Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Best of 2020*

- Memorable Bites from the past Calendar Year

Nothing was normal this year and neither is my annual year end best of list hence the asterisk in the title. Like everyone else I’m ready for 2020 to take a hike. But the reality is covid won’t be going away forever with it. Dining indoors is still likely to be a no go and even if it’s allowed it’ll take time for people to get comfortable doing so. It’s going to be a long winter. So let’s do our best to continue to get takeout from our favorite spots no matter how sick of it we are. Truth is I’m sick of doing takeout and I’m sick of cooking so I’m planning on taking a sabbatical of sorts for the upcoming colder months. I don't really have a choice bc 1) I cant go out and eat and 2) most people aren't going out to eat so there's no point in encouraging others to do so. Plus takeout just doesn't photograph well nor should it be the only way one experiences a restaurant. The food is never going to be better taking it to go. 

2020 was no 2019 for me

But we still need to provide our favorite restaurants with enough business to survive on. So my first round-up of the past dining year will be a shoutout to the spots that have kept me well fed during the pandemic. Usually I only list places that I posted about in the past calendar year but nothing is normal this year. So it was nice to have some reliable go-to's as far as food. Spots you can always count on. 

The Best of 2020*


For the second straight year (and maybe longer than that) the dry chili fish filet from New China Station was likely my most ordered item. It's my go-to dish when I'm not really sure what I want. It's location (5 min drive) makes it easily accessible which is part of the reason I get it often but at the same time I don't eat anything I don't want. It seems I find myself wanting this dish more than most others. It's basically comfort food for me at this point and we've all needed extra solace in 2020. 

Quite a few weekends this year have included a 1-2-3 punch that consists of a drive over to Tamales La Bendicion where I pick-up what are maybe my favorite traditional Mexican style of tamales in the city. From there I scoot over to Tacos El Tio where the weekend special consomme con carne remains my favorite prep of birria de res in town. From there it's over to Tacos de Canasta Rossy where they make arguably the best specialty tacos in town. Take a weekend to try this trio in 2021. 

One of the best stories of the past year or so was the return of In-On-Thai now in Uptown. Originally they opened in Lakeview but the building they were renting in was sold to condo developers and almost two years later they re-appeared in Uptown. We went a few times before any of us even knew what covid was and then it came and so did the indoor dining restrictions. There's no outdoor space so they've only been able to do takeout for most of what was supposed to be their return to the top. Well covid didn't stop that from happening completely. They've gained some regular customers myself included as it's become clearer with each takeout they really dont have anything not worth ordering. It's got to be one of the best menus in the city just bc of this. Seriously if it sounds good it probably is. Especially anything that includes fish and all curries. This place is a gem. I thought I posted about it but I guess not. I will in 2021 but read this Mike Sula feature from the Reader in the meantime. 

I was asked to name the best restaurant opening of the year over at Eater (they should be sharing the survey this week). Because of the circumstances I named Flour Power in Ukrainian Village as the years best new restaurant. I didn't get a chance to try as many new spots as I normally would have without a pandemic but this opening was pretty much geared for it whether they knew so or not. Even before covid places like Flour Power were popping up. They make a few fresh pastas a day and that's about it. If you've ever been to the now defunct Il Corvo in Seattle you'd be reminded of it at Flour Power and that's by design. Check their instagram for daily offerings. Every day brings a new menu. 


Some Chicagoland favorites from this past calendar year that were featured here include the following:

- Tan Tan Men at Menya Goku

- Peruvian Sandwiches at Sanguche 

- American Sandwiches at JT's Genuine Sandwich Shop 

- Hong Kong / Cantonese Food at My Place  

Sinaloan Seafood at El Rodeo (they recently moved to Melrose Park) 

- Quarantine Food Highlights

- Mariscos at Coco Loco Cevicheria

- Japanese Bar Food at Gaijin 

- Quesabirria at Different Spots (2020's hottest food trend)

- Street Tacos in the Back of the Yards 

- Filipino Food / Pastries at Kasama

- Italian-American Food at Cucina 3 

- Charcoal Grilled Meats at Ed's Kitchen 

- Brazilian Pastries at PiniPico Coffee Co. 

