A Q&A with James Beard Award-Winning Food Critic Mike Sula
When I arrived at Gaslight Coffee Roasters (2385 N Milwaukee Ave) in Logan Square for my meeting with Mike Sula, I realized I had no idea what he looked like. How do you spot a James Beard Award winner? Even in plain sight, at our agreed meeting table, he was inconspicuous. Maybe that’s part of what makes him good at his job.
Sula started at the Chicago Reader in 1995 as a freelance writer, but his reviews of “off-the-beaten-track mom-and-pop restaurants” and a healthy obsession with food helped propel him to the level of dedicated food writer. Today, he writes long-form food features as well as restaurant reviews, which, he admits, aren’t always as exciting. But whether the restaurant he’s covering is a celebrity chef’s new venture or just the standard fare, he’s still “trying to see what these places might reveal about our dining scene in Chicago and even at large.”
GROUPON: What’s your favorite feature you’ve ever written and your favorite restaurant you’ve been able to review?
MIKE SULA: I recently wrote a story—it was published last summer—about the viability of eating squirrels in the city. That got a lot of attention. That’s probably my favorite thing. But near the beginning, when I really started doing a lot more and starting concentrating on food writing, I went to every single Harold’s Chicken Shack in the city. I think it was something like 35. And I developed a very unscientific formula for evaluating because they’re all different. I also profiled the history of the company and that sort of thing, too. And that was a lot of fun. I like writing stories where I’m actually learning something or I’m actually participating a little bit more.
The second part of your question: that’s an impossible question to answer. But you’re asking which one was my favorite to review, to actually write about? It’s certainly fun to get to go to all the new restaurants that open in town, but it’s a little bit of a drag writing about them. It’s not as fun as feature writing. It’s just a little more straightforward; it’s not as creative. I had a lot of fun writing [about] the first three menus of Next (953 W Fulton Market) last year. Just because they’re very different, and those guys are always on top of their game.
G: So about the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award you won earlier this year for your piece “Chicken of the Trees.” I was wondering if you could speak a bit about what that process was like and what you feel it is about your approach to that feature that set you apart.
MS: I thought about writing that story for a really long time before I did it. It seemed crazy to me. I just didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think it was safe or viable. And it wasn’t until it just sort of percolated and brewed for a really long time, until I just got fed up, and I found this guy—he’s an expert in the urban squirrel. And I just flat-out asked him. I was a little bit nervous about asking him; I thought he’d think I was some sort of monster. But it turned out, no! He was really gung ho about the idea. I feel like he gave me the moral courage to actually do it. And then I didn’t look back from there.
The story was completed a year before we published it because there were—I don’t know how much I can talk about this, but—some legal issues that had to be resolved. I couldn’t exactly say where and how I procured the squirrels. We sort of glossed over that. And eventually, we got square with that, and we were able to publish it. So that was an interesting and very frustrating part of the process. And when it was published, I was prepared for an onslaught of hostility from animal-rights people and vegetarians, but I got surprisingly little. It’s amazing how people were sympathetic with the conflict of man versus squirrel. It’s something people can relate to. There’s more to the story, too, that will probably come out someday. But not now.
G: Yeah, just from reading it, it seemed like such a fascinating experience. Doing that hunting competition, interviewing all those people.
MS: Yeah, I got really lucky. I guess that’s the benefit of really taking your time in doing something. I talked to a lot of people about it. Tim Burton is a friend of mine, and he hooked me up with those guys—that was his nephew [in the story]. Tim Burton makes maple syrup in southern Indiana. He hooked me up with his nephew and John Cougar Mellencamp’s uncle. It was completely random and awesome. And a lot of fortunate things happened in the research and writing of that story that probably wouldn’t have happened if I just didn’t take my time.
G: Do you have any techniques you use for keeping yourself from being recognized at restaurants?
MS: I don’t make reservations under my own name. And I feel like people in the industry would say that they know, they always know, when a critic comes in. There have been times when I’ve been recognized, but it’s very often hard to tell. Well, I can’t tell you everything I do, but you always reserve under a pseudonym, for one thing. There are just certain ways to behave—you know, you don’t sit there and take notes at the table. Just be low-key.
G: I guess as a food critic, you’re right in the thick of it.
MS: Yeah, I mean, it’s the only form of criticism where you’re really expected to be anonymous. And a lot of people aren’t. That’s changing. A lot of people view that as an old-school model. And you have a lot of people that are usually not in traditional print media—they’ll go and attend media-specific events at restaurants. I never do that. Very often, that passes as legitimate food criticism, and I actually don’t believe that. That’s not a good way to evaluate a restaurant, and as a reader, it’s not a good way to decide whether you want to go somewhere—based on a media event near the beginning of the restaurant’s opening. I’m sure people will disagree with me, but I’m still old-school that way.
