Announcing the Class of 2016 GNRs

Onur Usmen (turkob)

Spring is in the air, which means it’s time again to award LTH Forum’s Great Neighborhood Restaurants. The Class of 2016 features 11 new restaurants that offer a range of culinary experiences that reflects LTH Forum’s broad tastes. The GNRs are a list unlike any other, highlighting classics like fried chicken alongside hand-pounded Thai curries and mouth-numbing Szechuan appetizers.

Isla Pilipina
Kare-Kare at Isla Pilipina, photo by Ron Kaplan
Introducing: The Class of 2016

The Class of 2016 introduces three new cuisines to the roster, a testament to the incredible variety of the dining options in Chicago. Badou is the first sub-Saharan African GNR serving Senegalese specialties like pastels, a chicken-stuffed pastry, and diby yaap, spicy grilled lamb. Xi’an Cuisine brings the cuisine of China’s Shaanxi Province to Chinatown, where their lamb soup with hand-pulled noodles and spicy lamb flatbreads have been exciting LTHers since they opened. The cuisine of the Philippines finally gets its due with two members of the Class of 2016, Isla Pilipina and Uncle Mike’s Place, offering very different takes on what is often called the soul food of Asia.

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Home Cookin’ 8: Seoul Food

 By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Editor’s Note: This is the 8th installment of Alan Lake’s Home Cookin’ series on home cooks–their stories and recipes. Read part one here for insight into what Home Cookin’ is all about.


Un Hee Han has worked around 70 hours a week for the last 40 years.  The land of opportunity has been a brutal mistress. Her version of the American dream plays out in the storefront of a small dry cleaner on Division Street from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

You do what you gotta to do.

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Welcome to the new LTH Forum

by Ron Kaplan (ronnie_suburban) and Matt Miller (milz50)

New LTH Logo

Welcome to the newly redesigned and updated LTH Forum. We’ve made changes to the way the website looks, and to how it works on the front end and behind the scenes. And if you’re reading this via your mobile device, hopefully you’re experiencing some increased usability and functionality.

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A Big Bowl of Wrong . . . or Right

by Jay Martini (jnm123)

Budae jjigae at San Soo Gap San

Sometimes, the solution to utilizing surplus food supplies happens organically, spearheaded by one person that simultaneously sees an overage, and a need. Someone like Ashley Stanley, who walked into the back room of a Boston supermarket one day and saw piles of onions, potatoes and eggplant on the floor. The produce wasn’t spoiled, but was ready to be thrown into the dumpster because it had spent its allotted time on the store shelves. Ashley asked if she could have it, and five years later she and her company, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, were donating almost a million pounds of produce a year to Boston-area food pantries and homeless shelters. But, on occasion, necessity and opportunity play a role, which is how the Korean comfort stew budae jjigae came to life.  A little background first, though…

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Assumptions Ground Up

by Katje Sabin (mamagotcha)

A Writer’s Education in Prejudice, Organic Gardening, and the True Meaning of Community 

Jeanne Nolan Photo courtesy of Susan Varick
Jeanne Nolan (Photo courtesy of Susan Varick)

I know this doesn’t reflect well on me, but . . . I did not want to like Jeanne Nolan.

Hmm, let me back up a little bit. . . .

About six months ago, I moved from my house with a yard to an apartment on the north side of Chicago. I was fortunate enough to land two blocks away from an organic community garden that had an open plot. It was mid-June, a little late to start a garden in the Midwest, but I managed to eke out some kale, a couple of jalapenos, and a few cherry tomatoes before Halloween arrived to close us down with the first sleet of the season.

Our 46-plot garden was undergoing some serious organizational upheaval among its members (a few of whom had been with the garden continuously since it opened in 1982). Through a flurry of emails, meetings, and phone calls, I accidentally found myself installed as the new garden coordinator, and was unceremoniously thrust into the bustling and burgeoning world of Chicago’s urban community gardening movement.

