One of my favorite things to do after the new edition of The Fooditor 99 comes out is to talk food on James Van Osdol’s Car Con Carne podcast. Each year we invite a chef featured in the book to join us in James’ Mazda 3, and this year it’s Rafael Esparza from Finom Coffee, explaining how a Mexican kid wound up co-founding a Hungarian coffee shop. It’s always a fun, sometimes off-the-wall conversation; listen to it here. And meanwhile, here’s another kind Amazon review someone left recently for my latest book:

1. TZUCO, GIRL

Maggie Hennessy sings a 5-star love song to Carlos Gaytan’s Tzuco at Time Out: “In Tzuco’s quenching ceviche verde, for example, you can almost taste pure, cold Pacific Ocean in pearlescent slivers of hamachi, which are paired with three expressions of cactus, a plant that thrives in the most unforgiving locales. The prickly flora is served cured, iced and juiced with mint, lime and a whisper of serrano chile. Together, the elements sing of Mexico’s varied bounty… Each bite I savored at Tzuco seemed to smack of deeper meaning, sparking curiosity about the storied place that inspired this restaurant and its name, along with its famed chef/owner who has roared back into Chicago’s dining scene following an 18-month hiatus.”

2. CLAUDIA CARDINALE

Three stars for the latest iteration of Claudia from Phil Vettel, who had reviewed it when it was a pop-up (still kind of is, but like EL Ideas, making an unlikely space its own): “Those who were able to visit Claudia in the old days will find a couple of familiar faces. The meal’s opening salvo, as it has been for years, is Teich’s bento box, an assortment of four nibbles. The components change, of course, but the box remains anchored by Teich’s signature bite, the tuna-wrapped foie gras, topped with a dot of fermented ponzu. Also in the box, which carries a seafood theme, are a scallop cracker topped with egg-yolk confit, chile threads and togarashi; a potato-caviar beignet with caviar and finger lime; and a pair of squid-ink madeleines.”

3. GENERAL TSO THERE

Titus Ruscitti went on the second night to Chef’s Special, the new Chinese-American tribute spot from the (non-Chinese owners) of Giant, which has gotten them some online grief for alleged cultural appropriation. “What I liked about the menu was it’s not trying to be anything other than American-Chinese food. It’s very traditional in terms of those flavors they tried to mimic. If you’re a false believer in MSG being a bad thing stay away bc they use it here and that’s a good thing. There’s none of that ‘clean’ Chinese crap here. There’s also no truffle oil on the potstickers or uni in the egg rolls. These are chef driven interpretations of the flavors pretty much everyone in the country knows. That’s obvious in the potstickers which I wasn’t expecting to be so traditional. The underside of the fried dumplings was really well browned.”

He also visited a new ramen spot in Lincoln Square (or is it North Center), from the Wasabi folks, Menya Goku: “Tan Tan is the Japanese take on Sichuan style Dan Dan noodles… a big bowl of broth isn’t typical in a bowl dan dan noodles [but] the heat in Tantanmen is. That comes from the Sichuan peppercorns that leave your mouth feeling a bit numb. Manya Goku seems to use quite a few in their pork based broth served with ramen noodles and ground pork with bok choy, green onion, bamboo, sesame paste. Ok so this is a pork broth based ramen but it’s not your typical bowl of tonkotsu. In fact it’s my new favorite ramen in the city.

4. YOKOONOMIYAKI

Michael Nagrant orders champagne at Gaijin—dude, everyone knows not to order bubbles with okonomiyaki, they’re for nachos. Anyway, it takes a while to get past cat-pee bubbles, but despite the inevitable questions of cultural appropriation, he’s ultimately in favor of Paul Virant appropriating Japanese food (and naming it the word for “foreigner”: “Virant wants you to know that although he’s studied hard, done his homework and is paying loving homage to the culture, he’s a straight up gringo, yo. Which is to say Gaijin isn’t Japanese, as much as it is classic Japanese ideas refracted through the hazy Malort-tinged Midwestern foodway-obsessed lens that has always been Virant’s.”

5. LORD BUSINESS

One to bookmark: Crain’s reviewers offer their master list of standouts for business lunches and dinners, based on their reviews over the past year.

Becan X

6. PINSA PINSA

Titus Ruscitti also visited Fooditor’s subject this week, L’Aventino, maker of pinsa-style pizza: “Pinsa has been around for centuries, but it really took off in 2001, when a local baker wanted to make a snack that was lighter and easier on the stomach than your average pizza. Pinsa fit the bill: With a cloudlike crust and crispy edge, it’s much less dense than other styles. The dough is made with a combination of wheat, soy, and rice flours and has the long fermentation typical of Roman baking, which creates complex flavors and dough that’s more easily digested.”

