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Restaurants & Bars 4

Best Chow 2002

Vital Information | Dec 22, 2002 01:08 AM

I am a slut for best of's, year-end reviews, compilations and such. I mean I ended up once buying Milwaukee Magazine's "Top Restaurant" list. That makes sense, no? So, it is time for me to produce my own end of the year report, the year in chow. I hope others will join me in listing and recalling their special moments.

- To be honest, I must start with the most important thing, for me, in eating this year, the blooming, blossoming and brimming chowhound "community". Anyone can gather a bunch of crazies and stay out all night wandering from place to place, it is not inconceivable that someone can convince Bronko, the mad Rumanian, to send a wayward med student to cook a feast on a Monday night, nor is that far-fetched that a mysterious and anonymous (well semi-anonymous), er obsessive (nutcake, savant, ruler in exile--we could call RST a lot of things) would arrange a glorious Kerala Out from the shadows, but what group of like minded folks can do this over and over and over and over again? From late night burgers with contempt to overpowering the Berghoff stand-up bar with jerk perfume. More often than not, my best eating moments were in the company of individuals met thru this site. I look forward to many, many more adventures in 2003.

- It is great to report that chowhound is a family experience too. While thinking this post up, I asked my kids what their favorite chow moment of the year was. Without thought or hesitation, they said the chowathon (which they participated for a short period). Why, I asked. Because we got to meet all the chowhounds, Sophia said. It was not just their 20 minutes out of 24 that they participated. Soaking wet and burying M. Peterson at the beach, chasing scooter, asking questions of alters, and, trying to destroy Hammond's trademark each Saturday morning, the kids got nearly as much out of chowhound as me. Sure, they pass on a lot of things that don't sound like Gene and Judes, but they will eat the occasional shrimp head, and they are never bothered in the least at the places mom and dad drag them.

- Nothing sums up the first two points better when one Saturday afternoon, we dropped into Taqueria Oaxcena because we were getting too grumpy to make it to our final destination. Inside, nearly finished with their meal, was the Zim family. Not only did we do some table arranging to get the kids out of our hair, we learned from Zim how good were the roasted jalepenos.

- In 2002, I came to appreciate Pakistani food as something distinct and special. For one hearty meal at Sabri Nehari on Devon, I got the chance to taste nearly the entire repertoire, or so it seems. I still wonder what the kitchen thought as they brought dish after dish after dish to our table. In the hands of Pakistani cooks, even brains could become worth eating as we all discovered at the waning moments of the chowathon. Finally, you see frequent laments for fish tacos in Chicago, but I and others know that they are right there, almost daily at Kabbish of Orleans.

- Mexican food, on the other hand, I have long appreciated. 2002, however, gave me a far deeper appreciation for Mexican food and also expanded greatly my knowledge of its regional variations. One Sunday we happened to drive by a place on a mostly industrial strip in Cicero. We saw it packed, leading us to try. La Quebrada remains our favorite Mexican place in Chicago, surely one of our favorite places in general. If I made it to Check Please 2002 perhaps a few others would know about it. For know it remains our little secret of perfect tortillas, chewy, yet flavorful cecina and impossible to read menu. Almost as good has been the Monterey style flour tortilla's at Polo, the fattening Michoacan specialties at Carnitas Paisa, the cheap tacos at Los Comales, the sandwiches and vulve la vida at Taqueria Oaxcena, the cemitas and taco's de Arabe at Taqueria Puebla, and pretty much everything every Sunday at Maxwell St.

- And of course, Thai. What's Thai without secret menu's and special dinners and hidden chili gardens. My favorite Thai discovery within all the great Thai discoveries this year, was the nam prik dishes, ingredients worked in a morter and smooshed and otherwise melded into explosions of flavor. At Lotus of Siam, it was barely anything more than pounded green chili's, served with pork rinds. At Thai Aree, it was the world's best baba ganoush, and at Yum Thai, it was entirely sweet and filled with tooth jarring bits of preserved crab. Three very special dishes in a realm of very special Thai dishes I was lucky enough to encounter this year. Believe me, there is not enough ways to thank Foodfirst for her work in translating the Yum Thai menu, and this year I enjoyed the best Thai food since visiting Thailand many years ago.

- The great under appreciated trend in 2002, in my view, was ice cream. We saw a bunch of great places open around town. From egg yolk saturated Bittersweet to SF imports to Filipino versions, we could eat a lot of good stuff this year. Chowhounders picked up on most of these happenings, but the greater media failed to see this "trend".

- Who knew Springfield, IL would be such an eating town? In a short stay, we managed to eat exceedingly well at an old fashioned drug store still with counter, the equally ancient Coney Island with its award winning pony shoes, on route 66 out of town for the original corn dog and better chili dogs and the most appropriately named establishment, Mel O Cream Donuts.

- The Oak Park Farmer's Markets - I find endless pleasure eating locally and eating seasonally and eating more than you could get at the supermarket or even Whole Foods. Asparagus seem more special when you know they will soon be gone, although the amount of asparagus Ms. VI made me eat this year almost ruined me of that product. Who wants one variety of apples when you could have an infinite variety each week. Just bring along enough family members to remember what you puchased. I tried to attend every week of the Oak Park Farmer's market and record the flux and flow of products over the season. When I could not do it, we got Hat Hammond's reports, a bit more individualist but just as fine in capturing the time. To this day, I have a hard time when seeing Hammond, not to picture him in sauce making mode, black fedora, gartered socks and the sound of Sinatra following him around. I love my market. The neighbors I see each week, the circle of bluegrass (I even met one of the pickers, decreasing greatly my hostility I had for them). The Avedon honey man, Connie the conner who sings the star spangled banner, headder the ex-baby sitter, and plenty of donuts each week, speak to MY farmer's market.

- I also learned to love another market, the Green City Farmer's Market - I am glad I had the chance on several occasions to visit this farmer's market. Without the community appeal of my farmer's market, it still excelled in its glorious food. From dueling organic beef vendors to five varieties of Italian greens; potatoes grown in vacant city lots to organic tomatoes grown on virgin Wisconsin plots, this weekly farmer's market gave us a bit of Alice Waters in our town. Everyone should visit this market at least once each year for all its specialness.

- I did not ruin any thanksgiving turkeys this year, but for Hannukah, I did learn that the salt cure needs to be rinsed off the salmon before hot smoking the things. Instead, I got lamb from my mom that dispelled her belief that it was her convection oven all these years (just a regular oven now). I got meals endless planned and studied and worked on well into the night by the Mistress of Spices that ALWAYS worked.

All in all, a great year in chow. I look forward to your reports.

VI

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