1. 2020 IS HERE! HERE’S THE LAST OF 2019’S BEST!

Well, not quite the very last, as we expect to publish, for the third time, Keng Sisavath’s list of his best eats of 2019, shortly. But in the meantime:

The Tribune’s food cohort contributes a list of, between them, 24 top things they ate. Phil Vettel gets a full ten, a solid survey of the most popular high end spots this year, from tteokbokki at Jeong to milk bread (with truffles) at Kumiko, for those with money to burn on food. Nick Kindelsperger, Louisa Chu and Grace Wong bring up the middle with popular dishes from places like Galit, Middle Brow Bungalow, and an ube cookie from Cebu.

The most epic “best of” is always Titus Ruscitti’s, as he not only eats more different things than 10 other food writers combined, but breaks them out by a bunch of categories. He’s got 17 winners in Chicagoland, plus 28 from travels that ranged from small town Illinois to Lisbon and Tokyo. Then there are separate lists for best noodles/dumplings, tacos, burgers, sandwiches and sweets. That’s all for individual items—a separate list calls out best meals overall. All, or nearly all, link to posts at his blog. If you can’t find inspiration to eat here, you should just go on Soylent.

Friend of Fooditor Dan Zemans posted his here at LTHForum; also note Eric May’s right above it, which is expanded on here. And Friend of Fooditor Kenny Z posted his Chicago picks starting here, plus non-Chicago picks here.

A couple of publications chronicled the best places to open in the last year. Time Out’s is pretty comprehensive as far as the downtown/Logan Square scene goes, and credit for including Cebu, the best mostly-overlooked new restaurant of the year. Eater’s is similar but shorter (and oddly includes Hermosa, which yes, certainly came to social media attention this year, but has been open for four years). Here’s my list of some additional places neither one mentioned that you should have paid attention to (you still can!): Tortello, Gaijin, Phodega, Mozzarella Store, Flat & Point, J.T.’s Genuine Sandwiches, Egg-O-Holic, and Big Boss Spicy Fried Chicken.

Eater gathered its annual “industry experts,” and you can read their verdicts on last year and prognostications for this year here.

And finally, here’s my personal top ten.

2. THE DECADE OF THE YEAR

A couple of magazines took a whack at the most important restaurants of the decade nationwide, and it’s hard to disagree with the Chicago restaurant they both saw as making the biggest splash on the national scene in that span: Next, with its innovative concept that has packed tourists in for coming up on a decade. It’s an obvious choice, and it’s the only Chicago entry listed on Food & Wine’s list of 13 best, which mainly seems to think the South was the most exciting region for the last decade (can’t really argue with that). Interestingly, though three places in New York make the list, none of them are really sitdown restaurants—it’s a bakery, a burger and a festival in Brooklyn. At least we eat with knives and forks in the midwest, and not just our pizza!

Esquire’s list of 40 is more interesting, not least because their two Chicago entries are Next and Elizabeth, which comes closer to what our scene is really about: “The Michelin-starred flagship of chef Iliana Regan’s funky, foraged, magic-realist vision of the Midwest.” Which is to say, the restaurant as the showcase for one vision.

What would I pick, ten most outstanding and influential spots for Chicago over the past decade? Good question! Let’s play!

Offhand I agree with 1. Next (even if no one’s been able to follow its act—RIP Ing and Intro) and 2. Elizabeth, and would add 3. EL Ideas when it comes to places that created the model of the chef performing in the open kitchen. Add 4. Fat Rice and the late 5. Yusho, for the creative Asian influence that erased the bad taste “Asian fusion” left in our mouths in the 80s and 90s, and for expanding the food scene into more parts of Logan Square/Avondale.

Then 6. Boka 4.0, the Lee Wolen version, for tasting menu-level food that is not necessarily on a tasting menu; and 7. Mfk., the best wine bar and the best seafood restaurant in the city, but not feeling like the cliches of either type. I’m going to give a shared nod to 8. The Butcher and Larder and Publican Quality Meats, since the same guy (Rob Levitt) has been so influential on both at different times, and they’ve both influenced so many others across the city through their products and how they handled them. And it’s not all high end food; let’s kneel to 9. Edzo’s, which led the reformation of Chicago burger culture by religiously frying fresh-cut beef and fresh-cut fries in a city of frozen patties and spuds. And finally, 10. Pretty Cool Ice Cream, for taking high end restaurant dessert skills and bringing them to the kids at affordable prices, with such charm. That’s my ten, what’s yours?

