As you probably know, I love to eat! Eating good food is a key to good life, in my opinion. Living in Chicago offers all sorts of opportunities for eating great food. There’s a huge variety – places big and small, simple or fancy, cheap or expensive. Here’s a list of 15 excellent dishes from Chicago. They are in no particular order, and they don’t represent the “best” 15. I probably have 50-100 dishes to rave about; I’ll eventually get to them all…
1. Chorizo-stuffed Medjool Dates with Smoked Bacon – Avec Restaurant
Avec is an amazing restaurant, perhaps my favorite in all of Chicago. I love its small-to-medium sized dishes to share and its European/American blend of food. Avec’s menu often changes. But one dish is always on the menu: the chorizo-stuffed dates. Dates are popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, but not too common in North America. But when you stuff some tasty Spanish chorizo inside, then wrap it with smoked bacon, and serve it in a zesty tomato sauce, it’s heaven on earth! Everybody orders the dates at Avec, and rightly so.
2. Hot and Spicy Chicken Wings – Great Sea Chinese Restaurant
Unlike Avec, Great Sea is not a fancy or trendy restaurant. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, with bad decorations, located in a not-so-hot neighborhood far from downtown. Great Sea won’t score many points at all on its image, but its food is pretty good. In particular, its Hot and Spicy Chicken Wings are to die for! The wings are Korean flavored (it’s a Korean/Chinese restaurant), and they are prepared “lollilop” style, with the meat pushed up the bone. Just as it is at Avec, everyone orders the wings at Great Sea. In fact, the wings are so famous that they sponsor a chicken wing eating contest! Can you beat the guy who ate 90 wings in one sitting???
3. Truffle Fries – Fox & Obel
Fox & Obel is neither a fancy restaurant nor a hole-in-the wall mom and pop restaurant. It’s a cafe attached to an upscale grocery store. It serves some tasty and inexpensive food. My favorite is the Truffle Fries. As you may know, I am a french fry connoisseur – even though I hate most potato dishes, especially fries that are fat and taste like potatoes. But a good batch of crispy, skinny fries always as a place in my heart. The fries at Fox & Obel are not normal fries; they are a bit over the top. First of all, they are cooked in truffle oil! Ooooh! Then they are covered with Peccorino-Romano cheese. And then, you dip them into a thick Bearnaise sauce. Ahhhhhh….
4. Peppered Fatty Salmon – Ringo Sushi
Ringo Sushi is not the fanciest sushi bar. I love it though – because it’s tasty AND it’s reasonably-priced. The gem of their menu is the Peppered Fatty Salmon nigiri. The salmon is fresh and tasty. A few slices of jalapenos on top adds a little zing as you eat it. And for you health nuts who may be scared off by the name, “fatty” fish is often the best fish, and it’s actually good for you – lots of omega-3 fatty acids! The mackerel nigiri is also served with jalapeno and also tastes great!
5. Urban Belly Ramen – Urban Belly
Urban Belly’s fusion philosophy comes alive with its signature dish. The Urban Belly Ramen combines Japanese ramen noodles with a mighty fine Vietnamese Pho broth, with shiitake mushroom and pork belly to top it off. Exquisite! I have to admit, I’d rather eat dish than the Pho of my people!
6. Publican Bacon – The Publican
There’s no denying it: Publican bacon is pure decadence. It’s a supreme cut of pork belly, braised in maple syrup. It’s salty, it’s sweet, and it melts in your mouth. You should definitely order this dish to share; a single person eating this may require a trip to the hospital. Maybe it should be called “Pork Belly Steak” ??? Only available on the Saturday and Sunday brunch menus.
7. Frontera Guacamole – Frontera Grill
Guacamole is served at almost every Mexican restaurant on the planet, not to mention in most Mexican households too. Yet Frontera Grill’s guacamole stands in a class on its own. I could talk about all the great things going on at this excellent upscale restaurant and its uber-cool superstar chef, Rick Bayless. But Frontera got me sold, just with its guacamole. I could gobble this stuff up all day, until my skin turned green.