- Exploring the City's West Side Food Culture 

- Tsukemen at Chicago Ramen

- Middle Eastern Food in the South Suburbs 


Readers can normally count on monthly posts from places beyond the Chicagoland area but 2020 was the year less traveled for many of us. That said I still got the chance to add a few destinations to the 'Chowing Travel Guide' this year: 

Palm Springs isn't exactly a world class dining destination but the burger at Tyler's worth seeking out. The date shakes are also really good as is the Mexican food which has a heavy Mexicali presence. 

Summer in Michigan is always a popular destination for Chicagoan's and that was especially so this past summer. Roadtrips were the main source of travel or so it seemed. We spent some time in Western Michigan which I firmly believe has some of the best beaches (and blueberries) anywhere. We made Grand Rapids our base and I was pretty impressed with Michigan's second largest metro area. There's an amazing beer scene and the food options aren't bad at all. Eat a Wet Burrito or check out Chez Olga if you like spice and Yesterdog if you enjoy Roadfood type hot dog stands. 

We wont call it a travel destination but if you're ever in or around the Peoria area there's always interesting places in towns such as this. If timing allows you to check out Susie's Hot Dogs in Morton it's worth the stop. My pick for '2020 Roadfood Stop of the Year'. 

Omaha Nebraska is one of those cities that doesn't make most peoples top spots they want to visit. But most people don't have a bucketlist that consists of the entire United States. I'd always thought that Omaha had what seemed to be a ton of Roadfood type dining destinations and that they do. Bc we were just passing through I didn't get to eat through it like I would've liked but I enjoyed all three stops I picked which give you an idea of the local food scene. It's a mom and pop type city. 

Another spot checked off my regional American food bucketlist was Denver Colorado. We drove out in October since there was never a better time to go to a spot where there's lots of stuff to do outdoors. But aside from all the great trails and hikes we took - this trip (for me) was also about indulging in the city's signature style of regional American-Mexican food called Den-Mex. I'd always wanted to get my fix of crispy tacos, chile rellenos, and the almighty Mexican Hamburger. Lots of green chile too. 

Lastly I got a chance to add another Mexico destination as we visited the Riviera Nayarit way back in February before the world turned upside down (America still hasn't been turned right-side up). We made Sayulita our base for five days of seafood and sun. I'd go every winter if I could somehow make that happen. For a town of just 3000 people there's some good food to be found. 


I'd originally thought of making 2020 the final year of S'C'&C but then came corona which has paused the posting twice now in the last year. So I don't want to call it quits while there's a ton of stuff I have yet to post about going as far back as a piece of I've been working on for over five years. So you can expect to see us again in 2021 but probably not for a couple months. But when it's back on - it's on!

See ya next time @chibbqking

Monday, December 21, 2020

Eating BIG in the Riviera Nayarit

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring Mexico's Pacific Jungle Coast

Right before the world realized how serious covid was we had a chance to escape what we thought was just another winter with a trip to Mexico. It feels like an eternity since we took a trip to Sayulita in the Riviera Nayarit but according to some online searching the NBA All Star Game (which I watched in Mexico) was just this last February. Less than a year ago. Mexico remains my favorite country to take a quick trip to and this would be just that. We stayed for five days I believe and chose Sayulita bc we wanted a chill trip. There's other places in Mexico much higher on my list but it's hard to beat a warm beach town in the dead middle of a Chicago winter. Sayulita is a small town of less than 3000 people on the pacific coast in the state of Nayarit. It's northern location in the state makes it easily accessible by car or bus. There is no airport but Puerto Vallarta is only about an hour away though there's likely to be traffic during the high tourist season. It's one of a handful of towns up and down the coast that snowbirds like to flock to when Canada and Northern parts of the United States go cold. 