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Home Cookin’ 7: Cooking with Fire–Craig Brannan

By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Editor’s Note: This is the 7th installment of Alan Lake’s Home Cookin’ series on home cooks- their stories and recipes. Read part one here for insight into what Home Cookin’ is all about.

Craig Brannan
Craig Brannan

It’s not like being a smoke eater was a childhood dream. Craig Brannan joined the fire department when he was 25. Prior to that he quite happily owned a landscaping company. On a visit to L.A., he met a fireman. They got to talking and it sparked his inner flame. In that instant, Craig decided to pursue firefighting as a career . . . after all, he liked the movie Backdraft.

Nearly 20 years later, Craig drives Fire Engine #25 for the City of Evanston, where he’s a Fire Apparatus Operator and Paramedic. Besides driving, his job is to put wet stuff on hot stuff by sending water as requested (there’s 500 gallons on the truck) and if need be, hook up to the fire hydrant.

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Announcing the Class of 2015 GNRs

Onur Usmen (turkob)

The time has come once again to crown a new class of LTH Forum’s Great Neighborhood Restaurants and Resources (GNRs). The Class of 2015 reflects the diversity of the forum, featuring places across state lines, food from all over the globe, and restaurants old and new.

Analogue, photo by Nick Murway
Breaking Down The Results

The Class of 2015 is the tenth class of GNRs and the program remains as strong as when it began in 2005. At its core, the GNRs are about bringing together those who passionately ply their craft – be it mixing drinks, baking bread, grilling burgers, or curing meat – with those who tirelessly seek out the best culinary experiences Chicago has to offer. The LTH Forum community remains dedicated to finding great food and sharing their experiences so others can learn for themselves what we already know: Chicagoland is one hell of a great place to eat.

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An LTHer’s Guide To Cactus League Eats

By Dominic Armato (Dmnkly)


“Pitchers and Catchers Report” takes on a very different meaning when you move from Chicago to Phoenix. No longer a harbinger of less frigid weather, it is instead a reminder that hot summer is about to give way to very, very, very hot summer and soon we will all be on fire. But before we combust, there’s the glorious month of March, when the skies are a brilliant blue, Phoenix is the center of the baseball universe (sorry, Florida), and those in the restaurant business are never more content to be so exhausted. 

It’s been an unusually lively offseason for Chicago baseball fans, and the wisest among them will surely be visiting Phoenix for Spring Training, a time when their faith in their teams can’t be shaken by the pesky reality of the standings. Of course, we all know it’s the <REDACTED> fans who really have cause to be excited about the 2015 season, but hey, everybody’s gotta eat, right? So if you’re making the pilgrimage this year, here are some Phoenix restaurants that I’m always especially happy to share with visitors from back home.

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An Insider’s Perspective on Health Inspections

By Jared Leonard (rubbbqco)

Recently, a popular restaurant was closed by the Chicago Department of Public Health, and it got a lot of chatter on the interweb. As I read the comments, I thought I could clear up some misunderstandings about restaurant inspections, specifically failing one of them (and what it takes to get a green sign on the door). 

Failures and closures have become popular fodder for internet news outlets. Details of every inspection are shared publicly by the City of Chicago, and closures are a favorite of DNAInfo and Eater.

I am not going to take sides on this; that’s not the point of what I’m writing. I, as a restaurant owner, would simply like to fill in the blanks – and correct some misinformation that has been written and/or assumed. 

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Home Cookin’ 6: Ava George Stewart

By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)


There’s no lunch in the Carolinas – just dinner at mid-day and supper in the evening. And for breakfast this holiday season, a menu of shrimp and rice and vegetables mostly grown on a small outer island off the coast, along with stewed blue crabs, fried flounder, and oysters. Welcome to the holidays, Carolina style. In keeping with the season, a feast is in order. And for that, Ava George Stewart has got you covered.

Sporting an enormous smile you can feel and an infectious, vivacious laugh, Ava’s a criminal lawyer who got her Master Gardener’s certification while in and out of court defending bad guys all day long – seamlessly balancing hard science with true crime. She’s a multifaceted person with home cooking in her soul. Living in Chicago with a part of her heart in the South, Ava embodies the spirit of the holidays: sharing.

