Buzz List for November 19, 2018

Chicago lands on nation's best listicles, two fried chicken sandwich listicles, the dangers of listicles for restaurants, and is Greektown going ghost town?

Le Sud/Facebook
Roasted quail at Le Sud

1. LAST CHANCE!

Well, not last last but you gotta hype these things. The new 2019 edition of The Fooditor 99 should be available to order by Wednesday, Amazon willing, and you can just order it then. But there’s still time to get something cooler than that, and do more than that for the cause of independent, free-thinking food journalism. Support Fooditor’s Patreon at the Foie Milkshake Level or higher by November 30, and you’ll automatically receive an autographed copy of the new edition, plus at least one bonus #100 recommendation. So do it in November, get your copy by December and support independent food media at Fooditor all the rest of the year. Thanks!

2. A NATION OF LISTICLES

It’s approaching the year’s end and that means we’re going to get even more lists than we usually get. Bill Addison at Eater ushers in his national list of the 38 best restaurants in the whole country, including two from Chicago, Smyth and Parachute. (The latter was off it last year, but made it in 2016.)

Enjoy Addison’s hothouse prose (“Which places become indispensable to their neighborhoods, and eventually to their towns and whole regions?… Which restaurants, ultimately, become vital to how we understand ourselves, and others, at the table?”)—because it’s the last time he’ll be roaming the country this way; right after the list came out, he announced that he was one of two critics joining the L.A. Times, the other being Patricia I. Escarcega of the Phoenix New Times.

(Which brings up a point: on the one hand, it’s awesome that the post-Tronc L.A. Times is doing so much competitive, high-end hiring, unlike the still-enTronced, soon-to-have-more-layoffs Chicago Tribune. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel mixed feelings about hiring from out of town… to replace quintessential Angeleno Jonathan Gold. In any case, local writers in L.A., the position of telling the city’s story through tacos and dumplings remains to be filled, including by Addison and Escarcega. Get out there and tell the story you see!)

Meanwhile at Thrillist, Khushbu Shah publishes her nationwide 13 best new restaurants of 2018, admittedly a much more plausible enterprise than picking The Best Restaurants in the Whole Country, and Chicago places one on the list—not surprisingly, Passerotto, which has charmed so many, earns a place for “deeply personal cooking that flawlessly weaves together Korean cooking with Italian flair.” I really like Shah’s list, which with its cheffy takes on everything from Vietnamese to Georgian food, seems like the most interesting part of how we eat now.

But what we eat now is partly a question of what we read now, and another writer of national listicles tells a sad story about the effects they can have. In May of 2017, Thrillist’s Kevin Alexander published a list of the 100 best burgers in America, including Johnny’s Grill (defunct), Owen & Engine, Au Cheval and Mott Street from Chicago. Number one went to Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon: “What I had at 11am amongst those construction workers and old-school pennants was otherworldly. The sesame bun was griddled perfectly, preventing the somewhat messy burger from leaking through and getting soggy. The ground chuck had a good crisp edge, and the grilled onions, which must sit marinating in something, melded with the American cheese for that perfect diner burger mix.”

Five months later, Stanich’s buckled under the pressure of hipsters lining up at 10 am for a blue collar guy’s cheap burger, and closed. Steve Stanich’s account, as Alexander relates it, is that his restaurant went to 2017 Foodie Hell: “As the lines started to build up, his employees—who were mainly family members—got stressed out, and the stress would cause them to not be as friendly as they should be… Dishes weren’t cleared quickly, and these new people weren’t having the proper Stanich’s experience, and Steve would spend his entire day going around apologizing and trying to fix things. They might pay him lip service to his face, but they were never coming back so they had no problem going on Yelp or Facebook and denouncing the restaurant and saying that the burgers were bad.”

