Dining and food culture in Chicago

Of Vice and Vegetables: The Fulton Market District Furiously Builds on Chicago History

Trends & Essays, West Loop No Comments »
Jeff Shapack’s almost-finished hi-rise/Photo: MKRogers Features & Photography

View from Jeff Shapack’s almost-finished high-rise/Photo: MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

“The last thing any of us wants is to see this neighborhood Disney-fied”

Riding the elevator to the top of developer Jeff Shapack’s almost-finished high-rise at the corner of Halsted and Lake, I’m fussing with the Velcro on the front of my neon yellow construction vest. The lift-operator, who looks uncannily like former mayor Richard M. Daley, has just confided that he’s afraid of heights. Somewhere between levels twelve and twenty-three—six floors shy of the top—Shapack quietly says, “This is the tallest building I’ve done yet.”

Standing in the open air looking out at the booming Fulton Market Innovation District that stretches from Halsted to Ogden below us, the Shapack Partners, Sterling Bay and other developer-owned vacant lots stand out, white blanks among the rubble and splintered timbers of demolition, as do signage-wrapped new construction sites and just-finished restaurants with so-new-it-sparkles HVAC and ductwork.

Randolph runs along the southern edge of the scene. Elevated-train-topped Lake Street is in the middle and Fulton Market sits to the north. Right now, each thoroughfare is lined with the mix of meatpackers, light industry, grunge and gleam that defines the city’s last remaining market district, which is now also its hottest restaurant neighborhood. Next year, there will be another dozen restaurants and bars down there, plus retail, new residences and hotels.

As for the industry and grunge? Says Shapack: “The last thing any of us wants is to see this neighborhood Disney-fied.” The “any of us” Shapack refers to—developers and restaurateurs, meatpackers and wholesalers, politicians and planners—have all been racing to keep up with unprecedented change without losing the essence of a neighborhood they love. Read the rest of this entry »

Fulton Market Transformation: When Google Comes to Dinner

Trends & Essays, West Loop No Comments »
Google HQ/Photo: Lauren Knight

Google HQ/Photo: Lauren Knight

By Lauren Knight

Once gentrification starts, it’s hard to stop. When the shift occurs between small businesses seeking new ground to full-scale land grabs by large companies, how do the little guys prepare for that transition? Take Fulton Market. What was once the bastion of meatpackers has swiftly become one of the hottest dining and drinking destinations in Chicago. As Randolph Street blossomed into “Restaurant Row,” a few pioneers trekked just a few blocks further north to take advantage of empty storefronts and warehouses.

The neighborhood is now Chicago headquarters to Google.

At the corner of Morgan and Fulton Market, an old cold-storage facility is being transformed into a beacon of new development. The 550,000-square-foot building will house other companies as well, such as SRAM International and Sandbox Industries, but Google’s 500 employees will fill the bulk of the updated structure.

One Off Hospitality Group was one of the first to see the potential in the Fulton Market neighborhood; the transformation that has occurred since opening The Publican in 2008 is an affirmation. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Dining Preview 2015

Lincoln Square, News etc. No Comments »
Composing/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Composing/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Iliana Regan

Fairy tales are the theme of the autumn menu at Elizabeth. This theme will be reflected in some of the ingredients we plan to use, including pumpkins and apples, both of which have well-known connections to Cinderella and Snow White.

One of the great things about the fairy tales of Mother Goose and the Grimms is there’s the cultural and geographical background of the writers—Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—who were French and German, respectively. The cuisine we serve will reflect both of those rich culinary traditions. Read the rest of this entry »

Better Than Fresh: The Super-Frozen Fish of Wixter Market

Seafood, Wicker Park No Comments »
Photo: Rebecca Holland

Photo: Rebecca Holland

By Rebecca Holland

“The whole goal is to get people to eat more seafood,” says Matt Mixter, the Chicago native whose seafood shop Wixter Market opened in Wicker Park on June 2. “I want to make it delicious, convenient, affordable and sustainable.”

Wixter Market (2110 West Division) is the only seafood market in the country promoting one-hundred-percent frozen fish and the only place in Chicago where consumers can purchase super-frozen fish products.

Mixter spent ten years traveling the world, processing the catch, distributing seafood for large retailers, and learning about different freezing technologies. Super-freezing, or freezing fish within twenty-four-to-seventy-two hours at minus-seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit, stops all decomposition in fish, increasing shelf life and preserving flavor. “These technologies were developed to cater to large companies, and I realized nobody was offering it in the small format, so I took the opportunity to do just that,” says Mixter. Read the rest of this entry »

Still Falling In Love: Romantic Fondue Classic Geja’s Changes Hands at Fifty

Lincoln Park, News etc. No Comments »
Jeff Lawler, new owner of Gejas Cafe

Jeff Lawler, new owner of Geja’s Cafe

After two decades of working for venerable Chicago romantic dining destination Geja’s Café (340 West Armitage), Jeff Lawler will succeed John Davis as owner of the restaurant, just in time for Geja’s fiftieth anniversary.

Lawler, who has been in the restaurant business since he was seventeen, came to Geja’s in 1994 as general manager. He spent a few years working for Davis’ Wine of the Month club, but soon found himself drawn back to managing Geja’s day-to-day operations, a job with which he says he continues to “fall in love.”