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An Introduction to Burmese Cuisine

Onur Usmen (turkob)

Yangon 1
Sule Pagoda, Yangon

Myanmar, a country rich in history and tradition, is located at the intersection of India, China, and Thailand. It is famous for its many beautiful pagodas and a unique cuisine that reflects its location, with influences from both the Far East and the Indian subcontinent.

It’s also considered one of the most diverse countries in Asia, in large part because its physical position between such powerful countries has encouraged border migration and culture mixing for over 2,000 years. This means that Burmese cuisine is varied and exciting – but so far, not as widespread here in the U.S. as it should be.

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Alternative Dining in Chicago

By Kim Campbell (Kimchic)

A handful of creative food venues, designed to throw us out of our comfort zone by highlighting the skill of enterprising new chefs, offering eclectic cuisines, or whisking up anticipation over a new restaurant, help make up the Chicago phenomenon that is alternative dining. 

Pop-up restaurants, supper clubs, underground dining, and Chaos Cooking are among the out-of-the ordinary culinary experiences available to the adventurous Chicago diner. Some of these concepts have been around for decades; some are being reinvented by new chefs to fit modern tastes. They’re doing this by using social media to build hype, by incorporating contemporary concepts (such as using organic and locally-sourced produce), and by adding new twists to older concepts like the potluck.

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Home Cookin’ 5: Cool Yiayia

by Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Synglitiki “Tita” Zervos comes to the United States in 1961 imagining she’ll live in the White House or a Hollywood mansion. From her tiny island of Kalymnos off the Southern coast of Greece (population 1,500), it seems possible. Based on American movies, her impression of the United States is all presidents and movie stars. Little does she know what lies ahead: a life full of cooking, family, and later – memories.

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Heaven and Earth in Xian: Persimmon Cakes and Terracotta Warriors

By Josephine Hyde (Josephine)


Like most visitors to Xian, China, my husband and I were drawn by the prospect of visiting the site of one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the 20th century: the Terracotta Army of China’s first emperor. What we did not foresee was the remarkable variety of street food that awaited us in Xian’s Hui Muslim quarter. How were we to know that, amid the banquet before us, a humble persimmon cake fried in oil would be the one souvenir we were determined to take home?

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In Defense of Deep Dish: Ending the Debate Over What Defines Pizza

By Daniel Zemans (MarlaCollins’Husband)

A bona-fide Chicago-style deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s


“They [Italians] would go to Chicago and they would kill themselves if they saw what was going on over there…It has nothing to do with pizza.” – Mario Batali

“It’s very tasty, but it’s not pizza.” – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

“Let me explain something: Deep dish pizza is not only not better than New York pizza, it’s not pizza. It’s a f***ing casserole!” – Jon Stewart (spoken while using a picture of a stuffed pizza not deep dish as a visual aid)

There’s not actually a serious debate in this country as to whether deep dish pizza counts as pizza. It’s been called pizza since its invention in 1943; it’s universally referred to as pizza and it shares a flavor profile with every other style of tomato sauce-topped pizza. That said, the dissent seems to be increasing. It could just be that New Yorkers are getting even more vocal; it could be part of the move away from traditional red-sauced Italian-American food to more “authentic” Italian options; it could be that more willfully ignorant food writers are craving attention; or it could just be that Jon Stewart really does have that much sway over public discourse. Whatever the reason, now seems like a good time to make clear that the argument that deep dish pizza is not pizza flies in the face of pizza history, linguistics, and common sense. That’s the nicest way I can say that the argument that deep dish pizza is a casserole is complete and utter bullsh*t.

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Craft Distilling 101 with North Shore Distillery

by Katje Sabin (mamagotcha)

Tucked in a cluster of small industrial buildings between a freeway and a field, amid loading docks and drainage ponds, is a tiny storefront with a half-barrel of herbs and cheerful little holiday lights in front. Just off I-94 in Lake County, about 28 miles north of O’Hare, you’ll find the tasting room and production facility of North Shore Distillery, Illinois’ very first post-Prohibition maker of hand-crafted spirits.