The piece has a lot of good insight about what can happen when the full magnifying power of the internet can get focused on one little point; read it all. Surprisingly, a number of people expressed doubts that one Thrillist list could have that much impact (even though Mott Street, at #7, got a whole second restaurant, Mini Mott, out of the hype that followed Alexander’s best-in-Chicago ranking). Burrito-bracketer Nate Silver tweeted “I’m not sure I buy the premise that being named the best burger in America in 2017 is what killed this restaurant… the pre-2017 reviews describe exactly the same problems (slow and surly service, dirty) that the author is worried was caused by the restaurant’s newfound popularity.”

Which is seriously oblivious to the dynamic whereby food writer writes about a sketchy place, finding poetic charms in its spotty professionalism and just-holding-it-together-ness, and then draws crowds ready to pick it apart for those exact “charms.” Nick Kokonas piped up to agree: “I own a restaurant that’s been named #1 on a few lists. It’s helpful. In this case, poor management and unnamed personal problems killed it.” As if there’s no difference—in resources, goals, or anything else—between a restaurant built for international tourists just off a plane, and a family business dishing up burgers for working guys.

The best observation why attention killed this place and not others was Titus Ruscitti’s: “Moral of the story? Don’t name so and so the best there is in any hipster flooded cities. I guarantee that if he named some random bar in Wisconsin it would’ve been different… I go to spots like Stanich’s all the time and many of them are still around bc of articles showcasing them to both visitors and locals. So for every Stanich’s there’s a Wilensky’s or Wells Brothers,” which are, respectively, a Montreal dive sandwich shop and a Racine tavern cut pizza place.

As someone who has written his share of listicles, not to mention has a certain book with a number in the title coming out, I think the key is to construct these kinds of pieces in a way that doesn’t create a single place that everybody feels they need to check off—so you stand in line for five hours at Franklin while barbecue about as good a few blocks away pines for attention. Yes, my book has a place ranked number one, but it also has places all over town and is meant to live in your home or glove compartment for a year or more, encouraging you to explore the city as a whole over time—not just go to Monteverde and take your selfie with the cacio e whey pepe and be done.

For me the example that proves that stories like Alexander’s are real is Burt’s Place. I’ve told the story before but in short, Burt’s was running quietly and pleasantly toward retirement when attention from LTHForum sent it spiraling into fame. In their 70s, Burt and Sharon Katz got lots of attention and surely made more money, and they got to meet Anthony Bourdain; they also never had a quiet night with old friends at their restaurant again. It didn’t always seem like this newfound success had made them happier—and at the very least, we should be aware of the possible impacts we’ll have when we hype our “discoveries.” It’s almost always a good thing to bring them to other peoples’ attention… but how we do so can make a big difference to their real lives.

3. HELLO DARKNESS

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the dark side of the restaurant industry—”which has one of the highest rates of illicit drug use and alcoholism and a tradition of masking mental health struggles.” Among the industry figures they talk to is Charles Ford of S.K.Y., who says that Anthony Bourdain’s suicide led him to be more open about his own struggles.

4. CHIK’N IN A LISTIK’L

If you follow Nick Kindelsperger on Instagram, you know that the number of chicken sandwiches he’s eaten in the last few weeks is… alarming. At last the results of this research have been released to the world, in two parts so far, one devoted to the best and worst fast food fried chicken sandwiches, most of them, honestly, places where it wouldn’t occur to me to order chicken (Burger King, Arby’s), and a more interesting one of restaurants doing fairly upscale versions. (I wholeheartedly endorse the fried chicken sandwich as being the thing to get at erstwhile burger joint Lucy’s.)

The winner, as was widely shared on social media, was Roister, whose elaborate process Kindelsperger describes in minute detail—”To make sure the breading sticks, staff members use their hands to work the mixture into all the nooks and crannies of the meat. The frying process requires constant attention, as chefs drizzle more of the batter over the chicken, which creates the crisp crust.” Now we get to see if Nick Kokonas is readier for the spotlight of an internet #1 ranking than Stanich’s was.

