Last week while I was shimmying into my white and blue striped cheer skirt (four red stars emblazoned across its form-fitting spandex torso), about to start writing my annual year-end recap of how glorious the year in eating was, food writer John Kessler over at Chicago Magazine was dropping a big deuce on the city’s restaurant scene. The former Atlanta Journal-Constitution restaurant critic, who’s been a Chicagoan for some three years now, wrote a brutal five-point takedown of a once celebrated dining culture now wallowing in complacency and blinded by its own defensive, blinkered boosterism. Or so he says. Chicago doesn’t know local from Sysco, he argued. Bloated restaurant groups are sucking the blood out of the scene and the national press only comes to the Beard Awards every May to gloat over how far we’ve sunk. So dispiriting on its face I almost wrote a year-end Worst Restaurants of 2018 list.
I do actually agree with a few of Kessler’s points—Chicago has rested on its laurels a bit as an innovative food town, and yes, the street food situation, as always, is an embarrassment. But there’s a lot in his piece to quibble with: God bless Paulina Meat Market, but there’s nothing behind its cases more appropriate for Chicago hot dog construction than a natural casing Vienna Beef tubesteak.
But others have rebutted him point by point, so I’m going to sit that one out. Yet as I looked at the list of my favorite new places to eat from 2018 I realized that almost everything on it could serve as an exception to his arguments. (He allowed for a few of them himself.) Opinions are unreliable that way.
If there’s an exception for every rule, there are a ton of them to deflate his idea that Chicago’s “immigrant food,” as he calls it, is somehow unexciting, and unembraced by the city. But just look at Morena’s Kitchen, the tiny, four-year-old Belmont Cragin storefront that the city’s food writers lost their collective minds over this year after a nudge by blogger Titus Ruscitti. There the magnetic Mirian Montes de Oca dishes out terrific Dominican granny food and pica pollo: “hot, salty nuggets of brittle-battered, citrus-bathed bird flesh,” as I wrote in my review last February. “Served with crisp tostones and blazed with laser-guided splashes of house-made habanero hot sauce.” After all that attention, Mirian is moving her operation to the now vacant, much larger corner space up the block—just waiting for city inspectors to sign off. (Maybe we should start a discussion about the city bureaucracy holding back restaurateurs, instead of blaming immigrants for not being “exciting” enough.)
I felt just as passionate about Astoria Café;, in Irving Park, where the komplet lepinja, “a bun with everything in it,” is the signature among a menu of powerfully restorative Balkan grub. I described it as “an enormous toasty Serbian bread bowl filled with a thick, bubbling scramble of egg, roast pork drippings, and kaymak, the tangy Balkan clotted cream that behaves like a seductive butter.”
Kessler thinks Chinatown, and other dining enclaves, are “boring.” But I dunno. Two of my favorite new places this year opened in Chinatown—if you extend its borders to Bridgeport (and who hasn’t by now?) A Place By Damao is a smartly designed Halsted Street storefront opened by two twenty-something immigrants from Sichuan trafficking in what they call “Chengdu Famous Plates.” Visceral, sometimes mind-numbing snacks like the innocuous sounding spicy bean curd sent me into trance: “Diaphanous clouds of tofu slip down the throat on a warm, red tide, the crunchy soybeans adding a reversal of texture, the cabbage’s pungent punch and the onion’s grassy bite adding another.” In Chinatown proper, the great food incubator in the Richland Center mall basement has hatched another winner in Shan Shaan Taste, where veteran Chef Richard Zhou labors on liangpi, cold skin noodles Xi’an-style, “a dish of such stark textural contrasts and assertive, electric seasoning that you wonder why it’s not in regular rotation all over Chinatown.”
Exciting new Chinese food wasn’t limited to Chinatown, as demonstrated by the Greektown opening of Sizzling Pot King, a rapidly expanding minichain specializing in Hunanese dry hot pot as well as other rare specialties of the province like housemade tofu and finely sectioned pickled green beans with ground pork.
Kessler dogged second generation Americans for failing to “transcend” the food of their families, but what about the fun mashup of Filipino and American bar food at Old Habits/Ludlow Liquors by Nick Jirasek, a chef who seems primed to take even bigger risks at the upcoming Young American. And then there’s the postcolonial synergy of Bayan Ko, where Lawrence Letrero taps into the Pinoy food he grew up on, along with the Cuban food he married into. Look at Jennifer Kim at Andersonville’s Passerotto, conjuring a seamless merger of the Korean food she was raised on with the Italian food she was trained in.
