EDITOR’S NOTE: For the second year Fooditor is excited to offer a year-end best list unlike any other. Keng Sisavath, creator of Chicago’s Strange Foods Festival, offers a perspective from an Asian-born (Lao-American) explorer of our scene, curious about the traditional, ordinary peoples’ foods from many cultures that are available in Chicago.

Besides eating at these restaurants, he’s trying to bridge the gap between these immigrant restaurants and the “mainstream” foodie world, first on Instagram and then by offering them professional-level photography to help them compete for customers in the age of online media. For this piece, he shot all the dishes he enjoyed on his tabletop studio setup. As he explains, “I started doing my photography as a way to network and connect with restaurant owners. I learned from watching countless hours of YouTube videos. My first paid job was $300 from using my iPhone when I had only 500 IG followers, which then I went on and used that money to buy a standard camera.

“Not many photographers get a chance to shoot traditional classic dishes like I do, so I’m very lucky to be able to do that. I found this need when I tried to look up photos of traditional dishes online, but couldn’t find any. It makes me feel good to walk into a restaurant and see my creation displayed on the TV screen or in their menu.”

Here’s his best for 2018:

 *  *  *

Best of home cooking: giant prawns from HMart

ANOTHER YEAR HAS PASSED, WHICH MEANS more delicious dishes have been discovered. This year I’ve decided to approach my list differently. I’ve decided to try each dish again, dine-in, and then order another to take home and photograph.  For each shot I would envision how I would like to shoot it than go out and buy the props for it.  So why spend hours dining, photographing, and tons of money when I can just pluck photos from Yelp, FB or the restaurant website?   For one thing, eating that dish again helps me remember it better, and another thing, it’s fun seeing the results of my photography and sharing them with everyone.

Before I begin my eye-popping list of 2018, I’d like to leave you with a couple of famous quotes:

“If you can’t walk in their shoes, at least eat their food.” —Anthony Bourdain

“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” —Andrew Zimmern

 


Pho 888: Bánh Tét and Chả Lụa


Where: 1137 W. Argyle St. (Uptown)

I discovered these 2 items at Pho 888 only because my dad has been nagging me to bring him some Bành Tét when I visit my hometown of Green Bay, WI. I said, “why don’t you just make it yourself?” He replied, “too much work.” He’s right, it’s a long process which can take up to six hours. I’ve seen these items all the time at markets but never at a restaurant so I’m assuming it’s probably made fresh there. I walked in on a late Saturday afternoon to pick some up. Sure enough it was made fresh right before I got there, still steaming hot.

These really made my eyes bug out at first bite. The Bánh Tét is really sticky (sticky rice) on the outside but after you bite into it, you get the soft fatty pork and the crumbling texture of the yellow mung bean. That piece of fat you get, oh man. The green color comes from the banana leaf it was cooked in. The Chà Lua (steam pork rolls) were just as good. You’ll see these a lot in noodle soups and wraps, but I like to just eat them plain or with rice.

Tip:  Buy 2 for $15 or 3 for $12 and always come late Saturday afternoon after 3-4pm.

Bob 99 2019

 


La Fogata: Menudo


Where: 3433 W. Lawrence Ave. (Albany Park)

Not far from the Kimball Brown line stop in Albany Park resides this little Mexican restaurant that serves one of the best menudos I’ve had in Chicago so far, at $10 a container. What I like about this menudo is the cow ankle bone they give you. It’s so fatty and gelatinous that with just a sip of the broth it’s stewed in, your lips will become super sticky. Some bowls of menudo come with just honey comb tripe while others like this one comes with tendons, stomach and the honey comb tripe. With a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of peppers, onions and cilantro, you’re one step closer to curing that hangover.

Tip: Due to its long and strenuous process, the menudo is made mostly on the weekends.  Also don’t forget to make sure you get the bone parts and order rice on the side to add into the soup.

 


Nha Trang Restaurant: Lemongrass sea snails


Where: 1104 W. Argyle St. (Uptown)

Nha Trang just opened up about a month ago in Uptown next to Pho Loan and right below the Argyle Red line. I wasn’t expecting anything much, since Vietnamese restaurants are a dime a dozen in this area; I just wanted to try out their pho and compare it to the other places. To my surprise they have some very exotic dishes here, such as crab and lobster, but what got my attention were the sea snails. They seemed very fresh to me and I was impressed by the care they took in cutting off the back ends of the snails so we have better airflow when sucking the snail out.

