I could honestly care less about how cute Antique Taco is (though it most definitely is adorable), but that's not why I've probably eaten here more this year than any other new restaurant. Instead, I go for the flawlessly constructed tacos served on handmade tortillas. As I've mentioned before, these are taco concepts, a term that sounds like a dig if they weren't so impeccably done. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they have a host of great sides or that you can wash it down with a margarita.
Publican Quality Meats
Of all the concepts I knew were opening in 2012, none sounded like more of a sure thing than Publican Quality Meats. I mean, how could a Paul Kahan butcher shop be anything other than astonishing? And from the very beginning, it was. In fact, with a range of funky, flavorful house-cured meats served on selection of crusty bread, PQM managed to somehow over-deliver. The only frustrating part was having to settle on one sandwich to try. (Though I found ways around that.)
Bill Kim has been serving exceptional food in tiny spaces for years now, but with BellyQ he finally gets space to stretch out. He uses the extra room to explore the many ways fire can flavor food, from slowly smoking to grilling over high heat. Even BQ2GO, the little to-go operation on the west side of the building is worth checking out.
For his second restaurant, chef Chris Pandel went big—really big—delivering an epic menu to play against the gargantuan Lincoln Park space. So why does a meal here still feel cozy and gregarious, instead of cavernous and empty? I think it's the food, which is good natured and humble, yet always dynamic and flavorful. I especially love the pizzas, with their raised cheese studded crusts.
Bang Bang Pie Company
You know those places that excel at doing one thing and one thing only? They are slackers. Bang Bang Pie Company only serves three things—pie, biscuits, and coffee—yet each one is astonishing. Considering the name, it makes sense that the pie would be good. But I'm just as smitten with the buttery biscuits and the warming coffee.
Brendan Sodikoff has a way of delivering restaurants Chicago didn't know it needed. Last year came both Maude's Liquor Bar and the Doughnut Vault. While Au Cheval serves some undeniably tasty food, Bavette's is the real winner. Where Maude's is cramped and chaotic, Bavette's is serene and peaceful. It feels old school, but never stuffy. Part of that is due to the menu of bistro classics, including one of the best roast chickens I've ever sampled.
Lao Ma La
Though it sometimes feels that way, I don't fall in love with every single new Tony Hu restaurant. He just opens so many that odds are I'll find one a year that excites me. This year it was Lao Ma La, a restaurant completely dedicated to the union of spicy chiles and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. It's the kind of sensory overload that some might find overwhelming or taxing, but which I find enthralling.
Finally, a sushi restaurant that everyone can love. Want pristine fish sliced elegantly and served simply? That's here. Love the thrill of wild combinations, but like avoiding too much mayo? Kai Zan delivers the goods. Plus, instead of the standard sleek sushi decor that feels cold and withdrawn, this place is warm and welcoming.
If charcuterie is the heart of Old Town Social, house-milled flour is the center of chef Jared Van Camp's second project. Here it is transformed into blistered thin-crust pizzas and delicate pastas. But while the food tastes like it could come from some tiny mom and pop joint, it is served in one of the most opulent dining rooms in the West Loop (which is saying something). It's this conflict between high and low that fascinates me. Well, that and the drop dead gorgeous patio.
When New Yorkers complain about food they can't find in Chicago, fresh bagels and blistered thin-crust pizza basically top every list. Which explains why Reno, which defiantly serves both, can initially come across as less of a restaurant and more of a dare. But that lasts only as long as it takes for you to bite in to one of the hand-rolled sesame bagels. Baked in the wood-fired oven, its crisp exterior gives way to a slightly chewy interior. As I mentioned on my best bites list, it's the best bagel I've ever tasted in Chicago—by far. But don't discount the pizza, with its crackly charred crust.
Best New Stand: Phil's Last Stand
Chicago has a number of recognizable restaurant owners who are as much a part of a visit as the food (See: Hot Doug's). This year we were all introduced to Phil, who lords over Phil's Last Stand, making sure each and every Fatso burger and char dog is cooked right.
Best Restyled Menu: Masa Azul
Jonathan Zaragoza's completely new menu at Masa Azul finally means the food can match the ambition of the restaurant's incredible drink menu. And much like cocktails, the food is modern and deceptively simple, never showy or stuck in the past.
Best New Pizza Joint: Armitage Pizzeria
Talk about no frills. This minuscule operation on Armitage Avenue (hence the name) is as straightforward as they come. Luckily, owner James Spillane's idea of straightforward is a flawless East Coast-style thin crust pizza, with no odd flavor combinations to get in the way. It's hard to think of a better summer plan than an impromptu picnic in nearby Oz Park with one of these pies for dinner.
Best New Bar Food: Barcito
Finally, Barcito gives Chicago a tapas restaurant that actually keeps things simple. Instead of dressing things up, it's all about the basics of thinly sliced ham, salty cheeses, and fresh oysters.