Buzz List For April 29, 2019

A tortilla revolution is coming, Jeong electrifies Nagrant, Althea a vegan dud, and Fooditor is on The Feed talking eating Chicago

Jeong/Facebook
Bok bun ja sorbet and shortcake at Jeong

1. FAR TORTILLA

Do we take our city’s bounty of pretty good tortillas for granted? We probably do, compared to things like pizza that we regard as central to our identity. But pretty good can be better yet, and there’s a whole lesson in the economics of corn tortillas in this story by Nick Kindelsperger about an effort to bring heirloom corn masa to our city. NAFTA nearly wiped out the Mexican heirloom corn industry in the 90s, but it fought back, and then attracted the attention of Rick Bayless:

Bayless had been trying to devise a way to get heirloom corn from Mexico for 10 to 15 years. “We couldn’t figure out how to make it work,” says Bayless. “We talked to farmers in Mexico, but then we’d have to get a truck to drive all the way to Chicago. We needed so much, but we didn’t know how to store it all.”…

Plus, Bayless had spent the past 32 years getting masa from El Popocatepetl, which first opened in Pilsen back in 1954. (The company now has a second factory in the Archer Heights neighborhood, which produces the masa for Bayless’ restaurants.) He wanted that relationship to continue, so he reached out to El Popocatepetl to see if the tortilleria would take the Masienda corn and produce the masa for his restaurants. El Popocatepetl was happy to oblige.

And now they’re producing enough that other restaurants besides Bayless’s are able to use the masa as well. As Brian Enyart of Dos Urban Cantina says, “‘I know that saying it tastes more like corn doesn’t make sense, but it really does… It’s subtle. You might not notice the difference at first, but you can create this magical experience that you can’t quite put your finger on.'”

2. BEARD EGG

It was a goose egg for Chicago at the James Beard media awards, as none of the few Chicago nominees won. Actually, the best way to win was to be dead; awards went to Jonathan Gold (he won the Craig Claiborne award for reviewing, the same year an award with his own name was given for the first time), Anthony Bourdain (Visual and Technical Excellence, for Parts Unknown) and Chef Fatima Ali, who wrote an essay about her terminal cancer (she died in January).

The piece I’ve been telling everybody was the best thing I read all year, Mark Arax’s A Kingdom From Dust, most deservedly won the Feature Writing prize. It appeared in The California Sunday Magazine, which I’ve since learned has a most interesting model for supporting longform; it’s an independently produced magazine which is offered as a Sunday supplement to certain high end demographics of readers of papers including the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Innovation in content, advertising and distribution—everything that is desperately lacking in Troncville media at the moment.

Finally, I groused a few weeks back about the Jonathan Gold Local Voices category, which I entered, because it wound up nominating two publications from that vastly underwritten-about regional food market, New York—both of them, weirdly, for subjects (Eater for writing about a Playboy Club and Times Square, the N.Y. Times about food at the U.S. Open) that Jonathan Gold would have rolled his eyes at on his way to get some pupusas. So at least that one went to the estimable Brett Anderson for writing about actual local food, in New Orleans.

And as for next week’s restaurant awards… Anthony Todd has a guide to how you can get a taste of the glamour here.

3. MORE SCHNITZENGRUBEN?

In GQ, Brett Martin draws some broad conclusions on what dining is like right now across America, especially after he gets served a black sausage and a diatribe about race: “All the back-and-forth between heart and brain, pleasure and intellect, comfort and confrontation, wit and vulgarity, the desire for escape and the hunger to be challenged. Restaurants have become some of our most charged public forums—spaces fairly crackling with issues of race, gender, labor, the environment, immigration, and more—while remaining among our most private and emotional.”

Whew! His take on Chicago seems rather Kesslerian—that pendulum is still waiting to swing back—but he finds a Chicago restaurant to admire anyway: “The move north has not improved Phan’s interest in interior design, though I suppose the generic space he found for Kyōten—not dependent on foot traffic, he figured he’d save on overhead—might be an upgrade from dentist to orthodontist. But sushi has always had a utilitarian aesthetic; consider the amount of Saran Wrap. The proof is in the nearly absurd constraints of a perfect bite—the no-room-for-error high-wire act of melding fish and rice, naked nature and human manipulation. In this, Phan lives up to his outsize ego.”

4. POMMES FRITES

The best french fries in Chicago, in my opinion, are the ones that sit under your chicken from The Athenian Room in Lincoln Park, soaking up chicken fat. But I can see that paying for half a chicken just so it can drip schmaltz on some potatoes is a tad excessive, and the Tribune’s list of best french fries in Chicago has an upper price limit of $5, anyway, so The Athenian Room’s chicken’s fries do not appear on the list they just published. But many other places you probably know and admire do make the list, from Edzo’s to Top Notch Beefburgers, so check it out and see which ones you haven’t had yet—and it is nice to see a mention of the pretty obscure #1 on the list (hint, it also made The Fooditor 99’s list of Chicago classics).

5. JEONG AND IN LOVE

A long intro about Edison, Tesla, the glam metal band Tesla, and who knows what leads us to Dave Park and Jennifer Tran of Jeong, and specifically, a salmon dish on the tasting menu as Michael Nagrant’s exemplar of what they’re up to: “It’s a pretty-in-pink assortment, a made-for-instagram, edible supermodel of jewel-like salmon cubes, rice cracker bits (which pop like caviar), frilly nasturtium (scallion in an earlier version as pictured below), and dainty dabs of crème fraiche. I regard salmon the way that Trump suspects state dinners not catered by McDonald’s. Salmon is over-farmed, generally mushy, and tasteless. My encounters with great salmon are rare, so, like chicken, I generally avoid it. I am glad that I am forced by Park’s tasting menu to eat it, because it is silky and sweet and serves as an incredible conveyance of crunch and citrus. The whole plate looks like a Charlie Trotter ring mold-shaped throwback from 1999 (this is a good thing – ring molds are cool again).”

