As this Tribune piece says, Chinatowns including ours are taking a business hit from coronavirus fears: “The epicenter of global coronavirus outbreak is 7,000 miles away, but fear of the illness has turned Chicago’s Chinatown into a veritable ghost town, with customers staying away in droves, leaving some restaurants and businesses nearly empty during lunchtime this week.” Yet there have only been two Illinois cases, a husband and wife of whom the wife had actually traveled to Wuhan, so, you know… the odds that you’re going to be exposed in a Chinatown restaurant while eating hot and sour soup are about the same as at any other restaurant in town, or at Target or Jewel. So now’s a good time to support Chicago Chinese restaurants, and if you need ideas, check out this Fooditor article which I plan to update in the coming weeks.


Fooditor is firmly in favor of anybody who wants to look at the Chicago food scene in terms of shopping and cooking as well as eating out (we practiced it here, among other places). So do not miss your chance to pick up the current Chicago mag, with its section on How To Shop Like a Chef, devoted to secrets of shopping for foodstuffs in Chicago. I contributed one piece on my beloved Paulina Market, but there’s so much here, from John Kessler’s guide to shopping Mitsuwa Market to poet José Olivarez’ hymn to local Mexican markets. It even has a centerfold—of rotisserie chicken.


As a Hyde Parker, Jeff Ruby watched the arrival last year of Virtue with admiration, but says it’s truly grown into its space and cuisine a year later: “The food, while honest, felt unreliable. Hype or no hype, Virtue just didn’t feel ready for a review. But on recent visits, the flavors have clicked into place… Virtue’s best dishes show a lighter touch, as with the flaky blackened catfish that’s accompanied by nutty, chewy Carolina Gold rice with a spritz of lime, smoky barbecued carrots, and carrot purée. Cut into the brown-sugar-glazed salmon fillet and it sinks into a bed of caramelized Brussels sprouts and apricots. The composition of both dishes sends flavors swirling from tangy and sweet to bitter and smoky.”


The Purple Pig’s new location didn’t exactly need the bump of a review any more than the ever-busy old location did, but it’s worth documenting where one of the city’s solid standouts is a decade on, as Phil Vettel does: “Though he doesn’t make much mention of it, Bannos has been a farm-to-table proponent his entire career, and he applies an everything-but-the-squeal approach to all things porcine. One could easily fashion a snout-to-tail menu progression of crispy pig’s ear (a popular snack enlivened by pickled cherry peppers), smoked pork tongue (done in the matter of veal tonnato), ginger-glazed pork belly with pork tenderloin and mushroom ravioli in pork-tail brodo.” Three stars.


Boqueria and Porto are the two noted openings of late in Spanish food in Chicago, but there’s a third that opened quietly in Andersonville, Little Madrid Tapas Cafe. Mike Sula tells the story of owner Francisco Bolanas and his very neighborhood-friendly spot: “He opened with the ceiling unfinished on December 22, surprising passersby stopping in for coffee and gluten-free pastries with slices of ham and bread. By Christmas Day he’d shifted into full tapas mode with a slim menu of a few sandwiches and bar snacks, including the classic potato omelet tortilla espanola, dates wrapped with bacon and stuffed with cheese, and slices of that salty ham with manchego and Iberian cheese.”

Buzz 2


Compared to Crain’s so-so review last week, Maggie Hennessy’s four star review of Gaijin at Time Out calls it a triumph: “Gaijin slings two expert versions of okonomiyaki that top out at a refreshing $16: the mixed Osaka variation with eggy batter as well as the layered, eggless Hiroshima version that incorporates yakisoba noodles. The Osaka-style was a textural triumph, with a crispy griddled exterior shielding a custardy center. Crowned with curls of tempura shrimp, sweet corn, creole butter, puffed rice and squiggles of okonomiyaki sauce (a cross between ketchup and worcestershire), the dish easily catapulted into best-of-2020 contention.”


Graham Meyer finds WoodWind, atop a Northwestern medical building, pleasant but not inspired: “Once you’re up there, WoodWind orchestrates a likable lunch, with a good (but less than great) menu, reasonable prices and a soothing atmosphere many literal and metaphorical feet above the health care bustle below. If it were a classical composer, it’d be Salieri, rather than Mozart.”


I should play the Lotto this week—I’ve actually been to two of Titus Ruscitti’s spots this week, Moody Tongue (he visits the bar side and says “the menu is much more mature than your typical sausage and burger options”), and Daguan Noodle in Chinatown, specialist in a chicken noodle soup called “crossing the bridge noodles” (Titus: “Very satisfying as I came here with a cold”). At least there’s SanguCHE, selling Peruvian-style sandwiches in Naperville—that one was new to me.


Steve Dolinsky tastes tastes of Yemen at Sheeba Mandi House: “One of the most popular dishes from Yemen is haneeth. Spices like cumin, cinnamon and cardamom are combined with tomato paste and turmeric, as well as some oil, to get everything fully-incorporated. That marinade is rubbed into chunks of lamb and left for several hours, if not overnight. Then it roasts slowly. ‘It’s like four hours cooking, very slow fire, 350 degrees for four hours; it comes out fall-off-the-bone,’ [owner Faiz Muthana] said.”


