Happy Valentine’s Day and have something good!


That was the joke line last year whenever something of normal life returned, but I haven’t heard it much since Omicron suggested that we’re going to have outbreaks of varying severity from now on. Still, the announcement that the Jean Banchet Awards will take place again in May is good news, a normality-is-returning moment to me:

The Jean Banchet Awards celebrate the Chicago culinary community. Every year, we strive to recognize the best of Chicago’s culinary scene, honoring the people who are making a difference, creatively cultivating dining experiences, pushing the boundaries of expectation and executing at the highest levels. It is also a night to pay tribute to those who celebrate their heritage, share traditions and persevere in their kitchens to ensure that empathy, kindness and love are communicated through the most universal languages, food.

The awards ceremony—the first since just weeks before the pandemic started, in January 2020—will take place on May 1; the initial stage of voting for nominees has begun, and both industry personnel and foodies can have their say here.

There are a few changes to the awards program this year. The most notable, perhaps, is that the two pastry chef categories (best pastry chef and rising pastry chef) have been collapsed into one and renamed Best Pastry Program, reflecting the fact that fewer and fewer restaurants have an elaborate program with a dedicated pastry chef (and many of the well-known restaurant pastry chefs, like Genie Kwon, Aya Fukai and Bobby Schaffer, have launched their own bakery businesses instead).

Another change, a little more semantic but definitely reflective of the times, is that the category which was last known as Best Counter Service (when it was presented by Smoque’s Barry Sorkin and myself), a name which reflected the then-rising prominence of food halls and other counter service options, has reverted to an earlier name, Best Alternative Dining, to reflect the world of popups and ghost kitchens. And it appears that there’s no award for Best Design this year, perhaps another reflection of how virtual the world of food has gotten lately.

It will be interesting to see how it comes out this year. Some of the places that were much-honored last time remain a bit missing in action—Elske has been more closed than not, and places like Kumiko and Kyoten are only recently reopened, for instance. Yet there are also new spots of note, and places that adapted to the COVID times and changed how they serve diners. so all that will have be to reckoned with by voters.

So go vote on the awards, presented by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and then:

The results will then be tallied and the Jean Banchet panel, composed of Chicago’s premier culinary experts and opinion leaders, will narrow the nominations to five per category.  These final five will be announced on March 2, 2022.  Then, members of the Chicago restaurant industry will cast their votes between March 21 and April 1.


A certain number of high end downtown restaurants closed during the lockdown, but if you want a number that shows how tough it’s been for smaller, family-owned neighborhood restaurants, try this one, from a Sun-Times piece on Black Restaurant Week:

This year, 36 restaurants are participating — about 50 fewer businesses than last year. [Organizer Lauran] Smith said thee drop could be due to uncertainty in the restaurant industry and the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

The piece shows how, even when they’ve survived, rising food prices make it hard for these struggling businesses to offer promotional discounts during the event. But all the more reason why it would be a good thing to support some during the event, which runs through February 20. Go here to see the list of participating restaurants.


Lots of neighborhood Mexican food in the last couple of weeks from Nick Kindelsperger. For starters, Tijuana-style tacos (not quesabirrias) from Tacos el Rey, way down southeast at 95th and Ewing:

The tacos do look distinctive. Instead of placing each one flat on a plate or rolling them up in foil, every taco is wrapped up tightly on one end with paper, with the other end open. It’s then topped with onions, cilantro and, for an extra 50 cents, a large dollop of guacamole.

Another thing he recommends at Tacos el Rey is the al pastor, but his top meat-on-a-spit recommendation of the moment is a food truck he found in Maywood, Taquizas Tacosteño:

While Taquizas Tacosteño’s menu features a number of different fillings, including carne asada, beef birria and lengua (cow tongue), what you really want is the al pastor. Like every great version I’ve tried, this one starts with thin slices of marinated pork that have been loaded on a trompo, a large vertical rotisserie. A high flame chars the outside of the meat, crisping up the exterior, while leaving the interior juicy. The cooking process also fuses the pork layers together, so the meat can be cut off in long, thin sheets with a huge knife.

