Dining and food culture in Chicago

Mardi Gras in Your Mouth: Muffuletta at J.P. Graziano Grocery

Sandwiches No Comments »
Muffuletta at Central Grocery/Photo: David Hammond

Muffuletta at Central Grocery/Photo: David Hammond

The muffuletta was created at Central Grocery in New Orleans. This classic sandwich is basically antipasti—salami, mortadella and/or ham, mozzarella and provolone with a splash of olive salad—on a round sesame seed bun.

Last weekend, I sampled two muffuletta variations in the city where it all began. Read the rest of this entry »

You’re the Best of the Best: Picking Chicago’s Korean-Style Chicken Wings Champion

Korean No Comments »
Great Seas Chinese Restaurant Wings

Great Sea Chinese Restaurant Wings

By John Carruthers and Dennis Lee

Here in Chicago, we do two things extremely well: food and superlatives. Everything is delicious and everything is the BEST. Right now, some click-farm content-bot is extruding yet another list of the thirteen best burgers in Chicago.

Let’s clean up this mess.

Like two overfed children smashing action figures together to determine whether Batman or Han Solo reigns supreme, we’re pitting two allegedly best-in-Chicago places against each other in a thunderous clash for ultimate supremacy.

Korean-style chicken wings, called kampungi, are the sticky, sweet, crisp and sometimes-spicy delights that stand in sharp contrast to one-note, vinegary, Buffalo-style wings.

Contenders for best Korean-style chicken wings are Great Sea Chinese Restaurant and Crisp. Read the rest of this entry »

Like Hugging Strangers: Halo Halo and Other Filipino Finds

Filipino No Comments »
Halo Halo/Photo: Rosemary Lane

Halo Halo/Photo: Rosemary Lane

By Rosemary Lane

Ray Espiritu, owner of Chicago’s Isla Pilipina, places a halo halo in front of me.

“It’s the kitchen sink of Filipino desserts,” he explains. A Filipino food virgin, I’m a little nervous to dig in, so I swirl my spoon around the cup of yam ice cream, flan, evaporated milk, coconut gel, red and white beans, crushed ice and a cherry, mixing the layers until they merge purple.

“It’s different right? It’s like hugging strangers,” Espiritu says. He’s right. Halo halo tastes unusual, but at the same time comforting and refreshing. Smooth and chewy, tart and cookie-like, the drink defies categorization, as does much of the cuisine of the Philippines. The country is comprised of more than seven thousand islands, each with regional dishes and techniques; it was occupied by Spain for almost four hundred years, but it also reveals American, Chinese, and Japanese culinary influences.

“It refuses to be defined,” says Sarahlynn Pablo, founder of Filipino Kitchen, a Filipino food/culture blog. Read the rest of this entry »

Mangonada: It’s Cool, It’s Popular and You May Never Have Tasted One

Fast Food/Street Food, Ice Cream, Mexican 1 Comment »
Delicias de la Morelia/Photo: Rob Gardner

Delicias de la Morelia/Photo: Rob Gardner

By Robert Gardner

Ever had a mangonada?  Perhaps you know it as mangollada, chamoyada or even its common variants such as the diablito or vampiro.  It’s spicy, salty, and frozen; it’s out there; and we’re guessing it’s something you’ve never heard of, let alone sampled.

In Chicago as well as suburbs like Melrose Park and Cicero, Latino stores are serving up mangonada to the many thousands who love it. We believe, within the next few years, the mangonada will be as talked about in Chicago as Italian beef or Vienna Beef hotdogs. While we have not visited all the mangonada-rias of Chicago, we suspect there are now more of them than there are Italian beef and hotdog joints combined. Read the rest of this entry »

Eating More Like a Thai: Lessons for Being Less Farang

Thai No Comments »

By David Hammond

Sometime in the late seventies, Thai food came into our lives at Thai Villa on, as I recall, Lincoln Avenue. Before that, we’d had lots of Chinese and some Japanese food, but Thai was wonderfully new: ingredients so fresh, flavors bright and clean, the combinations of sweet and sour and heat and salt…unexpected.

Blue rice at Jin Thai/Photo: David Hammond

Blue rice at Jin Thai/Photo: David Hammond

One of the best things about being an eater of food in Chicago is that we have an immense range of cultures represented—and many Thai restaurants. According to Woraporn Kanjanawong, Consul at the Thai Consulate in Chicago, there are 250 Thai restaurants in Chicago. With only 3,000 Thai-Chicagoans (and a mere 15,000 statewide), the majority of people eating at Thai restaurants are likely “farang.”

Farang is a Thai word for someone of European descent. It’s not a slur; it’s more like “gringo”—not a compliment, but neither is it a put-down.

