I’ve plugged this so much even I’m tired of hearing from me about it, but at last you can read (online) my piece for Chicago magazine on What Chefs Know, in which I interviewed 16 local chefs about the street wisdom of the profession. Go here.


Rumors swirled of a change at local food mainstay Eater Chicago. And now it’s confirmed that editor Daniel Gerzina is out at Eater Chicago. The food news standby has listed the job opening and is encouraging applicants. Several yeoman food writers are said to be interested in applying for the position at the bulwark of food news. Esteemed critic Michael Nagrant has urged that steadfast writer Ashok Selvam, known for his strong legwork on stories, be promoted to the top hotspot at the local linchpin.

Quirky local gadfly Fooditor has no official opinion on giving the job to any one individual. It admires Selvam’s legwork on and personal involvement in many stories. But looking at the issue from high above, modest familiarity with other cities’ Eater sites suggests that Chicago has focused on the day to day work of tracking openings and closings, but has not pursued stories with a broader perspective on the food scene. This includes relatively little coverage of books by locally-based authors, food political and social issues, or historical takes that deepen perspective on current stories, as can be found elsewhere in the Vox Media empire’s culinary satrapy. Fooditor is known for finding inadequate certain longer pieces on local food sensations, reportedly commissioned by a distant New York editor from a writer not resident in Chicago, which showed subpar understanding of tenacious local scene.

Hopes of Fooditor are for an editor, whomever it may be, who takes reins in Chicago and brings both understanding of local bailiwick and a commitment to robustly thoughtful journalism, along with mainstay coverage of steadfast local stories.


Phil Vettel reviews the latest example of the fast-growing Avli Taverna chain of upscale Greek restaurants, Avli River North: “The closer [owner Louie] Alexakis gets to the city center, the more sophisticated the food tends to be. In Winnetka, the saganaki is flamed tableside in tourist-pleasing fashion; here and in Lincoln Park, it’s simply a baked triangle of cheese topped with peppered fig marmalade and honey. (It will become your favorite version.)” Well, not without a guy in a white shirt and black tie and vest setting it on fire and yelling “Opaa!” with obvious boredom, I’m tempted to say. Vettel seems to be praising the place, which is why it’s surprising that at the end, it only gets one star, which honestly in Vettel-land is usually a sign of serious problems, though they only creep into his review—service seems green, the inside seems noisy (a reference to “anvil and hammer rattling that goes on inside”). This is a review to decode more than read.


Several food writers have had praise for Chicago Ramen, a new chain launching in the burbs featuring regional Japanese styles mostly not seen before here. Mike Sula traveled to Des Plaines to lay it all out: “It’s a sixth variety that truly breaks ground here. White mapo tofu ramen was born at Tsujita in LA, and it’s the White Walker of ramen varieties. A riff on the lava-colored Sichuan mapo tofu, it features a relatively light chicken broth, a thinner-bore Sun noodle, and a pile of soft, silky tofu nestled within. It looks as midwestern as hotdish, but for the blanket of black pepper on top and the Thai chilis lurking in its depths. You can customize the spice level, and if you’re battling a viral invader I recommend you push yourself to the limit.”


Speaking of suburban restaurants, the Cooper’s Hawk Winery chain has moved into the massive former Del Frisco space (aka the Esquire Theater, once upon a time), and as Joanne Trestrail says of the chain’s new outpost, “If it’s not the splashiest, we’re not sure we want to see the ones that are splashier… The restaurant is not a foodie paradise, exactly, but it isn’t trying to be. It works best for wine-fueled celebrating and, we can easily imagine, your more festive business lunches.”


Michael Nagrant goes to Lao Peng You and has many thoughts about spicy funky food as a cure for Coronavirus, but he gets to the main thing in the end: “At Lao Peng You, the bing, though, is the thing. Think scallion pancakes on steroids, a savory doughnut with crispy ridges and a glutinous chew stuffed with various fillings tucked into a paper sleeve like some glorious Chinese-riff on a McDonald’s hash brown. There is a scallion-packed variant available, but my favorite is the Xi’An bing featuring tender tendrils of funky cumin-perfumed lamb.”