I climbed out of the car and listened to trucks downshifting in the distance, with a counterpoint of small birds happily celebrating the fact that they’ve just survived Chicago’s worst winter in recorded history. I walked across the asphalt under the weak spring sunshine, not sure what to expect: a rickety Rube Goldberg-style tangle of pipes and flasks? Big oak barrels and good ol’ boys in trucker caps and overalls? A brisk and businesslike sterile laboratory? I am clueless, but North Shore Distillery’s co-owner Sonja Kassebaum has kindly offered to educate me in the ways of small-batch distilling, and I’m reporting for my first (and only) day of class.

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Home Cookin’ 4: Ronnie Suburban and Steve Zaransky

By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Steve Zaransky, Alan Lake, and Ronnie Suburban

Happening upon LTH Forum was a game changer for me. After nearly two decades, I returned home to Chicago knowing the streets but not what was on them any longer. The city had changed quite a bit in my absence.

A mention of LTH in the Reader (probably by Mike Sula but I can’t remember) teased me with a cut-to-the-chase of like-minded people in all things culinary.  Every weekend for the first year I was back, my sister would show up at my apartment asking “Whattayagot? ” in an accent heard only around these parts. By that she meant, where would we be eating based on my newly gleaned knowledge from LTH discussions the preceding week?  We sampled Thai grocers and Pakistani BBQ, attended a few events, and in so doing met a lot of new people. People I never would have met left to my own devices. While I had old friends here that helped tip the scale to come back, now I have new friends too – many of which who’ve come via LTH.

In reading the forums, certain writing stood out. I found myself laughing and agreeing with some, and shaking my head and wondering with others. The first time I was able to put a face to a name was during the historic Fanny’s debacle of ’06. Having been weaned on Fanny’s, I went in with high expectations. I left feeling I’d experienced an abortion (a.k.a. the meal) without anesthetic. Misery loves company, though, and the company was excellent. That evening I met a couple of people who would become my friends. And then I met more. And more. So it’s safe to say that LTH had significant influence on me (as it has on many that are reading this).  This is but one reason many of us at LTH take this community so personally.

As if we own the damn thing.

But we don’t. Steve Zaransky, Ronnie Suburban and Dave Dickson do. So, I’d like to introduce you to two people (one I met that fateful evening, the other a short time later) that act as caretakers for LTHForum. Steve Zaransky and Ronnie Suburban. Since we’ve fressed so often together over the ensuing years, both in their homes and in the many restaurants found here on LTH, I thought they’d be naturals for this Home Cookin’ series.

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2014 Great Neighborhood Restaurants and Resources Have Been Chosen!

By Onur Usmen (turkob)

Maricos el Veneno
Mariscos El Veneno

I am thrilled to announce LTH Forum’s Great Neighborhood Restaurants and Resources (GNRs) Class of 2014.  This year’s class features unprecedented geographic diversity to go along with our regular diet of culinary diversity.

Presenting: 2014 GNRS

As we celebrate LTH Forum’s tenth anniversary (this is only the ninth class of GNRs, since there were no awards in 2010), the GNR program continues to represent all that makes the board so special. The spirit of the community leads us to restaurants and shops where we can interact directly with the people who dedicate themselves to producing great food as enthusiastically as we seek it out and post about it for all to enjoy. This year’s class embodies that spirit and continues to make the GNRs the best resource for anyone seeking great food in Chicagoland.

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The View from The Other Side: Chefs

 By Kari Lloyd (apopquizkid)

Photo "Chef flame" by JWolff-STL | CC BY 2.0
Photo “Chef flame” by JWolff-STL | CC BY 2.0

Back in my youth, approximately another lifetime ago, working in restaurants was one of the many ways I earned my keep. I did everything from dishwashing to waitressing and working on the line in the kitchen. I also cooked in my own restaurant just outside of London, sharing the stove with a fair few entertaining individuals. Once restaurants are in your blood, getting out can feel a little like a betrayal. Or detox.

