Birria at Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan ($6.50)
This is comfort food with character. Sure, the birria is warming and filling, absolutely perfect for a cold winter evening, but each sip is also complex and fiercely spicy. I mean, just take a look at the ruby red broth! It's also stuffed with huge hunks of tender goat, which you can slurp up with a spoon, or fish out with a fork and fold into a tortilla. Part of the fun is also the chance to customize. I like to add a healthy helping of chopped onions, cilantro, and fresh lime juice, before laying on even more heat. Each table has a bowl full of whole toasted arbol chilies and two ridiculously spicy housemade salsas.
Res Taco at Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan ($2.00)
Though the birra is obviously the star here, this spot also serves up a satisfying collection of tacos. Interestingly, my favorite of the bunch is the res taco, which features supremely tender shredded beef bathed in an earthy red chile sauce. Why more places aren't trying to replicate this is beyond me.
Slice of Coconut Tres Leche Cake at Kristoffer's Cafe ($4.95)
It's hard to talk about the tres leche cake at Kristoffer's Cafe without getting all hyperbolic, so I'll try keep this short: if there is a better slice of tres leche cake out there, I'd like to know where. Each bite is so moist, it's like someone used a syringe to inject each and every crumb with liquid. So why is it not a soggy mess? Instead, it's cool and oddly refreshing, which essentially just tricks you into eating as much of it as possible. There are a number of different flavors, including a very good chocolate one, but the owner claimed the coconut as his favorite, and I'd have to agree.
Mexican Tamale at Kristoffer's Cafe ($2.50)
Here's my theory: the best tamales come from bakeries. Though none of the ingredients are expensive, tamales do require attention to detail—just the right amount of masa and filling need to be combined, wrapped up carefully, and then steamed to the point where the result is light and airy, not greasy and heavy. I had a hunch that Kristoffer's was up to the challenge after devouring the best slice of tres leche cake I've ever eaten my life. I was right. Unwrap the corn husk, and the sweet fragrance of steamed corn wafts up to your nose, just begging you to dig in. And once you do, you'll notice that your fork slides right through, almost without any pressure at all. If you need another excuse to love Kristoffer's Cafe, here you go.
Grilled Steak Taco from El Milagro ($3.09)
"The steak taco at Taqueria El Milagro is a feast. That's crunchy dressed cabbage on top, followed by steamy rice, and creamy beans. But even with all the toppings, which are standard with every order, the grilled steak manages to steal the show. Grilled until browned, the thin pieces are still the dominant flavor." Read more here >>
Tacos de Sabinas from Nuevo Leon ($8.00 for three)
"Each is stuffed with mounds of ribeye, grilled onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, cheese, and refried beans. That doesn't count the shredded lettuce, sliced raw onions, and two salsas served on the side. Add some rice to the mix, wrap it up, and you'd have yourself an over-sized burrito. The meat doesn't have much grilled flavor, but the hunks are juicy. Still, the beans are the highlight. Complex and creamy, they are speckled with whole cumin seeds, and absolutely loaded with pork fat. A light smear is all that is needed to transform each bite." Read more here >>
Italian Sausage and Pepper Sandwich at Il Vicinato's ($8.50)
Il Vicinato is a deeply confusing place. At first glance, it looks like every other average Italian-American joint in town, but that's all undercut by the fact that you can pay someone to valet your car. On a Monday. At lunch. On a street with lots of free spaces available. I'm not sure the absolutely massive Italian sausage and pepper sandwich will clear everything up, but you might care less after finishing it off. The kitchen chars a long Italian sausage until crisp, and then tosses it on an equally long bun with sweet roasted peppers. It's solid, dependable stuff. But it wouldn't be worth writing about without the heap of meat sauce ladled on top. Sure, it's ridiculous and over the top, but it's also oddly comforting. And as long as you avoid the bland fries, you won't feel too bad about yourself.