G: What’s the strangest experience you’ve ever had at a restaurant or while writing a feature?
MS: Once, I was in a tapas restaurant. I actually don’t even know if it’s still around: Emilio’s, on Fullerton. [Editor’s note: it is not still around.] It was a two-tiered dining room. I was with my date, and we were the only ones in the dining room except for another couple on the upper tier. This other couple started throwing food at us. I think it was a grape landed on the table. And they totally played it cool. We were near the end of our meal, and it wasn’t until later that we looked back in the window, and this couple was laughing at us. It was strange. At the time, I felt like a heel for just being too naive, to not realize that we were being pelted with this couple’s dinner. But yeah, that was a weird experience. Maybe they recognized me, I don’t know.
G: What’s been the most amusing or surprising reaction to one of your reviews?
MS: I get the occasional intemperate rant. Usually not from chefs. Regular readers sometimes comment on things that I’m kind of amazed at. I usually post stuff on my Facebook page, and when someone makes an angry rant, I always copy and paste it at the top. People seem to enjoy that. But the surprising and slightly gratifying thing is when someone will respond to negative criticism constructively. I’ve had that happen, someone saying, “You know, you’re right. We’re trying to do better, thank you for pointing that out.” But either positive or negative feedback I appreciate because it shows somebody’s been reading, and they’ve been moved enough to respond to it.
G: Do you have a favorite dish or cuisine?
MS: I don’t know why, but when I was in college, I fell in love with Korean food. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, and there was this place where we bought beer that was also a Korean restaurant with a massive cooler of takeout dinner. And I just started eating there, and I loved it. It was like nothing I’d eaten before. That’s continued to this day. I was lucky enough to go to Korea. My mother-in-law is Korean, and she’s a fantastic cook. So it’s always been my favorite. I think of it as soul food. It’s really homey and satisfying, and I would rather eat a big bowl of kimchi stew over a 12-course high-end tasting menu.
G: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Chicago for Korean food?
MS: I live in what used to be Koreatown in Albany Park, and over the past 10 years, that’s changed. The Korean population in the city has slowly migrated out to the suburbs, and I personally feel that the best Korean restaurants are out in the suburbs. My absolute favorite is this little place in Glenview called Cho Jung (952 Harlem Ave). It’s a little mom-and-pop place in a strip mall, but they’re just really good. Their soups in particular are fantastic. Are you familiar with Korean food? Usually a meal will start with what’s called panchan, a selection of side dishes, usually kimchi, tofu, vegetables, that kind of thing. Those are always really fresh and delicious and well-made. It’s clear they really love what they do.
If you want to try a really good place in the city: San Soo Gab San (5247 N Western Ave). It’s on Western Avenue. It’s a really popular place for Korean barbecue, which is different. Just a big, roaring fire in the middle and you’re cooking your own meat and eating it with bean paste and kimchi wrapped up in lettuce. It’s a really primal, satisfying experience. It’s a good gateway experience for Korean food.
G: Have you noticed any current food or drink trends in the city that you find interesting?
MS: I find myself ranting about this a lot: there are a lot of restaurants that try to do too much. You’ll have burgers on the menu, you’ll have pizzas on the menu, just dishes repeated over and over again. They seem to concentrate in River North. These are supercasual, big, bustling places. I like specialists; I don’t care for dilettantes, people who try to do too much, maybe spread their resources too thin. They do a lot of things, but they don’t do any of them particularly well. So I wish people would concentrate and focus more. I guess that’s a trend born out of economic necessity, but it’s one I don’t like.
G: Are there any places that you feel are doing really well right now with picking a specialty and sticking with it?
MS: Yeah! There’s a place—and I’ve railed about this a lot, that the best Japanese food is out in the suburbs—but a lot of places have been doing what they call robata, which is grilling on skewers. And a lot of these places have opened up in River North, but they’re also doing sushi, shared plates, and I haven’t cared for very many … until this place Sumi Robata Bar (702 N Wells St). It’s by this chef Gene Kato. He has a really minimal menu, and it may sound simple, just cooking over a fire on sticks, but it’s actually a centuries-old Japanese tradition, and there are proper ways to do it. And it’s actually not easy, it’s a skill. This guy is just really focused. He just does it really well. He minimally bastes whatever it is you order. There are also side dishes; they’re really well thought out, too. He’s taking this one thing and just doing it really well, and succeeding.
Illustration: © Will Landon, Groupon