Chicago, for the moment, still has restaurant reviewers. Especially compared to San Francisco, which saw a major extinction earlier this year, as Soleil Ho, new reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted this week:

For the past year, I’ve had the fortune of being able to read the work of other San Francisco-based restaurant critics to get a broad view of this city: not only Michael Bauer but folks like Rachel Levin at Eater, Joshua Sens at San Francisco magazine and Peter Lawrence Kane over at SF Weekly. And now, Levin has left to focus on writing a book, Sens has stepped down and Kane has resigned. (I should note here that Katherine Hamilton has been doing a great job writing reviews for the East Bay Express, though the future of that publication is still up in the air.) Once Kane’s tenure ends later this month, I’ll be the last restaurant critic left covering San Francisco on a regular basis.

Ho is being diplomatic about the ethically-challenged Bauer, their predecessor at the Chronicle, but it’s a stark picture of the threat to a city’s voices, to find itself in a very short time down to one newbie hired from Portland earlier this year. Ho looks at it partly in terms of the wealth gap:

It certainly gnaws on me when I think about how the pool of folks who can afford the high-end restaurants I’m looking at, even as once-in-a-lifetime splurges, is shrinking. There is an aspect of aspiration to food writing, but does it have to be that aspirational? What does it say about a city’s food culture where it excludes even dedicated restaurant criticism?

Welcome to Silicon Valley, is what that says to me—the prices and the culture that has driven conventional media to the brink. In terms of Chicago, though, I see a less stark divide on our restaurant scene, which favors the imaginative midpriced restaurant, a splurge but not out of range of anyone in the middle class who has, say, a three-figure monthly cell phone or cable bill. But where there is a divide, it seems to me, is that far fewer restaurants get reviewed at all these days.

When something gets a rep as being one of the year’s best—Jeong, say—it’s going to get covered by half a dozen reviewers (and a new one this week). But fall just a hair below that—be a pretty good new restaurant if not a really really good one—and your odds of getting reviewed drop steeply. More to the point, fall outside of a certain paradigm for restaurants—in terms of location, format, whether you’re seen as more cheffy than ethnic, and so on—and your odds go down as well. Indian food is having a boom in Chicago this year, opening in hot-restaurant parts of town, and yet reviews have been sparse (Sula on Thattu and Egg-O-Holic, Hennessy on Vajra).  If one of them does eventually get widely reviewed, it will likely be Superkhana International, because of the involvement of (white) name chefs.

Instead what we tend to see more and more of is preview articles taking the place of reviews (and just to keep to a theme, note that Superkhana International had two of those in the Trib this week). Preview pieces are great from the PR industry’s point of view, all advance buzz and happy talk, no criticism, but they are far less of a service for readers. They can also be cranked out quickly from material supplied by PR, versus the expense and time involved in dining for a review. (I would know.) But they also gate-keep the industry, giving the restaurants with those connections a leg up over independents.

In any case, this is why I treat serious reviewing from independents, blogs, whatever as on at least the same level as any more august publication here in Buzz List. Voices like Nagrant’s or Ruscitti’s—or even mine—might be all there is at some future point. And for some restaurants, they already can be.


Michael Nagrant’s review nails the scene at Cabra atop the Hoxton Hotel even better than Keng Sisavath’s Cabo-on-the-roof photo two weeks back: “Cabra is a scene, a competitive jostle of desperation and hopefulness. Beneath green plant tendril-wrapped rafters, honey-colored wood tables, a flickering fire pit and, yes, a shimmering swimming pool, are ringed equally with the well-worn, but freshly-nipped and tucked, as well as those who have only recently shed the Cuervo caul of their college days, the dewy-eyed Instagramming elites.”

But how’s the food? “The ceviche and tiraditos are chill beach-body friendly acid-smacked beauties. The slither of melon-perfumed kampachi punctuated by the crunch of tiny ice lettuce sprouts is a textural masterpiece. The duck ceviche studded with micro-popcorn crackle of crispy quinoa and splashed with the zing of pickled mango and gooseberries is pretty awesome, though I do feel they missed an opportunity to pair the dish with a shooter of Andre’s flagship sparkler, Cold Duck.”


