John Kessler reviews Maxwells Trading, and I endorse the following about owner Erling Wu-Bower (Avec, Pacific Standard Time) and chef Chris Jung:

These two children of the city know no bounds in their culinary playground, and some of their creations are extraordinary — dishes I keep thinking about, dishes I want to experience again and again. As cooks, they paint in the most vivid colors, but what their art lacks is a frame. Though dining here is a blast, the food does not quite cohere into a meal. Still, do you want to try a sea bass tartare with peanut, coconut, and lemongrass? A smooshy bowl of fried eggplant with confit tomato? A Basque cake with apple butter? Come right this way.

Though as I said in my own review, I’m curious to see if it comes together with the next seasonal menu. Or maybe it’s just an accurate reflection of life in the city for anyone who makes lunch out of leftovers from a couple of wildly differnt places—a quintessentially Chicago experience.


Michael Nagrant starts out by examining influencer economics:

Consider the case of Sam Roby of Chicago Food Authority, @chicagofoodauthority on Instagram. She has 276,000 followers. Clearly she’s a mover and shaker who can deliver value, right?


Maybe not.

I followed her recently to see what kind of content she’s putting out. In doing so I was invited to her CFA “bbs” broadcast channel subgroup on Instagram.  I joined that too to see what kind of cool insidery things I might see.

And this is where it gets interesting. Even though Roby has 270k+ followers, when I joined there were only 956 members of this sub channel or a .34% engagement rate. Surely, with as many followers as she has, at least 10% of them would be interested in this sub channel, right?

If Roby can’t convert her own followers for her own purposes, how will she convert them for your restaurant?

Fair question! I remember when I was doing Grub Street, I knew what my numbers were for my most popular posts, and even if Eater’s were higher (which they probably were), they likely weren’t insanely higher—maybe half again as much, at most. And yet there were influencers, even then, claiming to have a following ten times as large. And I just did not believe that there were 250,000 Chicagoans (about one in 12) hanging on every word (or picture) of anybody writing about restaurants. Indeed, we soon found that a lot of this was purchased numbers.

From there, though, he carries the argument to… that NYT-Kevin Pang piece on 25 restaurants to check out now, discussed here last week:

Eater Chicago wrote a pretty good report on the list here so I don’t want to rehash all these points, but there were a couple of similar things that struck me.

It’s very clear from Gallagher’s response to readers comments that they did not want to overload the Times list with pre-fixe options and so they were judicious with the ones they picked.

As such, the list should not be called “The 25 Best Restaurants in Chicago Right Now” since they purposely excluded some “best” spots in favor of a diversity of restaurant types including quick service airport kiosks like Tortas Frontera which while amazing for an airport wouldn’t make the top 50 “best” Chicago restaurants anywhere else. As a frequent flyer, I’ve gotten stale buns, overcooked chicken, and even missing sauces at these O’Hare kiosks in the past.

Now I think he’s faulting the piece for not being what it never claimed to be—comparing it to Michelin and then faulting it for not including more prix-fixe tasting menus. But it’s not Michelin, claiming (preposterously) to have definitive views on the very best (and not that much interest in anything that isn’t $300+ a pop). It’s out to give you a slice of our scene at multiple price points, including by cheekily saying we’re so good, even our airport food is superior. (Which of course it is.) Alinea doesn’t make the list, despite its three tire co. stars, because the people who want to go to Alinea have already heard of Alinea, from Chef’s Table if nowhere else. Superdawg does make the list, because it’s a slice of Chicago that will enhance any visitor’s experience. And so on.

He goes at the NYT list again in the next piece he writes, but it eventually turns into something we can all approve of, a review of Dear Margaret a couple of years in. It’s a lovely piece of sensual food writing:

There are frites, golden and crispy at Dear Margaret. The pommes dauphines we killed already were not diet food. But, Brosseau, especially in Chicago spring applies his skills as equally to engorging-carbs as he does to lithe vegetables and seafood.

A salad of verdant pea shoots lifted the swampy richness of shucked crawfish tails swimming over a crispy popcorn rice panisse dripping in lobster roe aioli and fermented togarashi chili.