And having mentioned birria, Nick also declares the best birria in town—and it’s not on south Pulaski. But Barca Birria and Restaurant does serve Birria Tatemada, the same style as Birrieria Zaragoza:

Instead of cooking the meat in a large pot until finished, the goat is simmered part of the way before being removed and slathered in chile paste made with ancho and guajillo chiles. It’s then roasted until the outside starts to char from the high heat…

The huge portion of birria arrives on a rimmed plate, with a ladle of deeply savory consommé poured on top. Unlike many versions around town, Barca’s consommé avoids tomato, instead going for a deeply meaty profile spiked with various spices. This means each bite has the concentrated essence of goat, while around the edges, you’ll pick up the spicy, fruity chile paste.

Speaking of much-loved Birrrieria Zaragoza, Jonathan Zaragoza, son of the family, has opened Con Todo, and Louisa Chu tells us more:

“We’re not sticking to traditional stuff,” Zaragoza said of Con Todo. “We’re just expressing ourselves.”

One expression that has emerged as an early fan favorite is his pamburguesa ($16), a convergence of a pambazo sandwich — dipped in red pepper sauce with all the voracity of a Chicago-style Italian beef — and a hamburguesa smashed cheeseburger, with spiced fries on the side.

“Everyone’s going crazy about the burger,” Zaragoza said. “I think it’s kind of funny, because it does taste like a pambazo.”

Buzz 2


But it’s not all Mexican at the Trib these days—there’s also Chinese food! Nick and Louisa go stall by stall through the food offerings at Chinatown’s recently opened Jefferson Square, which includes both standalone restaurants and quick service counters within 88 Marketplace, the Asian grocery store on the second floor:

88 Marketplace sprawls across the second floor of the cavernous center. When the store celebrated its grand opening last year on the auspicious date of Aug. 28 (eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture), the food court mostly had yet to open. Shoppers indulged instead in the delights of imported Lay’s potato chips, exotic fruit and live seafood…

Ten months and three vaccines later, eight restaurants stand open in the building. Two food court stalls in the market have already closed (Crop Culture blended juice drinks and Dama offered Korean food). Two more started serving in July: Holu House, a modern Asian steakhouse on the first floor, and Victor’s Cafe, which makes impeccable Hong Kong-style milk tea.

Bookmark it, and go eat.


That’s the concept behind the latest menu at Frontera Grill, the food of the African and mestizo (mixed native American and European) population in parts of Mexico (mostly coastal, since the African population was brought to Mexico as slaves). It’s a collaboration between two African-American cooks at Frontera, Richard James (who was interviewed by Fooditor as part of this piece) and Javauneeka Jacobs, and a Mexican cook raised in the Afro-Mestizo tradition, Jonathan Cisneros. Aimee Levitt at Eater tells more:

Afro-Mestizo cuisine contains a lot of strong flavors, Jacobs learned, especially garlic, epazote, guajillo chiles, and peanuts. It has a wider influence than the size of the Afro-Mestizo population would suggest, apparent in mole sauces made with ground peanuts and nochebuena, a traditional Christmas dish made with peanuts and sugar cane. “It’s the third root of Mexican cuisine,” says James.

…Throughout Mexican history, though, that tradition has largely been ignored. In school, Cisneros says, “we talked a lot about the Indigenous parts of Mexico and the Spanish, but not a lot about the African part.”

The menu will run through mid-March.