5. SUD BY SUDWEST

Phil Vettel likes neighborhoody French at Le Sud in Roscoe Village, not least for the way Chef Ryan Brousseau tinkers with tradition: “While Brosseau offers escargots, they arrive skewered, rather than in the typical divided baking dish that I loathe. (Eating those superheated, weaponized snails is like playing Russian roulette with your tongue.) The escargots pick up a whiff of smoke from the wood grill, herbed garlic butter provides the accents one expects, and a petite salad adds peppery notes and lean flavors. Brosseau also takes a slightly novel approach to seared octopus, matching the tender pieces to silky pommes puree and an assertive bordelaise sauce fortified with bone marrow; the dish gets richer the farther down you dig.” (Tribune)

6. #1 NOODLE SHOP

I’ve had a Xi’an sandwich at one of the newer spots in the Richland Center mall food court in Chinatown, though I think it was longer ago than the one month that Mike Sula says Shan Shaan Taste has been around—entirely possible in this constantly changing incubator for immigrant food businesses. Anyway, Sula explains that the Xi’an delicacy that you really want there is the liangpi noodles: “Richard Zhou is a 53-year-old veteran chef who has worked all over the city cooking all kinds of foods in all kinds of kitchens, from the Peninsula to Old Town’s Kamahachi to Evanston’s Koi… [he’s] a specialist in liangpi, and he’s been making them since he was a boy in his hometown, Taiyuan, where he sold them on the street.”

7. CARNITAS INSTANT BREAKFAST

“For almost six years my own hyperopia led me to believe that consistently excellent carnitas were unavailable north of 18th Street,” says Mike Sula, and it’s a reasonable supposition—the stars of carnitas are pretty much along that street, with a less heralded bunch on Archer. But he followed some tips to Carnitas La Esquinata near Kimball and Irving, where chef Oscar Hernandez makes porky carnitas before his night job at, of all places, halal Khan BBQ: “Hernandez starts the pork low and slow in the lard, according to the accepted method, gradually increasing the temperature to achieve exterior crispiness… When an order comes in, he chops it up on the flattop, achieving an ideal matrix of tender shoulder and chewy skin, a perfect balance of the fatty, meaty, and crispy. Cilantro, raw chopped onion, and a squirt of lime are all that’s needed to check the exquisite richness.”

8. PRINCI OF DARKROAST

Princi, Starbucks’ Italian bakery spinoff, wows Crain’s with its artisanal baked goods and hip vibe (it started in Italy): “Princi (‘princhy’) is cafeteria-ish but with no big trays and no line to shuffle along. It’s a ‘visual menu,’ you’ll be told by staffers behind the cases in which the edibles are alluringly arrayed, and it changes often. At lunchtime, diners gape as if in a lavishly art-directed dream, getting in touch with their desires. Up for pasta? Something sandwich-like? Sweet? Boozy? Caffeinated? The kicker is that the food is delicious, making meals here not just quick and casual enough for its youth-centric, increasingly techy neighborhood, but also indulgent.”

9. SWILLEGANT

Oh man, the opening to this Grace Wong piece reads differently after reading the Kevin Alexander piece: “When you walk into The Swill Inn, a sense of familiarity washes over you, the kind that you get when you see a friend or walk into an old-school Chicago bar. And in many ways, that’s what it aims to be — a place where regulars stop in for a couple of beers and a burger before heading home.”

And then it will make #1 on some f’ing listicle and be ruined!

Well, hopefully not, to judge by the sincere intentions of partner Dustin Drankiewicz and Chef Lamar Moore to open a place that isn’t a concept. Hmm, that burger looks good enough to Instagram….

10. NOODLE CITY

“I loved how you could walk into a 100 year old shop where they’re still making egg noodles by hand. Then you walk out and you’re engulfed by high rises housing department stores and such,” says Titus Ruscitti of Hong Kong, where he has many recommendations for noodles, wontons, kakigori and more.