Okay, that might be a bit much, but I enjoyed Nettare, another all-day cafe place that hasn’t gotten the kind of love that, say, John’s Food & Wine or Pompette have gotten. Maggie Hennessy kind of liked it too:

This all-day cafe with a retail shop has the hipster, something-for-everyone vibe that’s pervaded openings since the pandemic. Despite the airy, plant-filled environs, Nettare’s food—punchy, rich and brackish on a recent April evening—recalls the embrace of a neighborhood joint with knotty-wood walls in, say, Petoskey, Michigan, or a timeworn Chicago beef stand. But friendly Midwestern comfort is merely a jumping-off point in the capable hands of [chef John] Dahlstrom and company.


One more piece and they should rename it the Corned Beef Tribune. The brisket-obsessed paper chats with owners of Kaufman’s (in Skokie) and Zeitlin’s (which is… somewhere). It contains this shocking revelation:

[Kaufman’s owner Bette] Dworkin has never been a brisket lover.

“I tried to make a change here years ago for the holidays to take the brisket out and put in tenderloin and it just completely fell flat,” she said. “I know I’m a weird Jew that I don’t like brisket.”


A moving piece at the Trib about an undocumented tamale vendor who returned home one last time:

Battling health problems and a ticking clock, Perez, 63, chose to leave the life she’d built for herself and her family over the past 25 years. Though she was a successful street vendor in Little Village, she was in the country without legal permission. And she yearned to return to Mexico to hug her aging siblings, visit her parents’ graves and see the houses she’d built for her family using the money she’d earned selling tamales in Chicago.

Her husband, Seferino Arguelles, tried convincing her to wait so that the two could go back together. “Just a couple more years,” he would tell her, urging them to leave the business ready to be passed down. But Perez was afraid that if she waited any longer, she would never return. Not alive at least.


We talked about Titus Ruscitti’s Chicago mag piece on shawarma when it was upcoming, and then when it came out online, and now we get the raw notes at his site. Here’s an intriguing sounding place in a Norridge strip mall (not this one, but close by and similar in its multiculturalism):

We’ll start out in the enclave of Norridge where there’s some stellar shawarma to be found in a busy strip mall. EZ Shawarma opened a couple years ago and I remember being told there was a connection to the old Salem in Albany Park but I cant remember the exact details. Anyway they have an Arabic style shawarma that’s hit the spot on two separate visits. Arabic Shawarma is the term used for a chicken shawarma wrapped with garlic sauce and pickles that’s cut up into pieces and served with fries. You’ll find this dish at most shawarma spots but EZ Shawarma makes one of my favorites. The chicken is sliced fresh, the pickles are crisp and the toum has that garlicky zip to it.


Maxwell Street—once famous for blues, later for Mexican food as chronicled by David Hammond here—has been something of a pale shadow of itself since the pandemic. Monica Eng at Axios says the cool kids are going to Swap-O-Rama on Ashland these days:

Sources in the neighborhood who asked not to be quoted said the Maxwell exodus was driven by the market’s yearlong pandemic shutdown and its new, shorter May-October season set by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

…On a recent Saturday, I was flummoxed to find almost no hot food inside the huge flea market, but a taco bonanza once I stepped onto 43rd Street between Ashland and Hermitage.


The Francesca chain was a hit for a couple of decades, and although restaurateur Scott Harris’ empire has shrunk a bit, it’s still a notable chapter in modern Chicago restaurant history, as Anthony Todd relates at Dish on the eve of Mia Francesca (the Wrigleyville one) getting a refresh:

On the renovation of Mia Francesca: “We totally brought in a new vibe. No tablecloths, a more casual feel, more of a trattoria feel. When we did it, it was on a dime, there were no pads on the chairs. There’s a new back patio, new bathrooms. Everything looks brand new. We put in a chef’s table with a slicer. We have an antipasto table right there. Changed all the lighting, freshened it up. It looks clean, like a 2024 restaurant, not a 1992 restaurant. The renovation brings back so many memories of customers and their kids and their kids. It’s surreal how it’s evolved.”