Two reviews at Time Out: the one of Armitage Alehouse, a new Hogsalt restaurant, starts with a description of the difficulty in getting a table—but the subhead says “Hogsalt Hospitality’s newest (and much-hyped) restaurant looks as stunning as you’d imagine, with a menu that’s much less memorable.” Okay, next…

Next is Segnatore, which I just visited a couple of weeks ago and generally liked:

Building on years spent serving Italian fare at spots like Three Aces and Charlatan, chef Matt Troost compiles a menu that’s reverent in its technique (particularly the handmade pasta) but decidedly playful in its presentation. No dish exemplifies this spirit quite as plainly as the freestyle “lasagna,” which forgoes intricately stacked layers of noodles in favor of a pile of garlic mafaldine swimming in whipped ricotta and a mushroom bolognese that perfectly mimics the texture and flavor of a meat-based sauce. Even a simple fennel and citrus salad is presented with some panache, opting for long ribbons of fennel—instead of the traditional shaved preparation—that are bathed in a tangy vinaigrette.

Three stars for Armitage Alehouse, four (and an easier reservation process) for Segnatore.


Who knew you could get publicity for soup? But Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe is comforting crowds with it, as she tells Monica Kass Rogers at NewCity.

Meanwhile, at Salon, Maggie Hennessy talks to Beverly Kim about the restorative powers of kimchi jjigae.


It feels like a blast from the past for Titus Ruscitti to visit The Works, a venerable gyros spot—how often do even the most dogged food writers find an old school Chicago joint to write about?

More typical is that he also visited Chinatown to see what all is new and happening there, including Monkey King Jianbing and one of the new spots in 88 Marketplace, Ying Dim Sum:

The turnover here has been pretty high to start. So much so that I visited twice in the span of a week last November and on my first visit the stall where Ying has opened was hosting a different business. Well the dim sum in their name caught my eye and I decided to step in and try a few things. The menu has lots of the classics including siumai and rice crepes… In between those is an order of their Taishan dumplings which had a jelly texture, they were interesting. Unlike in NYC rice crepes aren’t all that popular in Chicago so I don’t have many others to judge these by but they were fine. Siumai are pretty much always good as were these but I still list those from D’Cuisine as tops in town.

And he eats Iraqi grilled fish at Skokie Bakery & Grill:

I was surprised to learn that grilled carp is considered the national dish of Iraq. The friendly owner knew I did my homework bc I told him I was ready to order as soon as he sat me. He appreciated that fact. Skokie Bakery uses pompano for their masgouf but it’s served the traditional way in that it’s split lengthwise down the back before a typical marinade of olive oil, rock salt, tamarind, and ground turmeric goes on before grilling.


It would be fair to say I’ve had a gimlet eye toward the events that led to Grace closing and Yugen operating until last year in the virtually unchanged space. I wasn’t all that intrigued by Aikana, the Latin American fusion concept that followed (and opened on Friday). But (Chairs!) I’ll give the photos of Aikana in an Eater piece credit: the swanky interior doesn’t look like they just slapped a new coat of concept on Grace again. Aimee Levitt explains further:

If the influence of one country dominates, it’s Brazil. The name of the restaurant, Aikana, comes from an Indigenous people who live in southwest Brazil, near the Bolivian border. “They’re known for being resilient and brave, a warrior tribe,” says [co-owner Raul] Carmona. He describes the decor as “jungle meeting Versace,” meaning a lot of deep green upholstery, prints, and plants with gold accents.


Grimod turns his eye to Oriole, recognizing a problem in visiting multiple times a restaurant basically built for the special occasion diner:

The vast majority of diners would taste them with the full force of their first, glorious visit. Any cracks that began to show on account of your familiarity with the compositions would likely read as nitpicking. And the prospect of criticizing Oriole for maintaining a consistent array of “perfected,” highly pleasing dishes from month to month never sat well with you. Chicago is not so blessed that you can penalize a chef who looks to guarantee you’ll receive his best ever work–rather than the fruits of an uncertain (if highly engaging) process–on any given evening.

