1. FEELGOOD FIRST

Start with this radio story by Monica Eng about a restaurant in southwest suburban Alsip that’s delivering free meals to seniors in the area. It’ll make you feel better about everything that follows.

Something else to cheer you up: the adorable Samin Nosrat (Salt Fat Acid Heat) launched a Coronavirus-era podcast called Home Cooking, and episode one is about—what else? Beans.

And remember, you can support longtime Fooditor sponsor Sparrow Coffee by buying 3 1-lb. bags of their outstanding coffee for $50, delivery included. Get great coffee, support people who have done so much to support our dining scene at its best (not least by advertising at Fooditor). UPDATED ORDERING INFO: email [email protected] to place an order or to request info on special orders (specific blends or grinds). You can now Venmo payment to @sparrowcoffee.com

2. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS

I saw a good line on Twitter by a Vancouver writer named Frances Bula:

The world you want after this is all over is the world you’re supporting now. Order everything from Amazon and that’s what will take over. Support your local businesses and you help them be part of The After.

On that note, it’s good to see some progress this week on making direct purchasing from farmers more readily available. Dining at a Distance has added a section on farms; click on Great Lakes to see farmers in our region.

Green City Market has also teamed with the app WhatsGood to facilitate ordering from its vendors, though as of Sunday the launch had been so successful they were temporarily sold out (but you could order directly from some vendors).

And though it’s closed to shoppers, Local Foods will take orders for contactless pickup; click on the green box on the main page.

Meanwhile Greg O’Neil (Pastoral) passed along a message from Carlos Yescas, who is the director of the Oldways Cheese Coalition, who says that artisanal cheeses are in trouble (not selling at retail, market for them down) and recommends that we “Buy young cheeses from producers today, and consider pre-buying cheese and paying for delivery in a couple of weeks. Let’s save the cheesemakers.” Greg suggests going to Janet Fletcher’s list of artisan cheesemakers and shopping from there.

Here’s something I did that you might try as a way to extend your buying power for supporting a farmer. I knew I needed to get a couple of pork bellies from Jake’s Country Meats to make bacon, so I sent info about them and the price list to my block mailing list, and said that I’d pick up everybody’s orders when I got mine next weekend. I don’t know yet if anyone’s done it but if I can get them two or three more orders on my block besides my own, that’ll be worth my (very minor) effort. Try something like that!

3. TAKEOUT WATCH

Good news, bad news on the takeout front.

Good news: Alinea has gotten a lot of publicity for doing Beef Wellington and other old school feasts, and not just delivering them to food writers (though I suspect I’m one of the last who hasn’t partaken) but selling out hundreds of these meals last week. Between that and creating Tock To Go, there’s no question that Nick Kokonas & co. have done the proof of concept that will help a lot of other restaurateurs figure out what can work for them during this time. Foodwise, I’ve looked in other directions for my family (pssst: Tuesday is fried chicken day at The Duck Inn), but I have to say that adding dinners from Nick Dostal at Aviary to this coming week’s offerings is tempting.

Anyway, what Kokonas says here is pretty amazing—for Tock restaurants overall (I think that’s what he’s showing), after an obvious dropoff in reservations with the shutdown, “In terms of diners served we are now back to March 15 levels.”

Bad News: a lot of places that started out offering takeout have given it up, as just not being profitable or creating too much strain/danger of infection. Just-opened Mundano abandoned its chicken wing business; Bayan Ko closed down to keep their young daughter safe; the Elizabeth crew gave it up after a week as well due to exposure concerns. And all the One Off restaurants have closed (see next item). In any case, we have to expect a lot of change on this front as restaurants find what they can and cannot do.

What’s it like for restaurateurs, suddenly running a takeout-only operation? Steve Dolinsky talks to two spots (one of them Dusek’s) about it.

Meanwhile, Dining at a Distance remains the definitive mega-list (now up to 56 cities!) of places to order from, but if you need a shorter list to spark an idea or two, check this one at Time Out Chicago (though as noted, Bayan Ko is already out of the takeout game).

4. FEEDING YOUR PEOPLE

The big news is that just a few days after starting to offer meals to industry people at Big Star, and getting a lot of publicity, One Off Hospitality abruptly shut down that program and all its restaurants, including at least one that had been very successful offering family meals, Pacific Standard Time. (Phil Vettel has more on what they say happened here, though I’d have liked him to press them on what changed between the beginning of the week and the end.)

