I leave Chicago to go eat in France, I check social media mid-trip to see what’s happening at home… and you people are all talking about a Taco Bell closing. Can’t I leave you alone with the Chicago food scene for one week? (Two actually, but who’s counting.) Now do you understand why everything good is closing, as Chuck Sudo wrote last week?

Look, I’m not saying this isn’t a novelty story worth running. DNA Info did it well, quoting some Yelp reviews of the kind of trashy behavior that being a Taco Bell in the midst of Drunk Sports Fan Central is going to provoke. And the fact that some misguided souls are starting a populist movement to keep the Taco Bell alive—because it would be an inestimable cultural loss for the massive new chain restaurant developments in the Wrigleyville area to lack Super Chalupa Volcano Chicken Wraps—makes this news, mildly, of a sort.

But at some point, all this coverage of chain restaurant activity by local food media is a contributor to, not just a symptom of, the corporatizing changes on our restaurant scene. The endless fawning over every move of out of town players like Shake Shack or the Nutella Cafe. The fact that the cheapest way to get guaranteed free advertising in major Chicago media is to give free food away, like G.I.’s passing out candy bars for a flash of leg. Falling for PR stunts like Heinz calling ketchup “Chicago dog sauce.” These corporate efforts may hold some interest for your audience, especially for that part of your audience whose interest in food is only marginal to begin with, but they don’t care about you, they don’t care about Chicago, as soon as the economic winds shift they’ll be gone. A Taco Bell is closing. That’s a story worth obsessing over for the Mule Deer, Idaho Tick-Pinecone, not Chicago media.


Phil Vettel acknowledges that everyone is rooting for HaiSous owners Thai and Danielle Dang, especially after the Crain’s story on the Embeya mess, and happily he reports that their new Pilsen place rewards the good vibes: “The menu is a virtual hit parade. Fans of Embeya will recognize the salad of papaya, shaved to cellophane-noodle thinness and piled high, studded with house-made beef jerky (moister than true jerky, and I’m not complaining) and Thai chiles. Grilled octopus is a modified blast from the past; at Embeya, the octopus pieces gathered under a frothy coconut foam, but now they sit atop a reduced coconut-cream base accented by lime and lemongrass. Melt-in-the-mouth eggplant confit, perilla leaves and crushed peanuts play nicely with the protein.” (Tribune)


Michael Nagrant calls Daisies the restaurant version of Dad Rock, and explaining what he means by that makes for one of the best reviews of the year, both for his thesis (not surprising, he’s the king of music analogies) and for the enthusiasm he shows for Daisies’ simple, to the point food: “Dad food is not a construction. It’s a real thing. It is what many chefs cook as they mature. Think Paul Kahan’s perfect fries soaked in beef tallow or Jason Vincent’s shattering onion rings with a side of sticky barbecue ribs at Giant, for example… Oh, and the pasta! Unlike so many restaurants that use fancy extruders to make technically perfect spaghetti, all of Frillman’s noodles are made by hand. They ooze the custard of golden yolks.” (Redeye)


Bon Appetit’s annual list of 10 top new restaurants is previewed thus month with a longer list of 50—gotta milk those listicles—and this year’s names four Chicago places among the 50 best new restaurants. Elske is “a young couple’s modern Midwestern marvel”; at Giant, “the small plates of unexpected pairs—including waffle fries and Jonah crab salad—are like something you’d dream up after a night out drinking, yet have the finesse and integrity worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant”; Mi Tocaya Antojeria offers “daring and delicious Mexican cooking from the singular mind and palate of chef Diana Dávila; and at Smyth the Shieldses “cement their status as fine-dining pros, with five-, eight-, and 12-course menus. Downstairs, at the Loyalist, the Shieldses prove they also know how to have a good time.”


I had my doubts about Split Rail based on Zoe Schor’s signature dish being her version of a chicken McNugget, but Mike Sula seems to have fallen for the place’s faux fast food, too: “The nuggets are the anchor of the chef’s gently satirical homage to the traditionally beige foodways of the white midwestern casserole belt. Schor, who grew up in Boston before clocking time in the kitchens of superchefs such as Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, and Todd English, has jokes. She’ll knock you dead with a dish of pillowy, Parisian-style potato gnocchi, dressed to impress with proverbial Wendy’s spud fixin’s—bacon, chopped scallions, sour cream, crispy potato skin, and sharp five-year-old cheddar. The insipid elements of Thanksgiving’s dreary perennial vegetal mush—the green bean casserole—have been replaced by snappy al dente, emerald-colored beans, oyster and cremini mushrooms in heavy cream and butter, and frazzled onions. The buffet line spills over to the dessert menu too, with a vibrant strawberry Jell-O mold with a base of buttermilk panna cotta and a crushed-pretzel topping.” (Reader)


