Best of Chicago 2008: Food & Drink | Feature | Chicago Reader

Best of Chicago 2008: Food & Drink 

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FOOD & DRINK

Best Asian Grocery

Reader's Choice: Viet Hoa Plaza

Minuscule in comparison to the new Asian megastores cropping up in the burbs, this Argyle Street anchor is nevertheless well stocked with multinational Asian groceries and doesn't take a GPS to navigate. There are 15 types of fresh fish, lively blue crabs, head-on shrimp, and head-and-feet-on chickens, not to mention an in-house butcher with an array of nose-to-tail parts that would put a smile on the face of Fergus Henderson. You'll also find a wild-to-mild selection of greens, herbs, roots, and sprouts and refrigerated cases holding everything from fresh noodles to beef bile. A separate room is devoted to dry goods, Thai curry pastes, Vietnamese rice noodles, Chinese pickled vegetables, vinegars, sauces, and enough esoterica to make even experienced Asian cooks wish they had Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients in hand. a1051 W. Argyle, 773-334-1028. —Gary Wiviott

Readers' Choice: Chicago Food Corp

a 3333 N. Kimball, 773-478-5566.

Best European Grocery

Reader's Choice: A & G Fresh Market

There are great groceries for every ethnicity in town, but the closest thing to a European Union grocery in which every major immigrant group gets full representation is A & G Fresh Market, on Belmont just west of Central. The owners are Italian, but they have fresh breads from more Polish and Bosnian bakeries than you ever imagined there could be, cured meats in the styles of Italy and all parts of eastern Europe, produce that's three-quarters as nice-looking as Whole Foods' for a quarter of the price, and novelties like Polish candy. (It's also got tripe and other mainstays of a Mexican meat department.) The selection isn't completely comprehensive—I always end a pre-Thanksgiving run by marveling that none of their other customers seems to need fresh sage or thyme at that time of year—but it comes closer than any other ethnic grocery I know of, and the savings more than justify the trek to Portage Park. a5630 W. Belmont, 773-777-4480. —Mike Gebert

Readers' Choice: Treasure Island

a Multiple locations, tif.com.

Best Latin Grocery

Reader's Choice: Pete's Fresh Market

Though it doesn't scream Latin grocery, Pete's Fresh Market has inspired chef Dudley Nieto to ferry in Kendall College students on field trips introducing them to the incredible range of ingredients in traditional Mexican cuisine. Pete's has multiple locations and looks like any other corporate food barn, but what sets this particular outlet apart is the dazzling selection of raw materials: bags of fresh jalapeños and other chiles; several types of Mexican zucchini, chayote, and masa; and huge varieties of corn, beans, and tortillas. In the large butcher section you can buy typical American cuts as well as cuts done Mexican style, goat, and house-made carnitas. Though it may lack the mom-and-pop charm of some La Villita supermercados, Pete's is where I go when I need fail-safe certainty that one stop will net high-quality Mexican goods at a fair price. a2526 W. Cermak, 773-254-8400, petesfresh.com. —David Hammond

Readers' Choice: La Unica Food Mart

a 1515 W. Devon, 773-274-7788.

Best Middle Eastern Grocery

Reader's Choice: Sahar Meat Market

At Sahar you can get imported basics as well as more specialized Middle Eastern ingredients. The butcher case is heaped with meats, offal, bright red merguez sausage links, cheese, and olives. On the opposite wall you'll find frozen meats, halal ducks and chickens, soujouk and basterma sausages, and a refrigerated case for yogurt and labna and other dairy products. Between, towering shelves are packed with teas, nuts, and spices, including two wonderful things useful well beyond a strictly Mediterranean diet: sumac, a tangy powdered spice from that goes great on fried potatoes, and zataar, a green blend of sesame seeds, oregano, cumin, and other spices that brightens scrambled eggs. Don't want a whole jar of white pepper? Fresher spices are sold by weight at the butcher counter. a4829 N. Kedzie, 773-583-6098. —Mike Sula

Readers' Choice: Middle East Bakery & Grocery

a 1512 W. Foster, 773-561-2224.

Best Bakery

Reader's Choice: Pasticceria Natalina

I once read about a "sporting" event (it involved drinking beer and placing some form of rodent in your trousers) where the world record was a minute and 42 seconds—until some guy named Reg set a new record of three hours, only stopping when the witnesses got bored and went home. Pasticceria Natalina has a similar competition-ending effect: Natalie and Nick Zarzour's desserts are so delicate, so artful, so operatically ecstasy-inducing that we could just about close the category for good. Flaky tarts with clouds of custard and liquor-soaked amarena cherries imported from Emilia-Romagna, almond cookies giving off waves of fresh almond flavor with each bite, rich chocolate-orange cassata filled with imported sheep's milk ricotta, cream horns filled with a banana mousse that redeems that often insipid flavoring... every visit to their shop, like each new room in Willy Wonka's factory, reveals marvels scarcely dreamed of until they appeared in your hand. Is such magic expensive? Unquestionably, and yet in a city of $200 tasting menus, a $4.50 tartufi from Natalina may be the best deal on mind-blowing deliciousness in town. a5406 N. Clark, 773-989-0662, p-natalina.com. —Mike Gebert

Readers' Choice: Whole Foods

a Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com.

