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: Neil Burger

Photo By: Galdones Photography

Photo By: Jason Little

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

Photo By: Jason Little

Photo By: Jason Little

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: Galdones Photography

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

Photo By: 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 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.

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.

Go to: Giant

Detroit-Style and Neapolitan Pizza: Paulie Gee’s

Given the longstanding rivalry with New York for civic supremacy, and the fact that we’re talking about some of Chicago’s most-essential spots, it might seem weird that a Brooklyn-born pizza joint would make this list. But Paulie Gee’s turns out some of Chicago’s best Detroit-style square pizzas, easily passing the Friday-night craving test. Which is to say, when your inhibitions are down, Gee’s pies are the ones you crave. The wood-fired and blistered crusts of their Neapolitan pies feature a cross-section of airy bubbles that look more like a croissant than a pizza, and the crispy caramelized cheese-edged Detroit squares have a killer crunch.

Pasta: Daisies

Daisies makes fantastic pastas, but the best pasta is, technically, not on the menu: hand-cut tajarin or tagliatelle-like noodles glazed with butter and dusted with parmesan, devised to satisfy picky kids. Those who stick to the menu will be well rewarded with toothsome options tossed with fresh produce from Chef Joe Frillman’s brother’s farm. Frillman’s definition of pasta is wide-ranging and also includes Babcia-worthy pierogi tossed with clams and lemon-saison broth.

Parisian Café Eats: Petit Margeaux

Even when you can’t get to Paris, it gets to you. Which is to say, the craving for a shattering macaron, a golden baguette or a flaky pain au chocolate eventually overtakes most of us. Thankfully, in this case, Chicagoans have Petit Margeaux, a hushed café located just off the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, which — with its heady coffee bean perfume, jewel-toned pastries, and crusty yeasty assortment of breads — fulfills all the French café clichés. But, it does so in a soulful way with a touch of modernity that staves off cheesiness. The French dip, shaved silky beef topped with a nest of golden caramelized onion, eats like a cross between Chicago’s famed Italian beef and a crock of French onion soup. Eclairs are classic, ganache-licked, custard-rich choux dough, but strawberry-chevre cheesecake, a mix of funky goat cheese and farm-fresh strawberry jam glaze, is delightfully unexpected.

Fried Shrimp: Haire’s Gulf Shrimp

Chicago is nowhere near an ocean and yet, fried shrimp shacks dot the landscape almost as much as Italian beef joints or deep-dish pizza parlors. Most places serve thick under-salted flour-laden clumps. Haire’s, however, purveys a light, golden crispy battered and butterflied shrimp so addictive, it can be eaten like popcorn. Though it needs no celebrity endorsement, Chance the Rapper has been spotted at this Southside gem.

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.

Go to: Duck, Duck, Goat

Thai: Rainbow

Great Thai places in Chicago are often revered for their secret menus and adherence to regional specialties like fermented chile-flecked Issan sausage, limey banana blossom salads and blow-your-head-off jungle curries. Fantastic versions of all of these exist at Rainbow, but ironically what sets it apart is the generally more mainstream pad see ew, which can be bland and gummy elsewehre. At Rainbow, you order it extra-crispy and get sweet fried noodles blistering with bubbles that crunch like fried chicken skin tossed with soy-lacquered beef and tufts of broccoli spears for a delicious reinvention of a classic.

Modern Mexican: Mi Tocaya Antojeria

Innovation in Chicago’s Mexican cooking scene has historically been confined to Rick Bayless restaurants and the occasional fast-food promotion. But Diana Davila’s Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Logan Square is rooted in tradition — like soulful rich moles — but also punctuated by furiously creative touches like pairing peanut butter with pastrami-like cured lengua, or serving frozen slushies filled with rosé and local Michigan farm strawberries.

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.

Go to: Kimski

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.

Go to: GT Prime

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

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.

Go to: Lena Brava

Scandinavian: Elske

Because of the overt influence of Noma, Danish cuisine conjures visions for many people of food wrapped in hay or edible algae. But the Danish-inspired Elske is less about crazy ingredients and techniques, and more about celebrating the spirit of hygge, or the Danish pursuit of cozy contentment. From the roaring patio fireplace to a comforting bowl of roast mushrooms swimming in pear cream, contentment is exactly what you get. Chefs David and Anna Posey push boundaries, serving up a shot of smoked fruit and vegetable tea or savory-skewing desserts like sunflower-seed parfait, but their creative efforts are always inspiring and never alienating.

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.

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.

Go to: Snaggletooth

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

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

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.

Go to: Swift & Sons Steakhouse

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.

Go to: Chiya Chai

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

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

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