Lots of activity is happening in Chinatown, and not all of it is rolled ice cream—at least one place that has the trendy Asian sweet treat, Legend Tasty House, has also opened a place specializing in another Asian trend, crystal hot pot, called Legend Spicy Bar. That’s hot pot cooked in the alleged healing powers of a crystal bowl, says Louisa Chu: “The fish, charcoal-grilled until the edges are crispy, comes smothered with tenderly cooked napa cabbage, carrots and celery, all garnished with fresh scallions and cilantro. If you ordered yours spicy, crimson chiles warn of the heat to come, though it will be tempered by the fish’s succulent white flesh.” She notes something else revealing about the trend: “Legend’s modern signage and interior design further confirm my (unproven) suspicion that there’s a company somewhere selling the same early-21st century, modern Asian restaurant package, because I’ve seen it around the world. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but they all have hints of rustic beams, shiny furniture, wall-sized murals with street market scenes overlaid with random English words, and of course, too many blaring flat-screen TVs.” (Tribune)


I ate at the Public Hotel’s version of The Pump Room, basically a Chicago outpost of Jean-Paul Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen in New York, and it was fine—and like most hotel-based restaurants, not so memorable or distinctive that I ever needed to go back. Now the Public Hotel name is going and Lettuce Entertain You is going to take a second whack at running the Pump Room (not necessarily under that name). And I wonder if it’s not time to let the old girl go; it’s in a somewhat isolated neighborhood for hot dining, it’s trading on Sinatra-era nostalgia so far back that it predates most of today’s diners’ childhood memories, and it suggests that Lettuce, once such a trendsetter, is looking backwards instead of forwards, too. Is it time to just say, thanks for the memories? (Crain’s)


David Hammond goes to Guadalajara and eats things that are common on Chicago’s Jalisciense scene, like the torta ahogado. Then he wrestles with why the Chicago versions are better.


Ever had a jibarito, the Puerto Rican sandwich invented in Chicago? Probably. Ever had a blood sausage jibarito? Me neither, but Louisa Chu says you should: “In a jibarito, inexpensive steak is often too chewy, and lechon chunks too hard. But morcilla is just right, melding together the unlikely elements cohesively.”


The Albert was nearly a black hole for me, but Joanna Trestrail at Crain’s finds it relatively appealing: “More fun is a sandwich built around crunchy fried green tomatoes ($14), a stellar version of this homey classic. Among main dishes, sauteed sea trout ($27) stands out with its inventive accompaniments of ramps, dates and turnips. We also love the campanelle ($14/$28) with Calabrian chili; the pasta is firm and luscious and ever so slightly spicy, topped with feathery pecorino and a handful of bright, undressed greens.”


Whet Moser interviews Chicago-based She Simmers blogger and cookbook author Leela Punyaratabandhu, and she has lots of thoughtful things to say that go beyond Thai food, like this insight into retro food on the Thai scene: “There is a growing demand from people from upcountry who want elections and full democracy. The retro trend is almost like the middle class is yearning for the time when [the rural class] didn’t demand anything different, to be heard, to be equal. You can look at it that way. But if you look at it in a more positive way, it’s people missing the time when things were peaceful to them—eating food like that reminds you of home, of your roots. There’s an unspoken feeling that Bangkok isn’t what it used to be anymore.”


Well, Mike ate in France for most of the last two weeks, and honestly… had many very good things, but I came away thinking more highly of Chicago’s food scene, on average. The best way to eat in France remains to go to a boucherie, and a fromagerie, and a boulangerie, and assemble a picnic of wonderful French ingredients. Restaurant cooking, however, seems to be 20 years behind in some ways, and when it came to casual dining, expecting too much of the average bistro or brasserie tended to be a mistake—almost any meal like that seems like it would be sharper, seasoned and cooked better, in Chicago. For casual food, you would be better off eating North African or Turkish much of the time.

The high point for restaurant dining was Clown Bar in Paris, which the Americans have definitely discovered; Le Baratin is another much-loved kind of casual place, but while I can see the charms of its no-pretensions family-run atmosphere, the food wasn’t that far above home cooking, either. And Chicago baking, at its best, seems to be every bit the equal of the name patisseries (Poilane, Eric Kayser, etc.) At least one thing hasn’t changed: Berthillon on the Ile. St. Louis remains the best ice cream in the world (they were already closed for August by late July, but other shops serve their ice cream all over the island).