Last week I had lunch with Keng Sisavath, the man behind the Instagram account Strange Foods Chicago. Since the spring of 2015, Sisavath has attracted 37,000 Instagram followers, created a youtube channel, and recently launched the Strange Foods Chicago Festival to be held Sunday, November 6. The festival will include all you can eat tastings from 16 food vendors including Thai, Lao, Malaysian, Moroccan, Cambodian and Cuban; Thai, Cambodian, Filipino and Indian folk dancers; and local craft beer in one space for an all inclusive price of $40-55.
Sisavath came up with the idea for the festival when he was at last year’s Chicago Gourmet and found himself bored by all the same sort of restaurants serving up tiny portions of the same old stuff. “I realized mom-and-pop restaurants need their own festival to showcase their food,” says Sisavath. Most of the restaurants have never participated in festivals before, and this will be their first chance to showcase their techniques in cooking demonstrations and endless samples.
We discussed the festival over bowls of pho at New Asia Restaurant, a family-run Vietnamese takeout joint in Lincoln Square. It’s his go-to spot for pho because the broth is so well seasoned and the portions are plentiful. You need only squeeze a lime over it and toss in torn Thai basil leaves, and no other seasoning is required. I ordered the oxtail, and Keng chose the chicken. Normally I’d think chicken is an order for pansies, but Keng showed me with some pride that at New Asia you get almost an entire chicken in your bowl of pho. There is a unique pleasure in the slurp of hot, tangy broth and noodles, and the pick and pull of tearing meat off bones. There’s a more obvious pleasure in paying only $8 for the experience.
New Asia is representative of the restaurants featured on Strange Foods Chicago. It’s ethnic, cheap and family-run. Sisavath says, “Family owned small restaurants don’t have PR, don’t have a manager, sous-chef, or executive chef. There’s no hostess or food photographer. That means more of their money is concentrated on the food.” When food is the only focus of the restaurant, we the hungry customers win.
Most of the “strange” food Sisavath showcases in his Instagram is only strange in our white-bread American food scene. Japanese cheese and corn cakes shaped like fish, Lao baked eggs cooked in their shells, and Thai salads made of bamboo shoots are potentially older than the hamburger, but they seem new and adventurous to the less experienced American eater. Scanning through Keng Sisavath’s food photos and videos is a lesson in the food and cooking traditions of foreign cultures, and guide on where to find it in Chicago. Strange Foods Chicago is definitely motivated by more than a desire to inspire jealousy in one’s friends, or boast about all the places you’ve eaten. “I want my followers to save money,” says Sisavath. “I want to shrink the city and let people know that the big restaurants aren’t the only thing… there’s great food out there at better prices.”
When most food blogs and Instagram accounts focus on innovation and trends– think sushirittos, banana and bacon donuts, and curried carrot tacos–Sisavath values flavors with a little more integrity. “People these days they like to put all kinds of stuff on their tacos. I like simplicity. Places like Del Seoul are good. But it’s like eating a nacho,” explains Sisavath. Instead of adding more toppings, seeing what else can be deep fried or bourbon infused, maybe we ought to go back and re-evaluate what’s been around forever but has never been a part of the mainstream.
Food writers from the Reader, NewCity, the Tribune, and other area publications are taking notice of Sisavath’s ideology, and they’ll be waiting to see what he serves up on November 6.
The Strange Foods Chicago Festival is on Sunday, November 6, from 1 to 4pm, at 1446 W. Kinzie St. Proceeds benefit the charitable organization Feed My Starving Children. Purchase tickets to the festival here.