 


Pho5Lua: Bone-in lemongrass chicken with unfertilized eggs


Where: 6261 N. McCormick Blvd. (North Park)

For the 2nd straight year I included this place on my list because I discovered a dish I love so much that I’ve ordered it at least ten times in 2018. The lemongrass chicken comes with or without the chicken bones; I prefer the bone-in because nibbling at the bone makes the experience more enjoyable. The chicken skin attached to the bone has a bit tougher texture, but of course this dish must be eaten with rice to help dilute the strong flavor. Crumble the unfertilized eggs and let them soak in the sauce a little.

Tip: Ask for extra eggs on the side.

 


Daguan Noodle: Beef shank in sour and spicy broth


Where: 2230 S. Wentworth Ave. (Chinatown)

This shop specializes in noodles and a few small plates as appetizers. It’ll take a little bit longer to get your soup here, unlike other places where soups usually come out instantly, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll have the option to choose your broth ranging from sweet and sour to spicy and sour and original.  I decided to go with the beef shank, spicy and sour version. Once your soup arrives, it comes bare broth with the fixings on the side. You can either put it in yourself or have them do it. I opted to have the professional do it because that bowl comes bubbling hot.  Can’t risk my delicate hands burning.

Some of the fixings include ham or spam, quail egg, fish cakes, green onions and wood ear mushrooms. The main ingredient is the beef shank, which was sliced super thin with a good meat to tendon ratio. As for the style of noodle, at first glance I thought they looked like oversized Thai kanom jean noodles (slippery thin rice noodles), and upon further investigation they are just that—the same texture and look as kanom jean, but  triple the size in diameter. This dish is very hearty and will only run you around $10.

Tip: Ordering soup to go can be tricky but here, they do it right. They separate everything as they are suppose to, then they actually give you a huge disposable bowl to eat it in. I’ve never seen that before. Usually when I order soup to go I have to use my own bowl.

 


Somethin’ Sweet Donuts: Red velvet cake donut


Where: 5112 W. Fullerton (Cragin)

This is a very small donut shop run by Ling and Jimmy Chao on the far west side of town. Red velvet is one if their most popular donuts. They make many versions, such as plain donuts with red velvet crumbs or plain crumbs on red velvet donuts. You can pick up a dozen for about $13 with tax.  Not too shabby, eh?

Some people might say it isn’t red velvet without cream cheese icing. With these, you don’t need the icing. It has just the right amount of sweetness that isn’t overpowering and the texture is phenomenal. It has air pockets giving you that airy fluffy texture but not too  cake-like. The chew of it is what gets you.

Tip: They open everyday 7am-7pm but they run out fast of the red velvet donuts, so call in first.

 


Skokie Grill and Bakery: Masgouf Pompano


Where: 4209 Main St., Skokie

By the name, you wouldn’t know it’s an Iraqi restaurant until you went inside. Although I didn’t see many baked goods in the display case (perhaps I came top late) I did see that they serve one of the more traditional Iraqi dishes. Masgouf or Masgoof as some would spell it, comes in halves or whole. It also comes with rice, salad and naan. The way they cook the pompano, a delicate white fish, was just perfection.  It came with a sauce to drizzle on but I like to pick at it as is.

Tip: The half order is good enough for one person but order the whole serving and save it for later.

 


Green Light Korean Pub & Karaoke: Kimchi cheese tots and Kimchi spam fried rice


Where: 2519 W. Peterson Ave. (West Rogers Park)

Green Light is a Korean bar that offers private rooms for singing and a few tables in the bar area for just dining and drinking. A small room will run you around $35 an hour with the big room running you around $55 an hour.

It was tough for me to pick which dish to put on this list but I came to the conclusion I had to put the kimchi tots on here. It’s just a fun dish to eat while you’re singing and sipping soju. It’s like eating an American nacho supreme with all the fixings except it’s Korean fusion flavors. Also the kimchi spam fried rice could be my favorite fried rice I’ve eaten so far. I truly think spam is very underrated and gets a lot of bad publicity.

Tip: Come on the weekends and you may just spot the bartender blowing fire then knocking flaming shot glasses into a glass like a domino effect.