At Chicago’s ethnic restaurants, you eat foods you’ve never eaten before, and by doing so, you absorb another country’s culture. To do the near-total immersion thing at a Thai restaurant, consider following a few simple steps that will help you enjoy the experience as completely as possible and, perhaps, be a little farang. Read the rest of this entry »

Ramen Wars: Chicago Chefs Go Bowl-to-Bowl

Japanese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

With thousands of variations worldwide, ramen has always been a hot mess of flavor and texture that invites playful experimentation. And that’s what Chicago ramen battles are all about. Invited by host restaurants, chefs have jumped into the ramen-battle ring with characteristic Chicago swagger. Most of their ramen bowls have been great, some not so, but there’s no denying the exhibitionist fun of the throw-downs.

Chef leaders of the Chicago ramen-battle pack are Bill Kim (BellyQ, UrbanBelly, Belly Shack) and Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), and both have been hosting two different styles of ramen-offs. Read the rest of this entry »

Better Than Fresh: The Super-Frozen Fish of Wixter Market

Seafood, Wicker Park No Comments »
Photo: Rebecca Holland

Photo: Rebecca Holland

By Rebecca Holland

“The whole goal is to get people to eat more seafood,” says Matt Mixter, the Chicago native whose seafood shop Wixter Market opened in Wicker Park on June 2. “I want to make it delicious, convenient, affordable and sustainable.”

Wixter Market (2110 West Division) is the only seafood market in the country promoting one-hundred-percent frozen fish and the only place in Chicago where consumers can purchase super-frozen fish products.

Mixter spent ten years traveling the world, processing the catch, distributing seafood for large retailers, and learning about different freezing technologies. Super-freezing, or freezing fish within twenty-four-to-seventy-two hours at minus-seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit, stops all decomposition in fish, increasing shelf life and preserving flavor. “These technologies were developed to cater to large companies, and I realized nobody was offering it in the small format, so I took the opportunity to do just that,” says Mixter. Read the rest of this entry »

The Taste of Yellow: Finding the Food of the Dominican Republic in Chicago

Dominican, Humboldt Park, Logan Square 1 Comment »
Punta Cana Goat, photo Rob Gardner

Punta Cana Goat/Photo: Robert Gardner

By Robert Gardner

I have become fond of the food of the Dominican Republic. Rather, I shall say, I have grown fond of eating in some places that serve as conduits for food of the Dominican Republic. Both Tropical Taste and Punta Cana exist as clubhouses, daily meeting places, connections to home, where you’d expect to finish your meal with a Fuente.  Put it this way, the signed pictures of baseball players on the wall are not those you’d likely recognize; I imagine, instead, they are the ones known mostly to the diners at these places. If this seems cliquey, imposing, do not fear. On my Dominican food runs, I have always faced language barriers, but the good kinds: the ones that make me feel I’m on vacation.  Invariably, someone—a server, another diner—steps in, orders for me. Also, I should add, invariably, someone steps in offering me a taste of theirs. The crowd loves this food in all its simplicity, starchiness and mute impact on the palate. The imaginary cigar smoke wafting through the air, mingling with a hint of spice and the succor of fat, puts us all in a good mood. What they feed us, we all like. Read the rest of this entry »

Turning the Tables: When Patrons Serve the Restaurant

Thai 1 Comment »
Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo Matt Zatkoff

Pramote Rukprueksachart and Wanpen Phosawang/Photo: Matt Zatkoff

 By David Hammond

“Why is my lawyer sweeping the floor?”

That’s the question gasped by Pramote Rukprueksachart of Rainbow Thai Cuisine (4825 North Western) when he saw attorney Teresa Becvar cleaning up his currently-under-construction new dining room.

To answer Pramote’s question, let’s flashback to May, 2013, when Matt Zatkoff, Becvar’s husband, posted on LTHForum.com, the Chicago culinary chat site, that “I was walking down Western north of Lawrence and passed the nondescript location where Snow Spice used to be. I kept walking but something about the place caught my attention, so I decided to back up and grab a menu. I can’t believe I almost missed this place, which is called Rainbow Thai Cuisine. Later at home, looking at the menu I noticed a few things that got my interest, one of them being the house-made I-san style sausage. That was all it took.” Read the rest of this entry »

Huckabee’s Bubble, Eastwood’s BBQ and Eating Otherness: A Taste of Goat, Brains and Brazil

African, Brazilian, Pakistani No Comments »
Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

Feijoada at Taste of Brasil/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

In “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” the most recent book by presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee, the pundit-author posits a country of opposing camps: Bubba-villes and Bubble-villes. The Bubba-villes are where you’ll find the author’s favorite things—like God, guns, grits and gravy—and the Bubble-villes are big cities—specifically NYC, DC and Hollywood—populated by left-leaning pointy-headed intellectual power-brokers. Chicago might likely qualify. As the name implies, dwellers in bubbles are disconnected from “reality” as defined by Comrade Huckabee.

It’s in the cities, of course, that people are most likely to be yanked out of their bubbles, confronted by otherness, compelled to deal with those people who don’t share their own inevitably limited perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »