Dining and food culture in Chicago

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Season’s Dumplings: Triple Crown brightens up the dim sum

Breakfast/Brunch, Chinatown, Chinese No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

This year I broke down and finally asked what Jesus would do. It happened at the 3pm Christmas Eve mass in the back of Old St. Pat’s church in the West Loop. Somewhere during the Gospel pageant, when a tiny Mary wrested plastic baby Jesus from his makeshift manger and hoisted him by his head like Michael Jordan palming a basketball, my mind started to wander.

It traveled beyond the pastel-painted Celtic-style columns of the church and settled into the Near South Side, amidst the steam and neon down at the corner of Wentworth and Cermak in Chinatown. There, I wondered, given the fifty or so places to score Chinese food, where might Big J eat Christmas Eve dinner?

This might seem odd, but while Jesus is the reason for the season, we also know he was a Jew. And everyone knows that Jews love to eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. Plus, one really could use divine intervention on this matter, for there are so many factors to consider. Read the rest of this entry »

Two for Takeout: The neverending quest to be the next Chipotle

Chinese, Fast Food/Street Food, Indian, Rogers Park, West Loop 1 Comment »

Shabuka's Chana beef masala

By Michael Nagrant

It seems everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. For every upscale chef who opens a new hotdog stand or sandwich shop these days, there are two entrepreneurs trying to ape the success of the McDonald’s of Mexican, and become the next big ethnic franchise.

As with chefs going casual, these attempts have often paid off handsomely for local eaters. Take Me Out, Let’s Eat Hotties launched a thousand spicy garlic-soy-glazed hot wings, while Crisp in Lakeview has blessed us with killer Korean fried chicken. Though for every one of those spots, there’s also a Chutney Joe’s, serving up mostly mediocre fare.

One of the newer Chicago restaurants on a “Look Outside the Bun” lark hoping to ameliorate the failures of a place like Chutney Joe’s is Shabuka Indian Grill, tucked into a Loyola-area strip mall next to, surprise, a Chipotle. 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 »

Digital Diner: Sweet Station updates Chinatown’s design clichés

Chinatown, Chinese 1 Comment »

Hong Kong-Style Baked Rice

By Michael Nagrant

Chinese teenagers are apparently strung out on the Internet. Many news sources in the last couple of years reported that because of the one-child policy imposed on urban couples in 1979, the current generation of sibling-less teenagers and young adults is turning to the internet and online gaming in record numbers for companionship. There’s also a burgeoning crop of Chinese boot camps to treat internet addiction if your child actually believes he’s become his World of Warcraft avatar. The Chinese government, which believes among other things that high rates of teen pregnancy are related to Web surfing, has started shutting down rogue internet cafes like Eliot Ness busting up prohibition speakeasies. I know all this because I too am addicted to the internet, particularly Google, and I wanted to get a sense of the culture of folks I was dining with Sunday at the new Chinatown spot Sweet Station.

Read the rest of this entry »

End of the Zeroes: Chicago Restaurants, 2000-2009

Brazilian, Burgers, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, French, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, New American, Organics, Pastry, Punk Haute, Seafood, Steakhouse, Trends & Essays, Vegetarian 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant



Since 2000, Chicago has gone from being a Rat Pack-worthy steak-and-potato-slinging stereotype to a destination for international culinary travelers. Chicago’s affordability, its diners’ willingness to suspend disbelief and its proximity to the sublime bounty of the Midwest all play a role in that transformation. Most important to the renaissance are the places that put everything together to inspire our collective culinary imagination, the best restaurants that opened in Chicago this decade.

The history of cuisine was written in the kitchens of millions of chefs, but we only remember a few by name, guys like Escoffier, Careme and Robuchon. There are probably only three Chicago chefs, as of now, who have a shot at making that list: Jean Banchet, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Though Achatz started making a name for himself at Trio, Alinea was the game changer, the restaurant where every aspect of dining from menus and silverware to the wine service and emotional content of the food was reimagined.

Love it or hate it, this was ground zero for what is now today’s communal table free-for-all. More importantly, Avec was the place that launched a thousand salumi, the fringe of Chicago’s now-burgeoning charcuterie movement. Koren Grieveson’s restrained soulful style is still the late-night hang of choice for chefs.

