Doing summer travel but couldn’t take this week off because of one story I had to comment on. So I’m filing this early, if anything else big happens this week, I’ll get to it next week!


The high water mark of “holding restaurants accountable,” as one side calls it, or “cancel culture,” as the other side calls it, happened just over a year ago, with several restaurants largely hounded out of business for various sins of the modern age—being jerks as bosses is as old as time itself, but to that were added such crimes as cultural appropriation, not letting the people “whose food it was” ethnically have say over a mere employer who invested money in a particular vision, playing the wrong music and so on.

At the time, as I wrote, much of this seemed to be rooted in a somewhat immature disappointment that COVID and lockdown had shattered the dream that chefs had promised everyone who worked for them:

We had 20-plus years of the chef as a hero, taking us to new sensations, artist and world explorer and pirate captain all in one. It was a great ride, and then it came to a screeching halt and what did we have? We were stuck at home making beans and sourdough, the people who worked in the industry were forced to scrape by with paltry benefits, there’s no guarantee that that cool world and how we felt to be part of it will ever come back. That sucks, man.

Someone must be to blame (besides Trump)! Maybe those way cool chefs were false prophets—they were exploiters and users, they yelled at us and paid us badly and scraped mold off jam and culturally appropriated food that wasn’t theirs.

Well, the Depression and World War II sucked, too. Now here we are, a year later. Restaurants are largely reopened and despite fears of the Delta variant, COVID seems largely conquered for anyone with sense enough to get a couple of shots. The pervasive atmosphere of angst has dissipated. The voices who seemed to rule over our restaurant scene, summoning mobs to burn uniforms and shutter restaurants like fast casual Savonarolas, have been silent for most of the year, though the media is still craven, taking the grievance claims at face value with little critical examination, as if they too fear the mob coming after them (and being silent when the mob turns on the mob—no one has followed up on this scandal). Earlier this month, Nini’s Deli, the Cuban-Lebanese coffee shop that was shouted down into closure over co-owner Juany Riesco’s Christian and anti-gay views, reopened and posted on July 6 on Facebook:

Hallelujah!!! Today at Nini’s we experienced a safe, joyous and 100% peaceful grand reopening!!!
Thank you to everyone who has prayed for this day and thank you to all of our family, friends and neighbors that came out to show us love 🥲🙌🥟💓
God is good yall!! We couldn’t have asked for a more amazing first day 🙏🙏🙏

We seem to have returned to the sane and civil free market view that anyone can have a business—and anyone can choose not to spend their money there, too, something I certainly understand in the case of Nini’s Deli for many people.

And now, via the Tribune (exclusive content reserved for their subscribers, which in retrospect may make it a poor choice of outlet for your reopening announcement) comes word that perhaps the biggest catch of all, Fat Rice, is reopening—after a fashion, as a popup called NoodleBird in its existing Diversey space. Per the announcement sent out by owners Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo:

Introducing NoodleBird: An Asian-inspired diner at Fat Rice. NoodleBird brings to life our take on vibrant street food, inspired by Macau and Asia. You can expect similarly great food and service of the original Fat Rice, only now, with a fast-casual approach. You will find an exciting menu filled with signature flavors as well as new offerings….

Not surprisingly, the announcement tries to get ahead of its critics:

We’ve decided to look at things a little differently from a cuisine and leadership perspective. We have taken the last year to deeply reflect, learn and make space for the positive changes we want to see within our restaurant — and the broader hospitality field.

We learned a lot from our experience opening and then closing Fat Rice. We made mistakes and we know we can now do better. Our goal for NoodleBird is to learn from those mistakes and lead by example.

That could just be lip service, and usually would be, but they seem to be taking the kinds of real steps to change the food culture that restaurants should be exploring now:

We are bucking industry-tipping trends by instead exploring ways to offer all team members, regardless of their position, at least $25 an hour, plus paid time off, sick leave, and comprehensive benefits for full-time team members. Our workday for all team members will max out at 8 hours, compared to the longer industry norm, affording more time for family, friends, and self-care.

We’re also making it our mission to break down traditional hierarchical structures in the restaurant business by putting more power and autonomy in the hands of our team members, with professional growth opportunities beyond the usual confines of their role, along with mentorship and career coaching.

And while we will own the restaurant, we have put in place a professional leadership and management team to run the daily operations. Additionally, we will now have an all-team accessible human resources partner and are working with experts in diversity, equity and inclusion to help ourselves and our team grow.

