Let’s assume something: it would be good to have more diverse voices among restaurant reviewers. Women, people of color, etc. etc.

(Of course, first it would be good to have more, or any, restaurant reviewers. We were approaching zero not long ago, and may be about to lose one with the Reader’s troubles—and if they’re not employed,  the point of what identity they have is pretty darn moot.)

Now, there are two ways to look at having more such—as a question, or as an answer.

As a question, it’s actually two questions—”Wouldn’t it be good to get more diversity of viewpoints, rooted in identity?” and “Wouldn’t it be good to give people of identities other than white males opportunities in this field?” Both of which have many things to be said for them.

But as an answer, it’s absolutist—all other considerations (like individual talent) fall to the absolute need to be seen checking the right identity boxes. That’s the viewpoint I see in Eater Chicago’s coverage of John Kessler’s new gig as Chicago mag’s reviewer:

there’s… been chatter nationwide about how food criticism needed to evolve and give more opportunities to BIPOC and queer writers…

There have been some changes in Chicago. Mike Sula at the Chicago Reader has started a pop-up series in Albany Park, spotlighting different chefs — many of them BIPOC — every week at the Kedzie Inn. Chicago has expanded veteran food writer Audarshia Townsend’s role, but when it comes to reviews, instead of grooming a fresh voice or searching for a new one, the magazine has turned to Kessler.

Boy, “chatter” became “the only acceptable choice” awfully quickly there, without much talk about what we’re really after here. (Take the notion of needing queer writers. First, I know a number of gay food writers, so this is hardly a glass ceiling that’s never been cracked. Secondly, it seems built on an assumption that there exists a queer cuisine we’ve badly overlooked all this time, and need gay writers to clue us into, as one might wish for Asian writers to make an Asian cuisine more familiar to the rest of us. Because identities are all exactly the same, so each has been assigned a food of its own, I guess. Just wait till a queer cooking sensibility gets to the James Beard House!)

Here’s the thing, though. Chicago mag isn’t an alt-weekly where identity representation is a central focus—it’s a mainstream magazine. And that’s okay! If anything in America ought to have different emphases, it’s magazines! So by mainstream standards, Kessler, white dude though he is, was easily the most qualified available candidate, two decades of experience as a reviewer in Atlanta and a recent chair of the James Beard Awards journalism committee.

Now, you could argue that other issues (diversity, representation) should trump those attributes, even for a mainstream publication—but you have to actually argue that, which the Eater piece does not; it just assumes. To my mind Kessler, besides being obviously qualified and something of a catch, does represent diversity of a sort—in that he’s not part of the existing critical community (what’s left of it) in Chicago. Which tends to have very similar views of what reviewing is for (local boosterism, and as Kessler suggested in my interview with him last week: “Critics here spend way too long writing about the chef/owner, and not enough about the food with any real insight.”)

So he’s not just a defensible choice, but a good one. But not to Eater Chicago, which incidentally has only ever had male lead editors. So they take a piece Kessler wrote four years ago and reduce it to evidence of latent racism (“Among other things, Kessler called out the restaurants in Chinatown and on Devon for not meeting his standards”—my God, it’s almost like he’s criticizing restaurants!). Because the first job of a critic, of course, is boosterism for Chicago’s Chinese and Indian restaurants. (Which we see a lot of among those “fresh voices” of color in other cities—hence my question to him last week about how plumping for an identity means, to some extent, shifting your primary allegiance away from the reader.)

The irony there, of course, is that he kicked off his tenure with the most thoughtful writing about an Indian restaurant and chef here in some years—and it wasn’t Indian Garden or Viceroy on Devon. In the end, good writers—that’s the identity I want to see more of, first and foremost.

Fooditor contributor Brad Cawn (Last Meal Chicago) was considerably harsher on this piece (and other things) than me, on Instagram:

That “Chicago lost its mojo” piece Kessler wrote was and remains the realest thing any local writer—and it took a relatively newbie to have the cajones to say it!—has written in recent years: the restaurant scene here was impossibly boring pre-pandemic, and you need only look at “Best New Restaurant” lists from any national publication between 2015-2020 to find Chicago notably absent across publication and year.

