Buzz List for April 19, 2021

Ruby slips away, Michelin plans to give stars to the newly reopened, fried chicken sandwich standoff, and loose meat vs. Jim Shoe

Michael Gebert
Picking up at Four Seasons Dumplings in Chinatown


Chicago magazine’s last recorded reviewer, Jeff Ruby, announced that he was leaving his post in a string of tweets, beginning here:

I’ve been the chief dining critic at Chicago magazine for 11 years now, and have worked as a part of the publication in some shape or form since 1997. It’s kind of the only real job I’ve known… What kind of ungrateful, dithering moron freely walks away from a dream job where people pay you to eat great food and all you have to do in return is offer your opinion? All I can say is: It’s time.

He goes on to pay parting tribute to the people who work in restaurants:

You’ll never get the credit you deserve for preserving something sacred: hospitality. The very word sounds downright old-fashioned at this particular moment, but true hospitality is something that every one of us is in dire need of right now.

Ruby’s departure is not exactly a surprise—his last review (RPM Seafood) was a year ago and had a distinct end-of-an-era tone to it.  When he appeared on my early-days-of-COVID podcast, he sounded a bit like someone looking for something new to do (he had also just published a well-received young adult novel). So best wishes to a thoughtful guy, who said he didn’t like doing outright slams in reviews but nevertheless wrote at least one classic one, that says a lot about the dirty game of favoritism in high end restaurants in Chicago:

After 40 minutes of waiting underneath a giant metal shark sculpture in the bar with an iPad cocktail list—the most depressing phrase in the English language right there—we’re finally seated in a cavernous, empty overflow area that looks like the soul-sucking rooms where Days Inn serves its free continental breakfasts. It turns out former governor George Ryan arrived around the same time we did and got our table. At C Chicago, apparently an ex-con trumps the rest of us.

Nothing is funnier than a hotshot restaurant not realizing they’re screwing over a restaurant critic when they pull that for the sake of a VIP. Some things about dining, you’re happy to walk away from. Some other memorable moments:


During a 2016 visit, I found that much of the stress had smoothed out, leaving only joy. Funny, cordial servers brought dish after stunning dish—things like shredded pig tail meat that had been roasted and reconstituted into a sphere, then deep-fried with rice on the outside and served with cauliflower purée, endive, and oxalis. The meal was one of those rarest of moments: when you’re promised the world, and promptly delivered it. Afterward, Muser escorted my party down a flight of stairs, past color photos of Thomas Keller and other kitchen legends, to the staff lounge. It looked like a lucky twentysomething’s apartment: nice couch, big flatscreen, XBox, washing machine, and, of course, a wine cellar. I remember a mellow dog lying on the floor. “We want the staff to stay out of trouble and hang out here when they’re not working,” said Muser, who was happy to report that they did.

Ruby on a personal favorite, Arbor, which delighted me that it delighted him:

[Chef Leonard] Hollander and [co-owner Chad] Little love to serve dishes and tell stories. They geek out on eccentric wine pairings, such as a racy Chilean 2011 Baptiste Cuvelier Cuvée Del Maule to bolster a cocoa-and-espresso-dusted pork loin with strips of Ibérico chorizo atop cheddar grits and porky collard greens. And they do tongue-in-cheek well. “We like dessert to be a little low-key,” Hollander said while presenting an amazing pot de crème with 70 percent Colombian dark chocolate, passion fruit panna cotta, tonka bean whipped cream, 50-day-old strawberries, cocoa nibs, homemade Pixy Stix, and crumbled sunflower petals. “But I guess this one isn’t at all low-key.”

This sounds precious, and it is. But in a neighborhood where residents want to know their farmer and the farmer’s chicken personally, Arbor takes Logan Square to the next logical place. If you’re not interested in hearing that when the apple supplier had 150 gallons of cider going bad in his truck, Hollander bought it all for $1 a gallon and reduced it into molasses, you may find the meal unpleasant. But if you are interested, it’s fascinating—an extraordinary glimpse into a business run by talented people who care.

Ruby talks back to people who dissed his best pizza list:

Q: Where is Giordanos? —SHERRY2
JR: It’s everywhere. But I assume you mean, Why is it not on the list? My most recent trip to Giordano’s was a disaster: I got a lukewarm stuffed sausage pie, ridiculously top-heavy with chalky cheese. In short, Giordano’s is where it belongs: with the tourists, suburbanites, and my wife, who still claims it’s great based on a pizza she had there when she was 12. For once, she’s wrong.

Now the question: Will he be replaced? Chicago mag has a stable of qualified contributors, but the question as ever is, will the position still exist?


Michelin will announce 2021 star recipients and Bib Gourmands later this month. Nick Kokonas tweeted exactly the issue this raises:

Curious how the Michelin guide can rate restaurants in Chicago that have been essentially closed for over a year. We’ve worked hard on To Go but that’s not meant to be 3*. And they can’t have dined in. So why a new guide? Makes sense in 2022. Not now. Now is rebirth.