Still operating handing out meals to the suddenly unemployed: an effort by The Fifty/50 Group, who serve 400 free meals, six days a week, from The Fifty/50 in Wicker Park, thanks in part to an anonymous tech industry donor who is underwriting the purchase of ingredients from local distributors. (Time Out Chicago has more on the program here.) UPDATE: Edward Lee’s The LEE Initiative, which originally had paired up with One Off Hospitality, has now done so with The Fifty/50 Group’s efforts to provide food to industry workers.

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5. RECKONING

Michael Nagrant’s newsletter also talks to Scott Weiner of The Fifty/50 to get more insight into how they’re functioning now. Most interestingly, he has some strong words for a certain CEO who got early publicity with the mayor:

People are talking a lot about the [third party] delivery services right now, but they’re not part of our community. For example, my drivers at Roots are employees. We pay their benefits and their insurance. My app for the restaurant is my app. It costs less to order direct from our app than from a third party. Every dollar we make goes to my employees and my drivers. Grubhub is lying about waiving fees, when really, they’re deferring fees. You know how when [former Chicago police chief] Eddie Johnson lied to the mayor and she fired him? When Mayor Lightfoot hears about how [Grubhub CEO Matt] Maloney lied to her face, there will be a reckoning.

Nagrant’s newsletter is also including a weekly list of recommended places to order from—and it’s not the high end joints, even if he did order from Alinea last week. Check it out.

6. SPEAKING OF LARGE CORPORATIONS

Nick Kokonas was also among the restaurant owners blowing a gasket over Yelp and GoFundMe collaborating on something ostensibly designed to help restaurants… but with more than a whiff of exploiting the names and brands of restaurants, and the goodwill toward them, for their own benefit. The two behemoths created fundraisers for restaurants, without asking or telling the restaurants they were doing so. Kokonas accused them of profiting from it, which Yelp claimed they were not—but they are benefiting in the sense that they fake an association with brands who, like Kokonas’, want nothing to do with them, and they potentially reduce the impact of restaurants’ own fundraising programs, many through GoFundMe themselves. Yelp reportedly has now backed down, making it a program that restaurants can opt-into. Better yet, they should crawl into a hole, ashamed.

7. OUTLOOK OUT

If you own one restaurant you’re making chicken wings right now. If you own a restaurant group of 15 or 20, you’re taking a hard look at your business, says an article in Crain’s about the big players in independent restaurants: “Boka Restaurant Group, known for award-winning places like Girl & the Goat and Swift & Sons, has 21 restaurants throughout Chicago, but only six outside downtown and the surrounding tourism hotbeds. ‘Everything I am thinking about right now is getting (my restaurants) opened back up and making sure that our team is taken care of,’ says Boka co-owner Kevin Boehm. ‘How the market recovers, that remains to be seen. I believe in Chicagoans and people’s desire to go back out to eat.'”

8. WORSE THAN TOILET PAPER

Toilet paper hasn’t been a worry for me, as we usually have a couple of 24-packs in the pantry. Getting cleaning supplies was a little more difficult, and the closest I could find for Mr. Clean was a Mexican brand called Fabuloso! Peanut butter I could only find in a small jar. But really, shopping hasn’t been that bad for me except… where, in this great city of Mexican food, did all the corn tortillas go?

Laura Rodriguez Pena in the Trib explains the issue: “Alfredo Jimenez, a manager at Carniceria Jimenez, a Mexican grocery store in Humboldt Park, was forced to limit customers to five packs each, he said. ‘It’s not about the money that we make, it’s about forcing people to rationalize,’ said Jimenez, the brother of the owner of the chain that extends through neighborhoods in Chicago and into the suburbs. ‘We can sell it all to one person and make the same amount of money, but we want to push people to think about the rest of their community who is also looking for tortillas.’”

9. THE FIFTY/50

David Hammond and NewCity probably feel like the timing could hardly be worse for their annual list of 50 notable chefs (it trades off every other year, chefs one year and non-chef food people the next). But maybe it’s good to set down a list of what was hot and talked about this year, before the bad times struck and, God forbid, cost us some of these places. (One thing that’s good about this list is that they promote some people to an all-time-greats list, so that they don’t have to trot out Rick Bayless every time forever, and can instead make room for new faces… like Lanie Bayless.) Anyway, what’s interesting to me is the sheer visual proof of how Asian our food scene has become (and that’s with a lot of African-American representation too, this year). NewCity got grief last year for how white the list was, foolishly because it was mainly a list of power figures in the industry and that’s just the facts about who the big money groups are. But this year it’s clear how diverse our restaurant scene is creatively, and not just a matter of white guys opening throwbacks to ethnic food they’ve eaten.

