Buzz List For January 7, 2019

The year in year-end roundups, reviews of Bar Ramone and About Last Knife, Embeyezzler arrested, diner co-pays, and the last Key Ingredient

Michael Gebert
Pica pollo at Morena's Kitchen

1. BESTLER THAN

There’s a common theme to many best of the year lists this year, and it’s… Take that, John Kessler! Mike Sula explicitly calls That Article out: “As I looked at the list of my favorite new places to eat from 2018 I realized that almost everything on it could serve as an exception to his arguments.” Mainly the one about immigrant restaurants, as Sula offers praise for places ranging from Morena’s Kitchen (“the magnetic Mirian Montes de Oca dishes out terrific Dominican granny food and pica pollo: ‘hot, salty nuggets of brittle-battered, citrus-bathed bird flesh'”) to Sizzling Pot King in Greektown (“a rapidly expanding minichain specializing in Hunanese dry hot pot as well as other rare specialties of the province like housemade tofu and finely sectioned pickled green beans with ground pork”).

He also admires people with higher-end backgrounds working in their own family traditions, like Lawrence Letrero of Bayan Ko, who “taps into the Pinoy food he grew up on, along with the Cuban food he married into,” and Mark Steuer of Funkenhausen, home to a “smoked half chicken smothered in summer squash, crowder peas, and tomatoes in a silky but powerfully rich and tangy Alsatian Riesling sauce, which demonstrates that an uptight attitude about southern and/or German food closes one off to the possibility of embracing gemütlichkeit.” In all, 20 places to refute the idea that Chicago’s asleep at the wheel, says Sula.

Nick Kindelsperger lists his five favorite neighborhood finds of 2018—and more to the point, sings a paean of praise to the hard work ethos of our city’s neighborhood joints as he talks about Minna’s Restaurant (just down the street from Morena’s, mentioned above): “Nearly every dish requires someone to take a ball of fresh corn masa, smash it on a tortilla press to a specific thickness, carefully place it on the griddle and then monitor it like a hawk until it’s ready to flip. Leave it too long, and the masa dries out. Pull it too soon, and it’s raw in the middle… Trying to handle all the different cooking times would make my mind explode.”

Titus Ruscitti is the one who comes to Kessler’s defense: “Without getting too into it, unlike the New Yorkers who had all sorts of opinions on it, I thought it was a good way to get the conversation going. The conversation being something other than recent restaurant openings. I don’t think it was a bad thing that Mr. Kessler’s article had people talking about the racist real estate practices in this city.”

From there he goes on… to the most elaborate collection of lists you’ll see this year, with best Chicago eats, best out of town eats, best overall meals, best tacos, best dumplings—100 items across them all. No way excerpting this can do it justice, just go see the epic production for yourself.

Here’s a couple of more ten best lists on Twitter: Friend of Fooditor Kenny Z’s (I ate #5 with him and it came close to making my list, too), Friend of Fooditor Jonathan Bifro’s, and chef Craig Degel’s. And here’s mine, at Sky Full of Bacon, along with some thoughts on my recent trip to Thailand.

2. EATING, THAT’S SO 2018

More year-end stuff:

Eater’s annual roundup of comments on the year just passed is up, featuring people ranging from Mike Sula to Morgan Olsen (Time Out), Michael Nagrant, Chandra Ram, and Titus Ruscitti again. (And me.) The easiest way to find them all is to go to this index page; the most interesting one, I think, is about the grievances of the year, though mostly they’re less aggrieved than just a little disappointed.

Ina Pinkney listed her 21 best choices from the breakfast beat earlier last month—”Ask dinner chefs about cooking breakfast, and they will tell you they’d rather work the dinner shift. It’s difficult to make perfect eggs, delicate pancakes and creative dishes that don’t overwhelm the palate at the first meal of the day. Breakfast is a tough meal, but when it’s good, it’s really really good!”

Anthony Todd forecasts some of what’s coming in 2019 that he’s excited about or hopes for from our scene, from Young Americans to the Time Out Market (I wouldn’t bet on the new Duffy-Muser spot opening before 2020, though).

