Monday we had Chicago magazine naming the 20 Best New Restaurants, mostly fine dining with just a touch of the neighborhood joint end. Today we get the latest list of Great Neighborhood Restaurants from discussion site LTHForum, mostly neighborhood joints... with a touch of fine dining. Started in 2005, primarily as a way to call out the best little ethnic places around town (and direct users to this hot dog stand or Thai spot rather than that one), the list is the product of a typically raucous and contentious process carried on in public (unlike Chicago mag's deliberations, say) which is as interesting as the final list itself for what it says about food and foodies in 2012.
Where the list represented, in its early days, a fairly widely-shared consensus that LTHForum's purpose was to call attention away from well-publicized fine dining and toward the city's rich ethnic scene and most likable frozen-in-time spots, this year's debate showed that the LTH consensus has fractured along a couple of common foodie fault lines. The fine dining contingent at LTHForum has arguably become dominant in recent years with an influx of users who migrated from eGullet (and, as the final list suggests, the north shore). More fine dining places were nominated this year than ever before, including Next, Perennial Virant, Inovasi, and Yusho, as well as a number of more modest but certainly-more-upscale-than-a-hot-dog-stand spots such as Big Jones and Owen & Engine, reigniting the perennial debate on the site over whether there's any point to directing LTH's modest spotlight toward places that the whole world already knows perfectly well and are exhaustively covered in other media.
Another fault line was revealed by the nomination of Peoria Packing House, a meatpacker offering an undeniably colorful shopping experience, and which a few years ago was a common stop for barbecue-planning LTHers. Now, though, a Pollanesque artisanal meat contingent sees it as the retail end of all that's bad in industrial meat production, and even if they could tolerate eating its products at, say, a south side barbecue stand, proved resistant to honoring it for itself.
In the end, for all the debate the list shook out reasonably well along old school LTHForum lines, deciding that it didn't need to add to, say, Next's praise and ticketing frenzy, but that at least some of the more upscale places, including Inovasi and Big Jones, met the site's nebulous but you-know-it-when-you-see-it standards for chef engagement with honest, down-to-earth cooking. The bulk of the list, though, is humble spots which deserve attention for quality food made with care and love on budgets rising not that far above the shoestring. Taken as a guide to those, the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants/Resources remains the most comprehensive and reliable guide to the true diversity and range of Chicagoland cuisine of all types and ethnicities.
The new GNRs with their LTH-penned descriptions are:
The Bad Apple-- Top quality meat, glorious burgers, great beer selection, a knowledgeable and engaged staff.
Barnaby's of Northbrook-- Thin crust pizza served at the counter, with little charm (though they finally added windows). Whether you went there with your little league team, or just want to eat next to a little league team, this is your field of dreams.
Big Jones-- Southern cooking gone upscale, along with strong drink of the best sort. Engaged, inspired, and pushing the envelope within the vernacular.
The Butcher & Larder-- Rob’s second GNR is a great place to source top quality meat, and learn about it, too. If the trend continues, will the next place be a ranch?
La Chaparrita-- Taco heaven. The selection and quality of the fillings is without equal. We can argue all day about best this and best that, but this place is damned good.
Cho Jung [Glenview]-- Silky tofu in a strong, spicy broth is the star here - Korean health food, really. If only all healthy food could taste this good.
Floriole Cafe & Bakery-- Everything you want your neighborhood café and bakery to be. Perfect pastry meets delicious light meals in a beautiful space.
La France Cafe & Crepes [Lombard]-- An accomplished chef, serving sweet and savory crepes prepared with love and skill in a tiny, homey space.
Inovasi [Lake Bluff]-- A master chef offering a constantly changing menu of creative, and usually delicious dishes. Put yourself in his hands and he will take you on a fun ride.
Jimmy's Pizza Cafe-- Quality New York pizza, consistently good in a simple, comfortable place.
Lao Hunan-- One of the most exciting openings in recent years, as we see it. Bright, flavorful, impeccable dishes. Can they maintain the standard they set for themselves? We hope so.
Nha Hang-- Vietnamese food prepared with love, charm, and good ingredients. They can show why this is one of the healthiest, brightest and just plain wonderful cuisines in the world.
Owen & Engine-- Are you a sucker for a pub with great food? Yeah, we are, too.
Pleasant House Bakery-- The savory pies are the draw, in a simple, unassuming space. Okay, that and the fact that the technique, ingredients and taste of everything they serve is just about perfect.
Redhot Ranch-- The classic, almost naked dog shares center stage with great fries and fried shrimp. Nothing fancy here, except the food, and the tradition.
Rip's Tavern [Ladd, IL]-- Fried Chicken, French fries, fried mushrooms and a drink or two. Expect to wait unless you go at an off hour, but it is more than worth the wait.
Romanian Kosher Sausage Company-- Providing glorious meat for over 50 years. Not just about sausage, but great fresh meat as well.
Taqueria Los Gallos #2-- If you have eaten Carne en su Jugo, go check out one of the best versions you will find. If you have not tried it, prepare to enjoy.
Troha's Chicken & Shrimp House-- Another Chicago classic, masters of the deep fryer for over 50 years. Troha’s does it right.