I’m all for staffers being paid more—but we’ll see if it’s sustainable, and also if it draws a higher level of kitchen staff and service committed to a shared vision to bring the unique fusion food of Macau to Chicago diners. I’ve long been struck by something Abe Conlon told me, that to understand what they were hired for, he would always urge staffers to read the book—The Adventures of Fat Rice, which talks about the research they did in Macau and the Macanese cooks they highlight (something that was often dismissed as them stealing recipes without credit, which simply is not true). Abe said that in all the time Fat Rice was open, only one employee actually took him up on it and read the book.

Eater attempted to get comment from one of the main instigators of the original protests against Fat Rice, Joey Pham, who worked at Fat Rice reportedly for two days in the mid 2010s, and had previously, like Conlon and Lo, run an underground dinner club, which might well have grown into a restaurant the way Fat Rice did:

Pham declined to comment to Eater about the restaurant’s return, saying they have “said everything I could on Fat Rice.”

That’s something very new, as Pham was quoted extensively in an Eater piece just two months ago. But perhaps it is a sign that recognition is dawning that however cathartic chasing your onetime (or very briefly) boss out of business may seem, people will only earn a living if employers are able to operate—without an angry mob spray-painting their windows and burning uniforms.

Buzz 2


Note: the email version of this week’s newsletter went off the wrong list, here’s a corrected 2021 list (h/t Gary Alan Fine). Steve Plotnicki’s OAD—Opinionated About Dining—a crowdsourced attempt to offer an alternative viewpoint on international fine dining to Michelin and World’s 50 Best, put out its 2021 rankings of North American fine dining, and Chicago is well represented, albeit mostly by places that also have Michelin stars; the most it breaks with that consensus is to honor some places that are somewhat ridiculously overlooked by the French snobs, like Jeong and Kyoten. Anyway, the Chicago list kicks off with Smyth ranking #6, followed by Oriole at #16, Alinea at #19, Next at #50, Schwa at #63, Kumiko at #100, Boka at #106, EL Ideas at #109, Elske at #1234 and Jeong at #141. See it all here.

Meanwhile, Grimod goes after Plotnicki’s game, and really all attempts at supposedly scientific listification, at Understanding Hospitality:

While OAD offers diners a valuable reference point within a crowded field of restaurant rankings and criticism, it carries within its proprietary process the very same power to obscure an individual engagement with the art of hospitality. The urge to standardize taste across international lines–while noble in its intention–ultimately works to erase the intricacies of regional foodways. Plotnicki’s standards may guide “foodies” towards a higher ideal than those of his rivals, but they amount merely to a different-colored filter tinging the same path towards a purely personal, transcendent experience of dining.


Friend of Fooditor Charlotte Tan tipped me off to a new place doing Thai desserts in Forest Park—but I’m supposed to be watching the sweets (don’t tell my doctor about what I had at Kasama this week) so I didn’t act on it. Apparently she also tipped off Mike Sula (per this tweet) because he has a piece explaining the whole concept behind Habrae Cafe, including very attractive photos by Sandy Noto:

For now there’s a trio of strikingly colored puddings, each topped with a thick layer of coconut cream: green, fragrant pandan; purple ube; and a Stygian khanom piak pun kathi sot, made with charcoal, a more spoonable version of a dessert traditionally made with burnt coconut husks for smoky flavor. Another rarity in the case is khanom thuai, a jiggly disk of smooth coconut pudding floating in a reservoir of cool, pandan-scented coconut milk, lightly sweetened with palm sugar.

“Some of these are very old-fashioned desserts that are rare in the U.S. and becoming rarer in Thailand too,” says [food writer Leela] Punyaratabandhu. “They can be found more easily at fresh markets in rural areas. In a city like Bangkok, you have to zero in on a few stores that specialize in traditional Thai desserts. It’s a dying art.”


Perilla is certainly a hipper, and in some ways more thoughtful, modern Korean restaurant, but still closer in spirit to Korean BBQ neighborhood spots like San Soo Gab San than Korean haute cuisine. Maggie Hennessy at Resy talks to chef Andrew Kim and manager Thomas Oh about how it came to be:

Oh and Lim’s intentions have always run deeper than dinner, since the childhood friends, industry vets, and second-generation Korean Americans opened Perilla in the Fulton River district in 2018. They want to build a more equitable and positive working environment, and to reconnect the city’s dispersed Korean American community by reigniting pride in its cuisine — and fostering creative collaboration. You first — perhaps unknowingly — glimpse their mission as you walk up to the restaurant, and behold the vast mural by renowned L.A.-based street artist Chris Chanyang (a.k.a. Royyal Dog) covering part of its facade: former First Lady Michelle Obama wearing a traditional Korean dress. Inside, pieces by Kimski chef and artist Won Kim dot the bar, and a contemporary mural by local visual artist David Heo blankets a full wall of the high-ceilinged dining room.