Years later, though I now make my living as a laugh-in-the-face-of-death freelance writer, a healthy portion of my friends are still in the trade. A favored post-work activity for restaurant lifers is the post-work bitch session, where they’re all too willing to share, in hilarious detail, the day’s problems, customers and the little complaints that irk them on a daily basis. Despite my time in the restaurant game, most of the stories still frankly amaze me.

While the customer-facing branch of this army, the servers, get a lot of coverage regarding the bothersome properties of the great dining public, the chefs don’t. I began to wonder what diners do that might make a chef blind with rage  – or even just ever-so-slightly annoyed. Seeing as I’ve been out of the life for so long, I spoke to many chef pals and asked that question, and while everyone had their own stories and irritations, there were a few overriding themes that nearly all mentioned.

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Home Cookin’ Part 3: Robert Smyth


Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series by Alan Lake, all about home cooks, their stories and recipes. Read part one here for a description of what Home Cookin’ is all about.

Once upon a time in a restaurant in Palm Beach, a manager came back to the kitchen, saying to me, “You’ve got to meet this guy out there. What an ass, getting all bent out of shape over nothing. He reminds me of you.”

Our high-rolling two-top, consisting of a man and his wife, had ordered some vintage port (a Fonseca ’77) after their meal. In walking it over to pour it tableside, my manager friend inadvertently shook the bottle, which disturbed the sediment, thus serving them glasses filled with it. So the man busted her on it, and rightfully so. She came and got me to smooth things over, and he and I have been friends ever since. At the time, none of us knew that this is a guy that knows his sh*t – that’s lived high and low, through good and bad, all over the world.

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The Garden in Winter: Behind the Scenes at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden

by Katje Sabin (mamagotcha)


Late last year, I found myself walking across the lonely grounds of the Chicago Botanic Garden during the first snow of winter. Snowflakes were beginning to drift down and gently cover manicured beds of grass and dirt as I made my way over bridges and through arbors toward my goal: a 3.8-acre island in the northwest corner of the property known as the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden.


Having recently embarked upon my own urban gardening adventure, I had decided that it was time to draw from an outside, knowledgeable source, and the Garden’s food-related exhibits seemed to provide the inspiration I sought. I hoped to pick up some tips and techniques, and learn from the staff’s ability to grow and maintain edible plants. 

I arranged to meet a guide, who would show me around and help me get the most out of my visit.

And although the crisp air and swirling snowflakes made me wonder why I hadn’t just sensibly arranged a phone interview, I wasn’t totally alone. Hardy geese skated across the icy lagoon, and garden workers were busy arranging tiny colored lights on the great evergreen tree that had been erected at the end of the esplanade.

The Chicago Botanic Garden

2013 was the first year that the Chicago Botanic Garden saw one million visitors, although I didn’t see any of them that day. This sprawling site is composed of 385 acres on Lake Cook Road, just off the Edens Expressway in Glencoe. It has become a jewel among the metropolitan area’s many cultural resources. Owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, open to the public since 1972, and supported financially by 50,000 members (the largest membership of any public garden in the United States), it features 25 display gardens that focus on a wide range of themes. My personal favorites include the walled English garden, the stunning bonsai collection, and the three Malott Japanese Garden islands. But I wasn’t here for these.


Lisa Hilgenberg, the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden’s lead horticulturalist since 2010, met me near her office in the middle of the fruit and vegetable garden’s island. An energetic woman with short sandy hair, a strong handshake, and a quick smile, she waved me in. I pulled out one of my ears of Glass Gem corn, which I’d brought for her as a token of my gratitude. She immediately recognized it, and seemed delighted at the offering. Then she picked up a mottled pecan with a curled brown husk from her desk. “I found this on my walk this morning; here, you can take it with you,” she said to me.

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Home Cookin’ Part 2: Kristina Meyer (trixie-pea)

By Alan Lake (jazzfood)

trixie w-accoutraments
Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series by Alan Lake, all about home cooks, their stories and recipes. Read  part one here for a description of what Home Cookin’ is all about.