Best Butcher

Reader's Choice: Peoria Packing Butcher Shop

The floor of Peoria Packing has to be seen to be believed: A sea of spare ribs, a mountain of pork shoulder, three-foot racks of bone-on pork loin, and every other part of the pig but the squeal. Flocks of dismembered chickens, coils of freshly made sausage, and various cuts of goat, lamb, and beef are all temptingly displayed in a large cold room that recalls the wondrous meat lockers of the rural south. Long popular with barbecue aficionados, small restaurateurs, and south-siders, Peoria Packing also offers in-house custom butchering and whole carcasses at everyman prices. It's a mystery why it remains off the radar for most people north of Lake Street. a1300 W. Lake, 312-738-1800. —Gary Wiviott

Readers' Choice: Paulina Meat Market

a 3501 N. Lincoln, 773-248-6272, paulinameatmarket.com.

Best Cheese Selection

Reader's Choice: Marion Street Cheese Market

Marion Street Cheese Market stocks about 150 cheeses at any given time, and counter people focus loving care on the critical handling of this living food, speaking knowledgeably about the many variations on "milk's leap toward immortality." Just as important, they're eager to offer samples. Owner Erik Larson has worked to bring in a steady flow of the region's best from producers like Prairie Fruits Farm, Bleu Mont Dairy, and many more. The fromage is cut to order—precuts are verboten—ensuring that customers get these distinctive midwestern productions at their freshest. This summer the market will migrate kitty-corner from its current location into a spectacular new space that will offer an even larger selection of cheese as well as produce from local growers, plus breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are plans to transform the old space into a small butcher shop (something Oak Park hasn't had in a long time). a101 N. Marion, Oak Park, 708-848-2088, marionstreetcheesemarket.com. —David Hammond

Readers' Choice: Whole Foods

a Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com.

Best Farmers' Market

Reader's Choice: Green City Market

By some measure the best farmers' market in town is the one that's closest to your house—I mean, how many different kinds of kale do you need? But for sheer scope and diversity there's no contest. Now in its tenth year, the sustainably minded Green City Market in pastoral Lincoln Park goes way beyond fruits and veggies. More than 30 vendors hawk flowers, herbs, seedlings, pickles, preserves, bread, free-range meat and poultry, and artisanal cheese, not to mention pastries from Bleeding Heart Bakery and the market's famous made-to-order crepes. Be forewarned: Green City may be a victim of its own success. On opening weekend many stalls were cleaned out by 11 AM and the stroller mob clamoring for free samples at the Brunkow's cheese tent was kinda scary. aWed and Sat 7:30 AM-1:30 PM, 1750 N. Clark (Lincoln Park between Clark and Stockton), chicagogreencitymarket.org. —Martha Bayne

Readers' Choice: Green City Market

Best Fishmonger

Reader's Choice: Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop

The nose knows: a quality retail fish shop should have a light scent of the sea. And stepping into Dirk's is like taking a sunrise walk on a sandy beach with a firm-fleshed, red-gilled snapper in hand. Dirk Fucik has been mongering fish for 35 years, 5 under his own shingle, and in addition to an ocean's worth of pristinely fresh seafood he and his knowledgeable staff offer prepared items including sushi, house-smoked salmon, salads, spreads, and on-the-spot crab and lobster steaming. Cooking tips, seasonal suggestions, and general goodwill abound, and every summer Saturday from noon to 3 PM Fucik sets up a charcoal grill for an impromptu cooking class and free sample session. a2070 N. Clybourn, 773-404-3475, dirksfish.com. —Gary Wiviott

Readers' Choice: Whole Foods

a Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com.