What really gnaws at me, though, is just the consistent shit logic about the selection and its implications: instead of fingering Alden Capital and/or #latecapitalism, the two writers fell back on an ad hominem attack on Kessler himself. Is it John’s fault that @chicagomag is basically a zombie publication, with interns and editors writing most of the copy? Let’s not hate the player when the game is in a very death spiral before our eyes.


Do you need a review of TriBecca’s, which opened recently in Avondale after a test run at Revival Food Hall pre-COVID? I mean, just order the damn Cuban sandwich already—it’s good, you know it is (since Becca Grothe and Cam Waron basically road-tested it at Honey Butter Fried Chicken). But in case you need more selling, here’s Nick Kindelsperger waxing poetic:

From the lacquered brown hue of the crusty bread to the tempting combo of juicy roast pork and salty ham blanketed in gooey cheese, it’s easy to become transfixed and lose track of company. Yet, it’s also deftly balanced, with contrasting textures and an array of assertive flavors from salty and savory to acidic and slightly spicy.

But as befits a place that serves a Maid-Rite knockoff (see also J.T.’s Genuine Sandwich), the Cuban sandwich and everything at TriBecca’s turns out to have midwestern roots. Nick talks about that, as does Titus Ruscitti at his blog, who goes through TriBecca’s offerings, like their Maid-Wrong:

An ode to one of the Midwest’s most polarizing sandwiches, the loosemeat or the “Maid Rite” when ordered at the regional chain of the same name. Ground beef is served loose with classic yellow mustard in use but that’s about it as far it being made right as this one also comes with agrodolce grilled onions, steak sauce aioli, and Muenster cheese on a buttery bun. This was a decadent big city version of the small town favorite.


Steve Dolinsky, known to know something about pizza, pays tribute to a south side classic on its 75th anniversary: Home Run Inn:

Those who grew up on Chicago’s Home Run Inn pizza can thank Mary Grittani.

After running a tavern in the city’s South Lawndale community, for more than 20 years, she and her son-in-law, Nick Perrino, opened a pizzeria in the same location in 1947.

“Story goes, my grandfather couldn’t speak English, he was from Italy, ball from across the park broke the window, he yells ‘home run’ so it became the Home Run Inn – the Home Run Inn Tavern,” said Perrino’s grandson and Home Run Inn President Dan Costello.

Buzz 2


John Kessler visits Roux in Hyde Park, from Charlie McKenna (Lillie’s Q) and reviews it like a true Southerner:

Everything about this counter-service joint — which serves breakfast, lunch, and, on some days, supper — feels right. The bright space nails a certain contemporary Southern aesthetic that’s industrial but homey, with exposed ductwork and antique sideboards. If you’ve been to the New Orleans café Willa Jean, you’ll have a sense of déjà vu, right down to the square-cut laminated biscuits, a must-order.


David Hammond has been traveling in New Mexico recently, so at NewCity he talks about what’s distinctively New Mex-Mex (not just Hatch chile cheeseburgers; did you know New Mexico has its own cookie?)

Biscochito is the New Mexico state cookie (and New Mexico was the first state to have an official state cookie). These flaky little baked bites, frequently lard-based, are flavored with cinnamon or crushed anise seed, and they’re popular around the Christmas holidays, baptisms and weddings. The Spanish introduced this cookie sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, and in Spain they’re called bizcochitos or mantecosos. As an after-dinner sweet, the biscochito is a relatively lightweight bite —kind of like snickerdoodles, welcome after a long meal.


Usually if you there’s a listicle of Mexican food in Chicago it’s heavy on upscale-ish, north side places—not that there’s anything wrong with Mi Tocaya or Kie-Gol-Lanee getting some love, but the heavily Latino south side is liable to get nods, at best, for Birrieria Zargoza and Carnitas Uruapan. (This Eater list that just came out is an example—though it’s actually well above average, not a bad list at all.) Anyway, that’s why I was struck by this list of Chicago’s top tacos that WGN TV solicited from its viewers—well, maybe it tells you who watches TV news but it’s nearly 4 out of 5 South Side spots, and very reputable ones, including the Paco’s inside La Internacional grocer and Zacatacos.