Time Out Chicago names the 13 best openings of 2018—mostly who you expect them to be, but see what you haven’t been to yet here.

The Trib’s stable of writers all contribute to this best things we ate slideshow—but why stop at 18, which is only a couple from some of the writers? Considering the range, from Vettel’s big budget beat to Kindelsperger’s and Chu’s neighborhood dives, I’d have happily seen twice or three times as many choices.

Crain’s food writers—reviewers Joanne Trestrail and Graham Meyer plus Ari Bendersky—offer their favorite bites of the year. You had me at plum posset!

This has a pre-Christmas feel, but I didn’t notice it getting any warmer on December 26, so check out South Side Weekly’s list of warm drinks for cold days around the south side.

And here’s a list many will find particularly useful—the quietest restaurants in Chicago.

3. JOEY, JOHNNY, DEE DEE AND BAR

But it’s not all about last year—people are reviewing 2019 restaurants already, and first out of the gate is Maggie Hennessy, not quite satisfied by Bar Ramone: “The generally rad spot fills a massive void in River North’s clubby nightlife scene. My hope is that the beverage team better equips its staff with the know-how to do justice to its dynamic wine list—particularly since so many of the by-the-glass options ring up over $15. Without that expertise, my dates and I missed out on the memorable drinking experience we’d hoped for.” (TOC)

4. NOMENCLATURAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO

And Crain’s Graham Meyer is back on the business lunch beat, going to the Hotel Julian anti-steakhouse with a silly name, About Last Knife: “It describes itself as a play on a steakhouse, where they would ‘make steaks less serious.’ I would urge them to take a step back toward seriousness… the hanger steak ($24) came out tougher than steakhouse-standard hanger steaks and bearing an ashy, bitter char. The amusingly retro slice of beef Wellington ($16) showed better execution but felt quite small, the steak not much larger than the bowl of our soup spoon if the half-inch rings of pastry and mushroom duxelles were stripped away.”

5. CO-PAY

First Logan Square’s Giant added a surcharge for health insurance on diner checks, of 2%, and now Fat Rice has added one of 4%—though calling it a surcharge for health insurance isn’t strictly true; half of it goes to that, but the other half is aimed at a different intractable issue for restaurants. Which is that servers make substantially more than kitchen staff, and restaurants are legally limited in what they can do about that—they can’t distribute tip money to kitchen staff, and raising food prices will wind up raising tips and continuing the disparity. So the point is to create a different pool of money which can go directly to kitchen staff. Meanwhile, per the Tribune, “To ease the sticker shock, Fat Rice will adjust the standard suggested gratuity listed on checks to read 16%/18%/20%, rather than the 18%/20%/22% guests currently see.” So diners can take that 2% of their bill from servers and give it to the kitchen, even if the restaurant itself legally can’t. Or they can pay everybody a little more, which is likely what most diners will wind up doing.

The health care surcharge, at least, is becoming common in Logan Square—Daisies, Dos Urban Cantina, and Bixi Beer have or will soon add it to bills. It’s done to address a need, honestly and sincerely, I trust—but I still wonder if it will be good in the long run for restaurants to invite diners to think that much about their finances and inner workings. In any case, it will be an interesting experiment to follow.

6. CAR CON CARNE, YEAR 3

And we’re back—for the third year running, James VanOsdol has invited me to talk about the Chicago food scene and the latest Fooditor 99 on his podcast Car Con Carne, which usually features local bands doing a set in the backseat of his Mazda 3. (He’s now picked up Autobarn Mazda as a sponsor, logically enough.) It worked well last year to invite the guy behind the food we eat during the podcast into the car with us, so this year we’re joined by Won Kim of Kimski to talk about Ko-Po food, why younger Asian chefs are the rising stars of Chicago food, and why the South Side is the best side of town. Listen to it here.