Buzz 2


The steady drip drip of stories about the year’s most anticipated restaurant, Ever, continues with this week’s announcement of four lead team members. Amy Cordell as GM is no surprise, since she helped manage Curtis Duffy’s previous spots, Grace and Avenues. Justin Selk, as chef de cuisine is likewise logical, he was a sous chef at Grace along with stints at Alinea and Atelier Crenn. George Kovach, who was a star pastry chef at Band of Bohemia before also joining Alinea and more recently Acadia, is likewise logical. The one surprising name is Richie Farina as sous chef—Farina was closely associated with Homaro Cantu at Moto and a former contestant on Top Chef, as well as host of Cooking Channel’s Carnival Kings. But even as he seemed to have a sporadic TV career, he’s been cooking, head down publicity-wise, in Chicago, most recently at Monteverde, and Duffy says, “Enthusiasm is what I love about him, and the creativity he’ll bring to this team.” (Tribune)


Titus Ruscitti has a visit to old school Hagen’s Fish Market and the new South Loop location of Hong Kong-style restaurant My Place, which he visited with Friend of Fooditor Brian Eng and his wife (I went with them once to the old Chinatown location): “We ordered up a four pack of the Eng’s favorite hits. A plate of stir fried rice noodles with shredded duck was just what I needed as far as figuring out what else to order from here. I really liked this simple dish specifically for the wok job. As they told me as we ate you can rely on most of the wok fried noodle dishes including the beef chow fun.”

But the real find is a Sinaloan seafood restaurant in Elk Grove Village, El Rodeo Mexican Grill and Seafood: “El Rodeo caught my eye bc they offer up Seafood Towers aka ‘Torres’ which are all the rage in LA these days. As you know anything that gets popular in LA is likely to venture to other spots across the country. I’ve even seen pictures of Torres in Detroit posted on social media and such.” Well, now I know where I’m going the next time I need to be northwest of O’Hare.


Steve Dolinsky speaks highly of a new spot for birria, Birrieria La Terraza, located on Pulaski where Chickie’s Beef used to be: “There are so many ways you can enjoy the birria. You can have it as a consomme, kind of like a soup just sipping it, just meat chopped up with some onions and sauce, or as tacos. Honestly, my favorite way is just having it in the bowl, garnish as you will and enjoy it — what a wonderful, comforting dish this time of year in Chicago.”


Il Caffe Americano is a new food blog—wow, long time since I’ve said those words—by Ayla Langer, a young writer who moved to Chicago from the Driftless area of Wisconsin. She’s working hard and learning quickly, so I recommend folks check out her blog and I’ll be watching it for reviews and other pieces to call out here. For now, read about an early visit to Chicago Board Game Cafe (liked the food, service was confused), and especially her reflections, inspired by a Proxi-Bar Sotano collaboration dinner, on being a farm kid now disconnected from food in the city:

Since moving to Chicago, daily meals have purely become a means to an end; I’ve forgotten what it’s like to savor great bread, to [look in] awe at a carrot, and to thank God for sustainable meat. I’ve also lost touch with where and why good quality food is produced.


Block Club kicked up a controversy over mild sauce, the ubiquitous local term for a tangy, thin, bright red barbecue sauce put on everything from rib tips to wings on the south and west sides. They point to a white-owned company which has started marketing a brand called That Mild Sauce, and to people upset that some white guys are making money off something from the black community (tell it to Leonard Chess):

Chef Clayton Weber, That Mild Sauce’s chief operating officer, said he and his business partners have been eating mild sauce forever.

“After a while, we started our little company and began shipping That Mild Sauce to former Chicagoans who have moved away and miss that Chicago-style flavor profile,” he said.

For some, it felt like a slap in the face to see a white-owned company profiting off of a Black culinary staple — and the people who pioneered an entire regional food culture with mild sauce as its defining feature.

Well, basically it’s a barbecue sauce, and there’s ten million barbecue sauces, black and white, out there. And mild sauce varies a lot from place to place (and here’s an open secret—it’s often mixed up on site by doctoring an existing commercial barbecue sauce, Open Pit). If you’ve got a better authentic barbecue/mild sauce, bottle it and get it out there:

Uncle Remus doesn’t sell bottles of the coveted sauce in stores or at the restaurant. [Charmaine] Rickette said selling the sauce is something that the business is working up to, but she is waiting for the right moment to branch out from the chicken business into the sauce market.

“My joke is, I don’t want my mild sauce to put me out of the chicken business,” she said. “Our mild sauce is so good, you can put it on everything. … If people can get my mild sauce anywhere, they might not come here to get the chicken.”

