The first year that Boka Group was nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur in the James Beard Foundation Awards, I joked to Kevin Boehm that it was only five or six years till they’d win it. (That was the experience of One Off Hospitality, which won it on their sixth or seventh nomination.) In the end, they did it in four—our most consistently creative and successful restaurant group won the award in their home city last night.

Rob Katz (not usually the talkative one) and Boehm gave warm and moving speeches, paying tribute to their six lead chefs as the foundations their concepts are built around (an unusual approach to mostly giant-sized restaurants), to the many behind the scenes folks, like their first employee Ian Goldberg, who have helped them build the company beyond their dreams—and to the city that has responded to what they’ve offered. Boehm even thanked journalists in Chicago for their part! He also paid tribute to his mother, now fighting pancreatic cancer, for making him get a job at Hardee’s when he was a teenager if he wanted spending money—”And I haven’t not had a restaurant job since.”

Chicago seemed condemned to be a gracious host but not a winner these last few years, so last night was a happy night, with wins going to Greg Wade, the fine and thoughtful baker of Publican Quality Bread (I wrote in depth about him and their operation here); to Parts and Labor Design for the design of Pacific Standard Time, which had earlier won a Jean Banchet Award locally; and in a category where a Chicago win was inevitable, the all-Chicago Best Chef Great Lakes, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute won—the second win in a row for a chef-owned upscale casual take on an Asian cuisine located on the near northwest side, after Abe Conlon of Fat Rice last year. In case you want to know what Chicago is really good at.

Boka Group celebrated in style at Girl & the Goat with an Alice in Wonderland-themed party which, given their win, was quickly packed to the walls with VIPs. After a bit, I headed across the street for Rick Bayless’ party at Leña Brava, where he had invited a few of Chicago’s notable Mexican-owned restaurants—Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen, Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights and La Lupita in Berwyn—to serve alongside Cruz Blanca beer. It was a nice display of how Chicago’s scene is built not just on glitzy downtown restaurants but bench depth throughout our city as well.


Even before the Beards, Chicago produced a winner: the U.S. Pizza Team took the gold at the 28th edition of the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy, and under team leader Scott Volpe (Fiamme, Tucson) was team member Lenny Rago of Panino’s in Chicago, who among other duties devised the soundtrack for Volpe’s pizza-spinning routine which included breakdancing along the way. (I am not making this up.) Rago also placed second among Americans in overall scores for the non-breakdancing portion of the competition, and highest among Americans in the gluten free category.


Chicago mag has a section focused on road trips within the parts of the midwest relatively near to Chicago, some by locals like Dan Jacobs of DanDan on Milwaukee, others by their stable of writers including food editor Carrie Schedler on her native Cincinnati’s chili.

If I had to pick one to do this summer, it would be the one I’ve already done and been meaning to do again—digging into the middle eastern food in Dearborn, outside Detroit. John Kessler: “Levantine cuisine spreads all over this city of nearly 100,000 and into the neighboring towns of Dearborn Heights and Livonia, but I decided to focus on the epicenter, West Warren Avenue, where narrow storefronts that serve one specialty crowd up against palatial bakeries and vast dining warrens. In this neighborhood, baskets of hot pita still inflated with oven steam are a given kickoff to any meal.”


Phil Vettel says that the return of Gene Kato (Sumi Robata Bar) as the new hot-foods chef at Boka’s Momotaro yields a new emphasis on grilled foods which pays off: “The robata-grilled quail is particularly flavorful, and it’s served with a soft-poached quail egg and a reduction sauce made from the bird’s bones — three-way quail. If your taste memory of abalone involves rubbery texture and minimal flavor, Kato’s grilled abalone, slathered with shiso butter and lime, will be a revelation. And grilled lamb chops — long rib chops, sparingly trimmed to preserve that gnaw-able rib meat — are marinated with a complex miso paste that brings out the meat’s sweetness.


“‘We’re not Mexican… And there’s tons of great Mexican food right around us as well. So it’s not really what we’re into. We’re more like American-style tacos, with Japanese influence. I only use Japanese ingredients.’” That’s Brett Suzuki, owner of Arigato Market, the Japanese butcher shop/taco stand which Titus Ruscitti wrote about a few weeks back. Now Mike Sula digs into Chicago’s latest odd hybrid, which uses pasture-raised beef on tacos like “tomato-meatball risotto taco and the cheeseburger taco too, which behaves a bit like the Akutagawa plate from Wrigleyville’s Rice’N Bread.” Sula mentions the C-A words (cultural appropriation), but to me, this kind of serious fusion is one of the glories of our scene when it’s paying tribute in its experimentation.


Graham Meyer says Le Colonial has made a move around the corner in fine ladies who lunch fashion: “Le nouveau Colonial won’t alienate old fans (nor will it appease those who hear the hectoring voice of Edward Said in the now-distasteful word “colonial”), and it fits right in among the Oak Street luxury brands. Maybe even better than it did in the machismo of Rush.”


Titus Ruscitti says Middle Brow Bungalow is a fantastic bakery with a beer program: “As delicious as the beer is it’s kind of took a backseat with me. That’s bc you can make the case that Middle Brow Bungalow is home to the city’s best bread baker. That program is helmed by a baking vet who came back to Chicago from San Francisco. The Northern Cali city is considered the baking hub of America. Well thanks for teaching some Chicago folks the ropes. The bread program here is fantastic. One of my best bites of the year thus far came from a simple little dish consisting of house made cream cheese spread on a piece of toasted sprouted rye bread. Drizzled with some oil and sprinkled with chives this was outstanding.”

He also checks out a new Nepalese dumpling place near UIC, Momo World: “An order of traditional steamed momo come ten to an order (I ate one before taking a pic) and served with a tomato based dipping sauce which along with a cilantro option is common amongst momo vendors. These were tasty but I was wishing they had the flavor combinations that made me fall in love with momo in the first place. I didn’t taste much cumin, cilantro, or the other stuff. All that said what I did taste was some fresh pork with herbs which still hit the spot.”


The Smith is a New York import opening in River North; Eater has a piece on it and it includes a section called “They Crave Chicago Love”: “Owner/founder Jeff Lefcourt wants to stay humble, hoping River North will welcome the New York import… They’re stocking local beer and hoping to cater to the local audience.” The last time they came to town, it wasn’t humble—it was lawyered up; when Webster’s Wine Bar planned a new wine bar/restaurant in 2011, they were going to call it Smith until The Smith threatened a lawsuit, as Ari Bendersky reported for Eater then. The Webster’s folks changed their place’s name to Telegraph, which was a better name anyway (and a great place, R.I.P.) We’ll see if this new place is worthy of the name.


I meant to include this last week, but Paul Biasco, journalist and onetime Quiote manager, did a fine piece for Eater Chicago on V&V Supremo Cheese Factory, which has been making fresh, authentic Mexican cheese to crumble on Chicago’s Mexican dishes since the 1960s:

One day, while living in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Ignacio and Gilberto overheard a man talking about his love of making Mexican candies that reminded him of home, and they convinced him to join them while embarking on their latest hustle: making and selling candies.

Things were going great until the man left for Mexico the first winter of production… The brothers were no candy experts, and without their partner, the business started to spiral out of control. That is, until the brothers began to experiment with milk. One of the candies in their line utilized a lot of it, and those experiments led them to make queso fresco the way they had it back home.


I haven’t had anything new in Chicago, because I was in Mexico City. Go look at @skyfullofbacon on Twitter or @fooditorchi on Instagram to see taco pictures that should make you hungry.