Dining and food culture in Chicago

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 »

End of the Zeroes: Chicago Restaurants, 2000-2009

Brazilian, Burgers, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, French, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, New American, Organics, Pastry, Punk Haute, Seafood, Steakhouse, Trends & Essays, Vegetarian 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant



Since 2000, Chicago has gone from being a Rat Pack-worthy steak-and-potato-slinging stereotype to a destination for international culinary travelers. Chicago’s affordability, its diners’ willingness to suspend disbelief and its proximity to the sublime bounty of the Midwest all play a role in that transformation. Most important to the renaissance are the places that put everything together to inspire our collective culinary imagination, the best restaurants that opened in Chicago this decade.

The history of cuisine was written in the kitchens of millions of chefs, but we only remember a few by name, guys like Escoffier, Careme and Robuchon. There are probably only three Chicago chefs, as of now, who have a shot at making that list: Jean Banchet, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Though Achatz started making a name for himself at Trio, Alinea was the game changer, the restaurant where every aspect of dining from menus and silverware to the wine service and emotional content of the food was reimagined.

Love it or hate it, this was ground zero for what is now today’s communal table free-for-all. More importantly, Avec was the place that launched a thousand salumi, the fringe of Chicago’s now-burgeoning charcuterie movement. Koren Grieveson’s restrained soulful style is still the late-night hang of choice for chefs.

You probably don’t remember Gerhard Doll or David Hayden, the chef-stewards who drove the good ship Avenues through a successful seafood-driven era, but there’s no doubt you won’t forget the Pop Rock and foie-lollipop fantasia, the convenience-store chic of Graham Elliot Bowles. Without Bowles’ whimsical, accessible style, the emotional roller coaster of Grant Achatz’s cooking and the theater at Homaro Cantu’s Moto likely wouldn’t have quite captured the nation’s imagination, nor garnered Chicago cuisine the countless magazine features it received mid-decade. Today, Curtis Duffy, the culinary love child of Achatz, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, is executing some of the most exciting cuisine Chicago has to offer. 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 »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2007: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 Restaurant Openings

Aigre Doux
Old Town Brasserie
—Michael Nagrant Read the rest of this entry »

Chain Gang: A look at the Chicago mainstream

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Batman eats at Ben Pao. Rather, according to last month’s tabloids, his alter-ego Christian Bale does. As I recently wrote of Katie Holmes’ order of Gino’s East pizza, you figure folks who have millions of dollars could find themselves a first-rate food concierge to point them to better fare. Bale is after all an extremist who almost starved himself to death for his role in “The Machinist.” Comparatively, a stop in Chinatown for spicy Lao Szechuan stylings or the Yunnan delicacies at Spring World is like a Sunday cruise in the Batmobile.

Truth be told, while the Ben Pao menu contains crab rangoon, it’s always walked that Lettuce Entertain You line of being chain-like, but with creativity. It’s actually pretty good. But with so many independently run blood, sweat and soul-drenched restaurants in Chicago, it feels dirty to devote a thought to corporate spots, many who don’t buy locally or consciously. Read the rest of this entry »

Requiem for a Restaurant: Why Del Toro died

Gone but not forgotten No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

When Del Toro opened in December 2005, it was a modest affair, devoid of the auspicious pomp surrounding most restaurant launches.

There was some buzz because local impresario Terry Alexander was reinventing his popular Wicker Park spot MOD. But when I first met chef Andrew Zimmerman, he spoke of the inspiration of a simple grilled monkfish that he had on a recent trip to Spain. He hoped to bring a similar quiet grace to Del Toro. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Dish: Custom House, Saltaus and del Toro turn it up

Bucktown, New American, Pan-Asian, South Loop, Spanish, West Loop No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke

Chicago restaurants lead the nation in innovation, due to the emergence of a new generation of chefs embracing and advancing the “artisanal” locally sourced aesthetic, like Paul Kahan of Blackbird, along with others taking creativity to an exotic extreme, like Grant Achatz of Alinea. They’ve kicked up a fair bit of national attention as of late, with cooing about our cooking from the New York Times, Gourmet magazine and others.
Within an unusually narrow window these last few weeks, three dukes of Chicago’s dining opened new establishments. Two are led by acclaimed chefs—Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra) with Custom House and Michael Taus (Zealous) with Saltaus—and one by restaurateur Terry Alexander (MOD, Mia Francesca) with del Toro. It’s enough to set off a foodie frenzy, if the new places live up to the reputations of their principals.
Read the rest of this entry »