Here’s the main list, and here are spotlight pieces on Mariya Russell (Kikko/Kumiko) and Marcus Campos and Porto.

10. RPM STOP

An actual restaurant review, of RPM Seafood—from Jeff Ruby on the last night before the restaurant shutdown: “The courteous staff handled it beautifully, rolling with the weird vibe, hyperaware and ever present and doing everything they could to make us forget that anything unusual was happening. But inevitably, somewhere in the room, someone would cough, the dangerous clarion hack a reminder that this was no ordinary night out.”

In the end thinks less about the food than the future of restaurants: “Maybe, just maybe, the industry comes out the other side with a new, long overdue empathy for the chefs, servers, and other workers who don’t have access to the same safety net that so many of the rest of us do. I called Christine Cikowski, partner at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale and long a strong voice about ways the restaurant industry can improve. In the future, she expects, ‘we will all be doubling our advocating efforts for programs, policies, and systems that support our workers’ — a sentiment that gives me hope.”

11. CHEF’S SPECIAL

Understandably, a lot of people are doing the piece where you ask chefs what they’re doing to get through it all, and here’s John Kessler’s at Chicago, talking to people from John Shields (who closed Smyth and The Loyalist entirely) to Erick Williams who has a busy takeout operation at Virtue: “Business has been robust and customers generous with their tips, which are pooled and distributed among the staff. Williams has also been accepting food donations from a supplier, Gordon Food Service, which go toward feeding the staff, and is trying to extend terms with others vendors. ‘Either we’re going to pay utilities now or we’re going to pay our staff,’ he says.”

Kessler also has a piece on how you pick who to support, and walks through some of his favorites so far (including Virtue).

12. GROW YOUR OWN

Mike Sula wisely says that’s what you should be doing, and talks to LaManda Joy of City Grange about another time when history got us gardening: “Chicago, during WWII, due to great forethought, collaboration, and coordination, led the nation in the Victory Garden movement. In 1942, organizers were able to recruit and educate upwards of 300,000 new gardeners to grow their own food in an incredibly short amount of time. Many people think of Victory Gardens as something that was ‘nice to do’ for people on the homefront (which I’m sure it was—gardening has many benefits beyond food) but, in reality, those vegetable gardens supplemented food shortages and rationing due to the heavy burden the war effort was making on global supply chains.”

13. GUY SMILEY

First Alinea and now The Tamale Guy is looking to deliver to your home. Ashok Selvam tells the story—and tries them—at Eater: “Earlier this week, Velez’s alleged phone number began circulating on private social media accounts, announcing he would be testing out delivery. It looked like a mirage, a false flag for hope as America dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak… A little more than an hour later, Velez’s texted us back writing that he’s nearby. He parked in front of the address, hops out and grabs the tamales from his backseat. Steam erupts from the cooler in back.”

14. SUPER, DOGG

One restaurant is virtually unaffected by Coronavirus: the city’s only 50s-style carhop drive-in, Superdawg. Nick Kindelsperger waxes nostalgic for our old lives: “Sure, there are little changes. Instead of bringing out a tray with all the food, which the carhop would attach to the driver’s-side window, all the food comes out in a bag. Since there is no tray, you don’t flip a switch for someone to retrieve the tray at the end. But those are tiny differences.”

15. NO MAN IS AN ISLA

Friend of Fooditor Sarahlynn Pablo has more on the closing of Isla Pilipina at the end of the month—owner Rey Espiritu had his eye on opening a new version of the restaurant downtown in May, though now, it’s anyone’s guess: “The new location will not replicate the original diner. Espirtu said the next incarnation will be smaller and ‘fast paced but with the high-quality stuff that customers have grown to love.’… He wants to evolve Isla Pilipina’s food business to be more nimble and manageable, with room for pop-ups and collaborations with nonprofit organizations. Espirtu also wants the restaurant to be more delivery and carry-out friendly.”

16. SANITIZE CLAUSE

You keep hearing that distilleries are making hand sanitizer—Ari Bendersky talked to Koval Distillery about just that for Inside Hook.

