Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

411: This Dill Pickle ages nicely

Logan Square, Organics, Produce 1 Comment »

If Michael Pollan’s recent celebrity is any indication of the national mood, then one might expect a plethora of options from which to buy locally sourced and organic food. But while the corporate options like Whole Foods and Trader Joes are firmly established in Chicago, each with multiple locations throughout the city and suburbs, small, community markets are rare, and currently only Dill Pickle Food Cooperative can claim the title of local food co-op since the long-running Hyde Park Co-op closed several years ago due to financial strains.

Getting started was no easy task either. General manager Vinnie Hernandez mentions that it took five years to build a functioning organization from the time that DPFC founder Kath Duffy sent out her initial application to the community for support.

Nevertheless, the DPFC, which just celebrated the first anniversary of its opening, was entirely funded by individual member loans. Hernandez calls this circumstance “an aberration,” citing that with co-ops, “there’s always a bank issue.” The groundswell of financial support is especially remarkable when considering that it took place in the midst of a serious economic recession. 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 »

A Good Smoke: Purists suffer when they deny Brand BBQ’s principal pleasures

Barbecue, Logan Square 4 Comments »

brandexBy Michael Nagrant

Sometimes I wonder if anyone’s been shot over a piece of brisket. I knew that if you served the wrong type of sauce or rub on a rib in the wrong part of a country, you risked starting a war. But, I didn’t know just how hardcore the BBQ crowd could be until a few weeks ago when, as Chicago correspondent for SeriousEats.com, I declared that Chicago BBQ was better than Memphis BBQ. Commenters responding to my story impeached my sanity and my city (referring to Chicago as Podunk). These are the same folks who call fall-of-the-bone meat “baby food,” or baked ribs “pork jello” and who start nasty rumors about places with automated smokers. Tiger Woods probably has a better shot at reconciling with his wife than any potential restaurateur does pleasing the BBQ illuminati.

And sure enough, even before Brand BBQ Market opened in Logan Square six weeks ago, the BBQ vanguard were already debating Brand’s definition of burnt ends and making fun of their smoked tofu offering. Read the rest of this entry »

Tickled Pickle: Logan Square’s Dill Pickle Co-op opens its doors

Events, Logan Square, News etc., Organics, Produce 1 Comment »

P1020694As Logan Square residents can attest, Chicago’s only community-owned and operated grocery store was well worth the nearly five-year wait. Even before the doors of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op opened at noon this day, soon-to-be-patrons clamored around the entrance, eagerly waiting to set foot inside.

The genuine affection that went into every element of the Co-op is one of the most striking things about the Dill Pickle. The store itself is charming—mint-green walls and exposed pipes, cozy lighting that melts away memories of a freezing Saturday afternoon wind—but it is the strong sense of community that really drives this home. Nearly every other person who enters the store knows someone involved in the Pickle’s success, and they offer their heartfelt congratulations, sometimes accompanied with an effusive bear hug. 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 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 »

411: Dill Pickle Food Co-op

Logan Square, News etc. No Comments »

Community Health
With the demise of Hyde Park’s 75-year-old Co-Op Market last January, Chicago has been left without a storefront food cooperative. By next March, that may change, thanks in part to Kathleen Duffy. When she arrived in Chicago from New York a few years ago, Duffy missed her small but comprehensive local health-foods store. “I started thinking about the idea of opening my own space like that,” she recalls, but she didn’t have the resources. Her Logan Square neighborhood, however, did. “I sent out an email to about twenty people I knew from the art and activist scene…I got 300 responses,” she says, and the Dill Pickle Food Co-op was born. Since its first meeting in January 2005, the co-op has grown to 270 members and secured a building near the California Blue Line stop on Fullerton. With the help of a benefit show at the Empty Bottle August 27—with performances by Alla and Tirra Lirra—the co-op hopes to raise enough money to open its doors within the next six months.

Holy Mole: Real Tenochtitlan is the real deal

Logan Square, Mexican No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Geno Bahena is like the boy who cried wolf, or, more particularly, the chef who cried “mole.” Every time Bahena, the executive chef of the new Logan Square regional Mexican spot Real Tenochtitlan, opens a new restaurant, he calls up the food-gossip mafia and regales them with tales of his famous mole sauce. Then he swears up and down that his latest venture is his greatest and that he’ll stick around forever. Then he disappears.

Though he’s opened about as many lauded restaurants as Michael Phelps has Olympic gold medals, Bahena has also closed more than the Chicago Health Department in an active week. Still, he always gets another opportunity. Genius has always been given a wide berth—just ask Phelps, who escaped a 2004 DUI arrest with probation. Bahena’s less like Phelps, though, and more like Mike Tyson. As great as he was, he’s finally exhausted the leniency of the public. Now when Bahena opens a restaurant most people start the taking bets on the closing date. Read the rest of this entry »

Dancing with Tripe: Romania has more than just Dracula

Logan Square, Romanian No Comments »

nellysignBy Michael Nagrant

All I really know about Romania I learned from Nadia Comaneci, Dracula and those late-eighties/early-nineties commercials depicting squalid orphanages. And I might have kept on thinking that the country was populated exclusively by agile beauties, blood-sucking monsters and doleful children if my favorite burger spot, Kuma’s Corner, didn’t have a two-hour back-up last Friday.

Though Kuma’s makes a mean patty, it wasn’t worth the Outback Steakhouse-like wait, and so my two friends and I ambled up the block and into the Romanian restaurant, Nelly’s Saloon. By the Wild West-swinging doors, sarsaparilla and six-gun-shooter standard, Nelly’s is not quite a saloon. It does however look like a combination strip club and a Romanian grandmother’s living room.

The bar area, lit via neon and stacked with more bottles of Hennessy than a gangster-rap soiree, makes up the strip-club portion, while the dining room, outfitted with shiny silk valances, vertical blinds, giant golden frames filled with paintings of flowers and mirrored walls, makes up the living-room-like area. Tables are outfitted with pint glasses filled with artistically fanned red-and-white linen napkins. If there was a sofa in this dining room, it would be covered in plastic. A red-polyester-panted proprietor with a bouffant hairdo held court in the corner of the bar section chain-smoking throughout our meal. Read the rest of this entry »