Alan Lake: Intro

When I think who in my life best represents the spirit I hope to encapsulate in this series, one name leaps to mind: trixie-pea, a.k.a. Kristina Meyer.

We’re connected, she and I, and think we both knew it the minute we met. Over the years I’ve been the recipient of numerous trixie-pea throw-downs. Not many people I know can pull off an elaborate Burmese picnic the way she recently did, putting together a spread of nearly a dozen dishes at a remote, outdoor location. And maybe none of those involved could tell how authentic it was, but one thing we did agree upon was just how effing fabulous it all tasted. Like everything she makes.

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Home Cookin’ Part I: Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)

Son of Lolita and author’s best friend, holding Lolita’s Lasagna

In my 30 years of being a chef, searching the world for the finest foods and collecting the most interesting recipes to inspire my craft and satiate my belly, I’ve discovered that many of my favorite meals have been in homes, not restaurants – inspired meals served from the heart, with food that resonates on many levels besides “delicious.”

Food often produces a response similar to sex: sensual pleasure. Food provides for basic human needs that can be shared without impropriety or (in most cases) guilt. In fact, these days the word orgy is more commonly associated with food than sex, as in food orgy – at least, among my circle of friends.

And we all have someone special in mind when we think of certain dishes or occasions. Along with my father, who was not a cook but a dedicated glutton, two others significantly shaped my culinary proclivities early on: Lazlo and Lolita.

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A Mad-Town Chowdown

By Titus Ruscitti (Da Beef)


There are as many good things about Chicago as there are residents here. As I was coming back from a trip to Texas recently, I realized that one of the things I liked so much was the fact you can drive two or three hours from the city limits and end up in another state. It’s not as quick as rolling up and down the east coast, but our central location allows for some great weekend escapes.

Check out Da Beef’s slideshow of all the great places he mentions in Madison – and a few more. Are you hungry yet?


Because I’m a food and drink aficionado, Madison, Wisc. is one of my favorite of these escapes. I might be a little bit biased, having spent my college days there jumping around enjoying the atmosphere of a school that’s often ranked near the top as far as happiness goes. I was just a Spotted Cow/Jäger Bomb/Jack and Coke kid back then. A lot has changed – but almost all of the good remains.

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More or less meatless: Or, how I became a flexitarian

By Erin Fagan (efa23)

image (8)
Grilled eggplant and sautéed kale with Lebanese garlic sauce
garnished with stuffed pattypan squash

Aside from my ardent declarations of love for bacon, I usually keep my eating habits private. I don’t run around telling people what I will and won’t eat as a matter of courtesy. If you invite me to dinner, I’ll eat just about anything you put in front of me. So when I finally do get to choose what I would like to eat and ask for a vegetarian meal, some of my associates are often puzzled. “When did you become a vegetarian?” is a common question I hear. I usually have to correct people. “I’m not a vegetarian; I’m a flexitarian.” Inevitably, this revelation is met by a puzzled expression. So I explain.

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Banchan: Learning to appreciate Korean side dishes

By Kristina Meyer (trixie-pea)

baechu kimchi [napa cabbage]
baechu kimchi, made with Napa cabbage

I am a Seoul-born American; I was adopted when I was a wee thing and came to Chicago before I was six months old. Raised in a white, Midwestern suburban family, my only exposure to Korean culture were annual Korean adoptee picnics and the occasional trip to the late Bando restaurant on Lawrence Avenue or Sam-Mee in Lakeview. My folks would order chap chae and fondly watch me eat bulgogi and kimchi like I was an exhibit. Genes, they’d say – that’s why she likes it.

These familial dining scenes are great memories and stand in such stark contrast to my adult experiences, now that ajummas (ladies of a certain age) at any Korean eatery greet me with “Annyeong haseo!” as I walk in. I either answer back and get a string of questions in a language I don’t understand, or feel guilty for not being more Korean and fight the urge to explain why. Sorry, Korea! No hard feelings, though – it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy my meal. Especially my banchan.

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