EDITOR’S NOTE: Fooditor is excited to once again welcome Keng Sisavath, creator of Chicago’s Strange Foods Festival, to share the best things he ate in 2019. Sisavath, born on the Laos-Vietnam border and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, explores the Asian and Mexican immigrant cultures in Chicago, not unusual in itself—but his love for and understanding of deeply funky, texturally adventurous things to eat stands out even in a foodie crowd, as you’ll see with some of the vivid descriptions in this year’s examples. Here’s what he discovered and enjoyed this year, accompanied by his photos of the dishes, styled and taken at his home studio.

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I’VE SAID IT BEFORE AND I’LL SAY it again, I refuse to judge a restaurant as a whole, because 99% of the time people won’t get the chance to eat the entire menu. So I find it more logical to always recommend individual dishes to people. Some restaurants listed below may have many great dishes and some may only have one great dish, but in the end it’s all about what single dish I want from that place that day.

Below you’ll find 12 dishes that I enjoy over and over again, and will continue to pay for as long as they stay consistent through the years.


Mi quang noodles, at Dong Ky


Neighborhood: Uptown
Address: 4877 N. Broadway

Mi quang is a Vietnamese noodle dish that originated in the central Vietnam providence of Quang Nam. The noodles used in this dish are made from rice. They’re a wide style noodle like chow fun, that gets their yellow color from turmeric powder. Unlike other Vietnamese noodle soup dishes, this one contains just a small amount of strong flavored broth, it doesn’t overflow the bowl—in fact it barely fills it halfway.

What I like about the version here at Dong Ky is the springy, chewy noodles and the bone-in chicken parts. There are other versions that I find more authentic (noodles wise), but the bone-in chicken is what did it for me. There’s just something about ringing out tender meat and ligaments off the bone with your tongue without using your hands that I enjoy so much.


Banh Giò, at VN Tofu and Fast Food


Neighborhood: Uptown
Address: 1024 W. Argyle

Banh giò is a rice dumpling snack wrapped in banana leaf and filled with pork and wood ear mushrooms, then steamed. The mushroom’s crunchy texture contrasts very well with the soft rice dough. It’s a delicious breakfast snack generally eaten by the locals.

Vn also offers a variety of snacks ranging from assorted tofu, desserts, Vietnamese headcheese, and my favorite congee in the city. This is the second time they’ve been on my list, and deservedly so because of the variety of snacks I pick up there almost every weekend. This isn’t a sit down place, but rather a “grab and get the hell out of there as fast as you can” place, so you can enjoy your food faster.


Hu Tieu My Tho, at Pho Loan


Neighborhood: Uptown
Address: 1114 W. Argyle

Hu tieu tho is a popular dish that originated from My Tho City of Tien Giang Province. What separates this noodle dish from others is the style of noodle that is used. It’s a translucent round noodle with a slight crunchy texture, unlike its dense chewy brother used in banh canh. The rice is grown in the area of Go Cat, Vietnam, and is processed by grinding it in water to make a flour and then spreading it out into sheets to dry in the hot sun; once dry, it’s cut into noodles.

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The broth is light in flavor and the combinations of ingredients for this dish is endless. The version I got contains squid, shrimp, pork and a side of vegetables. There’s tons of great noodle dishes that I enjoy out there, but what really sold me on this one is the slippery, crunchy texture of the noodles.


Tripe tacos at El Pueblito


Neighborhood: Lincolnwood
Address: 3941 Touhy, Lincolnwood

Tacos usually aren’t a thing for me because life is short and time is limited, so I like to explore as many different Mexican dishes as possible. But I’m a big fan of intestines, so these are to die for and here’s why. Of course people get turned off by the idea of eating intestines, but if you think about it, hot dogs are a very popular food which use intestine casings filled with processed meats.

What I like about these tripe tacos is the marrow gut they contain. It’s the intestines with all the stuffing intact. The crispy outer layer contrasting with the creamy inner layer is what really makes this taco shine. A better way to describe the marrow gut is that it’s like eating liver patè. Just add a little bit of lime, cilantro, onions, then take a big bite… La Buena vida!!


