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Feature Fri Jan 11 2008

The Chicago Eater at Work

Developing a taste for the range of delicacies Chicago restaurants have to offer can take a long time, especially if your roots are in plain turkey sandwiches and chocolate Yoo-Hoo. Drive-Thru editors Meghan Murphy Gill and Robyn Nisi reflect on the culinary milestones that tried their palates.

Chicago turned me into a picky eater.

Ever since I transplanted myself out of a small college town in Virginia, my once up-for-anything palate has taken on a personality of its own. While it didn't morph from easy going to total snob it has become downright discerning, to a point that an impromptu Friday night out can easily transpire into a back and forth discussion, in which my talking points dominate, about what and where to eat.

My spouse, always the accommodating and patient one, will throw out suggestions, each to which I have an endless list of reasons for opting for something else, to which I have another list of reasons to do something different, and on and on. He mentions our neighborhood sushi place, and I'll comment on how the selection is decent, but it's overpriced for the quality. And so he mentions a smaller, cheaper favorite of ours, and I'm say that I'm iffy because while I love the tekka maki and miso soup, I think I have a taste for more variety, more punchy flavors. I'm not really even in the mood for sushi. His response is a list of places, rotely memorized, ranging from "American" to Lebanese, from Moroccan to Vietnamese, and for each restaurant he calls out, I have an analysis so detailed that it's any wonder why we can even eventually settle on anything.

I was never this picky growing up. I was always the adventurous eater in the family. I read cook books hoping they would transmit to me some semblance of culinary ability. I'd take on the most interesting recipes and attempt to prepare them for my family. Ninety-five percent of the time I would fail, "waste" my mother's ingredients, "ruin" pans or end up serving something most people would consider inedible. This eventually resulted in my banishment from the kitchen.

20080107FishTacosLA03It's not as if my family ever lived in culinary "hotspots." When the family would go out to dinner, I'd always find the most "exotic" items on the menu, which was usually a mediocre "jerk chicken" sandwich and fries with a some fancy dipping sauce. Mexican food was a family favorite, and since we lived in both California and Texas I was fortunate to have a somewhat authentic experience with this fare. Still, I recall scoffing at the idea of fish tacos and molé never even eked its way past the perimeters of my consciousness. Now, when I sit down to dinner at Mexican restaurant, I'm usually stuck trying to decide between the Tilapia tacos or the chicken in molé negro.

I blame Chicago for my demise. Until six years ago, I'd never enjoyed the quality or diversity of foods that an urban environment has to offer. Without any kind of regularity anyway. Before I arrived, I would have been giddy at the first suggestion of sushi, out of my mind with delight that within walking distance was a spot where I could trust that the fish was fresh.

I do realize that my palate's picky-ness is the result of the extraordinary fortune I have to reside in Chicago, and I'm full of gratitude. But the abundance of options is why I moved here in the first place. Because of them, I get to be discerning, at times snobby, about where I choose to eat.

-Meghan Murphy Gill


Before I moved to Chicago, I had never been much of a culinary adventurer. I think the first time I was ever scared to eat something was during a trip to see a college friend who took me out for Pho at a Vietnamese restaurant in Kansas City. I didn’t have the nerve to recommend the chicken place across the street for fear of looking like, well, a chicken. The menu was a little intimidating, so I just ordered what she ordered. The end result, a clear, nicely spiced soup, was rewarding. But I wasn’t entirely sold on expanding my eating horizons. To give you an idea of my tastes, it was difficult to become a McDonald’s fan after having loved Burger King for so many years, so the idea of going out for Korean food was just ludicrous. Ironically, my sensitivities to spice made me shy away from curries, peppers, and the other many ingredients that make food interesting.

When I moved to Chicago, it became obvious that I had some work to do. My first stop was to try Thai food at Tiparo's. Not wanting to look childish, I combed the menu for the most familiar thing I could eat. Nothing looked familiar. I panicked, and once again, ordered my friend’s dish (Pad Thai, the R.E.M. of Thai cuisine, the safest dish on the menu). Wow. With a side of peanut sauce, I would have licked my plate had we not been in public. I now think Thai food is the ultimate comfort fare. Screw meatloaf.

Trying Indian was a huge experience that required several pitchers of ice water and a visit to one of the many buffets that line Devon Avenue. I gingerly took small spoonfuls of the dal and paneer, making sure to load up on samosas and naan for diluting the spices of the hot dishes. It took me several trips back to Devon over the next several years to really get the hang of Indian, and I’m still adjusting but I love Indian food. I ate at India Garden a few weeks ago with friends and had a brief moment of panic when I realized there wasn’t a dinner buffet. I stared at the menu, wondering what it would be like to only eat one entrée. I had a delicious chicken tikka masala dish that was the envy of the table.

Chicago has such a wide array of restaurants, and eating at the same three places all of the time obviously gets boring. Ten years ago, Culver’s got the lion’s share of my restaurant budget; now it’s Joy’s Noodle (I could send the entire waitstaff on vacation to Paris with the amount of dough I’ve spent there). When I travel now, I go for the rarities; the first thing that I did upon landing in San Francisco for the holidays was head to a nearby Filipino bakery for chicken empanadas and ube-filled pastries. The sweetly glazed buns with savory filling were the best thing I ate that week, and the dark purple ube (a purple yam) added a sugary, pound cake-like dimension to the pastry. I could not wait to get back to Chicago to find the best Filipino bakery in town, because I knew that there had to be many.

-Robyn Nisi

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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