The restaurant with Chicago's most dependably long line can't be found in the Loop or River North. Instead, make the trek up to the northwest neighborhood of Avondale for a chance to visit Hot Doug's, a shop completely dedicated to the glory of encased meats. As Ed has mentioned before, standing in line is half of the point. There you'll find natives and tourists alike, all waiting to devour some of the best sausages in town.
I get it. You're in Chicago and you want to eat deep dish. Though I'd like to steer you towards Great Lake's impeccable pies, or one of the other top new pizza joints in town, I realize that nothing will sway you from tasting the pizza named after this town. Luckily, this is easy: just go to Lou Malnati's. No need to search out some boutique deep dish outlet, because those don't exist. I mean, you could go to one of Lou Malanti's suburban locations, but you're going to get the same deliriously overloaded pie. The lean sausage is completely overrated (since when has lean sausage ever been a good idea?), but I there is no fault in the flavorful sauce or tangy cheese.
Though you'll be able to find a couple locations of Frontera Fresco and Tortas Frontera scattered around town, the center of the Rick Bayless universe still exists on a stretch of N. Clark between Hubbard and Illinios. There you'll find three very different restaurants—Frontera, Topolobampo, and Xoco—all dedicated to celebrating Mexican cuisine, all of them worth visiting. As far as a way to beat the crowds, there isn't one. Arrive early or go late. Otherwise, bring a book and wait in line with the rest of us.
It's kind of amazing that two of Chicago's most well known restaurants are located in the same northwestern neighborhood of Avondale. What Hot Doug's is to sausages in Chicago, Kuma's is to burgers. That is, this is the place if you like gargantuan burgers topped wih eggs, bacon, and whatever other salty, fatty ingredients just happens to be lying around. Just make sure to bring your appetite.
Kuma's Corner, 2900 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618 (map); 773-604-8769; kumascorner.com
Al's #1 Italian Beef
Why yes, when you order an Italian beef in Chicago, you'll have the option to get the whole sandwich dunked in gravy, wrapped up, and sent out with the juices just waiting to stain your clothes. This hilariously messy sandwich basically requires you to stand while you eat it, but it's not as cumbersome and heavy as you might imagine, probably due to the fact that there is no cheese involved. While there are many good options around, no other Italian beef in town tastes quite like the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor—not even the Al's #1 franchises (which are pretty good, if not quite up to the same standard). The meat roasts with a collection of spices, accentuating each bite while never overwhelming the beefy flavor. Get it "hot" with giardiniera—crunchy and only slightly spicy—and also "dipped."
Never have I strolled passed Big Star and seen it empty. Never. Doesn't matter if it's the dead of winter or some summery afternoon in July. Considering the crowds, Big Star could be forgiven for dishing out sub-par tacos as long as the margaritas kept coming, but the quality, even on the busiest nights, remains shockingly high. Getting a table to sip margaritas can take awhile, but if you just need a taco fix, head straight for the takeout window where you can usually get served in minutes. For some reason, though the al pastor always hits the spot, the vegetarian tacos are usually better.
You can scratch a shocking number of essential Chicago street food classics off your list with a stop by Portillo's. Need to try a Chicago-style hot dog? They have one of the best. Want to sample the Italian beef that recently won our "Best in City" honors? It's here. Hungry for a grilled Polish sausage covered in caramelized onions? Don't pass this one up. Thirsty for a Chocolate cake shake? Oh, well, that's not on most lists, but you should get it anyway.
Superdawg is an experience. It's an oldschool drive-in, complete with carhops, trays that hang on your window, and an intercom ordering system that works better some days than others. Though undoubtedly cool, Superdawg makes this list because it also delivers on food. The restaurant's eponymous hot dog sort of follows the Chicago-style hot dog rules, though it does use a pickled green tomato instead of the red kind. Plus it comes in a cute blue box with crunchy crinkle-cut fries buried underneath. If you're flying out of O'Hare, this is a good pit stop before you leave.
The newest "touristy" restaurant on the list, the Doughnut Vault catapulted into must-visit status by offering something Chicago wasn't really known for (doughnuts) and by doing so in a convenient location in River North. Lines are still long in the mornings and on weekends, but if you manage to hold off your fried dough craving until 10 a.m. or so, you can usually sneak right into the gorgeous little space. Then your only dilemma will be choosing between the buttermilk old fashioned ($2.00) or the yeasty glazed ($3.00) doughnuts.
The Billy Goat Tavern
Sure, I penned a diatribe against Billy Goat Tavern's Kaiser roll (which I think is too dense), but that shouldn't hide the fact that I basically love everything else about the place. From the subterranean location below the Tribune Tower to the loud but never obnoxious workers yelling "Cheezborger!" a few dozen times a minute, this place is definitely worth a visit. The skinny burgers get a nice sear on the hot griddle, and you can top them with as many of the restaurant's wonderful pickles as you desire. You, of course, can't order fries, but the chips help bulk this out into a fine meal. Later in the night, it also turns into a surprisingly good bar (in a divey kind of way).
So many restaurants were close to making the list. I mean, should The Gage be included? Its location across the street from Millennium Park is certainly touristy. Of course, the same could be said about The Purple Pig, which may be located off the Magnificent Mile, but sure doesn't feel like it. Thing is, those feel like great restaurants in popular locations. And what about Ann Sather's? It isn't located near downtown, but how can you deny those cinnamon rolls? On the other hand, the Michael Jordan Steakhouse is the very definition of a touristy joint, so should it be included just because it doesn't suck? (Try the garlic bread if you don't believe me.) Anyway, this is a start. Leave a comment and let us know a place you think should have made the list.