Buzz List for October 17, 2022


I had a great getaway to a film festival in northern Italy—that’s my favorite local coffee shop above—and to deal with my guilt about doing anything other than working on the bazillion hours of audio I have recorded (and keep adding to) for my book, I took some chunks along, prepared to devote Italian tourism time to plugging away (but privately wondering if that would turn out to be like taking a couple of volumes of Proust to Orlando). Actually, it was good, and a different way of working—I’d take a couple of hours where the film didn’t interest me and either knock off a transcribed interview that was just going to add a few quotes to a section already mostly written, or I’d read through a section, ponder its problems, go to a film, and come back with a clearer idea of what I needed to cut and rearrange. It’s almost like… getting away gives you fresh perspective! Other writers should try it!

If you want to see food-related stuff from my trip, go to my Instagram here and look at the half dozen latest posts. Now back to the usual:


Everybody’s been telling the story of the new Cambodian restaurant Khmai Fine Dining, and now Nick Kindelsperger reviews it, but also focuses on the story behind it. First the review:

Khmai, the city’s second Cambodian restaurant, deserves acclaim for dishes as complex and mesmerizing as anything I’ve eaten all year.

And the story:

The family still bears the scars of leaving [Cambodia]. Sarom Sieng and her husband, Chrrom, lost two of their sons, who died while the family fled across the border to Thailand. “She was also pregnant with me while walking barefoot through the jungle,” Mona Sang said. “She was bit by a snake. She could hear shooting all around her.”

Read it all.


Meanwhile, in a week heavy on reviewing Asian food (total endorsement from this quarter), Louisa Chu visits Habraéa Thai restaurant in Forest Park doing very pretty food and desserts. Let’s summarize with a familiar dish often not done so well, Khao Soi:

The khao soi, steamed egg noodles in a complex spicy coconut curry soup topped with crispy egg noodles, showcases a bowl as thoughtfully composed by the chef as Japanese ramen, or a centerpiece cake.

“In Thailand, you will find a side dish on the table,” [co-owner Jumpol] Prasitporn said. “But you should have it with the vegetables. You should smell the onion.”

And you should feel the texture of the green mustard pickle, added the chef.


One of the places I miss most among not-so-recent closings was the Ramova Grill, perhaps the last surviving old school chili parlor in the city when it closed in 2012. Not that it was stellar—though their smash burger was pretty good—but it conjured up an era (the 20s and 30s), for sure. It was, at the time, the only part of the Ramova complex in Bridgeport that was still functioning as a business, but the building, anchored by a movie theater in a similar style to the Music Box, is coming back as a performing arts and dining hub for the neighborhood. David Hammond—who was nonplussed by Ramova chili on the Chowhound 24-Hour-a-Thon two decades ago—has an evocative look at why the new Ramova will be important for Bridgeport:

With the advent of streaming services and the economic blows suffered by movie theaters during the pandemic shutdown, it’s hard to remember just how important cinemas were to a community. Throughout much of the past century, movie theaters were cultural institutions that contributed greatly to the personality of a neighborhood, drawing residents from surrounding communities and providing a focus for local nightlife.

Much like the Music Box, its smaller sister on the North Side of Chicago, the Ramova Theater reflects the influence of both Atmospheric and Spanish Revival styles of architecture. Unlike the boxier design of contemporary cineplexes, the Atmospheric style was typically less symmetrical and much more fantasy-forward. The interiors of the Ramova Theater and the Music Box (both designed by Meyer O. Nathan and opening in 1929) resembled a Spanish courtyard, with faux marble embellishments and a twinkling starry night sky simulated on the ceiling. Theaters in those days were designed to take you to another place, with both the films they showed and via the buildings themselves, grand palaces for the common man. You may have worked punch-press all week long, but when you went to the movies on Saturday night, uniformed attendants waited upon you in rooms with golden chandeliers, and you sat in air-conditioned comfort, feeling like nobility.


Nick Kindelsperger sees danger for regional styles of barbecue—like our own south side African-American style—in the rise (nationwide) of Texas-style barbecue, widely seen on TV:

While it’s exciting to see people so passionate about smoked meat entering the game, I wondered what would happen to the barbecue scene already in Chicago, which is mostly Black-owned. Will the regionality of barbecue disappear as Central Texas style becomes popular all over the country?

