Posted: Aug 09, 2017
If you're coming to Chicago for deep dish, well, you need to try harder.
I don’t own a single piece of Cubs paraphernalia. I don’t have Chicago’s four-star flag tattooed on my forearm. I don’t care if you put ketchup on a hot dog. But there’s one thing from my hometown that I will absolutely go to bat for, and here it is: Chicago is clearly America’s most exciting city to eat in right now.
As a Chicago native who covered the city’s food scene for years as a local restaurant critic, I’m obligated to tell you that my hometown has always been able to hold its own against the best food cities in the country. But I can’t remember a time that I’ve been as psyched to eat there as I’ve been this year. Where other cities fall into soulless trend cycles, Chicago has a way of generating distinctively personal restaurants. So, SF and L.A., this might hurt a little, but here’s all the proof you need that the Midwest is best.
1. Dessert Comes First
Sweets as beautiful as works of art are nothing new. The problem is that they often taste as good as eating an actual canvas. What makes Anna Posey’s desserts at Elske (one of our Top 50 Best New Restaurants in America) unusual is that they’re so modern-looking and visually arresting that they could exist only in 2017—and yet they’re as simply pleasurable to eat as a classic slice of pie. The only challenge posed to the desserts at Elske is that the rest of the menu, from Anna’s husband, David—the former chef of Blackbird—is equally impressive: Every dish has a clean, contemporary look without sacrificing deliciousness.
2. A Suburban Food Court Is One of the Most Exciting Places to Eat
The International Mall in Westmont, Illinois, 22 miles from downtown Chicago, is more or less your typical suburban food court—fluorescent lighting, drop ceilings, and all—with stands selling inexpensive dumplings on Styrofoam plates. Right in the middle of it is Hanbun, a hidden gem run by a remarkably talented young chef, David Park, and his fiancée, Jennifer Tran. At lunchtime, the stand serves bibimbap and rice cakes and bulgogi. The food’s great, but it doesn’t prepare you for what’s to come in the evenings, when Park throws down a white tablecloth and serves a single group of six diners the “juhnyuk tasting,” a seven-course menu that refracts the foods of his Korean-born, New Jersey–raised upbringing through the techniques he accrued working the line at fine-dining spots in Chicago. The dinners have become so popular that Hanbun is booked up through the end of its lease in May 2018, but there’s no doubt that wherever Park goes next, it’ll become another destination.
3. This City Still Owns Fine Dining
All you really need as evidence is Alinea's recent reboot. But ask any (food-obsessed) local to name his or her top openings, and you’re likely to hear about a life-changing meal at John Shields and Karen Urie Shields’ Smyth (another one of our Top 50 Best New Restaurants in America). The Shieldses met working at the legendary dining institution Charlie Trotter’s and returned to town after an acclaimed stint at Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia. Thoughtful five-, eight-, and 12-course tasting menus filled with eclectic produce grown specifically for the restaurant are served upstairs at Smyth; an instantly iconic burger (with bacon in the patty) brings in an after-work crowd to The Loyalist pub downstairs. What could more perfectly sum up Chicago dining than that?
4. There's a New Star of Chicago Mexican Food
And her name is Diana Dávila, the chef-owner of Mi Tocaya Antojería (you guessed it, one of our Top 50 Best New Restaurants in America) in Logan Square. Though the menu pays homage to street foods, this is a sit-down place you’ll want to settle into for the night. It’s hard to believe that this is Dávila’s first restaurant of her own; her cooking style has the uncompromising confidence of an industry veteran. She knows that peanut-chile sauce is the ideal pairing for braised beef tongue and that a gorgeous and infinitely complex green mole belongs on the menu right alongside piled-high al pastor tacos. All you need to do is show up and trust her.
