Mike Sula, the Chicago Reader’s lead restaurant critic, has been passionate about food his entire life. In his career, he covers the city’s best restaurants and those that miss the mark, but in his off time, he experiments with cooking at his Albany Park home.
The winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2013 M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for his piece “Chicken of the Trees” — a longform work about eating city squirrels — shares about his love for Korean food, hatred of dill pickles and how he keeps his face a secret:
Q: Has food (and writing about it) always been a passion for you?
A: I wasn’t a dedicated food writer from the beginning, but I kind of always did it among the other stuff that I tackled. I’ve always loved to eat and cook, so I took it to work with me.
How did you develop your taste?
It’s a lot of practice. A lot of eating. Like anything: you read, study, research. You travel, learn by cooking, talking to chefs, producers, just by doing. Any kind of journalism, you become better at what you study and what you report on.
What are the top things you look for in a meal?
It depends on what the restaurant is and what it’s trying to accomplish. I’ll go to super high-end places as well as little mom-and-pops. You just have to evaluate them on different things. Obviously, the most important thing is the food itself. That’s the first thing. Just this week I wrote about a little mom-and-pop in Archer Heights, a Mexican place called Xocome Antojeria, that’s run by a mom and her son. With that, I’m not obsessing over whether they folded my napkin when I got up to go to the bathroom or not. The food is the most important thing.
How do you remain unrecognized when you go out?
I’m not as obsessive about keeping who I am a secret as I used to be, but obviously if I have to make a reservation, I use a fake name. I don’t have a lot of pictures of myself out there on Facebook or whatever, but the longer you do it, the less anonymity you have, and people start to recognize you. I don’t worry too much about it anymore, but I definitely don’t make it easy.
Is there a food you’ve never liked?
Laughs. I try to keep an open mind and I’ll eat anything that’s put in front of me, but I really do not like traditional pickles. When I was a little kid, one of my older siblings’ favorite snacks was jarred classic dill pickles wrapped in slices of American cheese. And they used to pin me down on my back and breathe in my face, which was known in our house as “pickle breath.” So ever since then, I can’t deal with pickles. They gross me out.
Where do you go when you’re eating out with family or friends?
It depends on the neighborhood. I live in Albany Park—I’ve lived here almost the entire time I’ve lived in Chicago—and there are great mom-and-pop restaurants that we go to all the time. The best place rotisserie chicken in the city is a place called D’Candela, not far from us. There’s great Caribbean food in Irving Park, the best carne asada tacos in Lincoln Square, the best Bahn Mi is on Lawrence Avenue. There’s a lot of variety here and it’s very unpretentious and accessible.
What do you make when you cook at home?
I’m going to spend three or four hours smoking a duck on Sunday, probably make some Korean short ribs tonight, normally stuff that produces a lot of leftovers. We also have a huge garden in the backyard, so I’ve been making sauce from my tomatoes, pesto, that kind of thing. Or, sometimes, it’s just salad.
How did you learn to cook?
I’ve just always done it since I was a kid. I don’t normally say this about my mom because I feel bad saying it, but she was not a great cook. She was a product of her time and ate a lot of canned food. I hated vegetables growing up because I didn’t realize what they tasted like fresh. I became fascinated with food as I got older and wanted to be able to make the things I was eating at restaurants.
How has being a critic changed your perception and relationship with food?
The Chicago food scene is like any other cultural phenomenon: There’s a lot of mediocrity out there. Very few things are truly excellent. There’s some burnout that you have to resist. Sometimes I just want a bowl of rice with a fried egg on top. You try not to get jaded, but it can make you cynical sometimes. But it’s hard to complain about going out to restaurants for a living. It’s probably the greatest job in journalism.