Seolleontang, at Han Bat


Neighborhood: North Park
Address: 2723 W Lawrence

The term tang means soup in Korean, but what does Seolleon mean? I did a little research, and found out that a very very very long time ago, a Korean king by the name of Seongjong ordered the common people to invent a dish that could feed the maximum amount of people with the least amount of ingredients. This soup was one of the winners, but the name was changed to Seolleontang for easier pronunciation. Whether it’s fact or fiction, it seems like a logical story but as far as changing the name? I don’t think it’s that much of a difference in pronunciation.

The real question is, what gives it that milky appearance? The people at Han Bat  simmer beef bones (particularly leg bones) for hours upon hours at a low heat, to chase out any flavor that is still clinging for dear life. This dish is a well known dish to the locals in the area, but for me it was a new experience this year; I’ve since tried many versions of this dish in the city, but so far haven’t found one that is comparable to Han Bat’s version.

Some condiments to dress your soup would be salt, spring onions and maybe soy sauce but for me I’ll just sprinkle a few grains of salt in there and scatter a few strands of spring onions then I’m ready to lather the broth all over the noodles or rice. Just like fine wine, this dish gets better with time especially if you opt for the combo option (shown in the photo) which is comprised of tongue, honey comb tripe, tendons and beef brisket.


Smoked escolar, at Fish Time


Neighborhood: Park Ridge
Address: 703 Devon Ave, Park Ridge

Fish Time is a Polish deli run by a Polish family that offers a limited seating area to enjoy your favorite smoked meats, fish and made to order fish plates.

There’s so many different kinds of smoked fish here, but what stood out the most for me was the smoked escolar. Escolar is also known as snake mackerel, and is sometimes marketed as a butterfish to sound more appealing to consumers (just like the tooth fish is better known as Chilean sea bass). I’m not sure what it was, but of all the smoked fish I tried here I like this the one best. I think it was the texture that got me but what made me like it even better was the price. I left that place scrambling to my car with a bag full of goodies in hand, feeling like I just robbed a fish bank.


Crab pasta, at Dolo


Neighborhood: Chinatown
Address: 2222 S. Archer Ave

Dolo has many Chinese dishes that you’ve heard of before and does dim sum just like others nearby, but what lured me to this place was when I heard the word crab and pasta in one sentence. I mean c’mon, who doesn’t love crab and noodles, right? So I had to come and try it.

The first thing I noticed when it arrived was the enormous portion size, which made me think it might be a matter of quantity over quality, but I was wrong. The texture of the noodle had that chew and viscosity I love in a noodle, and then you add the chunks of real crab meat, not imitation… Speaking of imitation crab, I think it should be banned along with the fast food Chinese lobster sauce and crab Rangoon. Anyway, if you do come here, don’t forget Dolo also offers a Cajun Chinese-style seafood platter full of crayfish, potatoes and corn in Cajun spice.


Fish laab, at Talard Thai


Neighborhood: Edgewater
Address: 5353 N. Broadway

Recently opened, Talard Thai market took over the space where the Lao market Golden Pacific used to reside. Talard translates to store (which is a fitting name since it is a store and not a restaurant) but don’t be fooled, they have food here that’s better then most Thai restaurants. Their main goal is to sell Thai products that you can’t get anywhere else—for example, a dessert call sai mai which is sugar strands as thin as human hair. It gets wrapped and rolled in rice paper.

There are so many delicious snack options here it’s hard to pick just one, but if I had to it would be the fish laab salad. It uses similar ingredients as chicken or pork laab, but instead uses minced fish. The home cook grab and go meals are great if you’re limited on time. I can see this place really expanding to many rare Thai food options.