Maggie Hennessy has a nice place at Plate on the Poilevey brothers who inherited classical French fave Le Bouchon after their parents passed in recent years: “Oliver, Nicolas and Henri grew up running around in the restaurants. Oliver, who was four when Le Bouchon opened, recalls that home and work life were always inextricably intertwined; famous chefs like Banchet and Jacques Pépin often dropped by unannounced. Oliver started working at La Sardine at age 13, washing dishes and cleaning mussels. But it wasn’t until he flunked out of college that his future was cemented. ‘My dad told me, ‘You need to get your shit together and be a cook.’”


Carlos Garcia, who owns El Taco Azteca in Pilsen, is opening a new spot, El Berrinches, reflecting his experience working for Priscilla Satkoff at Salpicon!, among others: “Like he did with El Taco Azteca, Garcia wants to challenge diners with a “different style” than is usually thought of as Mexican food. ‘I like the adrenaline of playing with this type of concept because it isn’t easy to offer a style that people aren’t used to,’ Garcia said in Spanish. He hopes, in the future, his restaurants will influence the style of other eateries in the neighborhood.” (Block Club)


What were restaurants like a century ago? Monica Eng looks at five common types in the early 20th century, and where you can eat like that today, sort of. For instance, cafeterias came into existence to feed young women working as secretaries and clerks, who couldn’t go into bars: “One of the largest chains was Thompson’s Cafeteria, with more than a dozen locations in the Loop by 1910. To keep customers moving, Thompson’s sat its diners in one-armed schoolroom desks that didn’t encourage lingering. Typical lunches included tongue sandwiches, sausages and chicken a la king with toast.”

13. SAUCY!

Last week Nick Kindelsperger talked about the spicy sauces you’ll find on tables, this week it’s the spicy sauces you find in bottles.


This piece at the Sun-Times seems to be built from Yelp reviews, alas, but still—when’s the last time anybody talked about menudo in the Chicago area?


Every year or so someone comes up with a startup solution for the person who wants to get into those hot in-demand restaurants, but can’t. Then it turns out there’s only like two restaurants that are actually hard to get into—and they can’t get into them, either.

Tock is sort of offering that now in a new service called Tock Time, but they’ve been smart about looking at the problem from the other end of the telescope—the idea is to fold that service into a broader, personal portfolio of services for high end diners. Some of it is common stuff—recommendations based on past dining—but it includes a realistic solution to the tough-reservations-to-get problem (basically, waitlisting you and trying to get you your place as soon as bookings open), as well as social media aspects (you can rate your restaurants and share them with others you know, but not, unlike Yelp, the whole world). The Tribune has more.


The new Amuzed talks to Carrie and Michael Nahabedian about closing Naha, and how you shut down a restaurant with grace.

Derrick Tung of Paulie Gee’s is the guest on the new Pizza City USA podcast with Steve Dolinsky.

And this is one to read, but a nice piece talking with James VanOsdol of the Car Con Carne podcast (which I was just on) talking about why he does independent local media, which is a lot like why I do independent local media:

When the topic of the Chicago music scene was mentioned, VanOsdol said “We have really talented people who live here, really accomplished musicians. Whether the world at large is aware of that, it doesn’t matter. There are some really incredible people with incredibly fascinating and idiosyncratic personalities here. I love being able to support the local scene and it’s almost like you’re honor-bound. You live in this area, support the home team. I love in my own small way being able to help and support.”


Chinatown didn’t seem to be suffering a slowdown when we got there Saturday night—the parking lot was plenty full and so were some of the restaurants, like the new rotary sushi spot. But the new one we were headed to, Chef Xiong’s Taste of Szechwan, looked more like it was feeling the effects of customers staying away. To judge by the picture of Chef Xiong in the foyer, posing with Anthony Bourdain and Stephanie Izard, he appears to have been chef at Sze Chuan Cuisine (featured in Bourdain’s last Chicago episode), before opening his own place with the backing of the owners of Evanston’s Peppercorn Kitchen.

Anyway, things seemed well-made if possibly tamped down, spice-wise (and there was nothing on the table to doctor it). We had Taiwanese popcorn chicken (aptly named and very scarfable, if mostly small pieces a little hard for gringos to pick up with chopsticks), very good (if again, could have been hotter) ma po tofu, and a brisket noodle soup that had a nice smoky flavor to it. But my top Szechuan recommendation in Chinatown remains Szechwan JMC.

The better meal I had from a part of China this week, though, was way up in Morton Grove. I’ve known there was true Mongolian food to be found out in the burbs for a while, and the coldest Valentine’s Day in living memory seemed a good day to check it out. Mazalae is a family-run place where meaty dumplings and thick stews of beef and glassy noodles will keep you warm on the plains of the north shore; I expected comfortably bland and was impressed that the dishes were all seasoned quite well with fresh black pepper.

Finally, I had not been to Cafe Cancale since a media preview, so I went back on my own this week and find it, if not as adventurous as other One Off restaurants downtown, an entirely respectable French restaurant that made me a satisfying Salade Niçoise and a beautifully executed piece of trout amandine, with just the crispy exterior and juicy interior I wanted. Better than many meals I had on my last trip to France, for sure.

Sparrow Black 2019