Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

Barbecue, Comfort Me, Little Italy, Lower West Side No Comments »
Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »

Too Many Cooks in El’s Kitchen: Opening a restaurant is far from heavenly. Staying open is hell.

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Photo: Kristine Sherred

By Sarah Louise Klose

Ellen Haran has a smoking habit. And she doesn’t plan to quit.

Haran has always dreamed of ribs, brisket and chicken, slow-cooked in a cavernous smoker. She imagined spice-rubbed delicacies served in her own restaurant—a comfortable place where neighbors would feel like family. When her commercial real estate career went bust, Haran saw it as an opportunity to make it happen. She leased a Lincoln Park storefront, never imagining how challenging it would be to bring her vision to life. “I’m going from real estate to restaurants—the worst of two evils,” Haran says. “Every morning I put on my boxing gloves and say, ‘Who’s it going to be today?’ ”

In Spring 2010, I learn that Haran, a fellow church member, plans to open a restaurant called El’s Kitchen. Haran is warm and friendly, but she strikes me as the kind of person who doesn’t take any crap. A throwback to the thirties, Haran is a blonde bombshell, tough as her red toenails. By the time I hear about her plans, she is already deep into the project, although her doors are still far from opening. Read the rest of this entry »

Off ‘Que at Lillie’s: Will the real smoke-daddy please stand up?

Barbecue, Wicker Park 1 Comment »

Ribs

By Michael Nagrant

The 1800 block of North Avenue is turning into the Lynyrd Skynyrd junction. On one side, you’ve got chef Cary Taylor serving up corn-perfumed johnnycakes and fried green tomatoes at The Southern, while across the street you’ll find Charlie McKenna, formerly of Tru and Avenues, serving up boiled peanuts and smoked ribs at the new Lillie’s Q.

Though, I suppose the rockers from Jacksonville, Florida would probably take issue with that moniker, for they probably never got their pulled pork from a fancy brick-and-wood artist’s-loft-like bar with plasma screens on continuous “ESPN SportsCenter” loop, as at Lillie’s. But, then again, does one really need concrete, chipped paint, and a lack of air conditioning to serve true tasty southern treats anyway? Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

A Good Smoke: Purists suffer when they deny Brand BBQ’s principal pleasures

Barbecue, Logan Square 4 Comments »

brandexBy Michael Nagrant

Sometimes I wonder if anyone’s been shot over a piece of brisket. I knew that if you served the wrong type of sauce or rub on a rib in the wrong part of a country, you risked starting a war. But, I didn’t know just how hardcore the BBQ crowd could be until a few weeks ago when, as Chicago correspondent for SeriousEats.com, I declared that Chicago BBQ was better than Memphis BBQ. Commenters responding to my story impeached my sanity and my city (referring to Chicago as Podunk). These are the same folks who call fall-of-the-bone meat “baby food,” or baked ribs “pork jello” and who start nasty rumors about places with automated smokers. Tiger Woods probably has a better shot at reconciling with his wife than any potential restaurateur does pleasing the BBQ illuminati.

And sure enough, even before Brand BBQ Market opened in Logan Square six weeks ago, the BBQ vanguard were already debating Brand’s definition of burnt ends and making fun of their smoked tofu offering. Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Best New Chef: The votes are in

Barbecue, Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Loop, Mexican, New American, News etc., River North, River West, Southwestern, Spanish, Trends & Essays, West Loop 3 Comments »
curtis_coverfar

Curtis Duffy/Photo: Evan Sears

Last week, Food & Wine magazine revealed their annual “Best New Chefs” in America list, and despite Chicago’s rising culinary status, none of our local chefs got a nod. In fact, no chefs from the Midwest made the list. That being said, there’s no shortage of kitchen talent in our fair city, so we decided to stage our own “Best New Chicago Chef” competition.

We invited seventy-five of the cities top toques (many former Food & Wine Best New Chef winners), sommeliers, artisans and food experts to participate in a write-in poll naming their choice for Chicago’s best new chef. Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention. Read the rest of this entry »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention.

I can’t tell you about the lust in other journalist’s hearts. But know, when I laud Sorkin, that I’ve forded almost every rib shack from Evanston to Orland Park and eaten ‘que off an environmental-nightmare’s worth of Styrofoam clamshell boxes.