That seems exactly right to me—and why I’ve gone every year, but not more than once a year. Time enough to catch it at the next stage of evolution. Grimod goes more often and observes smaller changes:

Noah Sandoval’s cooking was as close to a guarantee as Chicagoans could get. He wielded totemic luxury ingredients expertly and thoughtfully, clarifying just why aspiring fine diners should pay a premium for such things. In doing so, the chef drew on a dependable cast of characters like green garlic, brown butter, black walnut, yeast, koji butter, king crab emulsion, lemongrass sabayon, prawn head caramel, parmesan rind, langoustine caramel, smoked soy, truffle honey, braised ramp, and beurre monté to make his plates sing. They might be complemented by other elements like sea grape, borage, ras el hanout, shio kombu, masago arare, ice plant, amazake, Argumato olive oil, Belper Knolle cheese, and Urfa Biber pepper that you, personally, had little familiarity with until served to you at Oriole.

It is, as always from this author, long, but a thorough dive into perhaps our best restaurant right now and how it works.


Coco Pazzo seemed like the new kind of Italian restaurant when it opened in River North, a few years younger than Spiaggia—now it’s thirty years old and one of the grizzled veterans of the most Italian restaurant-filled neighborhood in town. Steve Dolinsky visits it to see how it turns out the classics, for NBC 5.

12. GRAZIANO 2022

A few years ago I wrote about changes at friend of Fooditor and longtime West Loop business J.P. Graziano—namely, changing from a wholesaler to a sandwich shop. Now Block Club has a piece on the same subject—but this time the changes are quite a bit different:

Jim Graziano teamed up with [rapper Freddie] Gibbs, Los Angeles street designer Anwar Carrots and Chicago streetwear pioneer Joe Freshgoods for a midnight pop-up at the family-owned shop, selling limited-edition T-shirts featuring all of their brands. There were plenty of Italian subs to go around, too.

If you’ve seen Italian beef kits from “Taste Real Chicago,” that’s Jim Graziano too, adapting a Chicago classic for the next generation.


…is one of the topics when Michael Nagrant returns to Michael Muser’s Amuzed podcast. But first they rake George Clooney over the coals for how he threw a party. (Note to Nagrant: it was LTHForum that put Burt’s on the foodie map, as you can tell if you look at the people filling the background in the Bourdain episode where he visited it: a hand-selected group of who was in the in crowd at LTH then, as it was in the process of splintering.)


Ben Ustick—who married into the Superdawg family (his wife Laura is the granddaughter of the late Maurie and Flaurie)—tweeted what he called his favorite Yelp review ever, for its deep insight into food. We, and he, are being sarcastic.


Friend of Fooditor Darin Latimer—ex-Tempesta, Panozzzo’s, Zingerman’s, etc.—has a new gallery show opening Friday at Elephant Room Gallery, 704 N. Wabash. Go here for opening tickets and to read about it, or see the show any time through March 26.


I was off last week because I planned a week-long getaway road trip with my first son and his girlfriend, the idea was that we’d drive through Mississippi to New Orleans and then back through St. Louis (where she’s from). Many food stops along the way; I was especially interested in soul food in Jackson, Mississippi. Here’s what happened: the big winter storm that meant we stayed in a cold, wet New Orleans a few extra days till we could drive straight back.

Now, “stuck in New Orleans” is not the worst fate imaginable, though there were bursts of rain during which I started to get what it’s like for people who decide to brazen out hurricanes there. (In a word: LOUD. Also cold and wet.) The main thing was that I had just enough interesting meals planned for the original duration, and had to scramble to find more things to try. I’d already been to pretty much all of the working man’s food classics there, apart from one major catch-up on this trip, and I’m not that interested in the more upscale places, which underwhelmed me on a 2013 trip, as being a bit behind the culinary scene elsewhere.

