Chicago’s homegrown (and nationally influential) restaurant awards, the Jean Banchet Awards, took off a two-year-period during COVID, so delaying a return this time until sometime in 2024 (the last ceremony was in May) is not that long. But as Nick Kindelsperger explains,

[Organizer Michael] Muser decided to not have an event in 2023 so he could have enough time to hire an executive director and line up enough sponsors for the event. “In my brain, this is an easy sell,” Muser said. “One night a year, the best of the best will come together. Surely sponsors will want to be in the room with us.”

The awards began in 2002 as part of a larger fundraising event for CFF, and Muser took over after the year, 2014, when his then-restaurant, Grace dominated the awards. Figuring he and Curtis Duffy had nowhere to go but down, he took them out of competition and became the face and emcee of the awards, run by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; they became a standalone event aimed at an industry audience in 2016. But things are changing with the treatment of cystic fibrosis, which make the relationship between the foundation and a restaurant awards show even more tenuous. The result is that the awards are spinning off as their own foundation, which will benefit things directly related to the food industry and community.


One of my favorite pictures of my younger son is him waiting for a burger to arrive by toy train at The Choo-Choo in Des Plaines. DEspite overplaying a certain not-under-Warners-copyright birthday song, I always liked the place for delivering entirely solid old school burgers in such a kid-pleasing way. Anyway, it’s finally reopened and Titus Ruscitti went, kidless:

I visited the Choo Choo bc they were said to make a good burger. That said I can see the appeal in bringing your kid here as the model trains that bring you your food are fun and unique. They make a smashed burger but they’re not small. If you’ve ever been to a Schoop’s those burgers are a similar size.

One of Chicago’s Thai food vets, Siam Noodle and Rice, recently moved to a new location. Titus says:

The menu at Siam Noodle & Rice offers all of the Thai classics and then some. There’s a section for Northern Thai dishes like dry fried beef jerky, bamboo shoot salad or larb with sticky rice. Then you got a handful of chefs specials such as the basil duck and a basil fried rice dish that you won’t find everywhere. In fact it’s the Basil chicken aka Pad Ka Prao that first turned me onto this place. This classic combination of stir fried minced meat mixed with Thai basil sitting atop a big pile of white rice is comfort food for Thai people. Lots of spots around town will serve some sort of basil chicken dish but if the chicken isn’t minced (not ground) it’s not made right. Not only does Siam make it right but they make it spicy in the perfect way (not too hot but definitely not mild).


Max Abrams’ Trib series on traditional Jewish businesses, mentioned last week, continued this week, mostly on people trying to do new kinds of food in a kosher way, such as barbecue at Milt’s in Lakeview and sushi at Hamachi in West Rogers Park:

Most Orthodox Jewish customers, his main clientele, are total newcomers. The best introduction, [chef Tee Shakya] found, is with baked, fried and doctored-up rolls that allow sauces, textures and flavors to piggyback off the fish. From tuna to salmon to that namesake yellowtail, everything comes from Abe’s Smoked Fish in Skokie with the scales and skin left on to ensure it’s kosher. Shellfish isn’t allowed.

…Time Out Chicago awarded Hamachi its Best New Sushi award in 2013, and his signature sauces hit Jewel Osco shelves a year later. Shakya says its unexpected popularity emboldened him to serve kosher customers and ingrain himself in the community. Since 2011, he has worked over 30 bar and bat mitzvahs, taught sushi classes to hundreds of Jewish women, and even keeps kosher at home.

Go here for the full index to the series.


During lockdown, lots of businesses were tried out by restaurant vets as pop-ups and side hustles, but most have since given up. Jennifer Kim (Passerotto, Alt Economy) and Taylor Hanna (Vargo Brother Ferments) are now doing a class for wannabe entrepreneurs on how to make it work in the newest new era, says Mike Sula at the Reader:

“The pop-up scene was on fire,” says Hanna. “It was very trendy and cool. But you can’t rely on something to be cool to sustain you. It has to be deeper than that.”

“A lot of people are trying to figure out, ‘How do I keep this a viable business?’” says Kim, who’s currently teaching a fine dining course at her alma mater, Kendall College. “’How do I work within these rigid systems again? How do you compete with these giant businesses?’”


At NewCity, Rebecca Holland looks at Ukrainian Christmas traditions, talking to Marina Yakush, who was part of the Ukrainian dinners at Wherewithall:

“We have in Ukraine a really good tradition,” says Yakush, “where we put twelve dishes on the table from twelve different regions of Ukraine.”

