Slideshow: Nick's Best Chicago Bites of 2013

Hot Brown at Billy Sunday
Hot Brown at Billy Sunday

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

A hot brown that is balanced? Though I grew up near Louisville, I'd never seen one until I encountered this beautiful plate at Billy Sunday, which managed to tame the classic without losing its essential character.

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Dry Aged Ribeye Steak at Owen & Engine
Dry Aged Ribeye Steak at Owen & Engine

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Steak at Owen & Engine, which is basically an English pub? Yes! When you source excellent dry aged beef and cook it to medium rare, it doesn't matter what kind of restaurant you are. Plus, there is something genuinely satisfying about a restaurant unashamed of loading a plate with bright green broccoli and soft Yorkshire pudding.

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Wedge Salad at Bavette's
Wedge Salad at Bavette's

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Though it serves steak, I find it hard to call Bavette's a steakhouse, especially since so many things besides the beef on the menu are worth ordering. So while the dry-aged steak is great (stellar, actually) it was the wedge salad that I couldn't stop thinking about when I left. What set it apart? Perhaps it was the thin and tangy ranch, the crunchy lettuce, the generous sprinkling of fresh herbs, or the smoky thick-cut bacon. Actually, it was probably how all of those elements worked together to make one flawless salad.

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Carne Asada Taco at L' Patron
Carne Asada Taco at L' Patron

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

As much as I love chefs fussing over tacos, sometimes I just want one with freshly grilled hunks of beef, soft tortillas, and a vibrant and spicy salsa to bring it all together. L'Patron delivers on all accounts, serving up some of the juiciest carne asada you'll find anywhere in Chicago.

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Fried Chicken at Honey Butter Fried Chicken
Fried Chicken at Honey Butter Fried Chicken

[Photograph: Joe Roy]

Sure, the sides are incredible, but the namesake dish at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale is the real reason to make a visit. Few places lavish their birds with such attention, from the flavorful brine and buttermilk dip to, yes, the decision to remove the bones from most of the pieces. Some have questioned that latter point, but I seriously doubt that bones in fried chicken lend much flavor. Though not exactly the same thing, Kenji found that while the bone on a ribeye helped insulate the meat, it lent no discernible flavor. In fact, by removing the bones, I think the pieces are able to cook more evenly, resulting in juicer meat.

40 Day Dry-Aged Ribeye at David Burke's Primehouse
40 Day Dry-Aged Ribeye at David Burke's Primehouse

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

While I have a soft spot for the whole steakhouse experience—the fawning service, the impeccable and simply prepared seafood, the ridiculously oversized cuts of beef—I only visit them occasionally. And it helps if someone else is paying, because steakhouses are kind of obnoxiously expensive (I know, such a shock). Currently, the only unabashed steakhouse I'd actually spend my own money on is David Burke's, because no other place in town dry ages beef with such dedication and care. I haven't tested the extremes of the aged spectrum (one day I'll get to the 75 day cut), but I can comment on the 40 day dry-aged ribeye, which beautifully balances the unrestrained beefiness you'd expect from such a huge cut, with an exciting aroma of blue cheese funkiness.

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Beef Tsukune Slider at Sumi Robata Bar
Beef Tsukune Slider at Sumi Robata Bar

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

As I mentioned in my initial review, the beef tsukune slider at Sumi looks small, but it is anything but weak. The light and airy bun holds a ground beef mixture that reminds me somewhat of a Wisconsin bratwurst fresh off the grill. And yes, that is most definitely a compliment.

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Italian Beef at Bari
Italian Beef at Bari

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Not only did this change the way I thought about Italian beefs, it led me to find a whole new group of great options. But as good as many of those are, Bari's still stands out as one of the best Italian beefs I've ever tried thanks to the extra beefy gravy and tender slices of meat.

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Mini Housemade Chili Hot Dog at Old Town Social
Mini Housemade Chili Hot Dog at Old Town Social

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Old Town Social makes its own hot dogs, something very few other places bother to do because it's a lot harder than it sounds. The small sausages are put to great use in the Chicago style hot dog, but I'm going to have to give the edge to the chili dog. My only complaint is that you can't buy these by the dozen.

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Tacos de Canasta at La Chilangueada
Tacos de Canasta at La Chilangueada

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

You need to know two things about the tacos de canasta at La Chilangueada. First, since they are prepared to order and not left to steam in a container, they aren't strictly traditional. Second, none of that matters because they are delicious. Instead of the usual gang of greasy griddled meats, fillings like papas con chorizo, rajas con queso, and chicharrón con chile are folded into some of thinnest and lightest handmade tortillas in town.

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Crispy Redfish Tacos at Takito Kitchen
Crispy Redfish Tacos at Takito Kitchen

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Takito isn't the first restaurant to reconceptualize iconic dishes from other cuisines as tacos, but what sets this Wicker Park joint apart is how mindful it is of what makes tacos so great in the first place. Nothing showcases this delicate balance better than the crispy redfish tacos, which incorporates some elements from Vietnamese bánh mì, while remaining petite and portable.

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Fire Chicken at Dancen
Fire Chicken at Dancen

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Forget chicken wings, these crispy, spicy hunks of grilled chicken at Dancen are what you should be pairing with your pint. Or, since you're in a Korean bar, why not order up a massive bowl of makgeolli?

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Grilled Fish Hot Pot at Ma Gong La Po
Grilled Fish Hot Pot at Ma Gong La Po

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

How could I not fall for this dish at Ma Gong La Po? Crunchy fried fish (not, as would make sense, grilled) sits in a rectangular tub of bubbling broth laced with dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. While great on its own, it begs for other sides to toss in like cabbage and tofu.

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Gobi Manchurian at Rangoli
Gobi Manchurian at Rangoli

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

I already knew I loved roasted cauliflower, but who knew that fried cauliflower was so good? At Rangoli, it's lightly battered and then fried until crunchy, sautéed with aromatics like ginger and garlic, and then tossed in a chili sauce that is as spicy as it is red.

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