#632: I Am the Best Bahn Mi in Chicago

May 11th, 2016

A writer I admire is going on an absolute tear on Facebook. The subject is the Chicago Reader Best of Chicago 2016 live poll.

You can vote on the Reader’s website, although she wishes you wouldn’t.

The writer in question is a born-and-bred Chicagoan from a community of color that is in the process of getting priced out. Humboldt Park is getting gentrified, white and too expensive for the longtime residents to afford.

A yearly poll that puts the froufrou gourmet foodie taco-and-whisky trendset Big Star as top-tier Mexican food is offensive to her.

To me, the poll is a silly diversion. To her, it’s a celebration of the social and economic forces that are kicking her family and friends out of their homes.

There’s a lot of “It’s just a _____” involved in these issues. It’s just a web poll. It’s just a coffee shop. It’s just a new bar. It’s just it’s just it’s just until a community is removed. Even writing this, I’m thinking that it’s just a survey and Reader ad bonanza.

I can’t agree with her, but I also can’t discount her view or ask her community to take yet another one for the team.

So I’m announcing my write-in candidacy for Best Bahn Mi in Chicago.

The Reader is a City Treasure

I’ll get to why a third-party campaign to declare myself a Vietnamese sandwich makes perfect sense in a moment. But first, a few arguments both for and against the Best of Chicago poll.

To me, as a journo-gadfly and policy wonk, anything that helps the Reader keep putting out work like its investigation of the forced druggings of female comics and the politics that killed the promising CHA supervoucher program is worth it.

Journalism is in trouble, and the Reader in particular has faced years of mismanagement under the helm of owner Wrapports and former head Michael Ferro, now at the Chicago Tribune. There’s actually an online petition by Reader staff protesting the budget cuts and layoffs that serve to prevent them from doing their jobs.

If a yearly spotlight on potential advertisers helps keep the doors open, I’m willing to look the other way for an issue.

The poll can also be harnessed for good. A few years back, young African-American poet Kush Thompson from the low-income Austin neighborhood won second place for Best Poet in a poll. I traded some emails with her afterward — I had previously booked her for a few live lit events and wanted to congratulate her.

She was surprised and stunned about the award. She hadn’t known this was coming.

Maybe her friends did it, maybe her fans did. Separate of any poll, she is someone I consider one of the most talented poets in Chicago and, at least in this case, she got close to what she deserves. (She should have won.)

I’m not posing her story as an example of what happens with the poll, but as an example of what could happen if we choose to harness it.

Whatever the Reader’s intent, the little family-owned taco joint on the corner doesn’t seem to win Best Taqueria; Big Star does. The longtime tagger who creates beautiful guerilla murals with spray can and stealth doesn’t win; smarmy Don’t Fret does. By being a poll, it’s destined to celebrate places that are already well known.

It’s partially the fault of the readers, it’s partially the fault of the Reader. When you know the demographics of the people you’re turning a poll over to, the claim they speak for all the city is entirely on you.

I am a Fantastic Sandwich

Chicago Magazine, Newcity and probably a lot of places I’m not thinking of also do Best of Chicago issues, but this little bit of the web is just about the Chicago Reader, its poll and why I want to be named the best bahn mi sandwich in this city of ours.

For starters, it’s silly. Many of you have never seen me face-to-face, so you’ll have to take my word that I’m not a delicious combination of bread, head cheese, peppers and cilantro.

Second, it’s a reminder of what this poll is. The Best of Chicago poll is not an arbiter of quality. It’s a game the Reader is inviting us to play.

So let’s play.

The Best of Chicago issue has actual reviews conducted by reporters who do track down the little-known spots. They’re usually given goofy noncompetitive titles like “Best place to step into an antique collector’s fever dream” or “Best sausage that brings the funk.” I quite like these.

But the best food, drink, comedy, art and Best Bahn Mi 2016 Paul Dailing are determined solely by reader vote. You’ll go to vote for me, but stay to vote for the old guy down your street who has been making pizza the same way for 50 years, or the struggling artist whose mural blew you away before it was covered by smarmy-hip posters.

Or the little taco stand on the corner.

I would only be displacing a place that already has enough word of mouth to win in an online poll. And for bahn mi, get off the Red Line at Argyle and walk into any restaurant in Little Vietnam. There are no bad choices there.

So call me silly, pointless, attention-grabbing or rude if you will.

But also call me the Best Bahn Mi of Chicago, 2016.

Vote here.

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