 


90 Miles Cuban Cafe: Ox-tail and plantain chips


Where: 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood

Ever since my visit to Miami, a good oxtail dish is something I’ve wanted that has been  hard to come by. After a long day of shopping at the Lincolnwood Town Center I decided to stop in here and give it a try. Since oxtail is one of my favorite parts of the animal I went for it. Although that dish was really good, what surprise me was the appetizer I ordered. It’s the plantain chips with a dipping sauce comprised of olive oil and garlic. At first bite, it doesn’t seem like much but a few seconds later the flavor just stings you. It’s an eyepopping experience for me. I had to ask how they made it right there on the spot.

90 Miles Cuban Cafe has various locations throughout the city so there’s no shortage in finding one near you. Although I’ve never visited any of the other locations, I’m assuming these dishes are the same over there.

Tip: Come on the weekends for some live music and dancing.

 


Friends Ramen: Shrimp chips


Where: 808 N State St., Unit B (Near North Side)

Friends Ramen is the sister restaurant of Friends Sushi. They specialize in small appetizers and small bowls of ramen but what caught my attention was the deep fried shrimp chips. They do serve beer too so it goes perfectly with the saltiness of the shrimp, and don’t be afraid to eat it whole, shell and all. It’s deep fried perfectly leaving every part crispy and crunchy.

Tip: The ramen will run you around $6 so 2 bowls will fill you up. Bring more friends to try every flavor and if you have a sudden craving for sushi you can just walk next door to their sister restaurant.

 


Chicago Sweet Connection: Sweet rolls


Where: 5569 N. Northwest Hwy. (Jefferson Park)

So fluffy I’m going to die. That is how I would describe these rolls. Really, though, there’s so many other good things here at this local Polish bakery how does one choose which one to put on your best bites list? The only reason why I chose these rolls is because they are so affordable at $12 for a dozen but not to mention these are one of their popular items. The minute you sink your teeth into these babies you eyes will roll back behind your head.

Tip:  If you want these rolls you absolutely have to come in the morning. The term sell like hot cakes comes literally here.

 


Lao Sze Chuan: Spicy beef tendons


Where: 4832 N. Broadway (Uptown)

They serve two versions of this dish at the Lao Sze Chuan Northside location in Uptown. Although I do like the garlic version, the spicy version always wins my heart because of that tingling sensation you get from the peppercorn. This is a dish meant to be eaten right away, otherwise it’ll get tough on you, but even so, it’s shaved so thin that there’s no place for the flavor to go.

 


Anto Pizza and Pasta: Carbonara


Where: 1547 W. Jarvis Ave. (Rogers Park)

Anto serves Roman style pizza and various pasta dishes.  It’s located in Rogers Park kiddy corner to the Public House. It’s very interesting how they serve their pasta here. It’s served in a cone that sits on a metal ring stand.  At first glance for $9 it doesn’t look like you get much food but it goes down really deep into the cone.  It’s as good as any $15 pasta dish downtown.   From left to right is the carbonara, tortellini and the squid ink shrimp.  The carbonara stood out to me the most because of how much flavor it has and the pancetta that is directly imported from Italy.  I really like the viscosity that the noodles have.

HP

 


友情客串 Friend BBQ: Chicken skeleton


Where: 2358 S. Wentworth Ave. (Chinatown)

It’s hard to know exactly what the English name of this new restaurant in the Chinatown space formerly known as Legends Hotpot is. The Chinese name is Youqingkechuan, which I translated  as Friendship BBQ but Yelp is calling it Friend BBQ (no relation to Friends Ramen above). This is what you would call Chinese Bbq. The skewers of meat range from $1.50 to $5.

Shown in the photo from left to right is chicken neck, chicken hearts, aorta, beef tendons and lastly the chicken skeleton ($8) which was fun to eat even though there’s not much meat but with each bite you’ll get tons of flavor just from gnawing on the bone. The chicken skeleton is various bone pieces from the hacked chicken with some meat still there clinging for dear life. Talk about calcium overload right?  The most interesting thing to eat there was the aorta. I’d say it has a texture just like squid. In fact you might even mistaken it for a squid.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to try the more unusual parts from the skewer menu and there’s also a Hotpot version of the skewers. Also they serve the best stir fry garlic pea pod tips dish I’ve ever had so far.

 


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

Photos: Sisavathphotography.com


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