Welcome to Chicago: A Newcomer's Eating Tour

Finding a place to eat in Chicago is easy with these tried-and-true suggestions.

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little Photography

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Matthew Gilson

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Andrea Donadio

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Derek Richmond

Photo By: Derek Richmond ©2013, Derek Richmond

Welcome to Chicago

Chicago has always been considered a meat and potatoes town, a down-home Midwestern respite for hearty appetites. But these days those potatoes are likely to be soaked in clarified butter, gilded with black truffle and perched on a custom-designed steel pin ready to be dropped into a bowl of silky vichyssoise, as is the case at the international destination restaurant Alinea. Chicago meat, too, has seen an upgrade. There is no shortage of steakhouses, but modern interpretations like Bavette’s serve dry-aged bone-in rib eye not with desiccated baked potatoes as big as your head, but with creamy hunks of foie gras terrine slathered with homemade blackberry jam. Chicago is now a world-class food city, ripe with incredible mom and pop diners, tantalizing taquerias and some of the best prix-fixe vegetarian meals found anywhere. Check out this city guide to see what the Windy City dining scene is truly all about.

Pizza: Pequod’s

Gino, Giordano’s and Malnati’s—all legendary sellers of slices so thick you need to eat ‘em with a knife and fork. But the pizza spot that towers over all of them is Pequod’s, purveyor of a focaccia-style crust baked in cast-iron pans blackened with decades of seasoning. Don’t let the cheesy lingerie-clad whale logo deter you. These pies are serious and sprinkled with so much cheese that it oozes toward the edges during baking to emerge as a caramelized, nutty halo of crisp goodness. There are plenty of toppings to choose from, but the quintessential Chicago combo features thick knobs of fresh sausage and sweet white onion.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Icon: Superdawg

Capone, Sears — err, Willis — Tower, deep-dish pizza, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Chicago was built on icons, though many of those culinary icons now trade on nostalgia, rather than flavor. One true exception is Superdawg. This old-school drive-in featuring statues of hot dog mascots Maurie and Flaurie, carhops, thick cement shakes and fabulous golden crinkle-cut fries has plenty of history on offer. But they also serve up one of the best salad dogs in town. The namesake Superdawg is a thick, snappy beef frank — a superior departure from the typical Vienna dog served elsewhere. It bears the mustard, neon-green relish, onions and sport peppers — and a pickle — present on all great Chicago-style dogs, but it also comes with a secret weapon, a spicy, tangy pickled green tomato you’ll wish they sold by the jar.

Go to: Superdawg Drive-In

Hot Spot: Giant

A few years ago, Chef Jason Vincent was on top of the world. After earning numerous awards and accolades, Vincent gave up his job at the highly rated, but now defunct, Nightwood to raise his daughter. In 2016 he came back with Giant, named after a Shel Silverstein poem he used to read to his daughter. Giant, as its name suggests, is a huge success. It’s packed every night with people seeking a one-bite umami bomb of deep-fried sea urchin packed with sweetened condensed milk, tamari and butter. Though Vincent is a top talent, he’s eschewed fine dining in favor of turning out mostly simple classics like buttermilk-marinated crisp onion rings and smoked ribs lacquered with the perfect finger-licking lustrous sauce.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Giant

Haute Chinese: Duck, Duck, Goat

Chinese food in Chicago was generally considered quick, cheap and good takeout fare. That is, until Top Chef champion and Chicago master chef Stephanie Izard, who grew up making Mandarin pancakes and moo shu pork with her mom, got involved. At Duck, Duck, Goat, Izard reinvents Szechuan chicken by getting rid of the tongue-searing heat that blows your palate in favor of grassy low-heat shishito peppers. Her char siu, or barbecue ribs, are cooked sous vide until tender, then brushed with bourbon-and-honey-infused hoisin. Noodles are hand-pulled and have a soulful chew. 

