to Milly’s Pizza in the Pan.

In the early days it was heartening to see how restaurant people quickly mobilized to help one another, whether it was the quick thinkers behind Dining at a Distance, aggregating all the carryout intel on one handy site. Or how Erick Williams’s Virtue crew dropped carryout to make hot meals for nighttime residents at the University of Chicago Medical Center. What about how 80 of the city’s best chefs and bartenders contributed recipes to our community cookbook, Reader Recipes: Chicago Cooks and Drinks at Home, benefitting the paper and the Comp Tab Relief Fund for out-of-work hospitality workers? I hope we do one of those every year to come. (You can still buy it.)

But one thing I did not want to do when patios and dining rooms reopened this summer was police restaurants and their COVID safety protocols. I yelled at enough assless maskholes in grocery and liquor stores on my own time. I didn’t want it to become my job. I ate on one patio this summer, and it was nerve-wracking. Even if it was safe, it didn’t feel like it.

So I spent my time seeking out hospitality workers who were figuring out how to make a living making food safely outside the conventional brick-and-mortar restaurant paradigm. And just as it was in Chicago’s recent golden age of restaurant openings, there were almost too many stories to tell. Everywhere you looked, furloughed chefs and workers were popping up, introducing the city to food it never knew outside of a home kitchen, like the underrepresented regional treasures of Jasmine Sheth’s Tasting India Series, or Ethan Lim’s full embrace of Khmer food at Hermosa, or Yuta Katsuyama filling the onigiri-shaped void in Chicago’s Japanese fast food scene. 

One of the common denominators of these stories was that each chef was reaching back into their histories and drawing on food traditions and cultures that might not have a place in the old Chicago restaurant world, from the Vietnamese treats of the Snack Collective, to Eve Studnicka (Dinner at the Grotto) and Alexis Thomas’s (Black Cat Kitchen) Midwestern-weird mobile supper club. And then there was Furious Spoon’s Shin Thompson fully embracing Japanese curry at Bokuchan, thanks to the low overhead of a ghost kitchen; John Avila focusing on the food of Indonesia’s North Sulawesi with Minahasa; and the regional Malaysian food of Kedai Tepao—all delivered to your door by the hustling chefs who made it themselves.

Producers and purveyors had to adjust too, but wondrous things happened. There was the opening of Griffith, Indiana’s The Wurst, a butcher shop specializing in small-scale, pasture-raised, GMO- and antibiotic-free meats, while farmer Vera Videnovich was saving old Balkan crops with a Native American growing method, and Rachel Kimura was growing uncommon Japanese produce according to the principles of an experimental, anything-goes natural farming philosophy.

I was privileged to witness and document the resilience of operators who just kept pushing through, making great food however they could, likeAtichat and Inon Srisawangpan of Uptown’s In-On Thai, which came roaring back to business only to have to contract and sell its great food through a window. Or Dinkey DaDiva, creator of the jerk chicken egg rolls (and 70-some others), starting her empire in a suburban gaming parlor chain. Or Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra, who opened a novel “COVID-proof” Lebanese-Mexican mashup Evette’s. Or Passerotto’s Jennifer Kim, who took a deep breath after the restaurant uproar that ignited in tandem with the George Floyd protests to ponder what an entirely reimagined restaurant culture might look like.

In the prolonged nightmare of 2020, these were the stories that gave me enough hope to consider that Chicago food might come out even stronger on the waking side.  v