Dining and food culture in Chicago

411: Prawn Job

Pilsen No Comments »

If someone offers to sell you a box of shrimp that “fell off the truck,” don’t laugh. They’ve got some fast fencing to do, since seafood doesn’t exactly have the shelf life of, say, diamonds. But the latest victim of culinary larceny says it’s a growing problem.

This past Saturday evening, a container truck containing 1,750 cases of tail-off white vannamei shrimp weighing 35,000 pounds went missing in the Pilsen neighborhood. Each of the twenty-pound cases contains ten two-pound bags of Member’s Mark brand medium-sized uncooked shrimp. The truck was parked in an undisclosed location when the vehicle was reportedly stolen and there was no driver present at the time. The destination of the shipment is still unknown, although Preferred Freezer Services, the company responsible for the shipping order, suspects it was a big-box store such as Costco or Sam’s Club. Preferred Freezer Services contacted members of the frozen foods industry to alert them about the stolen goods. Read the rest of this entry »

411: One EL of an Idea?

News etc., Pilsen No Comments »

Phillip Foss’ confidence has never been in question. “Literally, I’m making this up as I go,” he says. He debuted his Meatyballs food truck before the City Council had amended the ordinance that prohibited cooking fresh food onboard approved food mobiles. With his latest culinary experiment, a fine-dining restaurant simply called EL, he’s fully aware he is riding on blind faith that anyone will even show up.

“The way I’ve always lived my life and the way my career path has wound up has always been about being outside the box,” Foss says. “I’m doing this, opening the restaurant this way because I feel it’s the best way for my vision to see fruition. It’s definitely a bit maverick, but I’ve kind of taken a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach to it—if I build it, they will come.”

Using the space he’s been running the Meatyballs operation from—an unassuming dead-end street on the far west end of Pilsen—Foss is putting together a menu based on his own ideas of “elevated” self-expression, with everything from seafood to chicken and lamb. It’s a “multi-sensory” tasting menu that requires such an effort on the part of his bare-bones staff that if guests who’ve won reservations in the email lottery arrive after the 6pm start, they’ll have to sacrifice a course or two. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Beef: A barbacoa story

Mexican, Pilsen 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Just as sunrise pokes its fingers through the back windows, glints across a pallet of two liter bottles of RC Cola and sets a glitter-coated poster of San Andrés el Apóstol ashimmer, Rosa Garcia starts her Sunday as she has for the last thirty-six years: staring down 600 pounds of cachete, aka beef cheek.

She’s the last original standing. Her brother was a constant companion in the back kitchen at La Favorita #2 grocery store located on the corner of May and 19th Street in Pilsen. He’d help stir the weekend menudo and grind the pork for the chorizo, but a few weeks ago he broke his arm. So her oldest son, Froylan, his father’s namesake, joins her. Having bellied up to the kitchen’s butcher block since he was 5 years old, way before a large half moon had been worried away from its wooden top, he’s already a veteran anyway.

His brother Andy (not that Andy Garcia), who in his Bears jersey looks equipped to take over as a walk-on linebacker, joins them often too. He and his other brother Evy, who started as a cashier at the grocery at 12, are studying their mother’s trade in preparation for opening Del Toro taqueria a few blocks over at 2133 South Halsted in the spring. 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 Tortilla Tale: St. Jude delivers the goods at Carbon

Mexican, Pilsen No Comments »

carbonfacadeBy Michael Nagrant

Painted up in a post-apocalyptic vision of what it might look like if a volcano erupted underneath the Loop, the Pilsen taqueria Carbon is hard to miss. However, what you can’t see beneath the neo-arty-graffiti-style façade is that there was once a somber mural on these walls of Jude the Apostle that stood guard over the nearby freeway overpass and the building that now houses the taqueria. Though the mural is gone, there’s still a cornerstone embedded in the east side of Carbon that also invokes St. Jude. Both of these facts might explain a lot.