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Duck, Duck, Goat

More Than a Steakhouse: GT Prime

Normally we’d stay away from the meat-and-potatoes cliches that often define Chicago, but in the case of GT Prime, it’s mandatory. That’s because, though it bills itself as a steakhouse, GT Prime is really more like a fine-dining restaurant that just happens to also serve top-shelf meat. You won’t find 2-pound hunks of rib eye; instead, reasonable 4-ounce portions of top-class wagyu strip steak or grass-fed bison already cut for you are on offer. You’ll supplement those manageable beef portions with airy arancini puffs dripping with mortadella-spiked cheese fondue and creamy risotto rice, or opt for tangles of bigoli fortified with beef, pork and veal-enriched Bolognese sauce. Prices are reasonable, relative to old-school spots, which means your stomach, wallet and clients will all be happy.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: GT Prime

Rock-Star Pastry Chef: Meg Galus

Though savory food has soared in Chicago, desserts have waned. Many high-end restaurants let savory chefs do the sweets or rely on tired standards like flourless chocolate cake or creme brulee. Pastry Chef Meg Galus is a craftswoman whose skills and inventiveness rival savory colleagues like superchef Grant Achatz. At Swift & Sons, Galus masterfully interplays temperature, acidity, salt and sugar to create shocking and delightful contrasts with her desserts. Recent star plates include a deconstructed riff on Cracker Jack, featuring a dome of cool peanut butter mousse topped with warm house-popped caramel corn and a popcorn sherbet that tasted of fresh sweet corn plucked from the field. There’s also a carrot cake that features a cream cheese mousse-stuffed cake roll dripping with whiskey-soaked ice cream and praline crunch bars.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Swift & Sons Steakhouse

Cocktail Bar: Aviary

A funhouse of modern potables, Aviary’s cocktail craft is unparalleled. Whether they're serving a margarita with ice cubes made with Fresno chile juice, or a Manhattan encapsulated in a frozen sphere cracked tableside with a custom-designed “slingshot,” mixologists don’t create drinks as much as liquid performance art. The kitchen chefs work some magic, too, serving tiny complementary bites like a sea-salt-flecked dark chocolate candy bar filled with whipped foie gras nougat. Ask the right person and you might just find yourself whisked down to the Office, a basement speakeasy where the chief bartender will create custom cocktails tailored to your tastes or offer a pour of unique, rare and vintage liquors from Aviary’s rare spirits cabinet.

Go to: Aviary

Tacos al Pastor via the Sea: Lena Brava

Taquerias are pretty much on every corner in Chicago, and many of them serve good tacos al pastor, aka spit-roasted pork topped with a bit of roast pineapple. Not every corner, however, has golden god of Mexican cuisine Rick Bayless modernizing regional Mexican food like he does at the corner of Randolph and Peoria. Instead of going to the old pig standby, Bayless opted for wood-fired and blackened flaky cod rubbed with chile, pineapple and achiote paste stuffed into springy, fresh housemade tortillas and topped with zingy sweet pineapple salsa. The flavor is deep and conjures a Mexican street market, but it also leaves diners feeling much lighter than after the pork version.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Lena Brava

Polish (and Korean) Sausage: Kimski Dog

Chicago has a long history of 24-hour joints serving up grilled reddish kielbasa links overflowing with sunburst-yellow mustard and golden caramelized onion, aka the Maxwell Polish. Chicago is also a melting-pot town, and it was only a matter of time before the Polish influence was mixed with a little Korean spice to produce a hot dog that someday might rival the classic dragged-through-the-garden Chicago hot dog. Behold the Kimski dog, a thick hunk of Polish sausage topped with soju-liquor-spiked mustard and fermented kimchi sauerkraut stuffed into a pillowy split-top, lobster roll-style bun. The richness of the meat is foiled by the mustard and kimchi brightness, providing a hot dog that bursts like flavor fireworks. 

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Kimski

Seafood: MFK

Though it’s subterranean, landlocked and tiny, MFK, with its whitewashed walls and penny tiles, evokes a seaside hideaway in Barcelona. Those lucky enough to score one of the handful of tables will be rewarded with a beautiful pour of nicely acidic and crisp txakolina and a plate of boquerones, pristine anchovy fillets marinated in vinegar and topped with curls of shaved fennel and zingy piquillo peppers, all perched on smoky grilled baguettes. Tuck into the cataplana, a tomato-and-anise-flavored stew larded with flaky bits of cobia collar and fresh buttery shrimp farmed in, of all places, western Indiana. Like the stories from its namesake, celebrated food writer MFK Fisher, this restaurant will transport you to another place.