One black entrepreneur who did get his barbecue sauce out there was Argia B. Collins, one of the Collins brothers who owned a chain of barbecue places on the south side in the 60s and 70s. But he didn’t call his mild sauce—he called it Mumbo Sauce*, which people in D.C. (who mainly put it on chicken wings from Chinese restaurants**) consider cultural appropriation by a Chicagoan of something that is theirs. Barbecue sauce—it’s complicated!

* My theory is that “mumbo sauce” was in the air as a jive-talkin’ phrase in multiple cities, and that Argia B. Collins got it trademarked first, but in the end, it mainly lasted as a name in D.C.

** D.C.’s idea of mumbo sauce is closer to Chinese sweet and sour sauce than Chicago’s, and is probably often just that mixed with ketchup.


Karl Klockars spotted something interesting on the TTB (the alcohol side of the federal government) website, and went and got the story: Malört-branded bourbon.


Ari Bendersky did a well-informed piece for the Robb Report on Chicago’s ten best steakhouses that should keep your Uncle Sid happy at the right places the next time he comes to town.


I’ve tried making deep dish at home and it was nothing to challenge New York with, so Chicago mag had me at a video with Marc Malnati called How To Make Lou Malnati’s Pizza.


Phillip Foss, spilling his guts again, this time on fame and publicity:

It’s an amazing rush the first time you see journalists crushing on you in the headlines. You feel like you’re a sexy new convertible, and everyone wants to take your gastronomy for a joyride. But eventually, that new car smell fades, the seat cushions start to lose their bounce, and the vehicle starts feeling its age. Unlike cars, which roll out every year, nobody gives us an exact date for when you will be last year’s model. But sure enough, the next flashy restaurant comes off the assembly line and everyone gets in line to check it out. As a chef, my ego tricked me into believing my Chicago restaurant EL Ideas would always be a shiny new hot rod that writers would never get enough of. But it doesn’t work like that.

When I took over Grub Street Chicago from Nick Kindelsperger, I remember he named four chefs always good for a headline,people would read anything about any of them—I believe at the time it was Achatz, Izard, Graham Elliot and Foss. (Might be off by one.) Anyway, the first three seemed obvious enough, but the fourth didn’t have the culinary stature (then)—instead he was one of those people who could always be counted on to do or say something fun and lively. He gave good quote. And I covered Foss quite a bit, all through getting fired from the Palmer House, to the Meatyballs truck, to turning his commissary into EL Ideas. He was the one who we asked to do the pilot for Key Ingredient, even though it didn’t end up running first, because we figured we could count on him to be entertaining.

But at some point, yeah, it’s time to cover somebody else in a town with this many chefs. As I’ve had to tell so many chefs, there’s just no story for me in “Good Restaurant Still Good.” Foss is right about what a restaurant faces when it’s no longer the new plaything:

Most of the chefs I know struggle to maintain a healthy balance with their egos, and awards and accolades are about that first. But a second reality is that real dollars are made or lost with or without nods from James Beard and Michelin. Even local critic reviews, Yelp, and a simple social media presence translate to potential dollars at the end of the day.


Zagat launched a subsite called Zagat Stories, short and pithy profiles of well-known chefs around the country; here’s one about Paul Kahan, talking about how Publican Anker evolved into Cafe Cancale and what his role as the head of a large group is in that.


The DANK Haus, a German cultural center in Lincoln Square, has acquired the historic bar from now-closed Chicago Brauhaus and has a GoFundMe to raise the money to move it to their building on Western. Have to say they’re off to a slow start, but maybe others can help them get the word out.


Kevin Boehm and Will Guidara talk with Andrew Friedman on Andrew Talks to Chefs, in a really interesting discussion of keeping your restaurant fresh and relevant. (I want to know more about these restaurants built for writers!)

Art Jackson of Pleasant House Pub talks to the Getting Pissed Podcast, which is devoted to places with impressive restrooms. Well, it uses that as the way into conversations, anyway. (As long as they’re in that neighborhood, they really must visit the finest urinals in the city, the Art Deco masterpieces at the Skylark.)

And LA’s Good Food podcast has a really thoughtful discussion with Karen Stabiner, who wrote this piece on how ghost restaurants and other such things are changing the restaurant world economically—and in how we think about what restaurants are for. The same episode, incidentally, has Bill Addison talking about Dave Beran’s new French restaurant, Pas Jolie—where one of the star courses is a duck press. He mentions that the first Next menu was rooted in classic French cuisine—without noting that Chicago had this dish eight years ago.

Sparrow Black 2019