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 »

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 »

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 »

Rustic Sexy Glam: Jose Garces and Alpana Singh Dish About Their Just-Opened Rural Society and Seven Lions

News etc., Trends & Essays No Comments »
Jose Garces/Photo: Jason Varney

Jose Garces/Photo: Jason Varney

By David Hammond

Earlier this month, two new restaurants opened in Chicago: Rural Society (455 North Park), under the direction of chef Jose Garces, and Seven Lions (130 South Michigan), the latest restaurant from Alpana Singh.

Garces and I grew up in the same Chicago area, and we both played in Portage Park as kids. He went to Chicago’s Kendall College and later went on to win the second season of “The Next Iron Chef.” Now operating a number of East Coast restaurants—including seven in Philadelphia and three in Atlantic City—for which he received a James Beard award, Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region. Garces had been executive chef at Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa before opening Rural Society.

Singh was the host for ten seasons of “Check, Please!” on PBS, and before that worked as sommelier at Jean Joho’s Everest. At twenty-one, she was the youngest woman to ever be awarded Master Sommelier certification, and later became beverage director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. She opened her first restaurant, The Boarding House, in 2012 and the following year received the Sommelier of the Year 2013 Wine Star award from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

While visiting their respective restaurants, we sat down with Garces and Singh to hear them explain why their new places are worthy additions to the Chicago dining scene. Read the rest of this entry »

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Liquid Limits: Joining the Juicing Club with Cleanse Culture

Trends & Essays 1 Comment »

cleanse-culture-signature-cleanseBy Amber Gibson

Like the raw food craze, juicing may have started as a West Coast trend, but it’s gained plenty of traction in Chicago, with companies like Peeled, JuiceRx and BluePrint promising to clean out your internal organs with their colorful concoctions. This spring, Chef Jared Van Camp and Element Collective (the team behind Nellcote, Old Town Social, Leghorn and Kinmont) join the fray, opening cold-pressed juice bar Owen + Alchemy in Logan Square (2355 North Milwaukee).

The newest player on the local cleansing scene is Cleanse Culture, founded by Nicole Kasal, formerly of JuiceRx. Cleanses can be as short as one or two days to as long as a week or more for the deepest cleanse. Standard cleanses are three days and that’s what I tried.

Eating is such a pleasurable part of my life, so I was skeptical and a little nervous to try cleansing. Skipping delectable wine dinners and dessert tastings was painful. But I was very curious as to how I would feel and how my body would respond. Would cleansing feel like deprivation or would I feel energized with radiant skin like models in advertisements would lead me to believe? Read the rest of this entry »

Manila Moment? Why Filipino Food Still Flies Under Chicago’s Radar

Filipino, Lakeview, River North, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Pancit canton at Sunda

Pancit canton at Sunda/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

National food personalities like Andrew Zimmern have touted Filipino cuisine as an emerging  trend, but here in Chicago the scene still seems lacking. While there are several neighborhood Filipino eateries in Chicago, none have a particularly high profile. If Tanta has made Peruvian food mainstream, there’s no trendy River North equivalent for the Pacific island nation. Sunda arguably comes closest, albeit with a Pan-Asian label. However, there are more than a few chefs with Filipino heritage helming restaurants around town. Some of the creative dishes you’re chowing down on at restaurants like The Refinery, E+O, Sunda and Pecking Order have Filipino roots.

Rodelio Aglibot, one of the most prominent Filipino chefs in town, is known for his “new Asian” cuisine. He brought Filipino food into the spotlight when he opened Sunda in 2009. Now, he’s helming the kitchen at E+O in Mount Prospect, where the eclectic menu includes steak, sushi and pizza along with a few Filipino signatures.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sugar Freedom: Chef Homaro Cantu and his Magnificent Miracle Berry Obsession

Trends & Essays, West Loop No Comments »
Photo: Michael Silberman

Photo: Michael Silberman

By Amber Gibson

Chef Homaro Cantu can make cheesecake without sugar, fat or cheese. Instead, all he needs is a spoonful of non-fat sour cream, a lemon wedge and a miracle berry tablet. Lemon and sour cream might not sound like dessert, but the miracle of the berry is that it makes these two ingredients taste better than Eli’s Cheesecake.

Cantu, a molecular gastronomer, among other things, has spent more than eight years researching the rare miracle berry, which temporarily makes sour things taste sweet. At a recent cooking class at his Michelin-starred Moto restaurant, he demonstrated to wide-eyed guests how easy miracle berries are to use.

“You just made cheesecake in a split second,” Cantu tells his class of fourteen students, after they diligently squeeze several drops of lemon juice over their servings of non-fat sour cream. After exchanging incredulous looks, one by one each person eats a miracle berry, then tries the sour cream. It’s unanimous. This stuff tastes good. Read the rest of this entry »