Photo by Andrea Donadio

Go to: MFK

Not Your Bubbe’s Lox: Snaggletooth

For those who live outside of New York, lox is typically wrapped in plastic and bought from the corner grocer. Former Le Bernardin chef Bill Montagne is changing that for Chicago. Using a special technique that preserves moisture and the integrity of the fish, Montagne makes lox that shines like a jewel and is cut in rich translucent scrims that melt in your mouth. You could pile this stuff on a bagel and bury it under cream cheese, but his work is so pristine and bursting with sea salt and brine that you’re better off popping it in your mouth naked like fine caviar.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Snaggletooth

Cheap Eat: Fatso’s Last Stand

Though known for icons like deep-dish pizza and a hot dog dragged through the garden, Chicago, a city surrounded by fresh water, has a long history of fried shrimp houses. While Fatso’s isn’t a dedicated shrimp shack like some others in town, it serves up incredible gigantic garlic-battered butterflied and fried shrimp so good you might think you were vacationing in the Gulf. Though Fatso's is a shack, almost everything is made in-house, including macaroni and cheese featuring al dente cavatappi dripping with cheddar. Also on offer, char dogs and juicy cheeseburgers that channel the soul of the West Coast’s In-N-Out Burger, making Fatso’s one of Chicago’s greatest cheap-eats destinations.

Go to: Fatso’s Last Stand

Tasting Menu: Grace

There are plenty of super-high-end, fixed-menu spots in Chicago, but few of them offer a vegetarian menu that rivals Grace's omnivorous options. Grace’s vegetarian Flora menu, however, is a garden of delights that is creative and filling enough to sate the most-jaded carnivore, with dishes like Satsuma citrus segments lacquered in smoked paprika sugar, and meaty grilled maitake mushrooms sauced with coffee-infused velveteen potato puree. But if you yearn for more than fruit and veggies, the Fauna menu will fill in the gaps with dishes like Chef Curtis Duffy’s signature king crab, calamansi and cucumber in a glass bowl rimmed with a crackling creme-brulee-like sugar-glace top.

Go to: Grace

Nepalese: Chiya Chai

Any good food city worth its salt has sushi, pizza or a good taqueria, but how many of them have world-class Nepalese? Chicago certainly didn’t, until the launch of Chiya Chai from Nepalese tea importers Swadesh and Saujanya Shrestha and their wives, Rajee Aryal and Nadine Schaefer. The chai tea — far from the syrup-based stuff found at coffee chains — is made from freshly ground spices and top-class tea leaves. Foodwise, Chiya’s chile potatoes feature a yin yang of tangy vinegar and sweet honey, plus a little pepper heat. The chicken balti pie is flaky and filled with coriander- and cumin-perfumed slices of silky chicken.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Chiya Chai

Sandwich: Al’s Beef

Don’t call it a roast beef, a Philly or a French dip. Chicago’s Italian beef doesn’t come with cheese, and it ain’t served with horseradish sauce or au jus. It comes on a crusty Italian loaf, is sweet or hot (topped with green bell pepper or chile-spiked giardiniera), and is dipped (in the roasting juices) or dry. Sometimes it’s even a combo, topped with a link of Italian sausage. At the original Little Italy location of Al’s, the beef is rubbed with a secret blend of herbs and spices (likely including nutmeg), and it's roasted until it falls apart into silky shreds. While the beef’s sweet spice profile makes it unique, its particular blend of nuclear-hot giardiniera, studded with celery, carrots and other vegetables, puts it over the top.