Lately I’ve been having intense pregnant-lady-like cravings, and one of those has been for a good taco. As one who’s driven all over to find good tacos, including eighty-five miles one afternoon to Geneva (Bien Trucha—worth every mile), I know where they are. But, lately, because of gas prices… OK, I’m lying, what I really mean is because I’m lazier than a rented mule who just broke in to Snoop Dogg’s weed stash, I haven’t wanted to venture too far from my West Loop home to find one. 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 »

Bowling for Eats: A few tips for catering your Super Bowl party

Cuisine, etc., Hermosa, Lincoln Square, Lower West Side, Pilsen, Roseland No Comments »


By Michael Nagrant

Unless you want to be branded a Detroit-Lions-like Super-Bowl-party-throwing loser, you better stay away from the powdered French-onion soup-mix dip this year. Sure, all your friends suggest that the real reason they come over is for your drunken bonhomie and so they don’t have to talk to their cat when they make fun of bad commercials that cost so much that you could bail out a small auto-maker or a mortgage bank with their budgets. But, watch your guests closely and you’ll likely spot a grimace when they spy an appetizer table flowing with cream-cheese-and-veggie-slathered Pillsbury-dough veggie pizza or a crusty tomato-topped jar of Pace picante. But don’t despair, beleaguered ball-lovin’ brethren, in these tough economic times, there are still plenty of affordable tasty party-eat alternatives.

Little Hotties, Take Me Out, 1502 West 18th, (312)929-2509
Though Buffalo wings are a perennial favorite, we believe that chowing down on the tired Buffalo wing gives tacit approval to the Buffalo Bills’ Super-Bowl-losing ways. And trust us, giving up the treasured neon-orange-hued treat invented at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar won’t disappoint the city anymore than Scott Norwood’s Super Bowl XXV wide-right missed field goal with eight seconds left. Better to back a true champion and Super Bowl XL MVP like the Korean-American receiver Hines Ward, who despite a nagging knee sprain is expected to play in Sunday’s big game. The only proper way to salute his courage is raise one of these spicy, garlic-soy hot wings originally invented on a mostly Korean stretch of Lawrence Avenue by Chinese immigrant Nai Tiao at Great Seas restaurant. Best of all, owner Karen Lim and her cooks remove one of the wing joints and push all the meat up to the top—lolli-pop style—so you can keep one hand free for that sloshing suds-filled Solo cup while you dine.

Lumpia and Tocino, Isla Pilipina, 2501 West Lawrence, (773)271-2988
Speaking of Lawrence Avenue, this storefront puts out a Thrilla’ in Manilla-quality egg roll, aka lumpia, or succulent deep-fried fingers filled with oozy garlic-slathered pork, along with a citrusy dipping sauce. A party tray of 100 ($25) might sound like a lot, but no one’s counting calories on game day and rest assured these crispy golden batons will disappear like McDonald’s French fries. Of course, nothing follows a serving of pork better than more pork, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t also walk out of here with a heaping portion of Tocino, deep-fried pork nuggets glazed in a sweet smoky sauce touched with a hint of what tastes like (though they assure me the goose liver gets nowhere near the glaze) foie gras fat.

Sheet pizza from Italian Superior Bakery, 933 South Western, (312)733-5092
Sure Domino’s will be there in thirty minutes, but after one bite of their cardboard crust and substandard sauce, you’ll be regretting your decision for thirty days. Avoid the Noid and hit Superior Italian Bakery instead. Founded in Ozone Park in New York City back in the 1930s and relocated to Chicago’s Little Italy in the 1940s, SIB is more traditional than the Arizona Cardinals’ losing history and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ winning ways. These days, only the second family to ever own the place, the Saccamenos, are making touchdown-worthy bakery-style sheet-tray pizzas. While we got no beef if you top yours with onion and sah-sidge, we implore you to check out the basil, tomato and fresh ricotta (made by a local neighbor lady).

Cemita Atomica from Cemita’s Puebla, 3619 West North, (773)772-8435
Everyone needs a sammie at their Super Bowl party, but not just any sinking submarine will do. Try the cemita atomica, a porcine dream of breaded, thinly pounded, deep-fried pork cutlet, a slice of lean ham, spicy chipotle-drizzled enchilada and fresh mozzarella-style string cheese from Oaxaca piled on a freshly baked sesame-studded roll. Despite the fact that pork fat runs in equal flow with the blood in my circulatory system, know that I laud the sandwich not for its piggy way, but because it is truly one of Chicago’s best.