Passerotto aims for Korean-Italian warmth; is the secret ingredient at Jeong Jewish mama vibes? That’s what Maggie Hennessy suggests: “In the visually striking tteokbokki, Park retools the stir-fried rice cakes he snacked on after school as a kid in Korea. He toasts the glutinous cylinders in schmaltz before slicking them in sweet, anchovy-tinged gochujang and arranging them with fermented mustard seeds atop charred cabbage in a pool of more chili sauce. Delighting at the rice cakes’ bouncy chew, I was five again as I dragged them through sweet, barbeque-like sauce that mingled with quintessential Jewish-deli flavors on my tongue.” (Time Out)


There’s more meat on the menu at Bad Hunter, which reopened after a fire in late 2018, but Morgan Olsen at Time Out says “Bad Hunter still shines a massive spotlight on vegetarian- and vegan-friendly fare, and [chef Dan] Snowden has turned the volume all the way up on the creative possibilities. A generous helping of burrata was accompanied by slices of potato and strawberry, chili crisps, bits of garlic and dill—a flavor combination so insanely confounding that it works. A delightfully refreshing heirloom tomato and watermelon salad sat atop a purée of black shallot feta and was showered with corn husk ash, again pairing sweet and savory flavors in a tasting of the season’s freshest produce.


If, before Filipino food became a hot thing, you ever happened upon a cafeteria and grocery called Three R’s opposite Horner Park (and strategically near a hospital heavy with Filipino staff), you’ll be glad to know that the mother and son behind it have opened Subo Filipino Kitchen, says Mike Sula: “On some days you might find sinigang, silky salmon belly or meaty whole pompano bathing in a clear sweet-and-sour tamarind broth, or pinakbet, a vegetable medley of squash, okra, green beans, and bitter melon funked up with shrimp paste; tortang talong, an Ilocano eggplant omelet, or tinola, a restorative chicken soup, its broth given body by the collagen-rich bones.”


They should serve shish-kebabs at the Chicago location of the chain City Tap Kitchen & Market—after this skewering by Graham Meyer at Crain’s: “A something-for-everyone menu with a middling success rate can work out if it’s, say, as close as your local Thai place, where convenience compensates for the learning period necessary to discover your usual. But in this particular city on this particular block, it’s not good enough. City Tap probably isn’t even the fifth-best restaurant on Fulton Market between Halsted and Peoria streets.”


Titus Ruscitti’s pictures from Bayan Ko have a pinkish cast—and I know exactly where he sat: at the front table under the neon sign. Anyway, his comments attest to its deserved popularity: “Perhaps the most popular dish is Luglug noodles. Everyone who eats here seems to get these. Described on the menu as noodles with scallops, uni, chicharron, egg yolk, saffron. It’s a really interesting dish with a flavor I couldn’t quite pinpoint other than the fact I knew I enjoyed it. They were briny from the seafood, partly crispy from the chicharron, and rich from the egg yolk. Delicious.”

He also made a return visit to Meet Fresh, one of the spots in my Chinatown guide, which I see by various reports is already out of date by a few new openings: “Another item worth trying is the Milk Shaved Ice with taro and sweet potato balls, tapioca noodles, almond and egg pudding, mochi, and ice cream. Wow! This place is f-ing great. You’ll feel like royalty when your food arrives. Most dishes are easily split between two though most seem to make ‘Meet Fresh’ a meal.”


There’s a line in Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods where somebody notes the claim that there have been a lot of murders on the Appalachian Trail—and someone else says, “Draw a line two thousand miles long anywhere in America and you’ll hit a lot of murders.” On a cheerier note, that’s kind of how I feel about drawing a two mile line anywhere in Chicago, but Ari Bendersky makes a case for two miles of Chicago Avenue through West Town being the most interesting dining stretch in the city: “Some spots, like Tecalitlan for tacos, enchiladas and potent margaritas and Shokolad Pastry & Café for beautifully made European pastries and Ukrainian fare, have drawn diners for years. Other new spots, including Bar Biscay and Funkenhausen, give eager food lovers a new reason to explore the area.”


The idea of a fully food-meets-beer-focused Moody Tongue restaurant and brewery was exciting when Jared Rouben and Jared Wentworth announced it, and it only gets more exciting with quotes like this (from Wentworth, the Food Jared) in Anthony Todd’s piece in Chicago:

Experimenting with Moody Tongue’s vast beer offerings, Wentworth discovered flavor pairings he never knew existed. He’ll also collaborate with Rouben on restaurant-exclusive beers. For example, on the opening menu, he’ll serve a specially-brewed sour watermelon saison alongside king crab, cheong fun noodles, peanuts, and XO sauce, plus other adventurous pairings.

