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 »

Guy Talk: Turns Out, Five Guys Got Nothing on Wendy

Burgers, Lincoln Park, Oak Park No Comments »

fiveburgerBy Michael Nagrant

How many guys does it take to make a great burger? Based on my recent experience at Five Guys in Oak Park, it’s definitely more than five. Of course, quantity probably doesn’t matter, as McDonald’s Corporation employs hundreds of thousands of people and they’ve yet to get it right.

Actually, the number of folks it takes to make a great burger probably isn’t as philosophical a question as how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. There’s no doubt in my mind the best fast-food burger available in Chicago these days can be found at Marc Burger in the food court at Macy’s on State, and that burger was invented by one man, chef Marcus Samuelsson (C-House).

So what’s wrong with the Five Guys patty? It all starts with cooks who use spatulas and grill presses to smash the life out of the beef. Once grilled, these well-done juiceless pucks look like Wile E. Coyote after one too many anvils to the head. While struggling under the weight of the press, the patties never really get griddled, but instead steam in their own juices.
You also wonder why a place that cooks patties to order makes their burgers well done, but at Five Guys, it’s not really a secret. Their corporate Web site answer is “By cooking all of our burgers juicy and well done we are able to achieve two goals: Insure a consistent product [and] Meet or exceed health code standards for ground beef.”

Translation: we don’t trust our training programs or our grill cooks to do a good job, so instead, we’ve decided that cooking the living moo out everything we serve is the only way to succeed.

I’d give them slack on this point, but the high-volume Marc Burger grill manned by everyday hairnetted joes somehow manages to turn out perfect, juicy medium-pink beauties one burger at a time and have so for a while.

Lest you think this is the sound of one man typing, one of my good friends, a non-food-writing burger aficionado, suggested that the Wendy’s double is better than the Five Guys burger. I was skeptical, but as I reflected on it, he’s right. The Wendy’s burger (also fresh, never frozen beef just like Five Guys) sports discernible grill marks, good seasoning and a flame-broiled taste. The dense grayish mass at Five Guys tasted as if it hadn’t come within ten feet of a saltshaker.

Even the squishy sesame-seed bun here, which disintegrates under a dollop of mayo and gooey cheese, isn’t much more inspiring than the patties. If I’ve learned anything eating hundreds of burgers in my lifetime, the greatest buns are usually of the potato variety and are best when toasted and topped with a touch of butter, as at local chain Culvers.

The skin-on fries at Five Guys are decent (though much better ones are available at Hot Doug’s or Susie’s in Irving Park), but at $2.59 for a “regular” portion they’re kind of pricey. Five Guys would be better off cutting the portion size and the price in half.
This all being said, the real central question of Five Guys is not how many folks it takes to make a great burger, but rather, how can so many well-respected news outlets can be so hoodwinked into loving it?

Where some burger joints might hang framed prints of scary clowns or fat purple blobs, Five Guys has culled over twenty years of good reviews and posted mini-billboard-style excerpted quotes from the Atlantic City Weekly to the New York Daily News. On one wall, you’ll find a decade or so of successive reprints of the Zagat guide fawning over Five Guys.

It could be that all of these signs work as a form of mind control, but I suspect Five Guys’ success is actually a function of cheap nostalgia and relatively sad competition. Up against the garbage served by mega chains, save Wendy’s, the flawed Five Guys burger is much better.

More than anything though, Five Guys is also capitalizing on the East Coast’s and Midwest’s yearning for the glorious burgers of West Coast chain In-N-Out. Absent their gooey animal-style patties, we settle for second best.

One thing Five Guys has going for it is crispy bacon and oozy cheese and a menu of condiments (any and all free with your burger purchase) that makes the salad bar selection at Whole Foods jealous (golden-fried onions are best). But this is just lipstick (on a cow?). And as we learned last November, when you put lipstick on something, all you end up with is a rifle-toting civil-liberty-revoking hockey mom who can see Russia from her backyard.

Five Guys is located at 1115 Lake Street, Oak Park, and at 2140 North Clybourn in Chicago.