I think this trend is true nationally, and they’re probably already serving brisket (a Texas thang) in Memphis (pure pork country). That said, I think Chicago south side barbecue is at a relatively low risk, simply because it doesn’t draw white food-TV-watchers from the suburbs in the first place. Kindelsperger actually points to evidence for my point at Honey 1:

A few owners said business has actually improved. After leaving Bucktown, Honey 1 BBQ found an enthusiastic home in Bronzeville, and the support continued even during the past two years. “I did fine during the pandemic,” [owner Robert] Adams said. “It’s been a little slow since Labor Day, but other than that we are good.”

On the other hand, some bad BBQ news: Uncle J’s BBQ on 47th, a descendant of Mack Sevier’s Uncle John’s, which I took Daniel Vaughn to some years ago, has closed. Nick has a story (though few additional details yet) here.


I knew that John Kessler hadn’t really had a top-drawer Italian beef since he moved here, and I knew Mario’s was closing shortly for the season, so I suggested we meet at Al’s on Taylor for the one-two combo of Italian beef and Italian lemonade. He commented on it online and of course people ripped into him as a know-nothing out of towner—the internet, as usual dipped with extra hot peppers! So he went on his own to Johnnie’s and then wrote about Italian beef, and more than that, about approaching local specialties as an outsider, for his old paper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

As an outsider, you come into the discussion with a palate formed elsewhere, so smothered chicken and overcooked vegetables remind you of a junior high cafeteria, not your grandmother’s table. Nostalgia is a powerful seasoning. When you write with your own preferences and discernment about the dishes in front of you, the locals just might question your credentials.

(Guess who had an archive of beef photos to provide for the piece.)

Kessler also talked with David Manilow on his podcast The Dining Table (starts about 13:00). It’s a fun conversation about many things, including his recent Alinea review.


Anthony Todd tells more about the way Joe Frillman’s Daisies is expanding from a pasta restaurant to a market and CSA, among other things:

Why open a grocery store? Lots of reasons. First, the demand is clear — neighbors show up multiple times a week now, instead of just once in a while for dinner. Second, it gives him the ability to give his staff new experiences and opportunities. “Our staff did everything; they stocked shelves, worked checkout, it wasn’t just being a cook anymore,” explains Frillman. “That opened up a lot of options; people got to dabble in things they don’t normally get to do.”


Titus Ruscitti has a roundup of things he’s eaten in St. Louis lately:

I recently named STL fourth best food city in the Midwest but after this trip you could place it as high as two and wouldn’t get an argument from me. One thing is for sure, it’s an underrated food city. Actually it’s underrated as a whole with it’s collection of city parks, museums and charming neighborhoods like The Hill and Soulard, the former an Italian enclave and the latter where Anheuser-Busch is headquartered. It’s a big city with small town charm. A mix of urban + suburban. I always enjoy visiting the Gateway to the West or is it the Backdoor to the East?

He also visits an old-school European restaurant, Mack’s Golden Pheasant (you’ve probably seen the sign on North Avenue in Elmhurst); Kababish Grill, a Pakistani place in Old Town; and Monster Ramen in Logan Square.


Steve Dolinsky checks out the pastries at the new Mindy’s:

With decades under her belt as a pastry chef, [Mindy Segal]’s going back to her roots in some respects with her namesake bakery in Bucktown, but she’s also whipping up some impressive new creations.

“So I started out in this career as a baker, and I worked on my craft for 35 years,” she told NBC 5’s Food Guy Steve Dolinsky. “We collectively came together, and we worked on our craft for three years. It was very much a team effort.”

He also visits Michigan’s Harbor Country to check out what’s new in an area for Chicago getaway weekends, including Houndstooth, which has been mentioned before here:

A half hour north in Benton Harbor, James Galbraith just opened Anemel, an ode to Mexican tortas and tacos. A block away, he and his sister, Cheyenne, opened Houndstooth three years ago, and the food is as good as anywhere in Chicago.

“We focus on doing global flavors, that way we’re not pigeonholed into any single flavor or single culture,” said Galbraith.

And he goes to Daisy’s Po’Boy and Tavern, from Erick Williams.


Grimod returns to Rose Mary to consider the chef’s counter experience, which, strikingly, is so committed to actual seasonality that it will end this month until next spring. But I particularly liked this picture of how influencing works:

…the restaurant proved impossible to get into for many months after opening. That tends to upset people who derive social status from being seen at the hottest venues at the most opportune time. Rose Mary, apart from conducting a standard “friends and family” rehearsal, did not—as far as you know—kiss the rings of the influencer class so that they may get there first and coronate it. The city’s social media “elite” was forced to scrum for a seat at the bar or book a table 60 days in advance like everybody else. By the time these ghouls arrived—a day late and a dollar short—their self-importance predisposed them to negativity. Their only winning move, so late in the game, was to go against the hype: ordering a couple dishes to nitpick and gleefully declaring they would never return.