“I’m being challenged in a completely different way. Who knew that sea urchin and scallop tartare would pair perfectly with a pear saison, or that red Flanders ale would go so perfectly with beef?” Wentworth says. “It pushes me to bring something to the table that makes the dish pop.”


Josh Noel looks at the current hard seltzer fad and explains what’s (bubbling) up with it.


More unhappy closings: Rockit Bar & Grill, mentioned in our current Billy Dec piece, will close in River North. I’ve missed Frunchroom, #34 in the last Fooditor 99, since it went from being a rare daytime spot on the northwest side, serving cured fish and other good stuff, to a dinner-only spot, and now that’s closing too. So long to Ixcateco Grill, square plate Mexican from a Frontera vet in Albany Park, which I wrote about in this Fooditor piece. B’El Tavern, at the corner of Belmont and Elston, which sort of made the Fooditor 99 last year in the sense that it was one of the bonus recommendations you received if you were a Patreon supporter, is closing. And Father and Son Pizza, which has been in Logan Square for over 70 years and claims to have pioneered delivery pizza in Chicago, which set a closing date of July 14.


And speaking of closings, South Side Weekly’s comics issue tells the story, partly in comics form, of the rise and fall of Sanctuary Cafe near the University of Chicago, a social justice cafe, which unraveled in the gap between aspirations and reality: “But a half-dozen former employees tell a much different story: they say that working at the café meant enduring frequent verbal abuse and sexual harassment from [manager Martin] McKinney, and having their concerns about unpaid labor and wage theft routinely dismissed, or met with hostility.  Their allegations paint a picture that is starkly different from the Sanctuary that many of its patrons had come to know and love—a ‘toxic’ and ‘exploitative’ environment where employees were told that complaining about workplace conditions meant they were ‘greedy’ and ‘capitalistic.’”


Not so hot words for Iliana Regan’s memoir Burn The Place in the New York Times: “most of Regan’s story hardly touches on her career in the food industry, chronicling instead her early struggles with her sexual identity and substance abuse,” and when she does get to cooking, it’s “undermined by a slapdash style.” Well, more to come I’m sure….


Read this back and forth on Facebook about the news that Stephanie Izard would be opening a taco stand in the United Center. Interesting points about who of what color gets those kinds of opportunities, and few easy answers.


One of the best chefs to fly largely under media radar in Chicago has to be Brian Ahern of Boeufhaus, but you can hear from him about how the Franco-German brasserie got its concept in this episode of the industry-focused Flavors Unknown podcast.


Crain’s has a short conversation with Michael Lachowicz about his turnaround since hitting rock bottom nine years ago, and how that has led to his combination of restaurants in Winnetka.


Journy is a site that provides personalized itineraries for visitors to cities. They also apparently publish articles that sort of relieve you of the need for their services, as this one is a pretty decent overview of top places in our city right now, useful to send to any visitors you might have coming this summer.


Two food fans who devoted unpaid efforts to spreading word of what they loved among online food communities passed away recently. Mike Sula has a remembrance for Steve Zaransky, an early member of LTHForum (where he was known as Stevez). And the Kane County Chronicle remembers Gregg Pill, known as ChiTownDiner on the forums at Roadfood.com (h/t Titus Ruscitti).


I’ve liked many meals at Schwa over the years, but I would argue for the most recent one, from chef de cuisine Norman Fenton (who I wrote about here), as the best I’ve ever had. First of all, it’s funny—I know that’s not what you first think of with fine dining, but this kind of playful conceptual dining ought to be a delight for the mind and the senses, and that’s what it is, beautiful and at times laugh out loud hilarious. Secondly, and also of some importance, Fenton’s food is refined in several ways since I wrote about him a year ago—Fenton, who lives in Chinatown, brought Schwa an Asian influence it hasn’t had before, most evident in a bao stuffed with Miyazaki beef that revitalizes the bordering-on-tasting-menu cliche of the wagyu course; the earthy, primally satisfying bao comes with radishes coated in butter, allowing Fenton to toss off wagyu with “here’s your bread and butter course.”

Any time I mention Schwa, people bring up the difficulty of making a reservation, but that’s firmly in the past; they’re on Tock, and I got no fewer than two emails in the days before my reservations, checking on dietary restrictions and reminding me of my reservation. (It is still BYO, fyi.) So if you haven’t been in a while, it’s both essential—and achievable.

Buzz List will be off next week, it’s road trip time!

IMAGE: Cabra/Facebook