5. Neighborhood Restaurants Are Destination Restaurants
And none blow expectations out of the water quite like Giant (yep—one of our Top 50 Best New Restaurants in America), an always-packed storefront nestled onto a newly happening strip of Logan Square. The food here—shatteringly crisp onion rings, surprising-yet-delicious fried balls of uni, no fewer than five impeccably house-made pastas—doesn’t need to be revered or explained: All chef Jason Vincent (an infinitely creative, completely unpretentious cook who earned his cred at Lula Cafe and Nightwood) wants you to do is enjoy eating it. Easy enough to do when you’re drinking fun wines under a poster of a Shel Silverstein poem (Me and My Giant, obvs), and the kitchen6.
6.Even the Chicago-Style Hot Dog Can Be Reinvented
At the bakery expansion to their still-awe-inspiring Macanese restaurant, Fat Rice (a 2013 Hot 10 alum), Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo expand the notion of what one of the city’s most iconic foods can be. At The Bakery at Fat Rice, the essential ingredients—Vienna all-beef dog, hot sport peppers, neon-green relish, chopped onion and tomato—are baked into a flower-shaped Portuguese-style sweet dough sprinkled with poppy and celery seeds and drizzled with Chinese hot mustard. Genius.
7. The Best Cafe in Town Just Got Better
Cellar Door Provisions is to Chicago what Sqirl is to L.A.—minus the crowds, national hype, celebrities, and lines. How this place, which bakes the best bread, flakiest croissants, and most absurdly custardy quiche in Chicago, has managed to stay so chill since opening in 2014 never ceases to amaze me. Just when I assumed CDP couldn’t get any more perfect, the owners remodeled the space (replacing the questionably upholstered chairs with ash-wood ones) and expanded hours to serve an ambitious, always changing four-course dinner two nights a week. The best part: It’s still as low-key and humble as ever.
8. The Unofficial City Beverage Is Mezcal
In a town long known for its range and quality of Mexican food, it’s no surprise that this intoxicatingly smoky agave spirit is on the path to local stardom. Barkeeps are amassing collections on par with those now-common book-length whiskey lists; to tour the offerings, start at the downstairs bar of Quiote for 90-plus varieties, then pop around Logan Square, where mezcal is also the drink of choice at Estereo and Mezcaleria Las Flores. Skip over to the West Loop, where Rick Bayless is broadening the reach of mezcal just as he did with regional Mexican food decades ago, showcasing 130-plus bottles at newcomer Leña Brava.
9. Now This Is What We Call Bar Food
Income Tax is an easy place to underestimate, thanks to the name (terrible) and location (far-northern Edgewater, which, though a great place to live, is not known as a dining destination). But the moment the pulpo gallego landed in front of me, I discovered my new favorite bar snack: tender slices of octopus, dotted with romesco sauce and meant to be scooped up with potato chips as you would nachos. The kitchen, under chef Ryan Henderson, nails most of the European continent, from Italian fried spinach dumplings to Spanish-inspired seared scallops to French coq au vin. The food and wine lists were very much developed to complement each other, but what’s even more impressive is how well the food stands on its own.
10. You Can Eat Paul Kahan’s Food from the Minute You Land Until the Minute You Leave
Once upon a time, there was The Publican, an industrial-scale West Loop marvel that continues to be one of my (and every other person’s) favorite places to eat in Chicago. Now that oysters-and-beer hall has become a mini-empire, with its own bread shop (Publican Quality Bread) and butcher (Publican Quality Meats), a raucous Wicker Park offshoot (right next to another of Kahan’s restaurant group’s runaway successes, the taco bar Big Star) called Publican Anker, and—perhaps most unlikely of all—Publican Tavern, a pub inside O’Hare Airport. Just like Rick Bayless did a few years back with Tortas Frontera (which now has a couple locations within the airport), Kahan and co. prove that it is actually possible to eat thoughtfully sourced, professionally served, beautifully cooked food in the seemingly ever-more post-apocalyptic hell that is our country’s aviation system.
By Julia Kramer
August 8, 2017
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