Dining and food culture in Chicago

Avenida Ashland: A micro-community of restaurants develops near the Mexican Consulate

Mexican, West Loop No Comments »

Angel's

By Giovanni Wrobel

Sometimes, especially in the winter, they come well before the sun rises. Carpools of families making their way to Ashland and Adams to stand in line waiting for the Mexican Consulate to open at 8am. These are some of the people who brought restaurant owners Pedro Angel and Luis Perea to the neighborhood to open establishments nearby.

Angel’s Restaurant occupies an odd structure sandwiched between a two-story office building and a small storefront within two row houses facing Ashland near Jackson Boulevard. The restaurant opened two years ago, when Angel moved his family’s eighteen-year-old business from the Andersonville neighborhood to the West Loop.

Angel’s start-up was not easy. “In the beginning, I think the biggest challenge was trying to get our dinner working, because the area is a little weird,” Angel says. “It’s definitely more for breakfast and lunch, people come to the neighborhood to work, so by four o’clock things were kind of dying out.” Read the rest of this entry »

Family Beef: A barbacoa story

Mexican, Pilsen 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Just as sunrise pokes its fingers through the back windows, glints across a pallet of two liter bottles of RC Cola and sets a glitter-coated poster of San Andrés el Apóstol ashimmer, Rosa Garcia starts her Sunday as she has for the last thirty-six years: staring down 600 pounds of cachete, aka beef cheek.

She’s the last original standing. Her brother was a constant companion in the back kitchen at La Favorita #2 grocery store located on the corner of May and 19th Street in Pilsen. He’d help stir the weekend menudo and grind the pork for the chorizo, but a few weeks ago he broke his arm. So her oldest son, Froylan, his father’s namesake, joins her. Having bellied up to the kitchen’s butcher block since he was 5 years old, way before a large half moon had been worried away from its wooden top, he’s already a veteran anyway.

His brother Andy (not that Andy Garcia), who in his Bears jersey looks equipped to take over as a walk-on linebacker, joins them often too. He and his other brother Evy, who started as a cashier at the grocery at 12, are studying their mother’s trade in preparation for opening Del Toro taqueria a few blocks over at 2133 South Halsted in the spring. Read the rest of this entry »

A Taco Tale: La Lagartija Taqueria brings a Bayless alum to the West Loop

Mexican, West Loop No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Few people ignore Rick Bayless. Those who do usually get their ass handed to them—see Chef Ludovic Lefebvre on the first season of Top Chef Masters. For Laura Cid-Perea, the Mexico City-born Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained pastry chef, things turned out a little differently.

In 2000, the former Frontera Grill cook asked her old boss what he thought about her dream to open a Mexican-style bakery. Though Bayless believed in his protégé, he told her he wasn’t sure Chicagoans were ready for a concept like that. He was probably right, for at that point if any non-Latino Chicagoan had stepped foot in one of the Near South panaderias, they’d be rewarded with leaden churros and stale industrial-shortening larded cookies. It would be tough to get past that reputation.

The weight of Bayless’ recommendation was heavy, for he knew something about launching a concept before its time. Back in 1987, when Clark Street was still a semi-seedy district, he opened a little regional Mexican joint, with his mother and mother-in-law’s retirement savings, called Frontera Grill. His first customer, expecting Tex-Mex style fare, warily scanned the menu, then got up and said, “This is not Mexican food. You’re going to fail.” Read the rest of this entry »

Jam Session: Rockin’ Taco vs. Big Star in the Clash of tortillas

Lakeview, Mexican, Wicker Park No Comments »

Rockin' Taco's tofu taco

By Michael Nagrant

Johnny Cash was givin’ me the middle finger. So it goes at Lakeview’s Rockin’ Taco, where posters of rock gods, including a squinty eyed Bob Marley smoking a fatty blunt, an impossibly youthful Clash slumming in an alley, and a pissed-off Man in Black giving the big eff-you to the camera, hang near the cash register.

I thought it was a metaphor. I thought everything was.

After the Beatles vs. Stones, there is maybe no more prevalent turntable-side discussion than The Clash vs The Jam. And those who pick The Clash, at least to those born in America (for Brits have generally always derided The Jam as unserious popsters—probably spot on when you consider the Motownesque backbeat of a “Town Called Malice”) and subject to the overwhelming popularity of “Rock the Casbah,” are sometimes regarded as pop-swayed dilettantes. American Jam fans tend to be argumentative types who appreciate (or pretend to) their driving-though-less-hooky singles like “Eaton Rifles.” Those folks also tend to count the slightly greater post-Jam success of Paul Weller over Joe Strummer’s post-Clash career (far too much) as evidence of The Jam’s musical superiority. Of course, those who argue too vehemently about these things sometimes still live in their parent’s basements.

So, yes, of course, Rockin’ Taco with its dingy shiny head-shop-stereotype posters and cheesy big-screen-television-clad dining room was all about the friendlier Clash. I mean, c’mon, they serve hot dogs and tofu tacos. They have a special called the Friday Night Fight where if you polish off ten ghost pepper (hottest pepper in the world—check out the YouTube videos of people eating them to understand the decline of Western Civilization) hot-sauced tacos in an hour, with only one drink and one napkin to save you, you get a t-shirt, a picture on their wall and “eternal glory.” Hell, it wasn’t just Johnny Cash. The whole idea of this place was giving me the middle finger. 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 »

Sky High: Big Star burns bright at night

Mexican, Wicker Park No Comments »

Sunday night’s a stern nine degrees outside, but the 100-plus patrons at Big Star beam like crazy at the unconscionably fashionable new spot right by the Blue Line’s North and Milwaukee stop.

The ceiling of the late Pontiac Café is cut through by eight or more skylights, and emptied out by daylight, its simple box might resemble Blackbird’s simplicity that requires an ever-moving throng for the room to come to life; notably, the players here include Blackbird partner Paul Kahan, as well as other contributors from avec, The Publican and The Violet Hour, just across Damen to the west. Like the Rainbo Club to the south, it’s panopticon-style: there are no obstructions to the looking and being looked at, unless you count the fine small tacos in front of you, notably the De Panza, two bites of crunchy braised pork belly that would make a fine final meal along with a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper, using the bar’s Kold-Draft ice cubes. “Super-fresh” is a phrase that rolls off Kahan’s tongue, and along with Buck Owens-style country on the turntable, it’s a daydream of a roadhouse, bare walls, dim bare bulbs dangling overhead. 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

Avenues

Avenues

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.

Alinea
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.

Avec
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.

Avenues
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 Tortilla Tale: St. Jude delivers the goods at Carbon

Mexican, Pilsen No Comments »

carbonfacadeBy Michael Nagrant

Painted up in a post-apocalyptic vision of what it might look like if a volcano erupted underneath the Loop, the Pilsen taqueria Carbon is hard to miss. However, what you can’t see beneath the neo-arty-graffiti-style façade is that there was once a somber mural on these walls of Jude the Apostle that stood guard over the nearby freeway overpass and the building that now houses the taqueria. Though the mural is gone, there’s still a cornerstone embedded in the east side of Carbon that also invokes St. Jude. Both of these facts might explain a lot.

Lately I’ve been having intense pregnant-lady-like cravings, and one of those has been for a good taco. As one who’s driven all over to find good tacos, including eighty-five miles one afternoon to Geneva (Bien Trucha—worth every mile), I know where they are. But, lately, because of gas prices… OK, I’m lying, what I really mean is because I’m lazier than a rented mule who just broke in to Snoop Dogg’s weed stash, I haven’t wanted to venture too far from my West Loop home to find one. 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 »