At Food & Wine, Friend of Fooditor Stacey Ballis stands up for American cheese:

Pre-pandemic, this might be the moment where I’d launch into a long, florid mea culpa about my equal passion for many other cheeses of a more impeccable provenance. The buttery French triple crémes and nutty Comtés, or strong crumbly clothbound English cheddar. The King of Cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano, creamy Vermont chevre, Dutch Gouda so old it has almost turned to caramel flecked with crunchy crystalline salts. This would have been less about my feeling personally sheepish about my tastes and more to attempt to offset the guaranteed backlash from the snarky “foodie” masses and self-proclaimed curd nerds who seem always at the ready to disdain any cheese that doesn’t fit their Platonic artisanal ideal. But frankly, no such qualifying statements are warranted. I don’t have to prove my cheese cred to anyone. And I will therefore say without hesitation that if the hypothetical people in charge of such things were to make me choose one cheese only to have for the rest of my natural life, American wins hands down.


Speaking of Bridgeport, the Trib talks to Won Kim about Kimski taking a break through the rest of the year and serving as a pop-up venue for a few different concepts—as it did for Thattu a few years ago.


Apparently lowbrow American cheese doesn’t need a supporter at the Tribune, which has now run two pieces about the Happy Meals for (technically) Adults at McDonald’s. What are they turning into, The Takeout? If you must read one, read Christopher Borrelli’s, which aims for funny:

If you’re planning to buy one of these adult Happy Meals, I promise you will feel shame. You will be embarrassed, however briefly. Once you could order a Happy Meal on the assumption the person taking your order would figure that you were bringing it to a child. But to ask for “one of those adult Happy Meals” as an adult feels akin to requesting a price check on adult diapers.


Someone called it National Taco Day—as if every day wasn’t a Taco Day; it’s time to end the hegemony of Taco Tuesday—and Nick Kindelsperger mentions that by way of listicizing his 6 Best New Chicago Tacos.


David Hammond on Fritzi’s, a new deli in Oak Park aimed at evoking old delis:

One of [owner Paul] Stern’s models for a deli filled with conversation is one of Chicago’s oldest and most iconic delicatessens. “Like you go into Manny’s now,” says Stern, “and you don’t hear music. You just hear the buzz of voices, whether it’s Gino behind the counter (who has been there for like thirty-five years) or people sitting at tables. And that conversational buzz is particularly important. I would say that a lot of that comes from Jewish family life. Conversation at the table was paramount. A lot of that talk comes from the style of religion. There was debate, right? Everything is up for debate. The religion itself is conversational.”


Part of my point in the great Tiki Bar fight I had with another food writer late last year was that we were coming unglued about something that had peaked culturally in 1964 and was a very, very minor niche part of the food and beverage market today. Well, maybe so, but new Tiki spots keep opening, as the Tribune points out in a piece redundantly headlined “Tiki-inspired Clever Coyote to debut in The Robey, serving up a side of nostalgia.” As opposed to all the futuristic techno-Tiki bars we have today, I guess, but then it actually contains this sentence:

Michael Choi, beverage director at the Clever Coyote, crafted cocktails that nod to the Tiki bar trend, which began to flourish in the 1990s.

The 1990s? Trader Vic is turning in his bamboo coffin! Apparently the whole thing has an 80s-90s theme, which to me makes it as Tiki as Downton Abbey.


Amuzed talks with longtime Spiaggia somm Rachael Lowe, now upstairs at Levy Restaurants.

Chewing talks to famous chef Art Smith, whose new place is Reunion at Navy Pier.

And speaking of Harbor Country, The Dining Table also talked to Friend of Fooditor Abra Berens.


Having mainly eaten lately in Italy or at home, I only have a meal I didn’t actually attend to tell you about. I had to help my wife plan a dinner for 20, a certain budget (though decent sized), close to trains in the West Loop—and one vegan to accommodate. I don’t normally deal in this world so I really had to think, and consult listings, to find who even serves parties of that size. They wound up at Formento’s, which has multiple rooms for accommodating such groups, various menus for them (pick three appetizers, etc.) and would also bring the vegan a set vegan meal (needless to say, there’s a little peccorino or something on nearly everything on the menu normally). It was a big hit, tasty food, nice wines picked by the somm (my wife would have stared incomprehendingly at a wine list on her own), warm and friendly service. Everyone—including the vegan who did not feel like an afterthought—was full of praise for Susan’s husband, who knows all about Chicago restaurants, apparently.