Slideshow: Nick's 12 Best Bites in Chicago From 2012

Tuna Muffaletta at Publican Quality Meats ($12.00)
Tuna Muffaletta at Publican Quality Meats ($12.00)
Eating all of the sandwiches at Publican Quality Meats was one of the more rewarding experiences of the year, especially since each sandwich was so unique and delicious. But if I had to choose my favorite of the bunch, it'd have to be the tuna muffaletta. It never occurred to me that tuna could be used in the classic New Orleans sandwich, the huge hunks of fish, lightly brined olives, and just a few pickled chiles, prove that but Paul Kahan and company sure know what they are doing here. This take on the New Orleans' classic trades the standard layers of cured meat for huge hunks of poached albacore tuna--a strange twist that doesn't immediately sound like it would work. But all the other elements are adjusted, too. The olives in the olive salad are only lightly brined, while some pickled chiles add a slight bit of heat. It's all held in a focaccia with tonnato sauce, which isn't nearly as dense as you expect it to be. Read more here >>

Publican Quality Meats, 825 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60661 (map); 312-445-8977; publicanqualitymeats.com

Soft Shell Crab Taco at Big & Little's ($7.50)
Soft Shell Crab Taco at Big & Little's ($7.50)
Yep, that's a whole soft shell crab on a tortilla. This taco at Big & Little's sparked my desire to try and eat all the tacos on the menu, an ultimately futile quest that was nonetheless worth all the delicious pain. Looking back at this one, it's easy to see why I became so intrigued. The sweet crab expertly coated in a greaseless and crispy batter. I wouldn't call the thing easy to eat, but sometimes it pays to dig in with both hands without worry of the mess. Read more here >>
Poppy Seed Bagel at Reno ($2.25)
Poppy Seed Bagel at Reno ($2.25)
I'm unsure whether it's wise to include a dish from such a new restaurant, but the bagels from Reno deserve to make the list. As I found out during my first look of the place, each and every bagel is made by hand. A small ball of dough is stretched until it forms a ring. Sprinkled with one of five different toppings (poppy seed is my personal favorite), they are then cooked in a wood-fired oven where they develop a crackly crust while maintaining a chewy interior. Honestly, I haven't eaten a bagel in Chicago that has come anywhere close to this level. Read more here >>
Pork Carnitas Tacos at Antique Taco ($7 for two)
Pork Carnitas Tacos at Antique Taco ($7 for two)
Carnitas are usually a cause to, pardon the pun, pig out. What else would you expect from crispy bits of pork cooked in their own fat? But Antique Taco decided to lighten things up by pairing the filling with a classic spinach and bacon salad. The vinegar cut through the fat, while spinach made it seem that much more reasonable. Of course, the handmade tortillas and great salsas also helped. Read more here >>
House Special Grilled Fish in Spicy Pan at Lao Ma La ($22.95)
House Special Grilled Fish in Spicy Pan at Lao Ma La ($22.95)
It's hard to explain, especially considering my Midwest upbringing, but I'm not sure if there is another restaurant in town that smells as comforting to me as Lao Ma La. The aroma of fragrant Sichuan peppercorns and sharp chiles smacks your nose so forcefully when you enter, you'd think that the kitchen had some bubbling cauldron of the stuff in the back. But it's probably just the numerous tables eating fish in spicy pan, which is exactly what it sounds like. A fish is grilled and then tossed in a broth of the aforementioned peppercorns and chiles. Each bite brings a rush of heat to your nose, which is only calmed by the complete numb of your face. Make sure to get a bunch of vegetables to toss in the pan, too. Basically anything tossed in here will be great. Read more here >>
Citrus Ice at BellyQ ($6)
Citrus Ice at BellyQ ($6)
Last year it felt like every restaurant was making soft serve and all of it was... fine. I like soft serve, but none of them competed with the best ice cream out there. Leave to Bill Kim to get it right. The citrus ice at BellyQ played of soft serves airy nature, pairing it with yuzu tapioca pearls, and cutting it with citrus. I couldn't ask for a more delicate or refreshing dessert. Read more here >>
The Paul Kelly Bratwurst at Hot Doug's ($3.50)
The Paul Kelly Bratwurst at Hot Doug's ($3.50)
If you don't remember, a group of us ate every single item at Hot Doug's. Yes, it was awesome. But the results of the feast were also surprising. While it was so much fun to try all the speciality sausages and the regular menu items that I'd never considered ordering before (the corn dog!), my favorite item is the one I've known about for awhile. The Paul Kelly bratwurst is an embarrassment of riches, punctuated by a tender grilled sausage, tart sauerkraut, and spicy mustard. It's my desert island Hot Doug's pick. Read more here >>
Cheesesteak at Monti's ($10.95 for 8
Cheesesteak at Monti's ($10.95 for 8")
When I moved to Chicago, I feel like I took an official oath to the Italian beef, swearing off all other thinly sliced beef sandwiches. Of course, it helped that most of the cheesesteaks available here aren't worth the cheese sauce poured on top. That is, until Monti's opened up in Lincoln Square, and immediately started serving the best cheesesteak this city had ever seen. In fact, this stood up admirably to Jim's Steak in Philadelphia (the favorite of the four cheesesteak shrines I've visited). Tender shards of beef are held in a tender and crusty roll, with some salty and pungent cheese helping to cut through. I'm certainly unwilling to give up on the Italian beef just yet, but this sandwich proved that the cheesesteak certainly has its place. Read more here >>
Cecina de Venado Estilo Guerrero at La Casa de Samuel ($15.95)
Cecina de Venado Estilo Guerrero at La Casa de Samuel ($15.95)
Everyone loves the tortillas at La Casa de Samuel, as they should. But there are plenty of other wonderful things on the menu, including some incredible cecina. My immediate reaction still stands: "I've had some great cecina before, but none have been quite this funky and flavorful. You can tell the meat was properly marinated, because even though it comes sliced with the grain, the cecina is still tender. It makes sense that this is probably the restaurant's most famous dish, but for those who just want a sample, the cecina taco ($1.85) has all the elements rolled up and ready to go." Read more here >>