He is truly the Eminem of Chicago BBQ, i.e., though Sorkin’s a white dude in an African-American-dominated industry, he’s successful because he’s got mad skills, not because of the color of his skin. Like Eminem, who earned his way to the top, not as a record-industry-driven construct (can you say Vanilla Ice?), but by toppling a series of MCs in underground battles, Sorkin has silenced his critics with lacquered spicy bark ribs and moist, tender and delightfully piquant pulled pork.

And if they start talking smack after chewing through that, all they have to do is wolf down the best brisket maybe this side of Austin: meltingly tender chunks of beef mixed with deep caramelized molasses-rich burnt ends kissed with a tinge of tomato and sweet aromatic spice. The thing about BBQ is if you slide a slab of ribs with the wrong kind of rub down the wrong side of a picnic table in the wrong city, you could start WWIII. In these circumstances Sorkin’s brisket would broker the peace treaty. (It must be noted though that Robert Adams of Honey 1 is the Jay Z to Sorkin’s Eminem and smokes maybe the best ribs in the city.)

What makes all of this success crazy is that Sorkin was a career changer, an account executive for an IT Firm that supported restaurant point-of-sale computer systems. As a weekend warrior, a backyard-kettle-smoker prince, he’d always had it in the back of his mind he wanted to open a restaurant.

So, while he was still working in corporate America he entered the cooking certificate program at Kendall College. He says he’d work ten-hour days at his job, hop on the Kennedy, and like Clark Kent in the phone booth, would change into his chef’s whites while driving down to class. Ironically, he could never get into the BBQ class at Kendall, because it was one of the first to fill up.

He says culinary school gave him the confidence to operate in a commercial kitchen, how to make food not just for seven or eight people in the backyard, but to prepare food for hundreds. That confidence was key to persevering through a process that was ready to break him down. Sorkin says that when he approached various business advisors about opening up a BBQ joint, they all laughed and told him not to, that the restaurant business was a surefire way to fail.

Now that his restaurant is successful, Sorkin still looks to culinary-school grads because more often than not they have the fortitude working the line and don’t get freaked out about the velocity of a busy night.

Sorkin says, however, that you don’t have to go to culinary school. He’d rather have someone who pays attention to how things taste and look, and folks who are willing to speak up when something seems out of whack, which has more to do with personality than schooling. He says that when people ask for career advice, he suggests that working in a restaurant might be the way to get better experience sometimes.

But, that aside, going to culinary school may have provided the biggest boost to face down the biggest critic of all: his wife. When asked how he really got in to the BBQ business, Sorkin says, “You sit down with your wife and you say, ‘What do you think about me quitting my cushy high-paying job and going in the world’s riskiest business?’” Thankfully she believed.

Smoque BBQ, 3800 North Pulaski, (773)545-7427

Meat Me on the North Side: Ribfest has Nada Surf

Barbecue, Events, Irving Park, News etc. No Comments »

Ribfest Chicago, at the Damen, Irving Park and Lincoln intersection, is a friendly conglomeration of neighborhood-ites, cheap beer marked up to absurd prices and a lot of relatively mediocre music spotted with a few decent bands to draw those for whom the meat ain’t enough. The day has experienced a mix of windy, wrecking rain and humidity, but now it’s sunny and pleasantly warm. The air, slightly thick, hangs with a smoky, charcoal and salty scent of grilled meat. The five-dollar cover charge is easily avoided by those who sneak in through the Starbucks.

A crowd gathers for tonight’s headlining band, indie-pop trio Nada Surf. Bouncing and swaying out of sync, two soccer-mom middle-aged women take in the show grasping cheap plastic beer cups. They giggle and cheer during Nada Surf’s upbeat choruses, then immediately turn to face each other and converse and giggle during the less-animated verses. In front of them, a guy in his early twenties swings his messenger bag around to the front of him, reaches in and pulls out a beer brought from home. The bottle makes a high-toned hollow snap as he pops off the cap with his lighter. He sips.

After of an encore, the festival ends with the twenty-something crowd chanting “fuck it” in unison along to the band’s “The Blankest Year.” Within minutes the temperature drops ten degrees. Firm winds sweep through, creating garbage tornadoes of discarded plastic cups and sauce-covered paper plates. (Stephanie Ratanas)