Go to: Al's Beef

Burger: Owen & Engine

The beef juices dribble incessantly from this Logan Square pub. Thick like a steak, the beef patty is best ordered medium-rare, as no other doneness will reveal the minerality and grassiness of this fresh-ground beef from local Slagel Family Farm. Instead of hiding that flavor under corn-syrupy ketchup or mustards of questionable provenance, the cooks at Owen & Engine put only a tangle of sweet caramelized onion on top. If you choose the malt vinegar aioli dip, served with the accompanying french fries—and you should—slather a bit on the airy mahogany-colored English-style potato bun, then let the dripping commence.

Go to: Owen & Engine

Late-Night Spot: Avec

The second opening from Blackbird star Paul Kahan, this honey-wood-filled restaurant is well over a decade old. But that doesn’t stop brigades of young tattooed toque-wearers and the after-drinking set from stopping in at midnight to kill plates of Kahan’s iconic bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates, then plunge bread into the fiery piquillo pepper sauce left over in the bowl. Along with Devils on Horseback is airy truffle-scented focaccia, dripping with herbed Taleggio and ricotta, and icy glasses of pale ale that are ideal after a hard-won night of drinking or working the line.

Go to: Avec

Best Parisian Getaway: Maison Parisienne

You can’t always get to Paris. But sometimes you want to channel the City of Lights in the form of a world-class croissant or a macaron. For those things, look no further than Maison Parisienne, run by three French transplants who decided to leave their homeland and start a full-fledged Parisian-style cafe right in the heart of Chicago’s very American Wrigleyville neighborhood. The salted-butter caramel macaron features a marzipan crust that shatters in your mouth and flows with a rich ribbon of gooey caramel. The croissant is golden brown and flaky, coiling infinitely upon itself. Each shard drips with butter. Close your eyes while feasting on the pastry here and you’ll swear you can hear the Seine bubbling by.

Photo courtesy of Maison Parisienne

Go to: Maison Parisienne

Brunch: Baker Miller

This Lincoln Square bakery/millhouse/cafe/restaurant is a quadruple threat that eschews typical brunch fare—candy-coated pancakes and waffles, and hunks of pork belly—in favor of simple, seasonal fare. Take, for instance, the grits: Two kinds of locally grown corn are milled in-house, then slow-cooked to a supreme creaminess. Add pickled red cabbage, roasted bits of giardiniera-braised beef and a slightly runny soft-boiled egg for what could be the best bowl of grits above the Mason-Dixon Line. Round that plate out with gooey sourdough cinnamon rolls, or visit the jam bar to slather spiced maple butter or housemade jelly on thick toast sliced from crusty house-baked loaves. If only they served dinner.

Go to: Baker Miller

Thai: Andy’s Thai Kitchen

Portland, Ore., and New York might have Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame, but Chicago has its own Thai-genius Andy Aroonrasameruang. Like Ricker, Chicago’s Chef Aroonrasameruang serves authentic regional Thai fare, like fiery Isan sausage and funky fish-sauce-flavored papaya salad tossed with mouth-searing chiles and dried crab. Skip standard pad thai in favor of Kao Soy, a soothing, aromatic peanut-laced chicken curry filled with a yin-yang mix of cooked and crisped egg noodles. Chef Aroonrasameruang’s best dish is Crispy Onchoy, a tower of tempura-fried watercress and tender curled nubs of shrimp all swimming in a minty chile-lime sauce. The crisp watercress is an addictively worthy successor to the kale chip.

Go to: Andy’s Thai Kitchen

Rock Star Chef: Paul Kahan, One Off Hospitality

(Blackbird, Avec, Big Star, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Nico)

There are a lot of culinary dieties in the Windy City, but the dude everyone wants to break bread with is Kahan. In an era when most big-name chefs aim for celebrity, the humble and slightly shy Kahan rebuffed the cameras, instead putting his head down, pulling on his best Velvet Underground T-shirt, and serving up modern New American fare with a side of loud music and closely spaced tables. He blew minds early on at Blackbird with a modern riff on fresh California-style cuisine, including green garlic soup and ricotta-stuffed corn crepes. Today, though he’s the bedrock of a restaurant empire, you’re still likely to see him bicycling to work or deferring all attention to his sous chefs and business partners.

Photo by Derek Richmond

Go to: The Publican

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