Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

Resto 100: Top Five Takeout Joints

American, Irving Park, Italian, Loop, Mediterranean, Near North, Pan-Asian, Seafood, South Deering, West Town No Comments »

A basic criterion for Resto 100 has been that a restaurant has to have real tables and silverware or a significant place to sit down. Considering a place like Hot Doug’s makes the list, service is generally optional. And, yes, we cheated and totally made an exception for Al’s Beef on Taylor. Still, in the last year, there have been a couple of new places (and lots of old ones) that were generally takeout-only that we really thought worthy of the Resto 100, and so here they are, our top five takeout joints. 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 »


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 »

Dinner Dynasty: The surprisingly, unconventionally great Han 202

Bridgeport, New American, Pan-Asian 1 Comment »

hanawningBy Michael Nagrant

The Bridgeport blue-hair mafia is not happy. This gathering of neighborhood ladies bedecked in sweatsuits, tattoos and cut-off jeans who came in search of “an egg roll and some good fried rice” is expressing confusion over what a “tasting menu” is and disgust over Han 202 restaurant’s “extraordinarily expensive” $20 price tag (for five courses). After a bout of sighs and bickering, they decide to stay, but spend the next ten minutes having their waitress discuss the relative spice level of all fifteen entrée choices.

The thing is, who could blame them. Not only does Bridgeport not have a restaurant like this, but there’s nothing like it in all of Chicago. Eclectic (along with phenomenal and to die for) are probably the most overused expressions in all of food reviewing, and yet there’s no better word to describe Han 202. Chef Guan Chen and his wife Yan operate so idiosyncratically, they make the peculiar Schwa look like as professional as Charlie Trotters. 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 »

King of the Court: Slurping noodles in the age of label whores

Loop, Pan-Asian No Comments »

brothBy Michael Nagrant

This weekend, I was chowing down in a mall food court and Tommy Hilfiger was foremost on my mind. It was as if I were reliving my junior high glory days, those times when my mom stuffed me and my posse into the back of our teal Lincoln Town Car, aka the “land yacht” (a nod to its two-and-a-half-Chicago-parallel-parking-space-inhabiting body length) and dropped us off for a parentless afternoon to unleash mayhem on the mall.

We’d spend the afternoon parsing through the latest Z Cavaricci’s or flashing white suburban N.W.A.-inspired gangster poses while trying on fresh LA Kings or Raiders hats at the Foot L ocker. Cavaricci gave way to Girbaud or Guess and eventually a phase worshipping the wares of the aforementioned urban prepster Hilfiger and his country-club cousin Ralph Lauren.

The low point of my laughable label obsession arrived in the form of a $300 Polo sweater depicting a knitted teddy bear outfitted in a reflexive ursine-Lauren-like sweater. Stewart Smalley wouldn’t have been sensitive or stupid enough to wear the thing, and here I hankered for it as a symbol of the ultimate in high-school chic. Though I begged my folks for it mightily, they never caved. To quote Garth Brooks: “Thank God for unanswered prayers.”

Tuckered out from the fashion grab, those days we often headed for a food court outfitted with the usual suspects like oozy Cinnabons or fake-parmesan-doused breadsticks from the Pizza Hut Express. If we were particularly flush with allowance, the aspirational choice was cheddar-doused spuds served in a wax-coated paper cup and griddled beef hoagies from the Great Steak and Potato Company.

These days, while Great Steak still lives, my mall-food-court grazing isn’t quite as pedestrian, at least not when I’m at Macy’s on State Street. Over the last year or so, I’d been making it around the place one kiosk at a time. Rick Bayless’ killer huaraches at Frontera Fresco and Marcus Samuelsson’s juicy patties at Marc Burger have both gotten positive nods from me. (And just so I know it’s not some anomaly, my wife ordered a burger this weekend at Marc Burger and it was just as good as the last one I had. I stand by my assertion that this is one of the best burgers in the city. And Bayless was meeting with his kitchen staff while we were there too, proving he’s no absentee toque.)

This time around, I stopped in at Noodles by Takashi from the James Beard Award-winning Takashi Yagihashi, chairman of the eponymous haute hood hangout in Bucktown. I’d been tough on his gourmet operation for its lack of value, but his kiosk at Macy’s offers the ultimate in cheap eats, and maybe the ultimate in upscale chef-driven noodle joints.

Noodles by Takashi offers a spectrum of pop-Asian delights from spring rolls to pork buns to steamy soups. I settled for some Shoyu Ramen, a kettle-sized bowl of broth. I tucked in to the thing and worked my way through star anise-perfumed pork, toothsome broth-coated veggies and silky noodles, until only a dinky little puddle was left. As the micro-broth spots on my shirt could attest, the bowl was slurptastic.

This bowl also reinforced my disappointment in the value of the soups I had at Bill Kim’s Urban Belly in Avondale just a few weeks before. Takashi was charging $9 (downtown no less), while Kim $13 for what was essentially the same thing. Kim’s pork was slightly better and probably of higher quality, but I preferred Takashi’s noodle texture, and that his pork was seasoned with five spice, rather than overwhelming the whole broth as at Urban Belly.

While sucking down the bowl, I’d heard that Tommy Hilfiger was in town and about to light the Great Tree about a hundred feet away in the Walnut Room. Sated on good well-priced noodles, and intrigued at spotting a glimpse of the inspirational haberdasher of my youth, I headed on over. A group of festively garbed Dickens-novel-worthy carolers made their way through the Christmas canon, while I craned my head a couple of times, jostled for a prime viewing position and eventually decided it wasn’t worth the wait.

I wish you could take this as a metaphor that just as I’d reformed my bad food-court ways that my decision to spurn Tommy Boy meant that I was clearly over my label obsession. But, a few moments earlier I’d spotted a cool baby blue toddler-sized long-sleeve Polo rugby and bought it for my 19-month-old son. I’ll protest that it’s because I really love the new distinctive multi-colored super large Polo logos (Lauren’s re-tooling his brand by imitating the successful Louis Vuitton/Murakami collaboration). But, when I really think about, the hyper-steroidal-sized logo is kind of a billboard that partly says, “My dad is a label-whore.” Clearly, I still have some bad habits to work out.

Noodles by Takashi, 111 North State, 7th Floor, (312)781-4483

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 »

Hot Dish: Custom House, Saltaus and del Toro turn it up

Bucktown, New American, Pan-Asian, South Loop, Spanish, West Loop No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke

Chicago restaurants lead the nation in innovation, due to the emergence of a new generation of chefs embracing and advancing the “artisanal” locally sourced aesthetic, like Paul Kahan of Blackbird, along with others taking creativity to an exotic extreme, like Grant Achatz of Alinea. They’ve kicked up a fair bit of national attention as of late, with cooing about our cooking from the New York Times, Gourmet magazine and others.
Within an unusually narrow window these last few weeks, three dukes of Chicago’s dining opened new establishments. Two are led by acclaimed chefs—Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra) with Custom House and Michael Taus (Zealous) with Saltaus—and one by restaurateur Terry Alexander (MOD, Mia Francesca) with del Toro. It’s enough to set off a foodie frenzy, if the new places live up to the reputations of their principals.
Read the rest of this entry »