6. MIMA SELF & I

Mima’s Taste of Cuba, formerly in Lincolnwood and related to Roscoe Village’s 312 Cuba, gets Cuban food right, says Mike Sula: “The classic Cubano sandwich itself is something extraordinary, an expertly buttered and pressed package, with all the elements of fat and acidity in balance contained within a uniformly resonant bread jacket. ‘You have to hear it if you flick it with your fingernail,’ says [co-owner Billy] Alvarez. He applies this standard so consistently to the media noche, the lechon, and the bistec, as well as to the breakfast sandwiches, that it’s likely you’ll not notice that it’s Turano bread instead of the unique lard-crisped Cuban bread that eludes most every sandwich maker north of Tampa.”

7. ALTHEOCRACY

Althea, the local outpost of a vegan chain in the Saks Five Avenue building, seemed to be the great green hope for food that could impress vegans and non-vegans alike. But Maggie Hennessy wasn’t wowed: “Save for a few standout dishes, Althea largely lacks joyful ingenuity. The globetrotting menu—dutifully executed by chef de cuisine Kelsey Knowles—at times registered trite and clinical, removed from the locally fueled, seasonal-minded energy that’s seized the city Althea overlooks from its glass-walled roost.”

8. LET’S GO GET SUSHI AND NOT PAY

Crain’s Joanne Trestrail looks at three spots for sushi lunch. Roka Akor is the wow: “We think sushi lunch at Roka Akor can’t be beat. The food is stellar, with execution going well beyond careful to the upper reaches of artful.” While Sushi Dokku “continues to please long-timers and first-timers with great sushi in unpretentious surroundings… Miso soup tastes like miso, not just salt (as so often happens).” And at Sushi-San, “the ambiance and decor are young and fun, but the sushi is serious.”

9. FINOMINEE

Ji Suk Yi visits Finom Coffee and finds ambition at coffeeshop prices: “While [co-owner Rafael] Esparza doesn’t mind elevating coffee shop food — which he manages without a full kitchen or a range — he doesn’t want to define it as fine dining. ‘Refined isn’t a bad word [but] fine dining is a bad word,’ said Esparza. ‘Fine dining implies elitist and snobbery, it doesn’t imply cozy and comfortable. You can make something refined and technique-heavy but still have it be cozy and chill.’” (Sun-Times)

10. ROAD TRIP!

Youll have to drive for Titus Ruscitti’s picks this week. First, Lent may be over but he visits several Wisconsin fish fries to see which are best: “As far as food traditions go the Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin is right up there with the best of the best. It’s amazing that no matter where you are in the state you wont be far from a fish fry if it’s a Friday. This is partly bc you’re never far from a bar and pretty much every bar in the state offers a Friday Fish Fry. Today we head to SE Wisconsin to visit five different fish fry’s where they’re using lake fish. For me the key to finding a good fry is finding spots that offer a combo of lake perch, walleye, or blue gill. That’s not to say that a fish fry featuring cod cant be good. But fried cod and fries is essentially just fish and chips and you can score that anywhere. I want the local stuff.”

One of my favorite departed stalls in the Richland food court in Chinatown was a place called Tong’s serving jianbing—think crepe meets burrito, Chinese-style. Titus finds that Tong’s has popped up in another food court—in Naperville: “Jianbing being the Northern Chinese snack that’s taken off like a skyrocket on America’s coasts. It’s since moved inland both east and west. Most major cities have at least one jianbing vendor these days while some have multiple options. Chicago has a few but none of them were as good as Tong’s was. So when I saw what had to be the same guy I was very surprised and also happy that a legit source of jianbing was back. The only thing is you’ll have to head out to the Super Hmart in Naperville to find him.”

11. GOLDEN PARACHUTE

May 19, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark will open their second restaurant after Parachute, and/or have their third child. Sounds like a question of work/life balance to me, and that’s what Plate talks about: “While working 11-hour shifts that stretched from pre-lunch through dinner service, Kim would dash off to pump between running the pass, writing menus and setting schedules. As she climbed the demanding professional ladder to executive chef, she grappled emotionally with being away from her son, who initially wasn’t keen on taking a bottle.”

12. SMORG IT

Sandwich Tribunal is on a Nordic kick, and the latest is the faintly terrifying Swedish “sandwich cake” Smörgåstårta: “We wrote about sandwich cakes back in December, those nightmares of mid-Century Americana that haunted many a cookbook and family gathering of the upper Midwest 50 years ago or more. Well, Swedish Smörgåstårta is the original.”

13. FEED, ME

It’s become a holiday tradition! The holiday being the Beards in Chicago, that is. I join the proprietors of The Feed, Messrs. Bayless and Dolinsky, to talk about places to eat while in Chicago, and The Fooditor 99, which is a whole book of same. Listen here.

Buzz List will be a day late next week, so that it can include whatever happens at this year’s James Beard Awards, May 6. Look for it on Tuesday morning.

Got a tip or a link for Buzz List? Send it to [email protected]