The feast starts with kutia, a dish made with boiled wheat, honey, poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruits. This dish is Yakush’s favorite. Other Christmas dishes include cabbage rolls, varenyky, borscht with prunes and mushrooms, patties with peas, fish (often baked or jellied), potato pancakes with onions, boiled potatoes with garlic, stewed cabbage with mushrooms, pancakes, a fruit compote called uzvar and bread. But every family adds their own traditions.

6. HUMMUS FOR THE הונגעריק

David Hammond was just in Israel, and came home with a new appreciation for hummus, both what he was served everywhere in Israel, and what he made when he got home:

Hummus is best when made fresh, and there are many hummus recipes online. You basically put the cooked chickpeas through a food processor with garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. You can use canned chickpeas, but if you want to make truly fabulous hummus, start with good quality dried beans.

We dribbled the hummus with Novello extra virgin olive oil, which has a deep green, pepperiness that plays off the subtle flavor of the chickpeas. Next time around, I’m going to hit the hummus with enough evoo to create a light green pool in the center, just as they do at Inti Humussia. More oil means more flavor and a smoother, moister plate of hummus.


Steve Dolinsky visits two local coffee shops doing interesting food as well: VietFive in the west loop, and Taste of Colombia in Portage Park:

“The Pan de Bono is one of the main things from Colombia here. Originally, it’s only cheese, but we give the option of guava, Nutella, quesito, ham and cheese croissants,” [Taste of Colombia owner Naima] Barajas said.


A  sweet story at the Sun-Times: a family-run taco shop in Glenview was struggling, so the daughter made a Tik Tok video about the mom’s hard work. The next day… a line out the door.


There’s only a couple of days to act on it, but if you’ve wondered what some of the foodstuffs at the Christkindlmarkt are, WTTW has a photo essay that dives into it all.

For a different set of holiday treats, see this piece on Venezuelan traditions at Klein’s Bakery and Cafe:

“When people immigrate, they come with just somebody else or their [immediate] family or two or three, so it is difficult to prepare hallacas—it’s a complicated procedure,” [co-owner Jessica Klein] explains.

That’s where Klein’s, the only Venezuelan bakery in the city, comes in. The sisters opened their first location, in Buena Park, in 2017, and their second, in Lakeview, two years later. Jessica, a former dentist, manages the Buena Park shop, and Dayana, once an accountant, takes care of Lakeview’s.


Not that my readers generally need hot dog advice, but Dennis Lee wrote up The 8 Best Hot Dogs in Chicago for Bon Appetit.


Emma Janzen, co-author of both Toby Maloney and Julia Momose’s cocktail books, has her first piece at the NY Times: The Best Blanco Tequilas.


Sandwich Tribunal calls it “a ziggurat of carbs and fat.” What is it? A Wigan Kebab:

…in the area of England northwest of Manchester, “barm” is among the more acceptable terms, and a pie served in a buttered barm with HP sauce, ketchup, mushy peas, gravy, malt vinegar, or some combination of these condiments, has come to be known as a Wigan kebab. Though “pie barm”–first appearing online, again to my knowledge, in a 2007 Guardian interview with Damon Gough of Badly Drawn Boy fame (is fame the right word?)–is another valid term for the treat.

The name immediately made me think of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, much of which is about the hard lives of the working class. I’d say a society that has made a gut bomb like this what the working class eat regularly has solved some of its most pressing problems, even if creating others….


Remember, maybe a decade ago, when there was great concern about how long a reviewer should wait after a restaurant had opened before reviewing it? At least a month, the old line reviewers thought, to be fair and give them a chance to hit their stride, even as people all over the internet were reporting on places literally on opening night.

But that was then and now, anybody who gets to a hot place early spreads it as soon as they can to the world. I do that on occasion, if I go early, but I don’t feel I need to—especially when a place is hot and hard to get into, I see no reason to go nuts trying to get a reservation so I can be the first on my block. One such place was Rose Mary—which opened in April 2021, but was soon sold out for months, because chef-owner Joe Flamm had made a name winning Top Chef. As instantly popular as it was, the reviews were nevertheless fairly mixed for his combination of Italian and Croatian food—as in the Trib’s July 2021 review.

Well, Nick Kindelsperger had to stake out a space at the bar at 5 pm to deliver a timely review then, but I was under no such compulsion, and so I let it go for a time. But a couple of months ago I was thinking where I might want to go for my birthday that I had not been, and that hot hot Italian-Croatian place popped into my head, and so I checked their reservations on Tock—and though I had to go at a Kindelspergian 5:30, at least I could book a real four-top at the now merely packed and popular restaurant.