11. LOBBY, PLEASE

After two years and two Michelin stars at Sixteen, then overseeing its transition to the less formal Terrace 16, Nick Dostal is leaving the Trump Tower for a new gig, to be announced. It was a real frying pan-into-the-fire gig for a young chef, which we chronicled here, and Dostal did superbly in it, so I’m excited to see whatever’s next. Though it’s hard to see where there’s an open position of comparable stature in this city. Yes it is hard to see what, for him, could be next!

12. ME TARZAN, YUGEN

I heard there was a practice night recently at Yugen and it’s set to open Tuesday; reservations are here on Open Table. Which means we’ll finally have a chance to see how high end diners react to a new restaurant in the Grace space, almost a year after the three-Michelin-star restaurant closed. To judge by social media comments, there’s definitely some residual feelings out there, and they will need high end diners—besides the $205 tasting menu, offerings in the less formal lounge will, we learned a couple of weeks ago, include a $100 A5 wagyu beef cutlet sandwich topped Italian Beef-style with giardiniera, making the late Regards to Edith’s Italian beef look cheap!

13. HIDEOUT ON PLAIN SITE

You know what else can kill a quirkily charming place, besides being #1 on a list? A great big developer with plans backed by an outgoing mayor, and that’s what the Hideout, which among countless other things hosted Soup & Bread, is facing; Ashok Selvam explains the belated effort to protect a little piece of the city’s soul here.

14. FALL OF GREEK

And to continue proving that most food stories these days are really real estate stories, Ari Bendersky takes a look in Crain’s at Chicago’s Greektown, in which the older restaurants—”Most Greektown restaurants serve the equivalent of red-sauce Italian—that is, traditional and predictable,” he notes—are seeing the writing on the wall about selling out in what is, after all, part of the hot West Loop. The pressure is obvious, even to those determined to stay: “[Gus Couchell] bought the building that houses Greek Islands and the adjacent empty lot for parking in 1976. He says he started getting offers, from $22 million to $32 million, to sell the building and lot four years ago. So why not sell? ‘We paid off the building and we do good business,’ says Couchell, 80, who runs the restaurant with his youngest daughter and son-in-law. ‘As long as I can move around, I’ll be here.'”

15. UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT

Ji Suk-Yi’s series The Grid looks at Uptown, with recommendations of where to start with the authentic foods on Argyle Street in particular. (Sun-Times)

16. EATER ISLAND

A rare actual paying (if only half-time) opening has popped up in local food media. Become a reporter for Eater Chicago here.

WHAT MIKE ATE

I went to a media preview of Bar Sotano, the new bar underneath Frontera (and as it happens, next door to one of the city’s other best-known basements, Three Dots and a Dash). It’s cozy, cleanly designed (more modernist than Mexican per se) and with a surprisingly extensive menu as well as cocktails modeled on Mexican flavors. I was totally with the cocktails, flavors like guava and prickly pear and lots of mescal, at least until the one that was modeled on the juice in the pickled vegetables at your table in many Mexican restaurants. The bigger surprise, though maybe it’s not so much from the guy who made you look forward to eating at O’Hare, is how satisfying the food is—yes, it mostly fits the category of bar snacks, but from a beautiful ceviche to a simple but ingenious plate of roasted vegetables with mole (you stick ’em with your fork and drag them through it), it’s one of the better Mexican meals in town and a great introduction to chef Bayless’ take on the cuisine.

One of the enduring mysteries of Chicago is where all the Hungarian food went; oddly, a little coffeeshop in an historic storefront on Irving suddenly stands as having the only outright Hungarian menu in town. That’s actually only a couple of dishes at Finom Coffee, but a warm, paprika-spicy bowl of lecsó hit the spot, and bone marrow toast (try to get that at your usual coffee spot) decorated with onion petals, flowers and grated lemon zest was luxury on a budget. There are some interesting things happening on the coffee and tea side, too, check it out.

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