7. NACHO LIBRE

I think of nachos as less a dish than a way to get out of making a dish, but Nick Kindelsperger has been seeking out the better-executed ones in town, albeit eating 40 examples of the form yielded just 11 recommendable examples. Anyway, the winner turns out to be a Lakeview bar called Broken Barrel Bar, whose chef Bryant Anderson is determined to treat nachos like a real dish:

“Nachos still have a stigma, kind of like chicken wings used to,” says Anderson over the phone. “It used to be that you’d only find chicken wings at chain restaurants, and they were frozen chicken wings. Now you get these expensive restaurants downtown serving elevated versions.”

At Broken Barrel Bar, all the chips are made using tortillas from El Milagro that are specifically formulated for frying (they are thinner and drier than standard tortillas, so they fry quickly in oil). Instead of shredded cheese, he creates a smoked jalapeno-cheddar sauce. He also believes, like me, in the importance of pickled components. “Pickled red onion adds sweetness and pickled jalapenos add heat,” says Anderson. “When I take a perfect nacho bite, it has to hit all the flavor receptors.”

8. UNDER MILK WEED

“If the chef René Redzepi (also a Regan fan) is the Nordic godfather of a culinary movement that cultivates a deep connection to the surrounding landscape, Ms. Regan is its Greta Thunberg, steering her tiny boat steadily into uncharted waters and attempting a new definition of what it means to be an American chef.” I’m not sure if that’s exactly good writing, but it’s big writing, from the New York Times, unafraid to stake out a bold position in a way that Chicago writing often isn’t. This piece by Kim Severson is full of vivid observations (I especially liked, because I’ve seen it happen, “Ms. Regan doesn’t so much arrive as she just appears, quiet as a deer”).

Also unafraid to stake out a position: its subject, Iliana Regan, chef of Elizabeth and owner of Michigan glamping spot Milkweed, as she lets us know that Elizabeth may not last forever: “’Cooking is something I want to be doing until the end of time,’ she said. ‘But I definitely don’t want to be 55 years old and running Elizabeth.’” Read it.

9. EASY VIRTUE

David Hammond sits down with Erick Williams of Virtue, and talks about the place of restaurants in calming and focusing our lives: “We want to channel the idea of how important it is for all of us to have these moments to single out, whether that moment is with someone we love or just a hard reset.”

10. BANCHET BEAT

In case you need another Jean Banchet Awards roundup, here’s Anthony Todd’s, not only reporting the winners but giving a little insight into why these winners matter.

11. AMUSE DOUCHE

Rumor has it that was one of the titles suggested for Michael Muser’s podcast. Instead the relentlessly high-energy Jean Banchet Awards host and soon-to-be-Ever manager has launched Amuzed, A Podcast for Geniuses. In the debut episode, he and cohost Pat Kiely talk about why it’s a podcast for geniuses (largely that we all have our moments and this hopes to find a few), and then they chat with Phillip Foss about his career and his graphic novel.

Also in audio this week, you can listen to Monica Eng and Louisa Chu’s talk about Chinese food from last week at Culinary Historians here.

12. RIP CEMITAS PUEBLA

Sad to read, initially at LTHForum, of the closing on Friday of Cemitas Puebla on Fulton Market. It started in Humboldt Park as a place specializing in the sandwiches of Puebla, commissioning just the right bread from a Mexican bakery, growing an herb called papalo, and bringing cheese from Mexico to get just the right flavor. It became an LTH favorite and spread from there to the local foodie population, doing collaborations with Smoque (the cemita with barbecued brisket on it was a thing of beauty) and eventually attracting investors who spread it to downtown and Hyde Park. But new investors means new expectations, and it seems to have been on a downward spiral for a while—the original Humboldt Park spot moved to a strip mall after a dispute with a landlord with dollar signs in his eyes, and then that one closed too. Now they’re all gone.

I wrote about it in its heyday many times, and two pieces in particular stand out: this one, about a family dispute when owner Tony Anteliz’s father attracted his own investors and opened a shortlived place of his own in Little Village, and this one, where I grew my own papalo after seeing it at a farmer’s market, and having nothing to do with it myself, eventually gave it to Tony to use. Best wishes to him in whatever comes next.

13. CHARLOTTE’S WEB CONTENT

I went to a food media event recently and was surprised to only recognize three or four writers there—were the rest influencers, or hotel concierges, or what? I honestly didn’t know, but it reminded me that the food media pack keeps getting thinner and thinner. I mentioned this to another writer for a name publication there, and she said, “Yeah, now whenever I go to an event like this, the PR firm drags me over to meet the owner immediately—because I work for one of the only names he’s likely to recognize.”

I thought of this while reading this piece from Charlotte’s city magazine by Keia Mastrianni, arguing the case for employing reviewers, and showing how the game has changed at media events:

I’ve written about food in this city for nearly a decade, and tonight’s preview feels like an alternate universe in which the restaurant’s brand message isn’t just expressed but thrust on everyone who attends. To me, at least, Lincoln Street’s expectation is obvious: The restaurant serves its marketing message, and the influencers pass it on, unfiltered, to their followers. There’s always been an element of promotion in these events; I’m not naïve. But the pre-influencer era achieved a rough balance between restaurateurs’ desire to spread the word about their establishments and journalists’ duty to inform readers rather than please their sources in exchange for money, food, followers, and access. Now, what passes for “information” in Charlotte’s dining scene consists of carefully choreographed photos and videos for social media feeds—and little else.