You’ve probably heard about the labor strife at El Milagro, the tortilla factory (which is one of the places mentioned on the WGN list above). Workers at another Mexican foods factory, El Ranchero, have been trying to address issues with management—and getting fired for it, in violation of the law. Read more at South Side Weekly.


Asians do… unusual things to sandwiches. I can say that because nothing is more American than sandwiches, invented by America’s very own Earl of Sandwich. Anyway, one such thing is roti bakar, which Sandwich Tribunal describes and then goes on to make:

“bakar” means burnt, or cooked over fire, so the name of the sandwich means “burnt bread” or “toast.” It is a popular breakfast and dessert throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. Served at the kopitiams of Malaysia, the most popular version there appears to be the kaya toast we wrote about last year.

Indonesian roti bakar appears far more variable though. Street food stands there, featuring an array of ingredients that would not look out of place in an American ice cream shop, use small loaves of bread sliced horizontally to build their roti bakars, which appear massive for a single-serving treat.


Some months back Block Club ran a piece on a short documentary made about Kasama, the year’s most talked-about restaurant. I’ve been waiting to hear somewhere you could actually see it, and now it’s here: it will play one night, May 9, at The Den, a venue in Wicker Park. Go here to read more and get tickets:

No one expects to open their first dream restaurant during a global pandemic. No Place Like Kasama is a short documentary (37 mins) following chefs Genie Kwon and Tim Flores in real time as they open their lifelong dream — a neighborhood bakery/cafe — in the face of a global pandemic. Today, Kasama has become one of Chicago’s most beloved spots, and is now the first Filipino restaurant in the US to win a Michelin star.

Ackkkk! Had to mention the tire company. Anyway, owners Genie Kwon and Tim Flores will be there for a Q&A afterwards with filmmaker Kerri Pang.


There used to be Swedish food businesses all around Chicago, but they’re a very short list now: Svea and Tre Kronor around Andersonville, and Hagen’s Fish Market west of there, as you can tell by the Viking ship painted on the side. The Sun-Times has an obituary for Donald Breede, second-generation owner (his wife was a Hagen):

Hagen’s — now in the hands of the third and fourth generations of the family —has been operating at 5635 W. Montrose Ave since 1946, started by Don and Bennett Hagen, sons of a Norwegian American commercial fisherman from the Door County region of Wisconsin.

“They would get up at 4 a.m. to go fishing with my great-grandfather, go to school and repair nets at night,” [daughter] Jesse said. “My great-grandpa” — Swara Hagen — “mortgaged everything he had, the boats, the house” to help his sons open Hagen’s.

When the business started, she said, “There was one house on the block.”

If you’ve never gone in there for a fish sandwich or some salmon candy, it’s well worth a visit, a little slice of Sweden-by-way-of-Wisconsin in Chicago. It made the header picture at Buzz List in January.


Just a couple of quick places, from types of food I’m always on the look for new examples of:

I ordered from Naudi Signature Pizza a while back, trying their super-thin, kind-of-Roman style pizza; this time I ordered what the menu calls deep dish, though it’s hardly that, just a little more chewiness to it. Still, as before I liked that the crispy crust and high-quality, robust tomato sauce and toppings. Worth a try.

Also worth a try: a new, Mexican-run breakfast/lunch place called Harding Cafe, located on Harding (just east of Pulaski) near Montrose. I had tasty chilaquiles, and they couldn’t have been friendlier. Maybe because they’re new and on a side street, there was only one other party there the whole time—making it a great choice for Sunday breakfast when other places are packed. (H/t: Susan Korn)

Note: Next week’s newsletter will be delayed to allow me to cover the Jean Banchet Awards on Sunday night.