Breakfast Donuts at PI-zen ($5.00)
"Dusted in cinnamon-sugar, I'm pretty sure they're deep-fried in my childhood dreams, because they taste like the fried dough I grew up eating at state fairs in New England. What I did not grow up eating was strawberry-Pinot Grigio sauce, served alongside the munchkin-sized doughnut holes. Unlike the amorphous blobs that doughnut holes can sometimes be, these are crackly and golden brown, with a tender and puffy interior." Read more here >>
Crispy Pig Ears from Nightwood ($6.00)
"The title of this Nightwood classic is right on: each one of these suckers is teeth-shatteringly crispy. But there's more to this dish than just texture. They are also slightly sweet, which helps balance out the salty, meaty aspects of the pork. Still, it's impossible to properly explain why I polished of a whole order of these before the main course arrived." Read more here >>
Little Hotties at Take Me Out ($8.00)
"Take Me Out calls their wings 'Little Hotties,' and other than a few appetizers and some drinks, wings are the only item on the menu. They're sweet, sticky, salty, spicy, and loud in flavor, and with a little white rice, you've got some pretty solid take-out." Read more here >>
Burrito de Carne Asada at Del Toro ($4.50)
"Featuring just grilled skirt steak, beans, chihuahua cheese, lettuce, and tomato, it's manageable enough to pick up, and balanced enough that you can discern all the elements. It's also remarkably affordable, so no one will scoff if you order a second." Read more here >>
Carnitas Mixtas from Carnitas Don Pedro ($6.50 a pound)
"The carnitas at Don Pedro are slow simmered in lard in barrel-sized copper pots before the heat is upped at the end to allow them to crisp. Since we weren't exactly aficionados, my friend and I attempted to order a pound and a half of just boneless meat, but we ended up being served two pounds of carnitas mixtas ($13.00), which was comprised of costillas (rib sections), suave (dark meat), pierna (white leg meat), espadilla (shoulder), buche (stomach), and cuero (skin). The plate was overflowing and slightly intimidating, but we dug in... Two days later, I'm still licking my fingers." Read more here >>
Colorful Taquitos de Papa from DeColores ($6.95 for four)
"Only a restaurant that doubles as an art gallery could kick out taquitos de papa as simply gorgeous as these. I mean, taquitos de papa are just corn tortillas stuffed with mashed potatoes that are folded over and fried. Don't get me wrong; I happen to love them. But at DeColores in Pilsen, they are listed on the menu as 'colorful tequilas,' and that's no joke.
"But the toppings aren't just for decoration. Thin strands of squash, sugar beets, carrots, and choyote look beautiful, but also lighten each bite while also lending some subtle sweetness. The queso fresco sprinkled on top is a nice touch, but I'm more into the acidic and slightly spicy tomato citrus sauce around the base." Read more here >>
Festival Cookie at Chocolat Uzma Sharif ($1.25)
Honestly, every single piece of chocolate I tried at this boutique shop on Halsted is worth eating. In fact, the more you eat the happier you'll be. But I was particularly smitten with this crispy, crunchy offering, which featured both milk and dark chocolate, along with hazelnuts and toasted wafers. If one is simply not enough, you can also buy a box of them for $8.00.
Italian Beef Tamale at Dia de Los Tamales ($3.00)
Scoff all you want, but this Italian beef and tamale combo at the recently opened Dia de Los Tamales makes much more sense than you'd think. Just north of Pilsen is Little Italy, where Al's #1 Beef has been slinging out beefs since about 1938. It's about time that the dish made the trek down to 18th street. Plus, crunchy, spicy giardiniera is almost never a bad idea.
Carnitas Taco from Carnitas Uruapan ($2.29)
"As glorious and delicious as they are, carnitas can be intimidating. Walk into any of the most well-known carnitas places in Chicago, and you won't see a menu or be given a rundown of the daily specials. Instead, you'll be asked how many pounds of fried pork you want... Luckily, Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen solves that problem by offering a carnitas taco on its everyday menu. So while you can go the by-the-pound route (which is still pretty cheap), two or three carnitas tacos will do for a very filling lunch." Read more here >>
Tamale from La Casa Del Pueblo ($1)
"Like the grocery store of the same name located next door, everything about La Casa Del Pueblo is a step above the average taqueria. The steam tables are loaded with wonderful looking fillings, and the tamales are well made and filling, but still not too greasy." Read more here >>
Grilled Portobello Sandwich from Simone's ($8.00)
"There's no doubt that the place could coast on the food and still pack the crowds, so it's heartening to see that even normally routine offerings, like a Grilled Portobello Sandwich ($8.00), is given some genuine thought and care. The dish comes with thin slices of the meaty mushrooms, along with gooey cheddar, and bright green pesto. It's not a life changing meal, but it is solidly constructed and perfect to pair with a drink of your choice." Read more here >>
Torta Cubano at La Cebollita Grill ($5.95)
"Packed with calorie-laden ingredients, this sandwich is the kind of thing you eat before entering a month or two of hibernation. The long list of ingredients includes a fried egg, a hot dog, ham, avocado, mayonnaise, buttered bread, and cheese oozing out the sides. Essentially, it's everything you find yourself craving around 3 a.m. All this richness is balanced out by the slightly sweet acidity and heat of the pickled jalapeños." Read more here >>
Deluxe Tots at Skylark ($4.50)
"Like that song from the 80s that you've long-since forgotten about, then you hear randomly on the radio, tots take me to a special time and place. At Skylark, that transcendental experience will only set you back $3.50, or get the deluxe package for an extra buck with honey mustard, ranch, and barbecue sauces. They are crispy (not greasy), salty, and piled high. A must."Read more here >>
Green BLT Sandwich at Honky Tonk BBQ ($8.00)
"The two sliders collectively known as the Green BLT Sandwich are well worth your attention. What they lack in stature (I could have eaten three, easily), they make up with wonderfully controlled flavors. The sheriff of this here town is the clearly the perfectly crunchy fried green tomatoes, which flash the badge of requisite texture, but also dig their spurs in with just the right amount of tang." Read more here >>