Friend of Fooditor Cynthia Clampitt talks about Taiwanese food in Chicago, like Taipei Cafe, which is in the same strip mall as A Place by Damao:

At the South Halsted location of Taipei Café, I was impressed by the fact that they listed on their menu seven different versions of beef noodle soup: spicy, fatty, with tendon, or some combination of these, as well as eight other noodle dishes. I was focused, however, on trying a bento box, also called a rice box—clearly reflecting Japanese influence. I ordered braised pork belly, rich and flavorful, which came with turnip soup, vegetable of the day, braised egg, Asian vegetable pickle, and rice with a cinnamon-flavored sauce. The clientele was, as it has been in each of these places, almost entirely Asian—I’m guessing, folks looking for a taste of home. And clearly there is demand, as Taipei Café has now opened a second, though smaller, location.


Remember when “Gangnam” meant a K-Pop band? Now it means a food hall, Gangnam Market, in West Town. At Chicago mag, Peter Gianopulos goes through the market to pick out some highlights.


Friend of Fooditor Lisa Shames has a piece at the Trib on restaurants getting the most out of produce by “upcycling“:

At Cariño, chef Norman Fenton created a second concept, a late-night taco omakase, to utilize some of the by-products from the Latin-inspired fine dining restaurant’s tasting menu and to create a lower-priced option for diners.

“When we are cutting perfectly brunoised vegetables, we get a lot of leftover pieces that we want to find homes for and not staff meal or the trash can,” said Fenton.

Shames also talked about her piece on WBEZ’s Reset here.


I feel like we’re in the middle of a major shift in how hospitality works, so I’m paying attention to any place I go where things seem to be working in a new way. I don’t condemn anybody for this—I’ve written a fair amount about John’s Food and Wine because I think they’re really trying to find a new way to work that works in 2024, and I respect that… even when I don’t entirely like the results.

Then there are the ones that seem unfriendly and self-sabotaging. Organized for their own convenience, not the customer’s.

I went to a bar in my neighborhood that offers smash burgers. The hostess explained how it works—you order beer from one place, you order food from another counter, and you have to squeeze your way through the crowded dining room to order and then again, ten minutes later, to pick your food up. The menu, meanwhile, is accessed by QR code on your phone… except mine was sitting at home three blocks away. Fortunately my wife had hers. So she pulls up the menu and I make my picks, but I see no sign of the beer list on the food menu, or a link to get to it. (Normally there would be a top level menu that gives you the various choices, no?)

So I go to the counter where I can order beer (but again, not food). There is, for some reason, a framed menu on an easel offering whatever is not beer. For beer, at a place that is supposedly all about beer, I have to look at some monitors placed about eight feet in the air, ten feet or more from me, where the beers are listed basically like this:

Schwenkenfeltz Sour IPA
Notes of sassafras and schmutz 7.3% ABV

Except you might actually be able to read that; step back 5 feet and try to read it, or hop on one leg while reading it and that’s closer to my experience. Is there a paper menu? No, of course not (admittedly not an easy thing to maintain when a beer list in changing all the time—though that’s not really my problem.). I finally just asked the young lady (who was clearly thinking, Go back to the home, OK boomer with the bad eyes?) to name something that wasn’t an IPA. I took the first one she said, the house lager, because honestly, at that point who cared. It’s a beer. It’ll be adequate. (Indeed, it rose triumphantly to adequacy.)

I’m sounding pretty cranky (OK boomer) but let’s talk about how this system might work better, in a customer-oriented way:

1) Connect the beer counter with the food counter so I can order in one place and it magically travels to the other over a wire or wi-fi (or homing pigeon for all I care). But, you say, they’re separate systems or profit centers or whatever. Um… again, not really my problem, as the customer.

2) For that matter, if you’re requiring me to have a $1000 phone with me to be able to eat a cheeseburger in America, why can’t we do it ALL on the phone? Let me look at the menu, and order right from it at my table, and pay, without having to wrestle my way through the crowd of bros slouched back five feet from their tables to get to two different counters.

3) Make it easy to find all the menus from any page on your site (I just played with it at home, and you can only get from one menu to another by backing up till you get back to the home page, and pick a different path to follow. Is this a menu or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel?) That’s UX design thinking straight out of 1995.