8. Special Banh Mi – Nhu Lan Saigon Subs
Banh Mi, the Vietnamese sandwich, is comfort food for me. Nothing fancy, really. And it’s usually super cheap – even less than the price of a Big Mac! Banh Mi an authentic Vietnamese dish, but it is heavily French-influenced from the colonial years. It’s served on a warm and toasty baguette. There are different types of sandwiches, but the most typical one is served with a pate spread and lunch meats. Pickled carrots and daikon are then placed on the sandwich, then it’s topped with jalapenos and cilantro. A surprisingly complex set of flavors for a simple sandwich, no? That’s what makes it great! There are several places that serve Banh Mi in Chicago now (and the list is growing), but Nhu Lan – a little bakery in Lincoln Square – is by far the best. I think Nhu Lan could compete with southern California Banh Mi places!
9. Tacos de Cochinita Pibil – Adobo Grill
These slow-cooked marinated pulled pork tacos originate from the Yucatan region of Mexico. They are very rich and tasty (and a bit messy). Adobo Grill serves an entree-sized portion of this meat (last I heard, it was only on the Sunday brunch menu). But even better is the street food taco served at the Taste of Chicago festival. When you’ve had a long day in the sun, these tacos really hit the spot!
10. Shrimp and Grits – Wishbone
If you’re from the south, maybe this dish would be too “meh” for you. But I still say it’s pretty darn good! These cheese grits are with a great white wine and cream sauce. Throw in some yummy shrimp… and oh yeah – there’s bacon inside too! It’s a great, hearty meal.
11. Lobster Spring Rolls – Japonais Restaurant & Lounge
Japonais is an excellent restaurant. With its cavernous space and impeccable decorations, it may be one of the fanciest places in the city for dining. There are a number of great dishes on the menu. I don’t think the Lobster Spring Rolls dish is among the most well-known of the dishes. But it’s a great dish – a hidden gem. Egg rolls are pretty common everywhere. But these rolls are perfectly deep fried, and unlike most egg rolls – there’s lobster within! The rolls are served with a mango relish and a blood orange glaze. Yummy!
12. Lollipop Lamb Chops – Benchmark
Rack of lamb is commonly served as a dinner entree. But have you ever seen it as bar food? You can at Benchmark! The lamb is well-seasoned and is grilled to your liking. It is delivered in a simple way – in a basket with newspaper wrapping – with a chimichurri sauce on the side. It’s a great dish for spending the evening watching a sports game or enjoying the breeze of the retractable rooftop lounge.
13. Perry’s Favorite – Perry’s Deli
Perry’s Deli is an old school treat, located in the Chicago Loop. It’s just a deli, no frills – no cell phones even allowed. There is a large number of items on the menu. My favorite is also Perry’s favorite – a huge mound of pastrami, covered with jack cheese and coleslaw (yes, inside the sandwich) and Russian dressing. It’s rather hard to eat the entire sandwich in one sitting. The scarier thing is that Perry sells triple-decker sandwiches too…..
14. Sauteed Maine Scallops, Soba Gnocchi, and Parmesan Foam – Takashi Restaurant
Uh, what is this dish??? I have no idea. It’s a concoction by master chef Takashi. First of all, he takes soba (as in the Japanese noodle) and makes a gnocchi out of it. Then he serves it with sauteed scallops. Then he puts parmesan cheese into some kind of spray can to serve it as a foam on top. Crazy! But genius! This dish is da bomb! The photo doesn’t do it justice.
15. Zeppele – Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar
I will end this list with a tasty dessert. Quartino is my favorite Italian restaurant in Chicago. Unlike many American Italian restaurants, Quartino doesn’t go overboard with large services and heavy food. Most everything is on the lighter side, and it’s mostly served on smaller plates for sharing. Zeppele – Italian doughnuts – are a great way to end a meal. Served right out of the oven, they just melt in your mouth. They come with chocolate and honey sauces for dipping, for even more taste!
Well there you have it – 15 great dishes! I’ll probably follow this article up someday with another list of great dishes. But for now, enjoy the reading, and go eat something yummy!