Even the white guys got into it, with Mark Steuer channeling his German heritage and his low country upbringing at Funkenhausen, a so-called Bavarian beer hall where I lost my head over a “smoked half chicken smothered in summer squash, crowder peas, and tomatoes in a silky but powerfully rich and tangy Alsatian Riesling sauce, which demonstrates that an uptight attitude about southern and/or German food closes one off to the possibility of embracing gemütlichkeit.” Tim Graham at Twain found inspiration in his collection of Midwestern community cookbooks to create an irresistibly absurd Mississippian
cuisine like “a thick, hollowed-out baked
russet potato shell—the crunchiest potato
chip on the river—cradling a deposit of soft, squishy gnocchi loaded with bacon,
smoked sour cream, and gooey cheddar Mornay sauce.”
Similarly, Frontier chef Brian Jupiter accomplished what he’s been hinting at for years at Wicker Park’s Ina Mae’s Tavern, fully embracing the food of New Orleans, the city he was born, fed, and bred in.
Creative, independent chefs pursuing personal, idiosyncratic projects unfunded by corporate restaurant groups found homes and regulars in neighborhoods nowhere near the West Loop, like Portage Park, where Matt Saccarro’s Italian-Jewish deli the Frunchroom featured a matzo ball soup “like a bowl of gravy or poultry demi-glace with Fresno peppers and parsley adorning the smoked thigh meat that hangs out among the kneidlach.” Noble Square’s old Italian enclave welcomed Tony Fiasche’s Tempesta Market, “a landscape of sausage possibilities (sausagilities?), triggering sensory overload with exposed cross sections of fat- and pistachio-studded mortadella, dark mineral-rich slabs of Wagyu bresaola, or a sinister-looking orb of emulsified pork called ‘Calabrian paté,’ made with chicken liver, pork shoulder, hot and sweet chiles, and dates.” At Andersonville’s Lost Larson pastry chef Bobby Shaffer paid tribute to the neighborhood’s Nordic past and restored the civilizing practice of the “fika, a respite with coffee or tea and some kind of life-affirming indulgence from the bakery.” In West Town Sari Zernich Worsham and Scott Worsham summoned San Sebastian’s “paradigmatic pinxto bar crawl” at Bar Biscay, a lysergic environment to snack on Chef Johnny Anderes’s assertive, American take on northern Spanish cuisine.
OK, it’s not a restaurant, but former fine-dining pastry chef Dana Cree answered the call for “culty ice cream,” that one former Chicago food writer issued by opening Pretty Cool Ice Cream, her kid-friendly Wonkaesque Popsicle Parlor for the People with disruptions like peach-buttermilk bars, peanut butter-
banana-hemp doggy pops, and wild huckleberry bars made with Washington State fruit.
Even Lakeview, a fine-dining food desert, landed an oasis for ambition when Trotter’s vet Debbie Gold came home to head up Tied House, the lovely modern annex to Schubas that replaced the tired Harmony Grill. I reckoned “if you ever ate at Trotter’s you’ll recognize the combination of impeccable technique and artful plating with surprising flavors and textures and occasional exotica that so many veterans of that kitchen carried out into the world.”
Meanwhile, just on the edge of the West Loop “food court,” Chef Sangtae Park drew first blood in what’s ramping up to be a sushi knife fight, now with three more high-end omakase options to choose from. At Omakase Yume, Park “slices, molds, and paints his nigiri with the decisive fluidity of a croupier at a craps table.” (I haven’t yet made it to Kyoten, Takeya, and Mako.) And yes, the “scourge” known as the Boka Restaurant Group even scored big again amid this fray with Bellemore, where chef Jimmy Papadopoulos’s food is definitely not like the other’s, as evidenced by the lamb belly which I called “a frankly unlovely lump of luscious, braised ovine flesh plated with persimmon marmalade and a whipped feta sauce that dissolves into lamb jus.”
Finally, say what you will about the homogenizing effect of those bloated restaurant groups. One thing they’re good at is graduating the young blood that brings life to the scene. That’s what happened with Andy Sisomboune, a Nico Osteria sous chef who launched the pop-up series Sao Song and seems destined to showcase his cheffy take on Lao party food and home cooking in a brick-and-mortar space.
It’s part of the job of the restaurant critic to register disapproval and exhort chefs (and readers) to do better. (Kessler published a similarly controversial piece on his home base in 2011.) As it ever is, the number of dull, dreary, unimaginative restaurants far outstrips the truly great ones that have opened in the past year. But 2018 was no different in that there’s a lot to be excited about. (For one thing, nothing on this list closed before I could include it, which usually happens every year).
A million hot Twitter takes later, I’m left with the naked fact that the national critics whispering in Kessler’s ear about Chicago’s faded glory haven’t done the legwork that those of us in the local food media have done for years. If you missed out on any of these exciting new spots, you weren’t paying attention. If they don’t inspire you, you just don’t care. v