Sights from Sayulita 

Sayulita itself was at one point a hidden gem. Mainly among surfers who flocked there for winters and left a piece of their hippie DGAF vibes when they left. It's a super chill town that's probably going to go boom sometime soon. It's already past phase one but there's still no major resorts or anything too corporate save for a Subway and some 7-11's in town. They just got a major bank in the last five years or so I was told. It's certainly not a secret anymore but still feels more like Negril than Mo Bay.

Sights from San Pancho 

We ended up renting a car in PV bc even though I was cool with a chill beach vacation I knew I couldn't just sit in one little town the entire time. Thus you'll see that quite a few of the spots we ate at were in other towns where places caught my eye. The food scene in Nayarit is very seafood forward as you can imagine. Most of the seafood spots in the Chicagoland area serve food from this region. Of course it's not quite the same as the real stuff which LA Taco editor Javier Cabral calls some of the most underrated in Mexico. I was on a major chase for some world class Pescado Zarandeado like that which I had in Guadalajara at a place who's original location is in Tepic - the Nayarit capitol. 

Sights from the Rivieria Nayarit 

It was in Guadalajara (+ Baja / LA) that pescado zarandeado was cemented as my favorite prep of fish there is. More on the specific dish in a minute but as I learned on this trip the southern part of the state where the popular beach towns are at isn't where you find the best flame grilled fish. The aformentioned Javier Cabral told me the best version he's ever had was in the town of San Blas which was a two hour drive each way. I'd thought about it but learned pretty quickly it wouldn't be doable. The highway is basically two lanes and goes through the middle of the jungle. I cant imagine it's easy at night bc it's not an easy ride by day. Chef Gino Rojas of Revolver Taco Lounge in Dallas told me I had to go to "La Tovara" (also near San Blas) where the river meets the ocean and you'll find stands cooking it with manglar wood. I ended up trying it twice but neither was as good as the one from El Farallón de Tepic in Guadalajara. I had a few other spots scouted with the potential to be good but I didn't make it to any of them. These are the type of sacrifices one makes when they get married. 

Sights from Sayulita

Mary's Mexican Restaurant (Sayulita)

On our initial walk through town we decided to put our name down for a wait at this hopping restaurant flooded with families. The menu was more tempting than other spots we stopped to look at. Plus the wait wouldn't be long since they were in the final hour or two of business for the day. I knew what I wanted as soon as I saw them on the menu. The Mary's Taco is a specialty recipe consisting of grilled shrimp, roasted poblano, avocado, and cheese. I paired that with the Sayulita Taco also made of grilled shrimp with poblano, avocado, and cheese plus elotes and mushrooms. She had the snapper huachinango platter with rice and beans. All of which were great. Good home cooking for all. 

Dinner at Mary's Mexican Restaurant 

The Tacos Dorados estilo Jalisco Stand (Sayulita)

To give you an idea of how small the town is some of the street vendors have no names they go by. This operation set up daily outside Estrella de Mar Mariscos in the mornings. They take barbacoa that's soaking in a chile liquid and fill it into corn tortillas before folding them on a hot flattop. As the tacos crisp up the taquero would scoop small amounts of manteca (lard) onto the flattop which assured they get extra crispy. As always at a Mexico taco stand the salsa and topping options were endless. I ate here almost daily. They loved how much I loved the tacos. A very welcoming group. 

Tacos Dorados in Sayulita 

Miguel Ángel (Bucerías)

Most tourists visit this area for the beaches but I came for the Pescado Zarandeado. Perhaps the states most famous dish. Fresh caught fish is split down the middle bone-in and seasoned with chile paste and an array of condiments such as soy sauce, Maggi, mayo, and mustard. It’s then grilled over mangrove wood and served with fresh tortillas to make tacos. Probably my favorite seafood preparation on this here earth. We visited Miguel Angel on a ride into Bucerías for lunch. Judging from spots I added to my google maps of the area this little city to the south of Sayulita seemed to have the most appealing food options to me. While I enjoyed the zarandeado here it wasn't as good as those previous spots tried. But great hospitality and talking parrots added to the enjoyment of the meal. 

