I promised there’d be a book review soon in Buzz List—new, very occasional feature!—and here it is at last, at the end of this week’s issue. In the meantime, I hope you read the epic piece on the unexpected origins of the Mexican market in East Dundee, which I’d been researching (aka eating tacos) for for weeks, and along the way saw the new ad for Fooditor’s Patreon, drawn by Sarah Becan, of Let’s Make Ramen! and The Adventures of Fat Rice fame. Now’s a great time to offer your support for independent food media, which doesn’t just follow in the steps of press releases and talk about the hottest downtown things, but digs deep into odd and fascinating corners of Chicagoland. Pledge now and you’ll get an autographed Fooditor 99 when it comes out in November, with a bonus recommendation or two.

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1. THREE FOR THE SHOW

Despite being so over as a restaurant city, Chicago did all right in the bit of hype that is Bon Appetit’s 50 nominees for its best new restaurant list, which will come out next week. Jeong and Kumiko/Kikko both seem obvious choices, Middlebrow Bungalow less obvious but exactly right (and not surprising given its similarities to Cellar Door Provisions, which Kramer wrote about not long ago as her favorite Chicago restaurant). The list, though, is not without controversy—it includes an Austin restaurant for which editor at large Andrew Knowlton is apparently a current consultant. (Check Friend of Fooditor Kenny Z’s contrarian take on that.)

Also in local spots with national honors: The Purple Pig won World’s Best Wine’s award for by the glass list. Ari Bendersky has more at Crain’s.

2. I WENT DOWN TO ST. CLAIR’S INFIRMARY

Whatever the nostalgia jones supper clubs activate in Messrs. Achatz and Kokonas, I felt like I finally understood that move when they announced a $735-a-ticket wine dinner at St. Clair Supper Club last week—now they have a place that can draw a well-heeled audience that doesn’t want to eat molecular whimsy with big red wines.

As Jeff Ruby says at Chicago, there’s no irony at play here: “My dad requests prime rib for his birthday dinner every year. I bet he’s never had anything as good as the St. Clair’s four cuts, which have all been briefly aged in Roister’s walk-in, then seasoned for a day or two and cooked medium rare. (Do not attempt to order yours well done. The kitchen simply will not do it.) The standout is the English cut, layers of pink and silky flesh that are every bit as decadent as the glorious cap of fat that rings them. The intensely brothy aftertaste is a whisper from the gods, the result of the chefs’ countless hours tinkering with the jus while they obsessed over finding the perfect umami flavor without oversalting. I’d say they found it.”

3. CHAMPALE SUPERKHANA

Michael Nagrant regrets to find Superkhana International a dud, even its most celebrated dish: “By now, you have likely heard about Superkhana’s $19 Hot Pocket, calzone stuffed with butter chicken. The presentation is glorious, a puffy naan-football so large, Tom Brady’s G.O.A.T.y hands would struggle to palm it. The contrast of crisp caramelized leopard spots and the cloud-like crumb are pretty damn awesome. But, slice the thing open, and the butter chicken inside that oozes out tastes like someone backed a dump truck of garam masala into some tomato sauce and forgot the salt.”

4. XOCOME TO THE FUTURE

Xocome Antojeria, which I wrote about last winter, won a spot on Chicago mag’s best new restaurants list in April and then basically went away due to family issues, came back early in the summer—and apparently, this is its week:

Miek Sula writes about it at the Reader: “The foundation of Xocome—a Mayan malapropism that alludes to “fresh fruit”—is masa. [Owner Berthe] Garcia picks up her fresh blue corn masa every other day from Chepe’s Tortillas in Cicero, her yellow masa daily from nearby El Popocatepetl Tortilleria. At 6 AM she’s steaming tamales formed from the yellow masa and thickening her chocolatey champurrado along with it, readying for the 8 AM breakfast rush. Both yellow and blue masa are deployed for the breakfast tacos. As vehicles for eggs and beans—or eggs and cactus, eggs and chorizo, eggs and salsa, or eggs and tomato, onions, and peppers—these extraordinary tortillas have a ghostly, griddled crispiness yielding to an equally delicate, almost cakelike softness that nearly renders the fillings irrelevant.”

And Steve Dolinsky took a look at ABC7: “It’s a little bit of Mexico City on the Southwest Side, where you can’t help but taste the passion behind a couple of family favorites.”

