Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2013

Guides & Lists, The Big Heat 4 Comments »
Illustration by Pam Wishbow

Illustration by Pam Wishbow

Many things come to mind when contemplating Chicago’s culinary and cocktail culture: farm-to-table, molecular gastronomy, why Charlie Trotter hung it up, and so on. But what struck us when working on this year’s Big Heat list, which, as is our tradition, is more focused this year on the behind-the-scenes business of food and drink than its artistry on the plate and in the glass, is the power of collaboration. Perhaps inspired by Rich Melman’s pioneering partnership model of organizing the restaurant business, this town’s now full of groups launching one great new place after another. Keeping track of who’s opening what-where-when has become a sport in and of itself. And beyond those formal business partnerships is the spirit of community that pervades the entire thing, with chefs and sommeliers and mixologists and butchers all teaming up on a regular basis, not always to make money, but always to make great flavors. And our palates swoon appreciatively. (Brian Hieggelke)

Big Heat was written by Amber Gibson, Brian Hieggelke, Matt Kirouac, Sara Tenenbaum and Walter Burns
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The Big Heat #10: Doug Sohn

The Big Heat No Comments »

Doug Sohn
Owner, Hot Doug’s
In Chicago at least, this dude’s more iconic at this point than The Clash which play often over the sound system of his Northwest Side encased-meats emporium. Nationally, he often gets more column inches in the New York Times than most Third World dictators. But you would too if you were serving up chicken-foot-garnished hot dogs with a side of duck-fat-fried French fries.

See details on the The Big Heat

North Side Dog Show: Franks ‘N’ Dawgs enters the gourmet sausage game

Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lincoln Park 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

“Oy think she’s a little maw, shall we say, enhanced thair.”

It may not be the jovial wise-cracking of Hot Doug’s owner Doug Sohn, but Franks ‘N’ Dawgs owner, the Australian-born Alexander Brunacci, cracking here about a photo of Kim Kardashian, is doing fine with his own brand of cash-register-side smart-assery.

I hate to even bring up the whole Hot Doug’s thing, because I know everyone else will too. But, frankly (so punny, I know), it’s impossible not to. Franks ‘N’ Dawgs with their “5-Star Dining on a Bun” tagline and by virtue of its similarities to Doug’s, has the encased-meats emporium in its cross hairs.

But Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, more often than not, is not like Hot Doug’s. It’s not a pop-culture-kitsch-laden dining room filled with mustard-and-ketchup-colored bric-a-brac or sexually charged mustard-covered Britney Spears’ photos. It doesn’t serve duck-fat fries, and the Buzzcocks aren’t snarling in your ears. Franks ‘N’ Dawgs also makes some of its own sausages. 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 »

Stairway to (Hamburger) Heaven: Edzo’s brings a seventies show to Evanston

Burgers, Evanston 4 Comments »

kdk_1598By Michael Nagrant

If you lived on the north side of Chicago in the early eighties you might have seen a gleaming brick red Crown Victoria rolling down Dempster Avenue blasting Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” If you pulled up next to that bitchin’ ride and glanced in the back seat, you probably would have seen a young Eddie Lakin slunk down in the maroon leather bench seat slurping on a milkshake.

Lakin’s father, the car’s owner, grew up in Albany Park with the Skokie hotdog barons who opened legendary spots like Herm’s and Poochies, and many weekends, he’d take his son to visit his friends’ restaurants. It was there, chowing down on burgers and Polishes, that the seeds for his forthcoming Evanston burger shack Edzo’s were planted.

Lakin is probably the most overqualified owner of a burger and hot dog joint since Hot Doug Sohn walked out of Kendall College and bestowed duck fat French fries upon the world. A political science graduate of the University of Illinois, Lakin worked as a record store clerk after college, but realized there was no future in it, and enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC). He says, “You come up with an idea in the morning, do the prep, plate it, and send it out to the customer all in the same day. There’s an immediacy to cooking that’s really gratifying.” 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 »

Sandwich Safari: Sifting through the debris in Glenview

Glenview, Italian Beef No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the word “debris” had one meaning in New Orleans. It was an iconic roast beef po-boy served at 401 Poydras Street at the corner of Tchoupitoulas at a spot called Mother’s. The lore is that a customer asked original owner Simon Landry to add the bits of roast beef that had fallen into the gravy while Landry was carving slices for the customer’s sandwich to his bun. Landry allegedly replied “You mean some of the debris?”

These days the sandwich is so popular, lines at Mother’s make the weekend queue at Hot Doug’s look like a women’s bathroom line at Augusta National Golf Club. And God help you if you stop by in the middle of Jazzfest, as I did, only to wait an hour and a half for a table. Ravenous, and never one to turn down pork, I opted for Mother’s other iconic sandwich, the Ferdi, which is basically a debris with ham on top. Beef strands blanketed in salty pork fat is a magnificent combo. As with so many things from that trip, I’d longed for a Chicago version of the sandwich to keep me inspired in between trips to the Big Easy.

Our Italian Beef is certainly a close cousin of the debris, but it’s much leaner and the shaved sheets of beef don’t quite resemble the tender shards found at Mother’s. Enter Fred Markoff, owner of suburban Glenview’s fRedhots and Fries. Markoff, unlike most of the corner dog stands in Chicagoland, makes his own Italian beef and gravy. He found after he roasted off a side of beef, he was left with a sediment of beef bits and veg seasoned by the gravy. For a while, he ate what he could as a kitchen snack and chucked the rest. Then he decided to throw it up as a sandwich on his regular menu.

