Pot of Pickles at Owen & Engine ($7)
This classed-up British-style pub serves a composed pot of pickles atop blue-and-white china. I ate, from bottom to top, crispy strips of red bell pepper, wrinkly Napa cabbage, tiny bite-sized button mushrooms, exactly one radish, rhubarb slices, cucumber medallions, and thin onion slices. Each vegetable is pickled individually, so every zesty bite adds a new flavor to the table; and the variety of texture made it shine. Best were the soft, chewy, grassy mushrooms; the cucumbers, peppery and dusky with warm spices; and the perfectly crunchy pink onions.
Daily Pickles at the Publican ($4)
The Publican’s daily pickles, as with many of those I tried, change according to season and the kitchen staff’s mood. On this particular evening I got a stack of mild turmeric-colored cauliflower, a few whole garlic cloves (great with the fresh bread and butter, but exactly as potent as you’d think), mustardy cucumbers and slender strands of white onion. All of this was crowned with a knockout addition: big slabs of purple-red onion rings. They were thick and crunchy, super sweet, and tasted exactly like a bright Christmas morning. (They added nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and star anise to the brine.)
Pickles at Yusho ($6)
If I’m allowed to pick a favorite, these pickles stole my heart. The bowl contained the most surprising diversions from classic pickles I’ve had, heavy in earthy umami flavor.
You don’t find much vinegary tartness among the assortment of mainly root vegetables, but rather a sweet, concentrated flavor funkified by fish sauce, soy, and fermented garlic and honey. It was pretty to look at—a difficult feat to pull off with pickles—mainly thanks to the lotus root, which turned a gorgeous red in beetroot juice. The burdock root and strands of kombu seaweed added interest—chewiness and a fishy saltiness, respectively. I could have put away a brimming bowl of just the carrots—dark, sweet, fermented, and marinated through and through—or the baby cucumber slices, speckled with black sesame, and pickled in fiery rice vinegar.
Mom’s Pickles at Pecking Order ($2.50 for medium order)
Mom’s Pickles are probably the sweetest pickles I’ve ever had, with just a touch of sour to tell you what they are. They were as thinly mandolined as veggies can be, with jicama, ginger, daikon, and carrots. I loved the tiny elephant-ear folds of sliced white jicama, which I have never eaten pickled and had the most bizarrely wonderful, summer-perfect texture. Just as with water chestnuts or watermelon, your teeth meet no resistance until about halfway through the bite, and then you get the a crisp, pleasant release of sweetened rice vinegar-y juice.
Pickle Tasting at Big Jones ($11)
The composed pickle tasting at Big Jones evokes the restaurant’s Southern roots with additions like halved okra, baby peaches, and Piccadilly and chow chow relishes. To cut all of that vinegar, the platter is served with soft, sweet bread slices and a fat round of sweet cream honey butter for slathering on top.
Dill was a generous flavor here, and everything was slightly spicy, but each pickle brought its own flavor to the fore: the ramp greens were especially garlicky, while the minced pile of Piccadilly relish was sweet and dotted with whole mustard seeds. I was dubious about the baby peaches—they looked like shrunken pecans still in the shell—but they were a delicious surprise. The velvety exterior was sour, while the lush sweetness of the soft fruit inside was still intact. The more porous strawberries didn’t survive the pickling half as well; they turned to a bit of a gel after a couple of chews.
Dill Pickle Spears at Bang Bang Pie Shop ($.50 a spear)
The smell and taste of the dill pickles at Bang Bang, one of the pie shop’s savory offerings, call to mind the county fairs of my childhood. And at 50 cents a spear, they’re priced to match that vibe. Choose between sweet and spicy; they’re both pickled in feathery fresh dill, crunchy bits of garlic and kosher salt, with the addition of red pepper flakes in the spicy version. I preferred mild, which was only very slightly sour and achieved a harmony of sweet and salty on first bite, suiting Bang Bang nicely—that’s the magic combination in nearly all of co-founder and baker Megan Miller’s pies.
Bowl of Pickled Things at Fountainhead ($7)
Fountainhead’s whimsically-named “bowl of pickled things” changes daily with whatever exec chef Cleetus Friedman finds at local markets or plucks from the bar-restaurant’s garden near the train tracks. I had a kind of Easter-colored, vinegar-scented bouquet of heirloom turnips, golden beets, cucumbers, another lone radish, tiny top-on carrots, and loose peas. The brine was a little too vinegar-focused, but I always admire a dedication to locally-grown freshness.
Bread and Butter Pickles at Billy Sunday ($5)
The bread and butter pickles are one of the bites you can order to go along with your mixology at this serious-cocktail spot off Logan Square. The jar is composed of a trio—pepperoncini, cauliflower, and cucumber—that together pull off the holy trifecta of pickle flavor perfection: spicy from the pepperoncini, salty from the cauliflower, and sweet from the dill cucumber.