Dessert Donuts from Old Fashioned Donuts, 11248 South Michigan, (773)995-7420 and Glazed Donuts Catering, glazedchicago@gmail.com
For those of us who grew up on crullers culled from commercial bakeries like Dunkin Donuts, the deep-fried apple fritters at Roseland’s Old Fashioned donuts dripping in tooth-enamel-threatening glaze will make your heart sing or give out, whichever comes first. The fritters are so big, just cut them like apple-pie wedges and enjoy. If your crew is looking for more of a one-stop drinking and eating option, Kirsten Anderson of the underground handmade donut factory, Glazed Donut Catering, recently cooked up some Irish Car Bomb and Champagne Chambord (raspberry liqueur) donuts for New Years. While her flavors change each week (Maple Bacon and Chinese Five Spice chocolate last week), maybe if you ask really nice, she’ll whip up a Miller-Lite-malted version for you.

411: Hotdog Haters in Pilsen

Fast Food/Street Food, Hot Dogs/Sausages, News etc., Pilsen No Comments »

Hotdog Haters
The latest conflict in Pilsen, Chicago’s current poster child for gentrification, is about hotdogs. It all started when Carlos Chavarria, owner of Kristoffer’s Café at 18th and Halsted, found out that the building under construction across the street was to become a twenty-four-hour hotdog joint owned by Alex Lazarevski, the proprietor of the Express Grill on Union south of Roosevelt (he was unavailable for comment). Lazarevski’s Express Grill is one of the last survivors of the famed Maxwell Street hotdog joints, but to Chavarria it represents something besides a hot meal and a piece of history. “We are concerned about the migration of the problems that they are currently experiencing there on Union—prostitution, shootings, congestion, garbage, graffiti,” he rattles off. “We suspect that they’re losing their lease.” With the neighborhood’s art galleries, alderman and real estate giant Podmajersky lined up behind him, Chavarria is determined to keep the hotdog stand out of the Chicago Arts District. He will state his case at a community meeting/press conference Thursday evening at Providence of God Community Church.

The Breakfast Issue Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Loop, Lower West Side, Pilsen, River West, Roscoe Village, South Loop, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Bongo Room (South Loop)
1152 South Wabash, (312)291-0100
Breakfast is the redheaded stepchild of cuisine. No short-order Homaro Cantu or Grant Achatz has popped up to redefine breakfast. Bongo Room is one of the only restaurants re-inventing morning nosh. The cilantro-jalapeno tortilla filled with guacamole and fluffy eggs and topped with ancho chili cream is as fat as Popeye’s forearm. Haute Eggs Benedicts are replete with duck eggs, lump crab cakes and steak. The real stars though are the Butterfinger-like pancakes dripping with toffee butter, or the chocolate-tower French toast laced with mascarpone and covered with banana-flavored crème anglaise.

Bongo Room (Wicker Park)

1470 North Milwaukee, (773)489-0690
See Sidebar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Indie Coffeehouse Guide

Andersonville, Breakfast/Brunch, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Coffee & Tea, Evanston, Guides & Lists, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Loop, Near South Side, Pilsen, Ravenswood, River West, Rogers Park, South Loop, Ukrainian Village, West Loop, Wicker Park No Comments »

Sit down, relax and have a cup of coffee.

The coffeehouse has become a center in the contemporary city, serving as a meeting place, a “home office” and a study hall for the community. And the best serve as counterpoint to the prevailing corporate culture: shaggy, friendly and, rather than studies in the science of turning tables as quickly as possible, welcoming enclaves where lingering is virtually encouraged. Chicago has a wealth of great coffeehouses, and with due respect to the chains, it’s the independent, locally owned and operated institutions that give the city its caffeinated flavor. Treasure them and support them, though, for many are fragile endeavors. And as we learned this year when Filter gave way at one of the liveliest spots in Wicker Park, it’s not necessarily Starbucks that threatens their existence. Apparently, it’s the inexplicable need for a bank branch on every corner.

We’ve put together this selective indie coffeehouse guide as a service to those of us who value their existence, and as a service to the spirit they inculcate. Read the rest of this entry »