7. THE FUGITIVE

You could have doubted it would ever happen, but alleged criminals who get too brazen get caught, and that’s what happened when alleged Embeyezzler Attila Gyulai attempted to vacation in Valencia, Spain, according to a Spanish paper and reported here by Crain’s: “The paper said investigations in Valencia began Dec. 27, when Gyulai was spotted arriving at the airport from Ecuador. Gyulai was staying in a private home, according to the paper, and apparently had come for a ten-day vacation. The FBI has issued an extradition order for Gyulai.”

8. KEY INGREDIENT: THE LOST EPISODE

A few months back I noted the end of the Chicago Reader’s Key Ingredient series, for which I won a James Beard award with Julia Thiel, but one unfortunate thing is that because the end came amid much Troncian turmoil at the beleaguered Reader, and before the arrival of a new editor, they never ran the very last episode, starring Joe Frillman of Daisies.

So I’ve unlocked the last episode on Vimeo here for you to see—along with all the previous episodes (since some stories no longer display the video, depending on what video service which owner of the Reader was using during its eight-year-run). Like Game of Thrones, finally find out how the whole bloody epic saga ends! Seriously, it’s a good sendoff, featuring one of the newer chefs who works in the same farm to table vein as so many of the chefs featured before him, so it’s worth five minutes or so of your time. And special thanks to Son #2 for doing all the unlocking.

9. PIZZACAST

Steve Dolinsky has launched a new, fortnightly podcast about pizza at Pizza City USA, digging into the technical nitty-gritty of making pies; the first episode talks to pizzaiolo Daniele Uditi at Pizzana in Los Angeles.

And at ABC 7 he offers a warm and tasty view of Finom Coffee, the coffee shop in an historic Old Irving building that has a sideline in hearty Hungarian foods.

10. SWEDE-ISH BAKER

Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club is in the new Fooditor 99—actually it is #99—but that was before I knew about this story by Patty Wetli at Block Club Chicago: the North Park breakfast spot has brought on a 36-year veteran of the closed and lamented Swedish Bakery, Alfonso Aguilar, to head its baking operation. “Is there a certain irony to be found in the fact that the man responsible for upholding the Swedish Bakery’s tradition is himself a Mexican immigrant? Not the way Aguilar sees it. What he’s preserving isn’t just about particular flavors or spices or the nostalgia for them, but also the quality, consistency and sheer productivity—the work ethic—he found to be so admirable at Swedish.”

11. SNARFU

A few years ago a sandwich chain called Snarf’s closed one of its Chicago locations right before Christmas—earning it well-deserved embarrassment in the press. So why did they just do it again? Well, when a lease ends in December, it kind of can’t be helped, but as a Tribune story relates, the chain’s head, Jim Seidel, did his best to handle it more sensitively this time and not leave employees in the lurch just before Christmas. It’s not exactly It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s an improvement.

12. GOODBYE, JOSEPH

Sorry to hear that Joseph Hernandez, deputy food & dining editor at the Trib who helped lead a considerable livening up of that section, has departed Chicago (as of last Friday) for a new job in New York at Thrillist as senior travel editor. (Besides his contributions in print, he was also one of the leaders of the union organizing movement.) He’s exiting the same week as home cooking writer Leah Eskin, incidentally.

Best wishes to him in the new gig, and here’s his personal piece about leaving Chicago—though a more trenchant comment on the Trib’s financial situation, at least, might be this tweet: “Let no one tell you you’re worth less than you deserve. Let no one gaslight you into thinking you ‘should be grateful’ for crumbs.”

13. ROAD TRIP

Feel like daydreaming about possible road trips for when the weather gets better a few months from now? Check out The Daily Meal’s list of 50 drive-in restaurants around the country, and see if you’ve been to more than me (four, including of course Superdawg, whose Twitter account is where I got the link).

14. FORWARD INTO THE PAST

So this, all of it above, is the food world of 2019. What was it like 40 years ago? A while back Aimee Levitt turned up an account of that from the Reader’s archive—taking us back to 1980, and an apparently much more cutthroat era (also one, it appears, when reviewers mattered more, or at least had the power to really piss restaurateurs off). It’s fascinating, and maybe sad… though I wouldn’t trade today’s restaurants for the ones mentioned there.

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