“My responsibilities won’t really change all that much [as the owner],” Lawler says. “I got into the restaurant business because I love to serve people, and at Geja’s in particular I love working with staff to create special experiences for our guests.” Read the rest of this entry »

Taste of Transgression: Breaking “Rules” at the Sweets and Snacks Show and Dylan’s Candy Bar

Near North No Comments »
Have a scorpion sucker/Photo: David Hammond

Have a scorpion sucker/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

In my throat, there was a cricket leg. At least I think it was a leg. Could have been mandible or wing. It was dry and scratchy. I coughed. It fell out. I didn’t examine.

Leaving last month’s Sweets & Snacks Show at McCormick Place, the last things I gobbled as I went toward the door were a selection of sweetened and spiced insects. The nice lady at the booth let me try the ants, worms and finally the crickets, which were dusted with a sour cream powder.

All the bugs tasted pretty much the same. Insects, it turns out, once fried, are crunchy but don’t taste like much. They need the added flavors of sour-cream powder, BBQ rub and Parmesan. Read the rest of this entry »

The Taste of Yellow: Finding the Food of the Dominican Republic in Chicago

Dominican, Humboldt Park, Logan Square 1 Comment »
Punta Cana Goat, photo Rob Gardner

Punta Cana Goat/Photo: Robert Gardner

By Robert Gardner

I have become fond of the food of the Dominican Republic. Rather, I shall say, I have grown fond of eating in some places that serve as conduits for food of the Dominican Republic. Both Tropical Taste and Punta Cana exist as clubhouses, daily meeting places, connections to home, where you’d expect to finish your meal with a Fuente.  Put it this way, the signed pictures of baseball players on the wall are not those you’d likely recognize; I imagine, instead, they are the ones known mostly to the diners at these places. If this seems cliquey, imposing, do not fear. On my Dominican food runs, I have always faced language barriers, but the good kinds: the ones that make me feel I’m on vacation.  Invariably, someone—a server, another diner—steps in, orders for me. Also, I should add, invariably, someone steps in offering me a taste of theirs. The crowd loves this food in all its simplicity, starchiness and mute impact on the palate. The imaginary cigar smoke wafting through the air, mingling with a hint of spice and the succor of fat, puts us all in a good mood. What they feed us, we all like. Read the rest of this entry »

Make it Your World: Table Talk with Rising Star Tanya Baker

River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

Tanya Baker/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Tanya Baker is the twenty-seven-year-old executive chef at The Boarding House (720 North Wells). This year, she was a finalist for James Beard Rising Star Chef recognition.

Do you remember maybe the first dish you ever made?
Chicken parmesan. Always really simple. Later, in school, they asked me to write an essay. They said “You could get a scholarship!” So I did. But there was also a competition, a kind of mini Iron Chef, and I would never have written the essay if I knew there was a competition, because I’ve always been very shy, very timid. My mom took me, and I remember being in the car, thinking “What am I going to make?” I had no idea. So I made a chicken parmesan. I got the scholarship.

What are the characteristics of a successful chef?
There are those who have really big egos, over-the-top loud personalities, and there are those who are more mellow, quiet, head-down and focused. I’m very quiet when I work. People think I’m mad, but I’m not. I’m just not super-social. In this world, you’re in the kitchen all the time with the same people, and we’re all a little socially awkward. I’m still learning how to do interviews and talk to people. It’s hard. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembrances of Restaurants Past: A Server Laments His Lost Province

Gone but not forgotten, West Loop No Comments »
Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

Randy Zwieban/Photo: Laurie Proffitt

By Nicholas Ward

Chef Randy Zweiban spent seventeen years of his cooking career focused on the flavors of Central/South America and the Caribbean islands, first at Norman’s in Florida and then Nacional 27. Province—his first solo venture—sought to focus more on local, seasonal ingredients, though with Latin highlights. The restaurant was located in the West Loop and the menu was intended to be easygoing and casual, a place where guests could grab a burger and a beer, something a little fancier, or a few things to pass around. While the shocking pink walls showcased a boldly designed West Loop restaurant, the food wouldn’t be flashy. It would just be really good.

I remember the first time Chef addressed the entire serving staff. It was October 2008, a perilous time to open a restaurant, as the country was sinking into recession. The price of everything had just gone up and nobody was certain if, in the short term, people were going to dine out. Chef thanked us for taking this risk with him. He told us that the people who helped construct the restaurant—laid floors, built tables,crafted the menu—were family to him. Read the rest of this entry »

The Offal Truth about Haggis: It’s Awfully Good

Oak Park No Comments »
Haggis, neeps, tatties and egg/Photo: David Hammond

Haggis, neeps, tatties and egg/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Mention “haggis” to a random group of people and the likelihood is high most will screw up their faces and squeal “Eww.” The likelihood is equally high that none of those people have ever actually tasted the stuff. They may not even know what, exactly, it is.

Haggis is a type of sausage, popular in several parts of the U.K., but mostly Scotland. Haggis traditionally contains sheep’s pluck (lungs, liver and heart), onions, oatmeal, spices and mutton fat, boiled in a sheep’s stomach. That’s the real thing, which you may not have in the States because the sale of lung was banned in this country in 1971. Read the rest of this entry »