Pompano, at Kubo


Neighborhood: Lakeview
Address: 1232 W. Belmont

With the boom in Filipino restaurants, Kubo offers what other places offer, but in a less greasy way, with delicious hand crafted cocktails to wash it all down. Kubo means hut which is why they have an outdoor patio resembling just that.

One of my favorite dishes to get here is the fried pompano served with banana ketchup sauce. The presentation is impeccable as shown in the photo. The way it’s carved up allows you to pick at the crispy meat attached to the back bone, while enjoying the juicy, moister meat spread along the fille. Kubo also offers common Filipino dishes such as adobo ribs, longanisa and sisig. Some of the more unique options they offer include whole pig face and Kamayan style dining. Kamayan style dining is generally eaten with a group of people using only their hands. An array of proteins, fruits and vegetables is scattered all over the table on banana leaves, the table cloth and plate of choice for Kamayan style dining.


Grilled pulpo zarandeado, at La Costa


Neighborhood: Portage Park
Address: 3119 N. Central

On a Friday night the huge space was jam-packed with hardly any place to sit. I opted for the bar area, but couldn’t find a seat until a local by the name of Luiz noticed me standing and gazing around aimlessly and offered me his seat. He said he was sitting all night so it wasn’t a big deal. Of course the best way to order is to always ask a regular; he suggested that I get the grilled pulpo, aka octopus.

While I waited for my food I took a moment to scan out the space and take in the lively atmosphere. There’s a mariachi band going from table to table to loosen people up.

The huge octopus arrived whole with tentacles and all, making me think I should just call it the kraken for the rest of the night. I ordered the version with the tangy and spicy red sauce and vegetables. Of course something this big must have different levels of texture to it. The tip of the tentacles has more of a charr taste to it and slightly firmer in texture. As you make your way up higher and higher towards the octopus head the texture get softer and softer to the point where you can cut it with a dull butter knife. There’s some parts that has a texture of string cheese where you can peel it apart strand by strand. Closer to the body or the head, you get the usual octopus texture but when you bite into it, you get a creamy texture also from the inside of the body/head.

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The best part for me is when the suction cups falls apart in your mouth. You get that beady texture in your mouth which I think was the best part of chewing it. The other good thing about this place is you can dance off the calories across the street at JC Martini club. Friday night is reggaeton night if you’re into that kind of thing.


Haneeth lamb, at Shibam


Neighborhood: Old Irving Park
Address: 4807 N. Elston

Shibam is a Yemen restaurant that serves up some of the best meats I’ve tried in 2019. Particularly the haneeth lamb and the mandi chicken. So what’s the difference between haneeth and mandi? Haneeth style means pressure cooking the meat, while  mandi style is boiled, then roasted. The texture is a little bit different, but both taste great. The fatty and tendon parts of the lamb are what did it for me, along with the rice served alongside. Fall off the bone is an understatement when you try this lamb. You literally can suck the connective tissue and tendons out so that means the meat is even more juicy and tender.


Wonderland Mushroom, at Alice and Friends Vegan Kitchen


Neighborhood: Rogers Park
Address: 5812 N. Broadway

The first time I visited this place I wasn’t expecting much let alone to write about it, in my best bites list. This place offers a lot of gluten free items and carb free items. It’s certainly not something you get excited over when you’re primarily a carnivore like me.

My first visit I ordered brown rice creamy pasta. I enjoyed it so much I knew I had to add it to my list but then on my second visit I noticed the wonderland mushroom. I’m a big mushroom fan so I knew I would enjoy this dish but not to the point where I would scratch off the brown rice pasta dish. This dish is comprised of broccoli and kale sauteed with shiitake mushroom, king oyster mushroom, bunapi mushroom, onion, garlic and served with quinoa. The extremely earthy flavor and texture was quite an experience to have in your mouth all at one time—not to mention you get a big portion too. Alicia and friends seem to have a lot of Asian inspired dishes ranging from Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese to Korean.

 


Keng Sisavath is the founder of the Strange Foods Festival. Follow him on Instagram @strangefoodschicago.

Photos: Sisavathphotography.com


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