Dining and food culture in Chicago

A Genuine Myth: If They Call It “Authentic,” It’s Probably Baloney

Trends & Essays No Comments »
Inauthentic but traditional. Minty pea empanada at Wahaca, London.

Inauthentic but traditional. Minty pea empanada at Wahaca, London/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Earlier this month, a chorus of Chicago food writers criticized what seemed an uninformed drubbing on Yelp of Chicago’s Cantina 1910.

You don’t have to look very deeply into the Yelp commentary about this Mexican restaurant to find statements like “It’s definitely NOT authentic Mexican” and “There is nothing authentically Mexican about this place.”

Similarly, watch just about any episode of Chicago’s excellent, Emmy Award-winning “Check, Please!” and you’ll hear citizen reviewers extolling the “authentic” flavors of this restaurant or that.

With all due respect, it doesn’t seem that many of these good people know what they’re talking about. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Hot Dog! Chicago Gets a Foodseum—A Museum Dedicated to Food

News etc. No Comments »
Classic Chicago hotdog/Photo: David Hammond

Classic Chicago hot dog/Photo: David Hammond

By Rebecca Holland

Chicago may still be best known for its humble hot dog, but now the city’s food reputation is undeniably international and there’s no doubt: Chicagoans have an enduring affection and taste for the classics as well as newer food innovations that characterize Michelin three-stars like Alinea and Grace.

“There really is no better place for a museum dedicated to food,” says Suzie Fasulo, director of people and operations at the Foodseum, Chicago’s newest museum slated to open later this month. “We wanted to create a museum for the people of Chicago, but we’re also opening in a very foodie time, where people are drawn to food from a tourism perspective.”

The Foodseum will soon start up as a pop-up at Block 37. The first exhibit, “The Hot Dog and Encased Meat of the World,” is fitting for a city whose primary claim to culinary fame once rested on the humble wiener. Visitors can learn about the hot dog’s history in Chicago and engage with the exhibit by getting hands-on with local butcher shop tools from the 1800s and smelling the familiar spices used in encased meats. “We know people use all of their senses to really understand and connect with things,” says Fasulo, “so the museum is very interactive. We want to engage all of your senses so you can take the inspiration of food and culture with you.” 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 »

Fall Dining Events 2015

Events No Comments »


Bunny the Micro Bakery (2928 North Broadway), Iliana Regan’s second act, is scheduled to open any day now. It’s really small— “perhaps the smallest bakery in town,” says the website—and will be serving baked goods that have been most popular at Elizabeth.

Foodseum, the Chicago food museum, slated to open September 19 at Block 37 (108 North State), explores food in Chicago’s past and present, and it will offer interactive exhibits for hands-on learning. Read the rest of this entry »

Ramen Wars: Chicago Chefs Go Bowl-to-Bowl

Japanese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

Photo: Monica Kass Rogers, MKRogers.com

By Monica Kass Rogers

With thousands of variations worldwide, ramen has always been a hot mess of flavor and texture that invites playful experimentation. And that’s what Chicago ramen battles are all about. Invited by host restaurants, chefs have jumped into the ramen-battle ring with characteristic Chicago swagger. Most of their ramen bowls have been great, some not so, but there’s no denying the exhibitionist fun of the throw-downs.

Chef leaders of the Chicago ramen-battle pack are Bill Kim (BellyQ, UrbanBelly, Belly Shack) and Matthias Merges (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday), and both have been hosting two different styles of ramen-offs. 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 »

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 »