And I think going after a year and a half turned out to be a good deal, as the restaurant seemed to be a well-oiled Italo-Croat machine on Wednesday night, with Flamm standing at the pass directing (the orchestra? the traffic? Either would fit). I expected a meaty dinner from the Croatian side, which you certainly could make out of the menu, but I was happy to see a considerable number of vegetable and seafood dishes, which is where we started. (One quite minor gripe: the QR Code menu, which sat directly under an overhead spot light, meaning as soon as you point your camera at it you cast a shadow on it and it took some waving it around to get it to register and give me the menus. I miss paper!)

So, coal-roasted beets in a base of ricotta, with just enough smoky flavor from the hearth to have complexity; delicata squash with pickled pear and prosciutto; tiny little brussels sprouts (in a season of big sprouts) treated like a Caesar salad; a cheese and Swiss chard-stuffed burek much plumper than the usual coil of filo-like dough you see around town. All these were appealingly interesting, meeting the challenge for any vegetable to stand out and have appeal that makes it distinct from the last ten times you ate it. Because we started with all vegetable (not vegetarian) dishes, they also sent us a couple of seafood ones to try—the best of which was a tuna crudo in a shallot-beef fat vinaigrette, which was sensational—nothing makes tuna work like beef fat, I guess. (Obviously they knew who I was—I had met Flamm once, when I was at Spiaggia for this piece—and sent us a couple of things on the house, besides ensuring me a ringside table right in front of the kitchen.)

For the meat part of the meal, we covered the full range of the place—my son and his girlfriend shared duck breast (terrific, dare I say  better than the duck at justly duck-famed Obelix), my wife had classic cacio e pepe with radiatore pasta, and I had the Croatian specialty cevapcici. I had heard some knocks on Flamm’s version of the classic Eastern European beef-lamb sausage, but whatever issues it may have once had, it was outstanding now, plump, juicy sausages beautifully cooked in the flame of the hearth ten feet away and served with housemade red pepper spread and kajmak (a farmer cheese). We finished with a couple of desserts—a toffee pastry with whipped panna cotta, and a layered cake called madarica with chocolate and rum flavors, clearly richer by design than the fairly modest desserts mentioned in Kindelsperger’s 2021 review. All in all, a polished place—as an heir to Tony Mantuano and Spiaggia ought to be—that seems to have resolved any issues in its combination of two geographically close but often dissimilar cuisines; Rose Mary may have started out hot because its chef had been on a TV show, but by now it’s hot because it’s good, and people know it.

For some reason I had to be in the Fulton Market area three times within not much over 24 hours, never mind that it was slushy and gross out, and so the next night I met a friend at Fora, which is an upscale Mexican joint in the Emily Hotel—before COVID, this was the City Mouse space in the Ace Hotel, and it seemed warmer and cozier than I remember that being. But also very dark—with few people around us I just used my phone’s flashlight to read the menu, feeling confident I wouldn’t blind anybody at an adjacent table. (Phones—how would we eat without them?)

I was interested in trying it because it seemed to be trying to do something like Sueños or Entre Sueños (not sure what its official name is) is doing—upscale Mexican mostly built on seafood and crudos. And because one of the chefs is Matt Danko, formerly of Grace (see this Fooditor article). That said, it seems an unusual approach to take in a hotel restaurant, where you need to play it a little safe for unadventurous visitors (no room on the menu for a burger or a chicken Caesar). So instead we get several crudos and a whole classification on the menu of “Masa,” that is, dishes that come with tortillas and there’s even a “tortilla service,” like bread service, for $8. A bit comical in a city where tortillas come on the side automatically at many restaurants; if it had been exceptional masa like that from Molino Tortilleria in Sawyer, Michigan, I could see this working, but it all seemed pretty standard-grade.

Anyway, to cut it short: I liked some of the crudos, I think one with scallops was a standout, as well as an octopus huarache with big meaty chunks of octopus, but it kind of seemed like they had too many of these things on the menu, because they had to really push them to be different. Which wound up meaning using a lot of fruit on them—blackberries, gooseberries, something I couldn’t see in the dark berries. For a main we shared a “whole trout al pastor” which was neither a whole trout (it was a filet from one side), nor that strong on pastor flavor. Weirdly it came with a dish of chili oil which had—a glob of butter? Ricotta? Marshmallow fluff? in it—hard to say in the dark, but I don’t know what the idea of dipping your tortilla in butter is supposed to be.

The one place I thought the heavy reliance on fruit with Mexican flavors worked, was the drink menu—the Ekto Cooler had grapefruit juice and galliano, which I just had to try because the two-foot-tall bottle of galliano was such a fixture of my parents’ generation (every home with a bar had one gathering dust). In the end, after this meal I better understood how Sueños’ menu has a coherent idea of what you do with seafood in Mexico.

Buzz List will be off next week, but return on January 2.