Pescado Zarandeado at Restaurant Bar Miguel Ángel

Mariscos Villarreal (Bucerías)

Another seafood dish you should seek out in the area is Aguachile estilo Nayarit. Raw Shrimp cooked in lime juice mixed with Serrano chiles and cilantro which makes it green. Though the dish originated in Sinaloa (where it was first served shrimp-less) it’s also extremely popular here. Scoop some up and throw it on either a tostada or some saltines and then customize it to your liking with condiments popular on Mexico’s west coast. Options like Maggi, Worcestershire, pickled onions in soy sauce.

Aguachile at Mariscos Villarreal 

Tacos on the Street (La Cruz)

Right outside of Bucerías in the town La Cruz you'll find some legendary mesquite grilled ribeye tacos.  Basically the only thing on the menu here aside from tostadas, quesadillas, and flan. What is it about smoky beef on lard laced flour tortillas? Such a perfect pairing. Easy to see why Tacos on the Street has been popular since the 70's with both locals and snowbirds alike. Don’t be fooled by the empty chairs as I got here exactly when they opened. So I read this place gets packed every night they’re open. Pic'd below are the smoky ribeye tacos on flour with everything (red and green salsa). 

Ribeye Tacos at Tacos on the Street 

Tacos Tal Ivan (Sayulita)

Back in Sayulita Tacos Tal Ivan is one of the towns most popular taco stands. They set up shop early evening and sell tacos al pastor into the night. Both tourists and locals stand around the massive cones of pork that shrink with each passing hour. They actually have two locations within maybe a 3 minute walk of each other. A testament to their popularity. I ate here almost nightly as the trompo of pork marinated in a bright red achiote paste was impossible to pass up. I forget how much each taco cost but less than $1 US. The use of charcoal to cook the meat makes it taste that much better. 

Tacos al Pastor from Tacos Tal Ivan

Restaurante Limbo (San Pancho)

If you want a town a bit chiller and less crowded than Sayulita check out San Pancho one town over. It's by no means undiscovered but it's a bit smaller in both size and tourist vibe. We tried this hip local spot called Limbo for an early lunch one day and ended up going back later in the trip. Both the seafood ceviches and tacos made with heirloom corn were spot on. Nice place for some lunch.  

Lunch at Limbo 

Mayela La Original (San Pancho)

Here's a real locals type spot that saved me from having to nurse a hangover all day. I had to go get some Electrolit at the towns local Oxxo after a few too many samples of mezcal the previous night. Upon leaving with a couple bottles (coconut is my favorites) I took a wrong turn down a side street off the main strip while in a daze. I came upon the sign seen above which is for a town taqueria ran out of a friendly older lady's house. The Electrolit and a couple of tacos dorados estilo Guadalajara was exactly what I needed to curb my hangover and feel normal once again. That and some pool time.

Taco Dorado in San Pancho

La Sea Food (Lo De Marcos) 

We stopped in what was a quiet unobstructed (by tourists) town on the way to dinner one day. I had La Sea Food on my google maps and we were driving through this quiet town and decided to stop. There were a few gringos here and there but they felt like the type who might be trying to hide rather than on vacation and such. Haha. The colorful La Sea Food was popular with groups of local friends when we visited. It took a while to get our food but it wasn't like we had anywhere to be. We tried a trio of items including a crispy taco gobernador which is a Sinaloan specialty consisting of shrimp, peppers, tomato, and cheese. We also got a smoked marlin quesadilla (outstanding) and some decent raw tuna. The type of place that makes me love Mexico. There's good food wherever you go. 