Two changes that have nothing to do with Alden Capital, for a change. Friend of Fooditor Monica Eng is leaving WBEZ after eight years and many interesting chapters of the Curious City feature; she’ll continue the Chewing podcast with Louisa Chu but any other new gig remains unknown.

And this is a bummer; WGN has canceled Chicago’s Best, the long-running local food show with host Elliott Bambrough, which your correspondent appeared on to talk barbecue in 2020.


Last week I linked to the first part of Mark Mendez’s memoir of cooking at Spiaggia. The saga continues here.


Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other food books, has a new book on something else natural we ingest—psychoactive drugs—called This is Your Mind on Plants. He’s on Andrew Sullivan’s podcast, and while my interest in either mescaline or opium goes only so far, they talk quite a bit about something I do use—coffee—and if you don’t know the story about how the creation of coffee culture led to all kinds of things, from printed magazines to stock markets, it’s quite interesting and worth a listen while you’re on the Peloton or whatever else you indulge in.


Bernard Cretier had one of Chicagoland’s longest-running French restaurants, Le Vichysoisse, way northwest in Lakemoor (McHenry County); when Phil Vettel reviewed it in 1996, the headline referred to it being nearly 20 years old then, but it soldiered on with classic French food to 2014, a 38-year run. I never went there, but I have a story that comes from the days of doing the Key Ingredient chef video series for the Reader with Julia Thiel, when Cretier was one of the first to turn us down:

The best rejection was from chef Bernard Cretier, who’s run the far-northwest-suburban French restaurant Le Vichyssoise in McHenry County since the mid-70s; Luke Creagan of Pops for Champagne, who’d gone there as a kid, suggested him. Julia called Cretier and explained the concept. His first question before turning it down: “What ees a Chicago Reader?”

I haven’t seen any obituaries as I write this; the news came from longtime reviewer Sherman Kaplan on Facebook, who also noted the passing in April of a 1970s figure I did not know about, Reinhard Barthel, who had the Tower Garden restaurant in Skokie and Cafe 36 in LaGrange, both acclaimed suburban restaurants—the latter was known for serving game that Barthel and his son hunted themselves. There’s an obituary here.


Tony Hu, onetime “mayor of Chinatown” who remains an important figure with Lao Sze Chuan and other restaurants, opened a new restaurant on the Wentworth side of the Chinatown mall sometime during lockdown last year, called Hunan Cuisine. The menu looks like those of most Tony Hu restaurants, some specialties of the designated region but a lot of his other greatest hits—nothing wrong with that. What I found difficult as hell is that the only menu is the QR code-activated one on your phone—and this is a typical Chinatown menu that would run to 8 0r 10 pages, each with two dozen items. So you’re kind of thrown onto the things you already know and recognize, because trying to comprehend a menu of such scope on a tiny screen is maddening. And that’s not the only thing about this hip-looking but somewhat sparsely decorated and staffed spot that seems a bit makeshift, or temporary, like it’s holding the space for the real, future restaurant.

Happily, one in our party knew Hunan dishes better than the rest of us, and we cobbled together a decent assortment of what they do. A dish called preserved pork with radish was probably the tastiest, though such the tiny diced pieces were beyond my chopstick skills; I also really liked the wok hay of a noodle dish, Xiang Hunan special fried noodle. Stewed whole fish with sour pickled chili, hacked-apart pieces of fish in a yellow sauce, tasted way better than it looked; besides the bile-colored sauce, one of our party said the fish looked like it had been dropped from a great height. Napa cabbage with labadou (fermented soybeans) was uninteresting, but cauliflower with preserved pork, basically a dry hot pot dish, was satisfying enough. One thing to note—nearly every dish was basically priced in the high teens, so I wouldn’t recommend this for a solo lunch; you’ll want a group to spread the cost and allow more dishes. My first return (not counting 88 Marketplace) to Chinatown since publishing this right before lockdown, it reminded me of what I love about Chinese food, and Tony Hu’s food, but also suggests that getting it together post-lockdown is as hard for Chinatown as it is for everywhere else.

And what’s the lovely Ina Pinkney holding in the photo this week? It’s a Boston cream doughnut, a newish pastry item at Kasama, which reinvents all the parts of that Dunkin’ Donuts staple—brioche dough, a caramelized cream center, and the bottom crispy with melted sugar. It’s fantastic, don’t miss it—especially as Kasama is pivoting to focus on breakfast and lunch, which is to say, they’re dropping dinner hours, both from a lack of staff and a lack of nighttime customers.