5. HAKUNA MERCADO

Not many probably think about Sabor Saveur in Wicker Park by now, it was where Takito Kitchen is, but Phil Vettel is happy to find its chef, Yanitzin Sanchez, in Glenview at a place called Mercado Cocina: “Sanchez’s food is true to her Mexican roots, but she incorporates French technique and European inspiration from time to time. (That was a signature of her food at Sabor Saveur.) Smoked octopus, for instance, is glazed with a chiles-and-tomato blend Sanchez dubs ‘Mexican BBQ,’ placed over a cannellini-bean and piquillo-pepper relish fragrant with truffle oil and epazote, and served alongside a Spanish romesco sauce. The slow-cooked, banana-leaf-wrapped lamb barbacoa takes inspiration from osso buco; the meat is a bone-in lamb shank, and it arrives in a pool of rich sauce with pickled onions and pistachio pesto, with handmade tortillas on the side. There are aspects of lobster bisque in the langoustinos, swimming in a two-toned, sweet and spicy mix of Oaxacan and Pueblan moles.” Two stars.

6. PORTO COULD BE FINO

Apparently some Lettuce restaurants have been unpleasant and terrified people, or else Graham Meyer is using super-dry irony in describing Pizzeria Portofino: “Here, the concept is pleasant food in a pleasant setting, so the food situates itself as the opposite of scary… Servers describe the style of the pizzas as a very thin, crisp crust, a description similar to South Side tavern-style thin crust. Unlike typical tavern-style pies, however, the crown at Portofino is puffy and blistered, like Neapolitan pizzas. On one of our visits, the center of the pizza was also soft like Neapolitan, making a foldable slice.”

7. GIVE PIZZA CHANCE

Also not terrifying: free pizza! Shannon Nico Shreibak reports on Eat Free Pizza, which stages, I guess you’d say pizza happenings via Instagram. Says co-founder Billy Federighi, “‘The dream was always to open up a bar and make pizzas there.’ During those seven years of research and development, the trio has been experimenting with various styles of tried-and-true round pies as well as a laminated on the outside, pillowy on the inside Sicilian-style crust, dialing in each component of the perfect pizza and making the most of local ingredients in the process. They began trying out prototypes on neighbors, but were soon hankering to try out their experiments on new appetites.”

8. FREESTYLIN’

Ji Suk Yi finds fries in Bronzeville—and not just fries: “At Friistyle, 5059 S. Prairie Ave., the fries are not side dishes, but full-scale meals topped with a hefty choice of protein, including seafood, lamb, beef and chicken wings. Vegetarians need not fret. There are also roasted seasonal vegetables, herbs and micro greens that can top off the fries.”

9. MEMELAS AND THE PAPAS

When Titus Ruscitti turned up with a post about a place called Antojos Poblanos El Carmen, I thought it was the place Mike Sula reviewed a few weeks back in Rogers Park. (That’s El Sabor Poblano.) This is in Maywood, and what he says will make you want to check it out pronto: “The menu item that let me know this place was the real deal is the Memela. At their most traditional these are griddled cakes made with masa and topped with different ingredients be it meats and or sauce… Then there’s the Puebla version of the Memela. Different from all others in that the corn masa is filled with refried beans before being cooked to a crisp on a comal. It’s then painted with your choice of red or green salsa and topped with whatever typical taco fillings you may want. That said you don’t need any meat as the crispy cooked masa holds some wonderfully fragrant black beans which when paired with the salsas and fresh queso makes for magic.”

10. IT’S SO HOOD

Missed this last week, but Mike Sula weighed in on DJ Khaled’s The Licking: “What jumps out most at the Licking aren’t the dinners but a few of the humble sides, like the collard greens, tart and bottomlessly flavored with smoked turkey, or candied yams, which dissolve into a creamy sweetness that practically disappears on the tongue. As a group we were less enthralled by warmed-over mac and cheese and dried-out rice and pigeon peas.”

11. DOES ANYBODY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?

Time Out Market, which we wrote about here, announced a bunch of new star names for the impressive lineup at its soon to be market, like Fat Rice, John Manion, Duck Inn Dogs and Funkenhausen, as Anthony Todd explains: “Each kitchen is separate and custom-built; Manion’s kitchen, for example, will reflect El Che’s all-wood-fired ethos and have a large wood grill.”