Now, I don’t mind that someone’s putting out a guide—as restaurants reopen, they can use all the help they can get—but Michelin has always made so much noise about their careful, secretive, hyperserious process, and the reality is they can’t follow it universally this time, with some top contenders (Elske, Oriole, and who knows what’s up with Acadia) still not reopened and any restaurant that has opened still finding its way in a world that has changed—they could be very different in a few months. If I published a review book right now, I’d have to say, “this is what Place X was like the last time I went there, in 2019, who knows now.” Will Michelin be that forthright about reviews reflecting pre-COVID times? They told the Trib:

“We are very much looking forward to these selections, first to support the industry and (to put) the spotlight on the restaurants who, despite the toughest year, are still serving,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, in an interview Thursday morning. “We managed, despite the context, to make these sections without compromising. We brought core values and methodology, but of course had to adapt.”

Whatever that means. Not exactly transparency from an award that can kill restaurants, and even chefs.

As one respondent to Kokonas wrote, “Michelin Guide are simply doing what they have done for some time – whatever the hell they like.” Mind you, everyone has always played fast and loose with that game. I saw an announcement this week for a “Michelin-starred chef”‘s new gig. The chef in particular, nothing against him but he took over a place that had a star in the spring and the book came out in the fall. (The restaurant is gone now.) Did Michelin even eat his food in that short span? Who knows, but his new place has a “Michelin starred chef.”

Buzz 2


Fried chicken sandwiches were one of the foods that were everywhere during lockdown, and Nick Kindelsperger takes another survey of the state of the chicken from chains:

When I first ranked all of the fried chicken sandwiches from national fast-food chains in 2019, I found a frustrating scene filled with sparingly few legitimately good options… In fact, nearly half of the sandwiches on my previous list don’t exist anymore, as a number of chains have released new versions to catch the public’s attention. So much has changed, I decided it was time to do a serious update so I could include all the new fried challengers to the throne.

Well, this is chain food, so I’m only going to be mildly interested. (The winner, unsurprisingly, rhymes with Top Guys.) More interesting is the face-off between two Chicago-based fried chicken sandwiches—Portillo’s, which uses giardinera in its mayo, and Chubby Char House in Austin:

Order the Nashville hot version ($8), and you’ll get a gargantuan offering, featuring two extra crunchy tenders drizzled with a chile-laced sauce that tickles your tongue at first, before unleashing a wave of pure heat. As a spice fanatic, after a few bites, I just sat still and marveled at the complexity, while sweat started to drip from the top of my head.

Now that’s a sandwich to get my attention.


Or at least in the year of COVID. Brad Cawn outlines four paths to greatness that COVID-era independents are taking:

Don’t be surprised if soft openings become more like soft months, with concepts and stores testing and tweaking–“user experience research,” if you will–their approaches before settling on an identity. That will likely mean more fast casual, more delivery focus, more slavish attempts at going viral on social media; on the flip side, however, it may also yield in uptick in quality as restaurants focus on refining their models and ambitions rather than on flashy openings. Expect, too, an evolution of the Next model, with restaurants changing concepts on a monthly or even weekly level; collaborations and residencies will become the norm.


Steve Dolinsky talks to the mother and daughter making Khmer food at Mona Bella.


Titus Ruscitti goes looking for the taste of Hong Kong at Wonton Gourmet in Des Plaines:

Another dish I’ve been chasing since my trip to Hong Kong is the pork chop over rice with an egg from a spot called For Kee. It’s to this day maybe the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Wonton Gourmet serves a bone in pork chop over rice with a fried egg and fried onions on top. This wasn’t similar to the version served at For Kee but it did remind me of a Chinese style Maxwell street pork chop.


David Hammond has been traveling across the midwest, and offers some commentary on regional specialties found in his path:

The Loose Meat Sandwich. It’s just what it sounds like: crumbles of meat, usually beef, on a bun. The primary source for this sandwich in Iowa is, without doubt, the Maid-Rite franchise system, with twenty or so restaurants scattered across the state. The meat is slightly seasoned and needs a blast of mustard or other condiment to bring it to life; blobs of meat fall from the sandwich as you eat because it’s, you know, loose. I can’t say that I get this sandwich, but Iowans love it, and it’s worth stopping at a Maid-Rite to sample this regional specialty.

I think the raison d’existence of loose meat sandwiches is not too mysterious: You don’t entirely need teeth to eat them. A big bonus in the Depression when people didn’t have money for dentistry. For an example of that kind of food, Oak Parker Hammond need go no further than Elmwood Park’s Russell’s Barbecue.


I’ve eaten exactly one gym shoe—that is, the sandwich of that name. Which basically takes everything they have in the typical south side hoagie shop and slaps it on one sandwich. To me, that indiscriminate mix of ingredients is what dooms it, but Sandwich Tribunal makes something of a case for it:

A good Jim Shoe is… well it’s a mess, frankly. The sub combines corned beef (often referenced as “corn beef” on sandwich shop menus that serve it), roast beef, and gyro (generally pronounced “GUY-ro” at these establishments) meat, with onions, mustard, “gyro sauce” (not to be confused with tzatziki–the sauce may range from something quite close to tzatziki toward something more akin to Ranch dressing), cheese, and sometimes giardiniera, served with lettuce and tomato in a hoagie roll.

If that sounds like a lot, that is only because it is a lot. It’s a lot of stuff to put into a sandwich.


Louisa Chu of Chewing put up maybe my favorite vaccination photo and caption so far.



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