3. WEED DO IT ALL FOR YOU

Not since high school in the 70s have people been so excited to be able to say “pot” or “weed” in public! The Tribune is as eager as a high school teacher trying to be hip to the kids, with Josh Noel offering a news-you-can-use guide to “getting high,” as the denizens of Haight-Ashbury call it. While Adam Lukach explains how to throw a dinner party with marijuana (further advice for hip entertaining can no doubt be found in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic).

Munchies are the theme of the Tribune’s monthly focus on a foodstuff: “We’re searching out the best foods for late-night snacking, game-watching and munchies in general — from puffed beef rind to soul food egg rolls to elote-topped toast.” That also explains Nick Kindelsperger’s active social media exploration of the quasi-dish “nachos,” in which assorted Mexican basics (beans, meat, cheese, pesto) are dumped on tortilla chips. We pray for his release from this torment.

Chicago mag also has a cannabis dinner party guide from an actual (west coast) chef with experience at such things. And The Reader  devoted a whole issue to the demon weed, including a recipe for cannabis cracker jack from the guy behind Co-Op Hot Sauce.

4. NOT SINCE CARRIE

Maddon’s Post, which just closed after seven months in the Mall of Wrigleyville, has to count as one of the biggest flops in Chicago restaurant history, since it cost Levy a fortune to build out (just in time for the post-season) and wound up with both Joe Maddon and chef Tony Mantuano leaving their respective organizations. As Eater notes,the Wrigleyville mall has seen a number of casualties—Union Full Board (a location of the Union Squared pizza in Revival Food Hall) and Beerhead Bar preceded it this year.

(This makes me want to make a list of the biggest bombs of the last decade, though I suspect many were instantly forgotten and thus don’t spring to mind like the standouts. Still, BLT American Brasserie, Tavernita, Howells & Hood, the whole Disney/ESPN Zone complex, plus TMIP which closed for reasons other than uninspiring food… what would you add to that list?)

Becan X

5. WOODWINDY CITY

Phil Vettel seems sympathetic to Don Young’s playful cooking at the 18th floor WoodWind in Streeterville, and wishes the likable restaurant well in that odd spot: “Fun certainly seems to be the prime motivation; among the snacks is something called chicken chicharron, which Young describes as ‘Buffalo wings, by way of Juarez.’ Think poultry-fat-fried rice crackers, dusted with vinegar and Buffalo-sauce powder, surrounding a saucer of blue-cheese foam. There’s also a dish that looks exactly like hummus but proves to be house-made ricotta cheese showered with mishmish (a seasoning blend of lemon, saffron and crystallized honey).”

6. PAPA LEGBA

Twain’s distinctive interior, with its references to jumping frogs and the like, carries over to the new Mediterranean restaurant Papa Cenar, which Maggie Hennessy finds not bad (three stars): “Restaurateur Branko Palikuca (the Dawson) takes inspiration from the whole of the Mediterranean, resulting in a varied menu that wants to be something for everyone. The results are promising but at times muddled.”

7. WRAP SHEET

Stuff inside dough wrappers is the theme at Crain’s this week: Jiao is a sibling of QXY Dumpings in Chinatown, and “Tender-skinned dumplings ($9.99-$14.99 for 12), steamed or pan-fried, are spot-on. We are suckers for the lamb and coriander but also deeply dig shrimp, pork and leek, and also tofu, cabbage and wood-ear mushroom.” While Cafe Tola expanded into the Ohio House space in River North: “Depending on your appetite, one empanada could fill you up, as they’re good-sized and generously filled; two should satisfy just about anybody.”

8. MARKY MARKET

Steve Dolinsky pokes around Time Out Market and talks to some of the vendors, like Thai Dang, about why they agreed to be part of it: “‘I really wanted to come back to this area and give the guests my take, or my style of Vietnamese cuisine, so it’s literally what I do at HaiSous and CaPhe.'”