But as Ashok Selvam pointed out at Eater Chicago, “Whatever the selection process — as of now — African Americans are left out as Time Out’s lineup features zero black chefs. That’s problematic. Not only does it ignores a culture’s culinary contributions, but it also squanders an opportunity to hire a chef at a high-profile location.” It’s light on Mexican (Dos Urban Cantina), but better on Asian (Bill Kim’s concept, HaiSous and Fat Rice), with only two of those four having a head chef of that ethnicity. (All the food halls to date have basically ignored Mexican food and especially Mexican vendors; Rick Ortiz of Antique Taco, in Revival Food Hall, is the only one I can think of.) Time Out’s Didier Souillat’s response to Eater sounds a little tone deaf: “We hire by merit. If sometimes we don’t have enough female or ethnic Americans, it’s not because of us. Maybe they’re too busy.” [Corrected from email version.]

12. NOT MUCH FUN IN STALINGRAD

Speaking of large, mostly white halls, David Hammond goes out to the perfectly pleasant, somewhat plastic chain beer hall Hofbrauhaus in Rosemont and finds… historical associations.

13. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

This was a couple of weeks back at WBEZ, but it’s quite interesting: Erick Williams talking about his restaurant Virtue being an inspiration and role model for his young workers and the community, but at the same time, he doesn’t feel like he needs to stick tightly to a model of Southern and African cooking: “‘Why am I limiting myself to blackening spice?’ he says. ‘Some of the same spices that are in blackening spice are in [Egyptian] dukkah spice, and some of the same nuts that are in dukkah were on my table growing up. Chefs have a hard time cooking without adding their DNA. At this point in my life, I’m not going to use just red, yellow, and green if I’m doing a painting.’”

14. SIC TRANSIT TAURIA

A few weeks ago I mentioned Taurus Flavors, top example of the south side sweet steak sandwich, which had been selling out of a back door after its front door was smashed into by a car. Well, as Louisa Chu reports, the business was shut down and the whole building may be demolished; they hope to reopen or possibly go in another direction like a food truck, but it can’t be said to look good.

15. JOSE RALAT, YOU ARE A FRIEND OF TACOS

If you want to see a local food culture that has Texas-sized pride in itself, look to Texas Monthly, which made Daniel Vaughn its first BBQ editor in 2013 and has now appointed Jose R. Ralat, Taco Trail blogger, its first taco editor. It’s the kind of audacious, putting-a-stake-in-the-ground move that says you take tacos seriously as a subject and a cultural signifier—not just something to cover in between downtown expense account restaurants when there’s room. I’ve met both of them while they made trips to Chicago, just to make sure their knowledge of other markets was up to snuff, and their knowledge and sense of purpose in their field is admirable.

Not surprisingly, making a bold move like this got Texas Monthly national press attention, the likes of which Chicago media rarely sees, but the obvious thing for me to link to is this piece, in which Vaughn interviews Ralat about his new gig.

BOOK REVIEW: BURN THE ICE

Writing is about taking the largely random things that happen to humans and making stories out of them. There’s a natural tendency to regard what you know about as important and central to the story, and what you don’t know about as less so. So I’ve been to Restaurant X, I know the chef, Restaurant X is the most important restaurant in town. I have not been to Restaurant Y, so obviously it’s not important.

The book

The book

On that basis, I’m pretty sure Kevin Alexander, author of Burn the Ice, a new history of the American culinary revolution since the 80s or so, has not been to Chicago.

You can see this just by checking the index. Not in it: Chicago. Achatz, Grant. Trotter, Charlie. Bayless, Rick. Spiaggia. Boka Group. Hot Doug’s. The only signs you can find in the index that Chicago was not wiped out by the Yellowstone Supervolcano in 1979 are Izard, Stephanie (mentioned once in a list of chefs made famous on TV) and Obama, Barack and Michelle, one mention each. The Violet Hour is mentioned in passing because we’ve already met Toby Maloney, in the chapter on cocktails… in New York.

But it’s not just that Chicago isn’t mentioned. Alexander has a story to tell about American dining from which Chicago and other places are pointedly excluded. Right in the introduction (which also appeared in Medium) he lays out the historical arc of dining as he sees it. I quote the topic sentences of seven successive paragraphs on pages 5 to 8:

For generations, culinary creativity in the United States came out of two places, New York City and the Bay Area… The West Coast started developing its own style in 1971, thanks to Alice Waters, who opened Chez Panisse after a revelatory trip to France… In the early to mid-eighties, Los Angeles had a major culinary moment… New Orleans experienced a similar trajectory… Finally, Dallas (and really all of Texas) had its moment in the culinary sun in the late eighties and early nineties… Each time the trend had run its course or a particular chef left, the momentum receded, and the torch was sheepishly handed back to New York City and the Bay… But in 2006 this all changed, when Portland, Oregon jumped out of the culinary backwater and became the new face of American gastronomy.

