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 »

Rock the Zebda: Algerian takeout ups the Middle Eastern ante

Algerian, Irving Park 1 Comment »
Lamb Brochette

Lamb Brochette

By Michael Nagrant

Zebda, a new tiny Algerian take-out spot in Irving Park, is the kinda place you’d likely drive by without a second thought. Unless you’re a cabbie who hangs out at owner Mohammad Djeddour’s coffee shop Tassili next door, it’s practically invisible. Even though I had the address, I passed it twice before spotting the word “Zebda” (which is the French-Algerian word for butter) painted on a plate-glass storefront window.

Step inside and the perfume of cinnamon from flaky pastilla, or crepe-like pockets filled with curry chicken, flares your nostrils. The entire countertop is larded with glinting confections like orange flower water, honey and sesame-coated, flaky Ramadan cookies called Shebakia. There’s also a tray of diced curried fish and pepper pastillas and a generous pile of smoky, blistered, griddled, pita-like flatbread. 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 »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention. Read the rest of this entry »

I ’Que: The education of a Smoque master

Barbecue, Irving Park No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Despite the apparent liability of being a skinny Jewish kid from Evanston, Barry Sorkin is one of the smoked-pork (and beef) kings of Chicago. In just a few short years, Sorkin and his BBQ joint Smoque in Irving Park have proven you don’t have to be a grizzled soul man or a beer-bellied Nascar, Jesus-lovin’ southerner to make good ‘que. Some would-be haters, however, contend that Sorkin’s only successful because he’s a white dude who opened a good rib shack in the relatively affluent North Side of the city where the media pays attention.

I can’t tell you about the lust in other journalist’s hearts. But know, when I laud Sorkin, that I’ve forded almost every rib shack from Evanston to Orland Park and eaten ‘que off an environmental-nightmare’s worth of Styrofoam clamshell boxes.

He is truly the Eminem of Chicago BBQ, i.e., though Sorkin’s a white dude in an African-American-dominated industry, he’s successful because he’s got mad skills, not because of the color of his skin. Like Eminem, who earned his way to the top, not as a record-industry-driven construct (can you say Vanilla Ice?), but by toppling a series of MCs in underground battles, Sorkin has silenced his critics with lacquered spicy bark ribs and moist, tender and delightfully piquant pulled pork.

And if they start talking smack after chewing through that, all they have to do is wolf down the best brisket maybe this side of Austin: meltingly tender chunks of beef mixed with deep caramelized molasses-rich burnt ends kissed with a tinge of tomato and sweet aromatic spice. The thing about BBQ is if you slide a slab of ribs with the wrong kind of rub down the wrong side of a picnic table in the wrong city, you could start WWIII. In these circumstances Sorkin’s brisket would broker the peace treaty. (It must be noted though that Robert Adams of Honey 1 is the Jay Z to Sorkin’s Eminem and smokes maybe the best ribs in the city.)

What makes all of this success crazy is that Sorkin was a career changer, an account executive for an IT Firm that supported restaurant point-of-sale computer systems. As a weekend warrior, a backyard-kettle-smoker prince, he’d always had it in the back of his mind he wanted to open a restaurant.

So, while he was still working in corporate America he entered the cooking certificate program at Kendall College. He says he’d work ten-hour days at his job, hop on the Kennedy, and like Clark Kent in the phone booth, would change into his chef’s whites while driving down to class. Ironically, he could never get into the BBQ class at Kendall, because it was one of the first to fill up.

He says culinary school gave him the confidence to operate in a commercial kitchen, how to make food not just for seven or eight people in the backyard, but to prepare food for hundreds. That confidence was key to persevering through a process that was ready to break him down. Sorkin says that when he approached various business advisors about opening up a BBQ joint, they all laughed and told him not to, that the restaurant business was a surefire way to fail.

Now that his restaurant is successful, Sorkin still looks to culinary-school grads because more often than not they have the fortitude working the line and don’t get freaked out about the velocity of a busy night.

Sorkin says, however, that you don’t have to go to culinary school. He’d rather have someone who pays attention to how things taste and look, and folks who are willing to speak up when something seems out of whack, which has more to do with personality than schooling. He says that when people ask for career advice, he suggests that working in a restaurant might be the way to get better experience sometimes.

But, that aside, going to culinary school may have provided the biggest boost to face down the biggest critic of all: his wife. When asked how he really got in to the BBQ business, Sorkin says, “You sit down with your wife and you say, ‘What do you think about me quitting my cushy high-paying job and going in the world’s riskiest business?’” Thankfully she believed.

Smoque BBQ, 3800 North Pulaski, (773)545-7427

Meat Me on the North Side: Ribfest has Nada Surf

Barbecue, Events, Irving Park, News etc. No Comments »

Ribfest Chicago, at the Damen, Irving Park and Lincoln intersection, is a friendly conglomeration of neighborhood-ites, cheap beer marked up to absurd prices and a lot of relatively mediocre music spotted with a few decent bands to draw those for whom the meat ain’t enough. The day has experienced a mix of windy, wrecking rain and humidity, but now it’s sunny and pleasantly warm. The air, slightly thick, hangs with a smoky, charcoal and salty scent of grilled meat. The five-dollar cover charge is easily avoided by those who sneak in through the Starbucks.

A crowd gathers for tonight’s headlining band, indie-pop trio Nada Surf. Bouncing and swaying out of sync, two soccer-mom middle-aged women take in the show grasping cheap plastic beer cups. They giggle and cheer during Nada Surf’s upbeat choruses, then immediately turn to face each other and converse and giggle during the less-animated verses. In front of them, a guy in his early twenties swings his messenger bag around to the front of him, reaches in and pulls out a beer brought from home. The bottle makes a high-toned hollow snap as he pops off the cap with his lighter. He sips.

After of an encore, the festival ends with the twenty-something crowd chanting “fuck it” in unison along to the band’s “The Blankest Year.” Within minutes the temperature drops ten degrees. Firm winds sweep through, creating garbage tornadoes of discarded plastic cups and sauce-covered paper plates. (Stephanie Ratanas)