Lunch at La Sea Food

Restuarante Pineda (Rincón de Guayabitos)

In my failed attempt for Pescado Zarandeado like that in Guadalajara I had us drive up to the town of Rincón de Guayabitos. It's about 40 minutes north of Sayulita. I read about a place called Restaurante Pineda and it seemed like the type of Mexican restaurant where people went to celebrate. This was verified when we arrived. They must have room for 1000+ people. The parking was like that of a busy concert or festival that attracts everyone in a 100 mile radius. Lots of vacationing Mexican families and such. With a few levels of dining and more than one bar area you got the feeling this place was a well oiled machine. We sat at one of the bars which was overlooking the water. There's a beach for kids to play on while they wait for food or the parents drinks beers and relax. We ordered  margaritas and watched as the young boy behind the bar whipped them up.  

Camarones Momia

Those drinks were maybe the best thing about Restuarante Pineda. Not to say the food was bad but that kid makes a killer margarita (he was maybe 15). Pictured above are the Camarones Momia aka Mummy Shrimps! Fresh local shrimp is stuffed with cream cheese then wrapped in bacon and covered in melting cheese. While some cultures find the combo of seafood and cheese to be horrific that’s not the case in Mexico where yes they do put cheese on some tacos. We also had an order of pescado zarandeado. It was just alright. I’m still in search of something as good as that at El Farallon de Tepic in Guadalajara. Cool spot though up here in the less traveled Rincon de Guayabana. There must’ve been more than 500 people dining here, both tourists and locals. Fantastic views too. 

Pescado Zarandeado at Restuarante Pineda 

Ikan Cocina Maria (San Pancho)

Ikan Cocina Maria is another hip little spot to check out in San Pancho. It's a restaurant ran out of a local family's house. From what I remember it's the younger generation of the family that's running the show. I loved the setup which made you feel like you were somewhere in nature and not on the sidewalk of a side street in this chill little surfers town. We tried a handful of tapas including fresh made ceviches and really well put together fried shrimp tacos on extremely potent blue corn tortillas. 

Lunch at Ikan Cocina Maria

Tacos Gaby (Sayulita)

Here's a stand you should put at the top of your to-do list if you're ever in Sayulita. Tacos Gaby is a literal hole in the wall just a few doors down from the downtown location of Subway. She has a reputation for some of the best fish tacos in town. Her customer base is a mix of locals who work in the area and surfers and tourists who know what's up. Both the fish and shrimp tacos are tempura fried to order. You cant go wrong with either one of them so get both and decide what your next move will be from there. Meaning no way you come here and dont come back for more. As good as it gets. 

Shrimp Taco at Tacos Gaby

But wait there's more! Let me introduce you to the most memorable empanada I've ever had. Gaby presses them fresh after your order. So you can watch as she takes a scoop of masa and forms it into the mold. Fresh local shrimp and cheese go inside before it's pressed and made into an empanada. A quick trip to the fryer ensures everything inside is melted and the outside is crisp and golden. You take your plate over to the salsa bar and decorate it to your liking. Give it a minute (that cheese is bubbling) before indulging in hot pocket perfection. If anyone from Netflix Food is reading give this friendly lady an episode on the next season of 'Street Food: Latin America" - lets hear her story.  

Shrimp Empanada at Tacos Gaby 

Tacos Toño (Sayulita)

If not for a hot tip from the hotel employee I might've missed Tacos Toño. I say maybe bc there's still a chance I would have walked by given it's location on one of the roads taking me to and from my hotel to downtown. So I had just been walking by and saw this popular stand ran out of an older couple house - I'm pretty sure I would've stopped. The guy at the hotel where we were staying told me these were his favorite tacos in town. He said he had them for dinner before checking in for his night shift. They fry up two large servings of suadero and carnitas and sell them in the evening from about 6p until sold out. It's location is in a residential area but the closer to town you get you the more taco spots start popping up. Lots of options to choose from up and down Calle Pelicanos. The suadero here were a candidate for the best tacos I've had all year. Personally it's one of my favorite type of tacos and these were great. The beef was fried until it was tender then crisped up upon ordering. 