The book is built on this historical arc and a conclusion drawn from it—spelled out in the subtitle: “The American Culinary Revolution And Its End.” His contention is that a great day for diners and chefs is over. The proof that it’s over is that it’s over in the only places that matter—New York, the Bay Area and Portland:

Many of the very factors that caused this era to explode are causing its downfall. Most of those independent, chef-owned, casual fine dining restaurants… have proven difficult to sustain… The 24/7 food media, which for so long published fawning profiles of mostly male, white, mercurial chefs and bartenders, has come to realize during the #MeToo movement’s awakening that male, white, mercurial chefs and bartenders are an imperfect, often highly troubling vessel for deification. The social media that brought exposure to creative ideas without traditional gatekeepers now overexposes trends at lightning speeds… The small-town feel of many of these neighborhoods has become an oversaturated marketplace controlled by hostile landlords.

Well… I’m not so sure it’s as fatal as Alexander claims. Because here in Chicago, there are signs of all of these things and yet the city cruises on at high speed. And more than that, I think it’s happening all over the country—there’s housemade charcuterie and beers brewed with spices and all kinds of crafty foodie stuff in towns all over America now.

Here’s my alternate theory about the restaurant world. Alexander has to confine innovation to those three places because they’re really the only places where you can make a solid case that it’s breaking down. New York and the Bay Area are high finance cities pricing normal people and modest restaurants out of their white-hot real estate markets; Portlandia is where all the excesses of drugs and tattoos and 50% food costs and extreme NIMBY attitudes happen, and restaurants regularly blow up from their own impracticality. That they’re the only trendy places that matter is confirmed by what Alexander snarks on as the New York Food Mafia—but nevertheless takes their word as sacrosanct, so that what they said mattered is all that did matter. (Southern barbecue, only becomes of note when it hits the New York Times, pp. 145-6.)

Ennh, I think the NYFM’s at least as much echo chamber as pulpit as far as the rest of the country is concerned. Portland is taken to be so important that the entire first chapter is devoted to a single chef there (two pages devoted to one of his tattoos! You think I’m kidding). Yet the food sounds kind of silly and exactly what we were having all over the place then (a foie gras profiterole, a British gastropub concept). Without the NYFM to tell us that this place was soooooo important, it sure wouldn’t seem like something to get all that excited about.

*  *  *

But that’s a review of the first few dozen pages at most. Having read the whole thing, which reads like a collection of magazine pieces about somewhat randomly chosen subjects (Tom Colicchio! Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond!), I suspect that the gloom and doom arc was imposed after the fact on a book that lacked a theme. Some of the pieces are good—the one on how Roy Choi started the Korean taco food truck thing is excellent, and multipart ones like the story about the couple who made Indian food trendy in San Francisco, or the saga of the fad for Nashville Hot Chicken ultimately screwing the black cooks that created it, eventually pay off by their later installments. Others are clip jobs where it’s obvious he didn’t interview much of anyone involved—like the MeToo section, which focuses on John Besh (not among the interviewees for the book he lists). Still, there are occasions where this Dos Passos-like panorama effectively conveys a sense of how the food world got busier, greedier and nuttier over the last couple of decades.

But other stories don’t seem like they ever needed hearing again once they moved off the main page of Eater. Did we really need to relive Holeman & Finch’s 24 burgers a night, waitlisted and served only at 10 pm, again, and does knowing the brands everyone wore make this story into Tom Wolfe-level sociological insight? Who cares about Twitter joke plagiarist The Fat Jew’s involvement in launching a rosé brand? If the point is to say how trivial food media had become making big news out of such stories, what does putting them in a hardcover book say?

I interviewed Tunde Wey once too, nice kid, but his Nigerian popup series bombed and he reinvented himself as a sort of performance artist on race, and his story really isn’t about food any more. Couldn’t we have had a story about someone bringing their culture to America whose popup was good and successful and led to an actual restaurant, that worked and really changed how people perceived something?

I can think of half a dozen like that in, oh, just to name one city, Chicago. But if you told a story about a place that succeeded and is still going—Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s story, say—then it wouldn’t be the end of the American culinary revolution, it would be a sign of its ongoing vitality. That there’s always another kid fresh out of culinary school ready to get out over his skis in a crazy restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood, and wow the world by working his ass off and becoming the next hot thing. If you can’t find it in New York or Portland any more, come check out Chicago—or any number of places in America in 2019.