Best Cooking Classes for Amateurs

Reader's Choice: The Chopping Block

Last year my boyfriend and I coincidentally gave each other the same thing for Valentine's Day: a gift certificate for a class at the Chopping Block. I'd long wanted to refine my crude chopping technique, and he was game for trading in his old steak saws for a proper chef's knife. So one Sunday morning we found ourselves standing around a long wooden workspace with about 15 other novices, nervously eyeing a host of gleaming implements. A chef and her assistant put us through our paces for a few hours, encouraging us to experiment with various knives, and while I can't say I've licked all my bad old habits, I did learn a handy trick for chopping an onion. The store offers a bunch of high-end cookware and cutlery, but we were never given the hard sell. In addition to teaching knife skills, the Chopping Block hosts a range of themed classes—handmade pasta, sushi, Spanish cuisine, girls' night, etc—some of which include wine tastings. a4747 N. Lincoln, 773-472-6700, or Merchandise Mart Plaza, suite 107, 312-644-6360, thechoppingblock.net, $40-$85. —Kate Schmidt

Readers' Choice: The Chopping Block

Best Food Writer

Reader's Choice: Adam Peltz

If I won a Pulitzer I still wouldn't feel half as sharp or funny as Adam Peltz, managing editor of the blog at chicago.menupages.com. Perhaps Chicago's first food-media critic (though he works from NYC), Peltz cracks me up daily, whether he's exposing restaurant shills, eviscerating the grammar and logic of the site's user reviews, or torturing poor Pat Bruno. And the kid's only 25 (come to think of it, I kind of hate him). You only have a few more weeks to enjoy his effortless genius, as he's leaving the glamorous world of food writing to pursue dual degrees in law and international relations. Guy thinks he's gonna save the world or something. ablogs.menupages.com/chicago. —Mike Sula

Readers' Choice: Mike Sula (aw, shucks)

Best Place to Buy Cookware

Reader's Choice: Northwestern Cutlery

Sure, other shops have fancy displays and the latest gizmos, but if you're of the school that believes all a cook really needs is a good knife and a few essential pots and pans, this is the place. Just ask the pros who converge here to get their knives sharpened. Inside, shiny new blades glitter in a long row of display cases: Henkels, Wusthof, Fornscher, Misono. Shelves and walls are crammed with professional grade zesters, sieves, ricers, chinoises, and whisks. There's also a selection of Le Creuset and All-Clad cookware at slightly less than you'd pay at Sur la Table and, for the truly dedicated, $14.95 copies of Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game. a810 W. Lake, 312-421-3666, northwesterncutlery.net. —Martha Bayne

Readers' Choice: Sur la Table

a 52 E. Walton, 312-337-0600, and 755 W. North, 312-787-5111, surlatable.com.

Best Street Food

Reader's Choice: Maxwell Street Market

Some vendors have found ways to evade local law enforcement or otherwise get around repressive codes regarding food carts, but for a certifiably legal selection of small-batch, hand-crafted street food, there's no finer venue than Canal Street, current home of the Maxwell Street Market. Over the years the legendary Cheat You Fair may have gone from largely Jewish to largely African-American, but in its current incarnation it's also a mecca for Mexican food. Oaxacan tamales—corn masa rectangles filled with pork and steamed in banana leaves—are exquisitely simple and satisfying. Styrofoam cups of meaty birria are flecked with rich fat and resonant with chile heat; churros pulled hot from the oil will forever put you off eating any but fresh ones. Munching tacos of red and green mole, you stand in the sun, sweating as you swallow, glad to be alive. aSun 7 AM-3 PM, Canal between Taylor and 14th. —David Hammond

Readers' Choice: Maxwell Street Market

Best Wine Selection

Reader's Choice: Cellar Rat Wine Shop

In business just this side of a year, Cellar Rat's pinned its identity on quality, not quantity, stocking a small but meticulously curated selection of distinctive bottles from small producers, including many committed to organic and sustainable viticulture. It's also the only shop in town that'll hand over your purchase slipped into a jaunty submarine sandwich sleeve. Owner Dean Schlabowske—guitarist for the Waco Brothers and Dollar Store—has years in the wine industry under his belt, most recently as the French wine buyer at Sam's. His cri de coeur: "Corporate wine still sucks!" a1811 W. North, 773-489-2728, cellarratchicago.com. —Martha Bayne

Readers' Choice: Whole Foods

a Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com.

Best Free Weekly Wine Tasting

Reader's Choice: Wine Discount Center

A lonely retail outpost on an industrial strip of Elston, the no-frills Wine Discount Center doesn't look like much from the outside. But inside, on any given Saturday between noon and 4 PM, you'll find at least a dozen-odd bottles uncorked and ready for the spittin'. WDC stocks a sometimes stupefying range of bottles from small-batch producers and big-name vintners alike, but the knowledgeable, accessible staffers not only know their stuff but have the skills to explain it to experts and newbies alike. The store also offers a monthly "First Look" tasting of 30-odd new bottles for $10, and one-offs, like a holiday champagne tasting—sign up for WDC's newsletter for details and tips on the month's hot picks. a1826 N. Elston, 773-489-3454, winediscountcenter.com. —Martha Bayne

Readers' Choice: Whole Foods

a Multiple locations, wholefoodsmarket.com.

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