Dining and food culture in Chicago

Confessions of a Foochebag: Del Seoul’s Korean tacos charm a cranky stomach

Fast Food/Street Food, Korean, Lakeview 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Five years ago, I was just a hungry kid with a dream. As I became a professional food writer, I’ve tried mightily to stay close to those roots. Somehow, though, I’ve found that lately I’ve become a bit of a grumpy critic. In the zeitgeist culinary parlance, I’ve been a bit of a foochebag, aka foodie douchebag.

I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I found myself watching a new episode of “Check, Please!” and yelling at the TV screen because a young woman recommended a Mexican restaurant that had a huge wall mural of a cheesy dude in a sombrero.

I mean I was crankier than the crotchety Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno after being forced to review a non-Italian restaurant with hearing-aid-threatening noise levels. There had been all kinds of signs of my decline. One of the most poignant came earlier this year when Roy Choi got named a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef.

For those who don’t know, Choi is responsible for one of the biggest Twitter food sensations, aka the California-based Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck. With a wink and a jar of kimchi, Choi tapped into an unquenched, but previously unknown desire for Asian-spiced and marinated meat-filled tacos.

But, disgusted that once again Curtis Duffy, the naturalistic molecular gastronomer over at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel had again been overlooked by Food & Wine, I twittered something like “Dude I’m sure your (Choi’s) food is good, but you make tacos.”

For years I’d been calling for big-time chefs to bring their talents to the masses in an affordable way. And yet, when someone did, I discounted his efforts because he wasn’t serving thirty-seven-course tasting menus. I now realize I owe Mr. Choi an apology.

I came to this realization over tacos one afternoon at Del Seoul, the new Korean “street” bbq taco stand in Lakeview. As much as I love to laud Chicago chefs’ originality, Del Seoul probably doesn’t exist without Choi. 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 »

Sweet and Sour: Close your eyes and eat at Belly Shack

Humboldt Park, Korean, Pan-Asian, Puerto Rican No Comments »
Bulkogi

Bulkogi

By Michael Nagrant

There are a lot of things about Belly Shack, the new Chino-Latino (technically the style is “Puerto-rean,” as chef/owner Bill Kim is Korean and his managing partner/wife Yvonne Cadiz-Kim is Puerto Rican, but that sounds like a bad stomach ailment) restaurant in Humboldt Park that I don’t love.

The menu with sections titled “SAMMICH” and “U KUD LIK THIS” (for the soft-serve ice cream—Is that “like” or “lick”?) which seems to be the literary collaboration of the dyslexic cow mascots of Chik-fil-A and Tony Soprano is pretty groan-inducing.

Then there’s the cutesy faux wall graffiti featuring Hallmark-card friendly protest aphorisms like “Enjoy More. Use Less” and “More Bike Lanes.” There’s also a painting of a dude grasping at a chain-link fence looking like he’s about to get frisked while sporting a t-shirt that says, “Eat it.” If this were a comic-style mural, I’m pretty sure the next frame would show that dude surrounded by rabid cops unholstering billy clubs and going in for a little Jon Burge-style Chicago Police justice. 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 »

Inside the Urban Belly: Chef Bill Kim serves bellies in Avondale

Avondale, Korean, Pan-Asian No Comments »
Pho pork

Pho pork

By Michael Nagrant

Urban Belly, Chef Bill Kim’s new Avondale noodle and dumpling house, is decent Asian food for unadventurous pseudo-foodies and hipsters with money to burn. Of course, you wouldn’t know it, as most of the local-eater-and-journalist set are drooling in their noodles and falling over their Twitter and blog-software interfaces and Yelp postings anointing it as the Second Coming.

I imagine many of these folks are too steeped in the lore of Chef Kim, the former Charlie Trotter disciple and executive chef of Le Lan. Here’s a guy who’s stepped down from his gourmet pedestal to bless the masses with an “affordable” take on soul-satisfying Asian comfort food and the Korean treats of his youth. It’s a pretty tempting legend. Walk in to the cave-dark confines, compliments of a drab paint job, of Urban Belly, and you’ll see Kim manning the pass with his black hair flopping over a “Karate Kid”-like Daniel-San do-rag, calling out table numbers and slurping on noodles to taste before he expedites his creations. Read the rest of this entry »

Seoul to Squeeze: The ins and outs of hardcore Korean

Korean, West Loop No Comments »

jeongolBy Michael Nagrant

“Hardcore Korean” is not an Asian punk band. Rather, it’s the style of food that Dan Choi, the fervent owner of one-month-old Korean Seoulfood Café, hopes to bring to Chicago. Choi’s restaurant is in the middle of a food desert at the edges of the Loop, and so he doesn’t get much foot traffic. The Mexican spot that previously inhabited his space disappeared quicker than state tax dollars after a Patty Blagojevich real-estate deal, and so if he sees you peeking in the window, he’ll collar you on the sidewalk and sell his food with the verve of an old Maxwell Street peddler.

What he’ll tell you is: twenty-five years ago he operated a Loop Korean buffet named Orient Express at Chicago and Rush. He eventually closed the business, operated nightclubs and an import/export business, but after watching DVDs of Korean food television and reading books on the holistic properties of Korean food, he was inspired to get back in to the business. Read the rest of this entry »