Though they had the debris and though fRedhot’s has been open for a couple of years, I avoided it out of a weird modified brand of locavorism. In reality it was really a mix of misguided suburban xenophobia and stubborn loyalty. You see, Markoff just happened to sell wild game sausages (reindeer, elk) topped with gourmet cheeses and condiments. He reminded me of a certain favorite proprietor, aka Doug Sohn of Hot Doug’s.

But then my microwave blew up. I was sitting on my couch when I heard a pop and then a persistent hum. I live in a West Loop loft prone to carryover noise from the neighbors, and thought the sound was coming from upstairs. When it didn’t go away, I walked around the house until I smelled an acrid tang coming from the microwave. Scarily, the hum continued with the door closed. It took me a few minutes to realize I could shut the thing off by pulling the power cord out from the wall, giving me ample time to run a bunch of radiation exposure scenarios and wonder whether my future offspring might have tentacles. Once the thing was off, I decided to go all Laura Ingalls Wilder and rough it for the next six weeks sans microwave. Unfortunately, my wife does not share my enthusiasm for cooking like an ancient prairie dweller. Longtime readers will also know I have an unhealthy obsession with Hot Pockets of which the greatest virtue is a two-minute microwave cooking time.

So with the jig up, I headed to appliance Disneyland, aka Abt appliances in Glenview (they have Vegas-like fountains in their lobby), to pick out a replacement. But, as with most trips, this particular jaunt was masquerading as a sideline to my occupation for sniffing out good food. Put another way, even world-class appliance-shopping in Glenview is really just an excuse to eat. I was afraid if I didn’t have a spot planned ahead, I’d end up choking to death on a riblet in a misguided hunger-induced trip to Applebee’s. After some research I settled on fRedhots and Fries.

So, thanks to an appliance mishap, I got a shot at Markoff’s debris. It’s not anything like Mother’s. It’s better. Mother’s is a touch sinewy and features occasional gristle or fat. Markoff’s version is the very essence of Italian beef, a pure surface-area affair made up of thousands of tiny beef chunks soaked in gravy, seasoning and studded with rich veggie bits. Throw some giardinara on top and I’m not sure you’ll want a regular Italian beef anymore.

Like the debris, pretty much everything here is good. The merguez (lamb sausage) features a satisfying richness cut by refreshing sweet-mint pesto. Even the condiments on your basic dog are inspired: the onion is fresh, not soggy, and is diced to the same size as and thus doesn’t overwhelm the relish like at other spots. The sweet potato fries, thick orange planks dusted in maple-cinnamon sugar, are the best example of the form I’ve had locally. And don’t tell Doug Sohn, but the regular frites, which come with your choice of dipping sauce including garlic or “pumpkin pie” aioli, are just as good, if not better, than the awesome spuds found at Hot Doug’s.

fRedhots and Fries is located at 1707 Chestnut, Glenview, (847)657-9200

Resolutions for Culinary Revolution: A few tips for a better 2009

Coffee & Tea, Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I punked out a few times this year. Tired and overworked and having drunk too much bourbon or ingested too much garlic (I’m mildly allergic) on a Pat-Bruno-worthy Italian red-sauce bender, I’ve occasionally written a few columns that didn’t require a whole lot of research (like this one). I’ve hated myself for it. Shame on me. I plan on doing better next year. But, I’m not the only one who mails it in from time to time in the culinary world, and so in the spirit of the New Year, I give you my resolutions for the Chicago food community. Read the rest of this entry »

Eaters Up! You can beat food at the old ballpark

Bridgeport, Fast Food/Street Food, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Lakeview No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Growing up a Detroiter, there was no mustard-only hotdog religion. The only encased-meat principle that was inviolable was that you got your chili-slathered Coneys at gritty Lafayette, and not the theme-park-like American when you were downtown. With no cultural taboo to hold me back, there were days I ate ketchup on my hotdogs.

June 10, 1983, my first Detroit Tigers game, was one of those days. They played the Cleveland Indians. Dave Rozema pitched for the Tigers and Chet Lemon (a former White Soxer), famous for robbing hitters of home runs with a Michael Jordanesque vertical jump and a sure glove, hit a home run of his own, and the Tigs won 7-1.

I remember the wide-eyed moment most kids probably have of emerging through a narrow tunnel and out to the verdant expanse of grass and an azure sea of plastic seats. I remember how juiced (not like Barry Bonds, but more like in the hopped-up Sunny Delight way) I was to see Sweet Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris and his “Magnum P.I.” ‘stache in the flesh.

Thrilled as I was, what I remember most was the hotdogs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Trouble with Takashi: The new work of Beard Award-winning chef Takashi Yagihashi

Bucktown, New American No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

It’s probably not a good sign when your restaurant’s banquettes look like they’re covered with spermatozoa. I know the interior designer for Takashi thought the fabric pattern they chose, thousands of long, subtle, flaggelating lines punctuated by random ovals, seemed modern, harmless and organic, but unfortunately, it’s too organic. During my entire meal I had flashbacks of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and eighth grade “PBS NOVA” health videos.

With its clean lines, expansive bird mural and predominantly monochromatic color scheme, the entire space looks like a fight between a 1950s-era Herman Miller designer and a Feng Shui specialist. Set in a former brick two-story workman’s cottage that used to house Scylla, a neighborhood lair that could have doubled as your home dining room, Takashi now looks like a true restaurant, a mini-zen cousin of Paul Kahan’s Blackbird space. Read the rest of this entry »