By Dana Joy Altman | HuffingtonPost.com
Longtime Chicago food writer Jennifer Olvera has written perhaps the most up-to-date and comprehensive guide to the Chicago food scene ever written. Entitled the Food Lovers Guide to Chicago, it’s a valuable resource for locals and visitors alike with its vast coverage of the city’s diverse culinary destinations. The mouth-watering content includes food trucks, festivals, butchers, ethnic markets, restaurants, distilleries, cooking classes, local food artisans and farmers and it fits as nicely on your book shelf as it will in your glove box.
I spoke with her recently about the making of the book and her own personal haunts in Chicago.
It’s interesting that a book this comprehensive on the Chicago food scene hasn’t really been done before. Or has it? Did you see this gaping hole and just decide to fill it?
I’ve covered dining and food for quite some time, and I found it surprising that nothing comprehensive was written, given what a food city this is. I wanted to embody the spirit of Chicago food as a whole, to cover destinations that both chefs and residents are passionate about. But I also wanted it to unearth the things I’d want to learn about if I was coming to Chicago for the first time.
How long have you been in Chicago? I know you’ve been writing about the Chicago food scene for a while now. How have you seen it change and what do you attribute those changes to?
I’m a native Chicagoan and grew up in the West Suburbs. I’ve seen the scene change a great deal over the years. A shared interest in food and dining, like sports, has become a common denominator. There was a time when dining out was a special occasion, grownup affair. Now, diners by the thousands, and across generations, are signing up for ticketed dining or queuing up for doughnuts simply because it’s hip. Food is more accessible, exciting and varied than ever.
Do you get a sense of any new food trends starting to take shape in Chicago? What do you see coming down the pike?
Heirloom produce and heritage breed meat is becoming more readily available. In kind, artisanal butcher shops and specialty stores are providing a personal, quality experience.
And local food is more accessible, thanks to forward-thinking farms, some of which offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Given some farms are producing year-round or growing three seasons of the year, you can get your hands on unusual, locally grown produce and humanely raised meat whatever the weather.
But I think more enthusiasts than ever are choosing to grown and can their own food. There’s something satisfying about being self-sufficient, of bringing food to fruition. Plenty of people are foraging for ingredients as well, including mushrooms in urban areas.
I love that local, seasonal and artisanal gets a lot of play in your book as do some pretty obscure specialty food markets and eateries that I have never heard of and I am a native Chicagoan! What were some of your favorite finds during this process? What really stood out for you personally?
Going to unfamiliar markets and eateries is exciting. Though it can be intimidating as well, there’s a thrill in the hunt.
Restaurant-wise, I’m especially fond of Taqueria Ricardo in the Hermosa neighborhood. You’d never know it’s tucked into a non-descript Mexican grocer and serves best-ever tacos al pastor. I also like seeking out noodles from Pasta Fresh and subs and homespun dishes from corner store Freddy’s Pizza in Cicero. Some things, like these, are completely worth a detour.
What stands out to me are unpretentious, honest places — spots that skip the fuss in favor of amazing flavors.
I also love the list of culinary instruction around the city…
Food, dining and cooking aren’t mutually exclusive — or at least they don’t have to be. It made sense to include places where readers could test skills — or begin building them.
There’s nothing more empowering than making a meal and seeing the pleasure it brings others. Unfortunately, those who don’t know their way around the kitchen tend to think cooking is hard. Really, once you have a foundation, it’s not hard at all. It becomes intuitive and can even be meditative.
I’m curious to know, when you travel, what sources do you consult to get your information to find the best local restaurants, food shops and experiences?
More often than not, it’s turning to locals that yields the best results. There are so many indigenous foods that never make it into guides. But those are the things I want to know about. When I arrive at a new place, I usually head straight for the public market or a roadside stand. Through personal experience, I’ve learned what’s most popular is rarely what’s best. More often, the most memorable recommendations come from vendors, shopkeepers and every day residents. Usually, they’re more than willing to divulge places they can’t live without, so I’ve learned to strike up a conversation or ask for advice.
That’s great advice, Jennifer. OK, so that begs the question: What are your own personal haunts for shopping and eating in Chicago?
It’s nothing fancy, but there’s a multi-cultural produce market down the street from me that prepares food in house. If I time things right, I can pick up ultra-lemony Greek potatoes, flaky spinach pies, best-ever refried beans and chile rellenos in one fell swoop, while they’re still piping hot.
I love going to Pho 777 on Argyle Street or Double Li in Chinatown for breakfast on the weekends. I also like to make my way to weird, old-timey places, like the original White Fence Farm.
As for shopping, I’m a big fan of Whole Grain Fresh Market in Westmont. I spent years developing recipes for a manga magazine. That involved a lot of trial and error and, sometimes, working with unfamiliar ingredients. I love wandering the aisles and even just looking at labels. Then, toying with new ingredients at home is the best.
So I understand the book is doing incredibly well on Amazon! Can you share the stats on that?
It’s been among the top five U.S. and Midwest travel new releases and in the top 50 cooking, food and wine new releases on Amazon.com since it came out, which is great.
I know the food scene changes so frequently, will you be doing an updated version of the Guide on any regular basis?
The plan is to do future editions every two years. In the meantime, there is so much relevant, timeless information inside.
This was a huge accomplishment, what’s next for you?
I’m just wrapping up my second book, Select Chicago for London-based Insight Guides. It’s a breezy read on the city’s little known and loved spots. Beyond that, I’m writing for the same outlets I have all along and am looking forward to culinary adventures here and abroad.
The Food Lovers Guide to Chicago can be purchased on Amazon.com and at many specialty food shops throughout Chicago.