You probably don’t remember Gerhard Doll or David Hayden, the chef-stewards who drove the good ship Avenues through a successful seafood-driven era, but there’s no doubt you won’t forget the Pop Rock and foie-lollipop fantasia, the convenience-store chic of Graham Elliot Bowles. Without Bowles’ whimsical, accessible style, the emotional roller coaster of Grant Achatz’s cooking and the theater at Homaro Cantu’s Moto likely wouldn’t have quite captured the nation’s imagination, nor garnered Chicago cuisine the countless magazine features it received mid-decade. Today, Curtis Duffy, the culinary love child of Achatz, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, is executing some of the most exciting cuisine Chicago has to offer. Read the rest of this entry »

A Good Egg (Roll): In search of a crispy cure for insomnia

Chinese 4 Comments »
Kow Kow's egg roll

Kow Kow's egg roll

By Michael Nagrant

For six years Sunday nights were suffocating. The fear of an impending work week at a job I hated roiled in my gut, twisting it every which way, though miraculously stopping somewhere short of an ulcer. Toward the end of my first major stint in corporate America I’d entered panic-attack territory, couldn’t sleep many nights and had an unhealthy regard for my mortality.

Unable to sleep, I’d get into my black Ford Escape, load my CD player with most of the Jay-Z discography, and crank the tunes till they threatened the integrity of my SUV’s subwoofer. Indulging in some weird suburban-white-kid anger fantasy (sadly, I was a 27-year-old white man), I’d drive for hours, feeling the music while fording the circumference of the city, slicing down Lake Shore Drive, up the Kennedy, and across the Eisenhower, searching for something, but mostly indulging in the fractal majesty of a Chicago night.

I’d often make a circuit of Chicago’s Asian enclaves swooshing past the glinting neon of Chinatown, through the steamy dead-duck-laden corridors of Argyle Street, and past the karaoke and Korean bbq shacks littering California looking for an end to my madness. The throbbing in my head and the tension in my fists only subsided when I stopped to fraternize with the sweet-bbq pork-laden bao at Chi Quon Bakery or to slurp a bowl of simmering pho from Tank Noodle. The foods of Vietnam, Korea and China sated and distracted well. 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 »

Just Ducky: Sun Wah and the art of Chinese BBQ

Chinese, Uptown No Comments »

chow7By Michael Nagrant

When you see a gaggle of glistening glazed ducks hanging sentry over hotel pans full of steaming tripe and bell jars filled with fried chicken skin, you know you’ve found a good Chinese BBQ spot. Actually, I know I’m probably in the minority on this one. It’s more likely most folks, who’ve come to believe their meat is born in Cryovac plastic or waxed-butcher-paper-wrapped bundles, would more likely see this scene at Sun Wah BBQ as an outtake from a Wes Craven horror flick.

Even if you get past the Sun Wah window and walk into the lobby lined with flattened corrugated boxes for wiping your feet, turn the corner into the utilitarian dining room featuring flat grayish-blue-painted walls and checkered vinyl tile and see a host of Chinese regulars spinning lazy Susans and stuffing their faces with smoky flesh, you’ll still likely want to head to the nearest P.F. Chang’s. Read the rest of this entry »

A Christmas Story: Sledding to Chinatown for the holiday dinner

Chinatown, Chinese No Comments »

hotpotBy Michael Nagrant

For years, I’ve been telling people Peter Billingsley, the actor who played Ralphie in the movie “A Christmas Story, ” was now a porn star. By the time my family was doped up on rum balls and snoring through their third viewing of the movie, I’d whip out the porn nugget and invariably win friends and influence people. In this age of Google, since no one ever called me on it, I thought it must be true.

If it wasn’t bad enough that Billingsley’s career had stalled worse than any child actor since Elliot from “E.T.” (Gary Coleman and Webster don’t count because they were already like 18), I’d also falsely grouped him with Ron Jeremy. I apologize, Pete. Turns out, maybe more appropriately, the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen pole in the movie had worked in porn. I know this because “A Christmas Story” led me to a great meal on Christmas Eve this year, and while reading up for this column, I discovered the truth.  Read the rest of this entry »