He also kicks off a series devoted to Chinese food of note outside Chinatown with D Cuisine in Lincoln Park: “‘We make it every morning. 6:30, the chef comes to make it. So we keep the quality and don’t put it in the refrigerator,’ said Danny Fang, the owner of D Cuisine.”

9. PEOZZA

A flavorful account at Medium of pizza in Peoria, a hardluck town: “Although the pizza has all the markings of the square-slice, tavern-style pies that I grew up on — with East Coast pepperoni swapped for ground beef or sausage — what comes out of the oven suggests the cook dropped acid and decided to experiment. Cheese is strewn haphazardly across the pie, producing lines of orange, yellow, and white — interspersed by ground beef and a smattering of minced green peppers. The flavor is something I can best describe as ‘I don’t know, but I need to keep eating it.’ It’s the type of pizza that people back in Naples would trash. Then again, no one understood Van Gogh in his time, either.”

10. IN MEMORIAM

Donna Pierce, ex of the Tribune test kitchen, honors her late father in the best way: with a recipe.

11. REVIEW OF REVIEWERS

A piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Theodore Gioia about the state of restaurant reviewing excited some comment from reviewers… well, a few anyway, because as one reviewer (sorry, I lost track of who) said, ultimately this is advice aimed at about 25 people in America. Anyway, I think this sums up its thesis, though I recommend reading the whole thing (it’s not long):

The Classic Restaurant Review has a depressingly predictable template. Almost every column follows the same formula: a chronological procession of dishes from appetizer to entree to dessert (with detours on decor and drinks) culminating in an overall “verdict.” In this way, literary structure mimics meal structure. It is startling how many articles simply reproduce the order of the menu in the text…

This menu-tour style of narrative springs directly from the review’s bourgeois roots. “The origins of modern restaurant criticism,” explains Korsha Wilson, trace back to “tell[ing] upper and middle class, implicitly white New Yorkers where to spend their money on their next night out.”

And so we’re getting a new generation of reviewers, well in California anyway, who aim to talk about food from a social justice perspective—notably Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle, who could not be more different (young, Asian, non-binary, very woke) from (gay, arguably corrupt, certainly white male) predecessor Michael Bauer.

Yes, well, nobody before millennials ever talked about farmers and wages and immigrant cultures before. This is a debate I could argue both sides of with vigor—I do find traditional reviews can seem stultifying precisely for the reasons articulated above, but I think telling middle class people where to eat a middle class meal is not a bad thing, if you have a middle class readership. It may not be art, but it’s perfectly legitimate service journalism. (So is The Fooditor 99, where I avoid what bores me about lengthy reviews by writing as short reviews as I feel it takes to get what I want to say across.)

I also agree with Hanna Raskin of the Charleston Post & Courier, that Gioia’s call for more radical storytelling forms borders on an invitation to self-indulgence for a crowd that doesn’t need the encouragement:

Considering that one of the biggest problems in restaurant criticism has historically been oversized egos, I’m not sure I can get on board with the #larb call to “Define your own priorities. Cast out any convention that constrains your voice.”

To me, though, the real issue is that we’re talking about a form that may be quickly exiting the stage anyway—Toronto recently lost its last reviewer employed by any conventional publication, for instance. So it’s a little like talking about how vaudeville needs to adapt for the swinging 1960s.

The reality of food writing is that far more of it today is listicles and opening announcements than the traditional review. That stuff doesn’t have the impact of reviewing—you could argue that with so much of it out there, it rarely has any impact at all—but neither does it require a name writer commanding a middle class salary and a dining budget, so it’s appealing to media bosses in an age of budget-slashing.

To me, worrying about the state of reviewing matters less than encouraging all those non-reviewer food writers—the not-big-names doing not-widely-noticed work—to break out of that cycle and try to tell bigger, deeper stories within the assignments and the gigs they have. Food is a great subject, a deep subject, that tells people who they are and who the strangers who’ve moved in next to them might be. That’s true regardless of format, and within anyone’s grasp willing to search for it. The late 2010s were a bummer for food writers, but the 2020s will be whatever we make of them. Aim higher! Make the assignment into something that says more than they expected! I plan to have a surprise or two in store myself this year that way. And as always, Fooditor accepts your interesting, haven’t-read-that-before pitches.

Sparrow Black 2019