17. IN MEMORIAM

News came on Facebook just as I was finishing this up of the death—from cardiac arrest, early reports say, not Coronavirus-related—of “food buddha” Rodelio Aglibot, a Chicago-based Filipino chef who opened restaurants all over the world. Most notably in Chicago, he was the opening chef of Sunda—Billy Dec talks about those days in this piece—but the main piece I ever did with him was back at Grub Street, when his group opened a restaurant, Argent, in the Dana Hotel (more or less where Portsmith is now). Lawrence Letrero (Bayan Ko) has a nice remembrance of him here.

The big food world Coronavirus news is the sad death of New York-based Indian chef Floyd Cardoz (Tabla) at 59 from Coronavirus. Jacqueline Raposo remembers him at Plate: “A voracious eater from a young age, he’d come home from school excited for lunch, and then fantasize through the afternoon about what he’d return to find for dinner. He was always in the kitchen; his older brother nicknamed him ‘the cook’s son,’ a cultural slight that echoed in the resistance he later faced when he chose to cook professionally; a career path not embraced by those of his family’s social class. But he loved the kitchen, and proximity was how he put in special requests.”

This was published earlier in March and I missed it, but Neil Steinberg at the Sun-Times has an amusingly fond memorial for Arnold Loeb, owner of Romanian Sausage in West Rogers Park, which begins by imagining what the spread at his shiva must be like: “The corned beef. The pastrami. The salami. The tubs of chopped liver. Romanian chopped liver. Shivas are normally awash in food. But this. Perhaps, our business complete, I could assemble a heaping plate to take home. Would that be bad form?”

WHERE MIKE ATE

I agree with the sentiments expressed by many in this edition—this crisis is exposing so many things that are dysfunctional and exploitative about the restaurant and bar business as it exists today. We need fairer pay and benefits for the work involved. We need to ensure that the money goes to people who grow and make food more than the corporations who ride on them parasitically (that means, among other things, ordering as directly from restaurants as we can, whatever they think works best for them). And most of all, we need to use our personal spending to model a better world than the one that came to a crashing halt two weeks ago.

Small potatoes, but that’s what I’m trying to do in every food transaction I make now—shopping at smaller markets, supporting independent restaurants with philosophies I like. Our big takeout purchase this week was Virtue, and talk about food that is just there to console you and make you feel at home… at home. (Actually you could serve that banana pudding after anything and you’d feel like Grandma cooked for you.) I’m no closer to Hyde Park than I am to O’Hare, but it was shockingly easy to order a family meal from their website and zip down to 53rd street via half-empty Lake Shore Drive, where we were met very efficiently in front by a woman who moments later, brought our food out. Highly recommended.

But I’m also trying to support smaller restaurants, the kind of places that I’d hit for a simple lunch—it’d be a shame if we shifted our spending away from those guys to higher end restaurants, just because those restaurants are getting so much publicity for the novelty of offering takeout. I ordered from Lao Peng You (directly on their website), following the old rule from when they were sit down that you wanted to go early, so I was there to pick up at 11:45. Well, honestly I was too early, I stood around a little bit waiting (six feet from anyone else!), which I did not mind at all. Anyway, it was a pleasure to again have their outstanding cold (really, room temperature) noodles, dumplings, and not nearly enough of the bing—next time I’ll just order one per person, and have leftovers. Maybe.

In-On Thai is one of Chicago’s less recognized Thai stars, at least outside LTHForum. They were hampered by the fact that they opened in Lakeview a few years ago, then closed (their building got torn down), and have just recently reopened at 4641 N. Broadway. But I’m happy to have gotten a bunch of brightly flavorful stuff from them ranging from marinated pork ribs (actually bits of rib meat), Mee Krob, fried rice with BBQ pork, and best of all (though plenty hot, fyi), Jungle Salad with crispy fish, which absolutely sang with fishy lime flavor, and made my heart do a little dance. After mostly cooking earthy food all week, great to have some Thai funk in my life again. Order directly here.

And I took the family to Rica Arepa, and found them very well set up for takeout in a storefront next to where the restaurant entrance used to be. It’s terrible to think of them going from escaping Venezuela’s economic meltdown, only to face this here—but they seemed to have jumped right on it, having delivery within a 3 mile radius set up and an efficient operation. (They offered me a frequent diner discount card—I said I wasn’t looking for bargains right now.) The pabellon arepa (pork, black beans, cheese, sweet plantain) makes for pretty efficient in-car dining, though it’s overstuffed enough that spilling a little is guaranteed. Anyway, support them, and many more like them.

Sparrow Black 2019