4) You’ve got four screens way up in the air with the same beer list, make the type bigger and if necessary split the list up onto those multiple screens, IPAs here, lagers here, etc.

You may think I’m being cranky. Hell, I am being cranky! But with a point in mind. What I see in so many of these QR Code experiences is the supposedly convenient customer experience getting in the way of my spending more money at your place. Was I going to order another beer at that point? Nothing about my experience made me want to go through it again. Will I come back for that burger? Bar burgers are common as dirt in my neighborhood (not to mention God’s own favorite cheap burger, Red Hot Ranch, is walkably close), and in fact I would have been at the (friendly, human-scaled) Four Moon Tavern if it had not been jam-packed on Saturday night. Which part of this experience makes me want to spend more time, let alone money, here?


I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think I will when I make Sunday breakfast (which by the time you read this will have already happened, but whatever!): Donnie Madia on Joiners.

And at The Dining Table, David Manilow talks to Sujan Sarkar, Beard nominee for Indienne.


One interesting thing about our scene at the moment is that tasting menus have moved to the world of ethnic restaurants; we have two Indian ones (Indienne and Coach House at Wazwan), Filipino (Kasama and one coming soon from the Bayan Ko people), Cambodian at Hermosa, and of course lots of Japanese places using the word “omakase.” Maman Zari  is the Persian version of this in the former Semiramis space on Kedzie near Wilson. It proved to offer very friendly service, a pleasant room (though the step in the middle of the room, which I stumbled over many times at Semiramis, is still there; my server said it’s apparently load-bearing and can’t be removed), a nice wine list (after dinner I ordered a pineau des charentes, which I had never had but heard about from interviewing Gordon Sinclair. In short, I liked everything about it… except the Persian food.

I’ve eaten at places like Reza’s and Noon-O-Kebab (a few doors north) enough that I find grilled chicken sitting on a mound of fluffy pilaf to be serviceable, healthy-ish, but a bit dull. I hoped this version would take Persian flavors in new directions, which it didn’t, certainly by the second time a dish came with a glob of thick yogurt with mint or something in it—surely if tasting menus have one rule, it’s don’t repeat! Even when something was good– little bits of stewed lamb in a tomato sauce with lots of rice—it was ironic that I could look out the window at Salam across the street, where $16.99 gets you a huge hunk of lamb mansaf, almost the same thing. Admittedly, $90 for a tasting menu seems quite reasonable today (though not that long ago, $85 seemed to be the going rate at places like Schwa or EL Ideas), but for that price, or to justify calling yourself a tasting menu, I want to taste things I have not had before (on this same block) that expand my understanding of Persian cooking. The only part of the menu that I felt really did that was dessert—some ice cream with chunks of frozen cream in it, then some cookies which were quite nice. So it ended on a high note, which I wish I had been more frequent throughout.

How often does a Mexican taco stand, of which we have an endless supply, stand out? Tepalcates, which I tried to go to when it was on west Fullerton, but it was in the process of moving to my neighborhood, basically, on Belmont just east of Western, stood out from the moment the owner greeted me and basically told me to ignore the menu board over the pass and started walking me through the real menu via pictures on his phone, at the same time pouring me little cups of his housemade juices—including horchata proudly made from scratch, not a mix. It quickly became Stump the Customer—”Carne en su jugo, you had that before?” Yes. “Where?” 26th street. “Oh, Los Gallos?” Yes. “I used to get it from there until I started making my own, which is better!”

So I took his advice and wound up with an octopus taco—you know, like every taco stand offers—a brisket taco and one of cochinita pibil. To which he responded by plopping down four squeeze bottles of housemade salsa, which he quickly connected to each of my tacos—this one goes with the octopus, this one with the brisket. Everything had good fresh flavor, although they tended (especially with the salsa) to have strong seasoning that overcame any subtlety in the meat itself (the pulpo could have been pollo by that point). Still, it was the best taco experience I’ve had in quite a little while, not least because I’ve lived in my neighborhood for decades and it’s never had much of anything in the way of Mexican (though there is a Chipotle in the mall on Western)(that was a joke), so to be able to recommend a place as worthy of your attention no matter where you live is quite a change. Check it out.