In the end we managed to try some very pleasing places in the mid-level range that combined more upscale service and cocktails with cooking rooted in vintage Cajun/Creole food traditions. That seems to me to be a more down-to-earth sweet spot for the city, that the posher places we hit in 2013 didn’t reach. Anyway, it was certainly food that appealed to me more. So, top things we ate in NOLA this time:

1. Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The main classic I missed on that 2013 trip, this was two of our best meals—since it was the best thing by far in the slightly underwhelming Pythian Hall food court (though we had pretty good arepas there). Mainly, we went to the Treme original—and the shatteringly crisp, subtly-heated chicken and sides like red beans and rice and buttered beans are, simply, from the gods.

2. Coquette. Chic-looking Garden District bar and restaurant turned out to do beautifully executed, honest Southern food led by a terrific whole snapper turned into bite-sized chunks of fried goodness.

3. Felix’s Oyster Bar. A return to an old favorite that even got seafood-averse son plus his girlfriend to try their first (char-grilled) oysters. For me, I needed a salad on the side by that point, and Felix’s Cobb salad, generous with everything, was just the ticket.

4. Parkway Bakery and Diner. Had po’boys at Domilise’s on the earlier trip, so wanted another classic spot for them. The fried shrimp po’boy at this place that dates back to the 20s was top-drawer.

5. Cure. Excellent dark and cozy cocktail bar with well-crafted, imaginative drinks, many conceived by celebrity mixologists; simple noshes to go with, like charcuterie and cheese platters. (H/t Karl Davis.)

6. Cochon Butcher. Another return on this trip, the ultra-reliable PQM of New Orleans from Donald Link (Herbsaint).

7. Marjie’s Grill. What was that place? my son asked after. Well, it’s white soul food for the 21st century, I guess—country music playing and Asian flavors on mostly vegetable and seafood dishes like a som tum salad with sugar snap peas and carrots. We all sweated fish sauce the next day.

8. Rampart Treehouse. The kids found this pretty good pizza place with a funky Tim Burtonesque interior in a building with an authentic Marie Laveau haunting story.

There were a couple of others, because honestly I didn’t eat a bad thing the whole week, but hope this will prove useful to those planning a visit. One more thing: service in New Orleans was so friendly. I’m sure that’s mostly Southern culture, but I think it reset my bar, at least for a little while. Chicago better match up!

Now then, less successful were my attempts to eat in Mississippi. First stop was in Oxford; in what would become a recurring pattern, a place that claimed per the internet to be open on Saturday, Oxford Canteen, was not, sending us to a lesser spot nearby. At least we were able to have dinner at Titus Ruscitti’s suggestion of City Grocery, which was the epitome of the modern restaurant—comfy food, somewhat Southern but little on the menu that would have seemed exotic in Chicago; standouts included, surprisingly, ramen (son’s girlfriend’s choice. she liked it a lot) and a middle easternish lamb shank that was quite tasty (if oddly a bit sweet to my taste).

In Jackson, I had hoped to go to either Big Apple Inn (where Bourdain had a pig ear sandwich) or Bully’s (a soul food meat and three) but they were closed on Sunday, so I found a vintage 1946 diner, Brent’s Drugs, which was fun. Catch one of them, thinks I, on the way back—but the snow delayed us in New Orleans till the weekend. At least Bully’s would be open as we passed through on Saturday—but it wasn’t. In desperation, we ate at a big bluesy barn of a bar best summed up by the fact that the menu promised that all burgers would be cooked medium well.

Ah well, try them next trip—on weekdays. One more recommendation, in a most unlikely place, from right at the start of our trip: the timing of when we left Chicago put us by lunchtime in downstate Effingham, which somehow has a very sleek suburban-looking farm to table restaurant called Firefly Grill, complete with list of farmer names on the menu. Nothing too unusual on the menu, but quite well done—a fish sandwich was good, some fried green tomatoes topped (slightly overdressed, some might say) with red pepper sauce were excellent. In any case, modern, well-made real food in a rural town of 12,000 at the junction of two interstates. Will wonders never cease.