Serious Eats City Guide: Chicago
Editor's Note: Back again with another Serious Eats City Guide, this time we check in with Michael Nagrant, our normal Chicago go-to guy. As you probably know already, he checks in with us regularly, and also publishes Hungry magazine. Michael has still never met an organ meat he didn't like, and hopes to meet many more. As always, chime in with agreement, or feel free to alert us to any Chicago eats we've overlooked.
Best Deep-Dish Pizza
The butter crust deep dish at Pizano's has less heft and more flavor than gut bomb tourist attractions like Gino's and Giordano's, and you won't throw your back out lifting a slice. Burt's Place and Pequod's Pizzeria Sicilian bakery style pies with their airy bread crust and caramelized cheese haloes also match up.
Best Non-Deep-Dish Pizza
For Neapolitan style, the bubbly crust and fresh ingredients at Spacca Napoli. For crackly Chicago-style thin cracker crust cut up into little squares and topped with thick knobs of fresh Italian sausage: Vito & Nick's Pizzeria.
If you like World War II era style freshly ground and griddled thin patties, try Top-Notch Beefburgers or Grant's Wonderburger Grill. If you like big thick fatties with fried eggs and bacon and the like, try Kuma's Corner. For high end, it's tough to beat the grass-fed sirloin burger on brioche at North Pond.
Top-Notch Beefburgers: 2116 W 95th Street, Chicago IL 60643 (map); 773-445-7218. Grant's Wonderburger Grill: 11045 South Kedzie Avenue, Chicago IL 60655 (map); 773-238-7200. Kuma's Corner: 2900 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago IL 60618 (map); 773-604-8769. North Pond: 2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago IL 60614 (map); 773-477-5845.
Best Ice Cream
For crazy fancy concoctions like Merlot or Jack Daniel's, check out Bobtail. For seasonal fresh fruit infused ice cream including peach and blueberries, you'll want Cunis Candies. If you like creamy custard instead, try Scooter's.
Bobtail: multiple locations. Cunis Candies: 1030 East 162nd Street, South Holland IL 60473 (map); 708-596-2440. Scooter's Frozen Custard: 1658 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657 (map); 773-244-6415. (Previous Chicago ice cream coverage)
Best Late Night Eats
Check out Hai Woon Dae for smoky Korean barbecue and enough free panchan to purge the alcohol from your bloodstream. On the high end, it's tough to beat Avec--nothing says late night comfort like chorizo-stuffed madjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce.
If you like your authentic Sicilian pastry served with a side of magical realism, the fantastic hand-made, dreamlike confections of Pasticceria Natalina, including maybe the best cannoli in America, are worth the calories.
Pasticceria Natalina: 5406 North Clark Street, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-989-0662.
Best "Date Night" Spot
Double Li or Khan BBQ. Sure, you could take your future significant other to NoMI, L20, or Alinea, but if they are so pretentious or coddled that they can't get past the storefront vibe, the hardcore ethnic crowds, and the no-nonsense preparations to enjoy what are arguably some of the best examples of Chinese and Pakistani cooking in Chicago, you definitely don't want to be dating them for long. Think of these spots as "weeder" date spots, so you don't have to mess around wasting large bucks on someone at the high-end places you were going to break up with anyway. Even if the date sucks, the food won't.
Best Japanese Food and Sushi
I find that once you get past impeccable ingredients, sushi really comes down to a cult of personality of a great chef thing, and Chef Byung Kyu Park (or just BK) at Aria bar is a master sushi-dude. From light to heavy to, yes dessert sushi, BK courses out raw fish like a master chef constructing the perfect tasting menu.
Aria: 200 N Columbus Drive, Chicago IL 60601 (map); 312-444-9494.
Best Non-Japanese Asian Food
Funky fish paste laden porky balls of issan sausage, lemongrass and pepper flecked Kai Thawt or Thai fried chicken, not to mention killer jungle curries are yours at Spoon Thai.
Spoon Thai: 4608 North Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-769-1173.
Best Cocktail Lounge
The pomp and circumstance of pre-prohibition era dressed bartenders spanking the hell out of herbs and muddling like mad, furiously serving up seasonal spirits filled with homemade bitters and fresh liquor infusions at Violet Hour is a liquid period piece. If you prefer a one-man show and a bit of Latin music, try Adam Seger's seasonal farmers market inspired bar stand at Nacional 27.
For family-owned and operated mom-and-pop honest red sauce and handmade pasta, try Gennaro's. If you want to gourmet it up, Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia has been the man for years, and he continues to be.
Gennaro's: 1352 West Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-243-1035. Spiaggia: 980 North Michigan Avenue # 2, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 312-280-2750.
For Oaxacan style eats, including the artery clogging Cemita Atomico and the well-seasoned smoky chipotle-topped Tacos Arabes, don't miss Cemitas Puebla. If you're looking to make a transition from Chipotle to more Mexico City style fare, hit up Taqueria Moran and check out their adobado. If you like to keep it straight pig, the carnitas at Carnitas Uruapan will make you squeal.