Tacos de Suadero at Tacos Toño

Restaurant Yeikame (Sayulita)

Yeikame will come up when searching for the best breakfast in town. Sure it's mostly popular with tourists and that's to be expected in a town of just 3000 that does double that in tourists. So I wouldn't call this a local type spot but it is locally owned and the food is cooked by locals. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this is the type of place that does cater to tourists but also makes really good food in doing so. Mexican breakfast is extremely underrated if you ask me. One of my favorite morning dishes when in Mexico (more easily found) is huevos motuleños which is a famous Yucatan dish made made by putting eggs on fresh fried tortillas smeared with with black beans and topped with other ingredients like cheese ham, peas, plantains, and a red salsa picante. I feel like most breakfast spots in Mexico serve this dish and from what I can tell they all do it pretty well. Always hits the spot. 

Huevos Motuleños at Yeikame

The Tacos de Cabeza Stand (Sayulita)

In Mexico breakfast tacos are just called "tacos." Sometimes they're eaten for breakfast and other times for dinner and lunch. In the mornings you'll find this guy and his cart parked in front of La Mariscal in downtown Sayulita. He specializes in tacos de cabeza (steamed beef head) which is a popular form of breakfast in Mexico. Man for a town of like 300 there's alot of really good tacos here. 

Tacos de Cabeza 

Carnitas Sayulita 

Speaking of great places to get tacos for breakfast here's another one. Carnitas Sayulita is right before the bridge coming from downtown. Located on the previously mentioned Calle Pelicano. 

Carnitas at Carnitas Sayulita 

Mariscos Jakal (Sayulita)

Wee tried to eat at Mariscos Jakal twice before the third time was the charm. The first two visits they were out of seafood so we kind of figured 1) it’s good and 2) it’s fresh. Both confirmed with delicious plates of red snapper huachinango and tequila shrimp. Loved the house special habanero and passion fruit salsa that was hot as hell and also super refreshing. A classic Mexico seafood shack. 

Lunch at Mariscos Jakal

Naufrago Cocina de Puerto (Sayulita)

We stumbled upon this younger chef driven spot on a stroll through the square. Naufrago Cocina de Puerto got our attention with their menu full of chef driven tacos and tostadas. It was our last night so we wanted to make sure we got our fair share of mariscos before heading back to the land locked Midwest. So we tried an assortment of tostadas and that was that. Another steller spot for seafood.  

Seafood Tostadas at Naufrago Cocina de Puerto 

Bonus Stop!

Tacón de Marlin (Puerto Vallarta)

'Must Stop Spot’ here directly outside the Puerto Vallarta airport. If you’ve ever been through PV you’ve probably heard of the legendary Tacón de Marlin which has been a staple for locals and foreigners alike for more than 30 years. Legendary seafood burritos like nowhere else. I came here back in 2013 and have thought about it often since then. The signature burrito would have to be the house smoked marlin which is made even better by adding shrimp. Cooked with special dressing, onions, and cheese and mixed with lettuce and tomato before going into in a flaky flour tortilla that gets the perfect toast on a hot flattop. This location is literally across the footbridge when you exit the airport making it a must stop spot both when you land and when you leave. We also got a shrimp and sea bass burrito to eat at the airport while the rest of the tourists ate Johnny Rockets. Swordfish al pastor too! Whatever Mexico’s equivalent of a James Beard American Classic award is - this is it.

Seafood Burrito at Tacón de Marlin

Notes: For the addresses to all these spots plus places in both the Rivieria Nayarit and Puerto Vallarta  we didn't make it to please see my google maps guide by clicking HERE.

See ya next time @chibbqking


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