Well, the piece has its points and it has its whines. Bloggers “hammered” Charlotte’s big-paper reviewer with their own opinions? Heaven forfend that anyone else should have viewpoints that disagreed with the local restaurant Pope. Not having a single dominant figure on the scene who restaurants have to get through to if they expect to survive is mostly a good thing. So a lot of this piece is the old media whine about influencers and other nobodies, which we heard enough of by 2010. It’s not like coverage of previews and openings has ever been especially critical or rigorous (that’s for reviews down the road), let alone that previews were ever for any reason besides promotion.

But Mastrianni does have a real point that it’s one thing for the Establishment to have rival voices, and another to no longer have any established media at all. And the disappearance of a certain institutional voice does hurt a city’s scene, certainly in terms of getting word to the outside world. There’s a revealing story about one writer’s path through the local scene:

The magazine Edible Charlotte added depth with agriculture angles to food stories… especially after the hiring of Kristen Wile, an energetic and knowledgeable food writer, in 2014… Wile left this magazine the same year [2018] to start her own food website, Unpretentious Palate, and the magazine has since relied on a variety of writers for food and dining coverage.

Unpretentious Palate is a subscription-based site where Wile covers food news and follows a mostly traditional pathway for reviewing: She waits three months after a restaurant opening before she writes a full review, eats there three times on her own dime, and rates food, service, and ambience on a five-star system. Wile posts two stories a day, publishes a twice-weekly newsletter, and hosts subscriber events that, along with money from the subscriptions, help save her from depending on clicks for cash.

But even with good intentions, UP can’t avoid an ethical blemish. Subscriptions alone can’t keep the business alive. So Wile and her husband, Jon, also handle marketing and events, at times in partnership with the same chefs in the same restaurants she covers.

Well, there’s the issue, isn’t it? Everyone knows the cultural case for reviewers—it’s the economic case that is hard to make, and it’s hard to see who’s going to stand up for it and its ethical values now, when the last remaining big paper is being willfully shrunk by its owners. Like it or not, this is the world we live in, and all we can do as readers is look at what food content we’re consuming and ask, who are all these people? The institutional validation that reviewers used to rely on is rapidly disappearing; all I or any of us have for credibility is the work we do.

WHERE MIKE ATE

Hey, you know that new Asian restaurant and bar from white chefs that everyone’s talking about, positively and not so positively? I didn’t go there yet! Though honestly, I’m a bit weary (and wary) of all the cultural appropriation talk. All food is cultural appropriation to some degree, all flavors are on the artist’s palette, it’s all about, is it done well and fairly, or is it junk? Cultural appropriation happens, and occasionally it’s gross (that lady in New York who wanted to offer “clean” Chinese food), but I am just not going to have a categorical problem with people who love another cuisine, take it seriously, and treat it respectfully. The proof is in the pozole.

And so I wound up at a new Thai place, with a vaguely Tiki-esque bar, called Same Same in Roscoe Village. No Thai people seem to be involved (I could be wrong), but you know, its predecessor in the space—onetime Fooditor lunchtime mainstay Thai Linda—seemed to be run by Mexicans, so hard to see a big change there. What I will say for it is that they’ve been smart about using real Thai flavors and dishes (khao soi, nam tok, etc.) so if you’re suspecting a dumbed-down, sweetened up version of Thai for gringos, you’ll have to look elsewhere in Lakeview—in fact, it reminded more of Thai food I ate in Thailand than many Thai-owned restaurants do. The other good thing about it is that it was packed almost from the moment it opened Saturday night with Roscoe Village families, lining up along the wall waiting for tables. Families eating serious Thai food in a fun atmosphere in my neighborhood, 2020 is good. Can’t wait for 2024, when we Roscovites get our first okonomiyaki joint.

The flip side of that kind of thing is what I talked about on Car Con Carne—second generation Asians who open a restaurant that, unlike their parents’ places, borrows from American dining and fast food to put Asian flavors in a more accessible format (and not just for non-Asians). Xi’an Dynasty Cuisine is a relatively new restaurant in Lincoln Park offering Xi’an dishes (including Xi’an sandwiches, something like jiangbing, and lots of noodle dishes). It’s run by people from China who must have passed through Australia or somewhere (the one who seated me has a Strine accent straight out of Don’s Party), and they clearly absorbed lessons of modern menu design, as an unfamiliar-ish cuisine is presented clearly with pictures on a menu that runs to barely over a dozen items. Anyway, I liked the jiangbing-ish thing okay, the noodles with pork even better; as with Lao Peng You, it’s good to see Chinese food of this level of authenticity popping up on the north side.

Sparrow Black 2019