Cemitas Puebla: 3619 West North Avenue, Chicago IL (map); 773-772-8435. Taqueria Moran: 2226 North California Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-235-2663. Carnitas Uruapan: 1725 West 18th Street, Chicago IL 60608 (map); 312-226-2654.
Best Bargain Lunch
For $3.95, you get to choose two killer Szechuan options from a laundry list of awesome choices (don't miss the Ma Po Tofu and Kung Pao chicken), plus a mountain of rice, and a bowl of soup at Spring World.
Spring World: 2109 South China Place, Chicago IL 60616 (map); 312-326-9966.
Most Worth a Splurge
Alinea. You can argue whether that, El Bulli, Fat Duck, or Per Se is the best in the world, but one thing's for sure: considering the custom service ware, maybe the best wine program in the world, not to mention the imaginative food, there's nothing like Alinea anywhere else.
Alinea: 1723 North Halsted Street, Chicago IL 60614 (map); 312-867-0110.
Best Ethnic Market
If you're looking for a one stop spot for cheap rice cookers, crab candy, jackfruit, kalbi, and a quick bibimbap lunch snack, Joong Boo is the place.
Joong Boo: 3333 North Kimball Avenue, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-478-5566.
Best Hot Dog
Though it's totally predictable, we're not ashamed to crown Hot Doug's. Even his windy city salad dog with caramelized onion and a bit of a grill char is the best. Though, for a Maxwell Street polish, you shouldn't miss a late night visit to Jim's Original.
Best Eastern European Butcher
I imagine many folks will say Paulina and it's hard to argue with their custom sausage selection (check the turducken and brats), but like a good drug dealer, the crew at Gepperth's, will get you anything you need, whenever you need it. Not to mention, their house-cured bacon is awesome.
If you want great cue with a culinary point of view, Chicago's best brisket, and great sides try Smoque BBQ. If you want handcrafted aquarium smoked ribs with a touch of sweet and spice sauce, it's Honey 1.
The non-rolling cart dim sum at Shui Wah. Best chicken feet on the planet.
Shui Wah: 2162 South Archer Avenue, Chicago IL 60616 (map); 312-225-8811.
Best Bar Food
Though this will likely change with the opening of The Publican and The Bristol, the duck pastrami reuben and Belgian steamed mussels and frites at Hopleaf are the way to go.
The Publican: 845 West Fulton Market, Chicago IL 6067 (map); The Bristol: 2152 North Damen Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-862-5555. Hopleaf Bar: 5148 North Clark Street, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-334-9851.
Go-To Restaurant for an Evening Out
On the high end, L20, where Laurent Gras brings a culinary sensibility and a ridiculous Versailles-type luxury to raw and cured fish preparations, including meyer lemon cured fluke weighted down with a golf ball-sized dome of osetra caviar. On the mid-upscale end, you'll never be disappointed by Blackbird.
Best Neighborhood Pub
With plenty of velvet Elvises, collages made from H.W. Bush bumper stickers, and Clark bar wrappers, Innertown Pub's kitsch rules. Of course, if you're downtown, the wainscoted womb of the Berghoff will keep ya too. For bourbon and beer and punk rock and porn, Delilah's in Lakeview.
Innertown Pub: 1935 West Thomas Street, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-235-9795. Berghoff: 17 West Adams Street, Chicago IL 60603 (map); 312-427-3170. Delilah's: 2771 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-472-2771.
Best Wine Bar
If it's strictly about the wine and charcuterie, Juicy Wine Company. If it's also about a full hot food selection, then check out the grapes and the bone marrow appetizer at Volo.
Best Italian Beef
As Detroit's sage poet, Eminem, once said, "All you other Slim Shadys are just imitating, so won't the real Slim Shady please stand up." The Italian beef world is crowded with thousands of corner shacks serving up indiscriminate reheated pre-packaged beef from Scala or Vienna on a thick roll. As a result, a great beef rises when it has a few simple outlying qualities. In the case of the original Taylor Street location of Al's, those qualities include freshly roasted meat with 11 herbs and spices, including a definite sweet nutmeg warmth, as well as hot fennel giardiniera. Though, a close second is Chickie's hot pepper topped beef version featuring wafer thin sliced green pepper and onion that offers a tongue satisfying crunchy textural counterpoint to the soft layers of meat. Though sometimes, beef needs a buddy, and the "combo" featuring a hunk of Italian sausage is best at Johnnie's in Elmwood Park where the links are hardwood charcoaled fired and the beef is so thin, it's almost translucent.
Al's: 1079 W Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-226-4017. Chickie's: 2839 South Pulaski Road, Chicago IL 60623 (map); 773-277-2333. Johnnie's: 7500 West North Avenue, Elmwood Park IL 60707 (map); 708-452-6000.
Must Eat Before Leaving
Mario's Italian Lemonade. Italian ice with a lemonade base, featuring tons of zest and fat chunks of seasonal fruit served with a side of history and community is hands down one of the most exciting and emblematic chow experiences in Chicago.
Mario's Italian Lemonade: 1068 West Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60686 (map).