You might think that I could find a million places grilling arrachera for steak tacos. But in a decade of looking, I had only gotten close once... at a mainly chicken place.
The Jerusalem-style of grill is a kind of metal trench which you might mistake for a planter, if it weren't on fire. Burning coals are piled up in it, and then the meats to be grilled are threaded on metal skewers just long enough to rest on the grill directly over the coals.
I sometimes think the good American restaurant is rarer now than a dozen cuisines you could name from around the planet, because the food industry put so much energy into canned and frozen products that destroyed its good name. Central Kitchen & Tap is a friendly place that makes lots of classics, including an incredible pot roast sandwich, the proper old ways.
One of my rules for scouting out places is that whatever they stress on the sign is probably the best thing they have. But while the pizza here is perfectly fine for a quick slice, grinders are actually the main attraction.
Vesecky's Bakery survives in Berwyn, even though the area is more Mexican than Hungarian. Today it's a quiet place, a couple of young female sales assistants serving the customers. But someone who knows the place's heritage must still be in the back.
Claire's Korner, on the west side of Evanston, serves up a cafeteria line of Jamaican classics six days a week. There's just a few seats, so the assumption is you're taking it to go and either way it comes in a styrofoam container.
At first glance it looks like any cafe for coffee and wi-fi, with a breakfast menu of the American standards and sandwiches and panini for lunch. But then you notice signage on the walls talking up the virtues of single-origin coffee from Ethiopia. The cafe, it turns out, is run by an importer, and it offers a small but intriguing menu of Ethiopian dishes.
At what point does a place become more than the sum of its parts? At what point do you want to call it great, even if strictly speaking nothing you had was?
There are still signs of Swedish Chicago in Andersonville, but they're getting fewer all the time. In fact, there's only one Swedish restaurant left in the area, a rustic little diner open for breakfast and lunch called Svea.
Iskender Kebab is a robust dish with strips of meaty lamb doner, brightly acidic warm tomato sauce, and tart cool yogurt, all tossed with bread cubes—a riot of bright contrasts amid the general subtlety of wholesomeness.
All you need is steak with a couple of cebollitas (grilled green onions), which seems to be what all these steak combinations come down to.
Joong Boo Market just got a little more accessible, with the opening just a few weeks ago of a dumpling stand next to the entrance. In the tiny metal and glass booth, a couple of cooks turn out exactly three items, all priced at $2 each.
What's the best old school pizza on the South Side? That's an easy one for dedicated players of the Chicago foodie home game—Vito & Nick's. But here's a question: what's the second best old school pizza on the South Side?
If there's anywhere in this town I'll gladly give up meat, it's the 2500 to 2600 blocks of west Devon. That strip is home to two vegetarian restaurants where I'll eat happily and without the least sense of deprivation.
How do you fight back against the polar vortex? Well, how do you think your grandmother did in the old country? She made a Polish vortex of rib-sticking food, that's how, to fight the cold from the inside.
El Huarache de Maria means "Maria's Slipper," and it specializes in the long freshly-made tortillas called huaraches, which here would seem to suggest that Maria wears a 27EEEE. So that's what the flor de la calabaza go on here, and combined with their smoky, robust refried beans, it's a first-rate version.
Why would you open yet another phở place there, at the very end of a strip full of phở places? Phở Tàu Bay has survived a year and more. And it's become a regular stop for me on Argyle, because it's easy. While people are lining up at Tank Noodle or one of the others, you can always get a seat.
Joe Boston's is one of those places that's outlasted the businesses that it was started to serve, and waits for a new crowd to find it in its lonely little plot in the American industrial desert. Check it out before it gets decorated and the prices go up.
They're not artisan doughnuts, they're just doughnuts, less than a buck apiece, and darned good. In short, hardworking doughnuts for the city that works.
What's nice about O'Connor's sausages is that nothing is too out there; he calls his food "blue collar gourmet food," which pretty much sums up an approach of quality with lack of pretension.
One of the hard things about finding good Mexican food is that signs typically promise things that are not literally true. The outside promises a pastor cone, but then all they do is grill marinated pork on a flat top. But some places still use a trompo.
The last place you expect to find seasonal variation is in Chinese restaurants. It does happen, but to the casual observer, it's the same bell peppers and bok choy month in and month out. So I was immediately curious when Cai, a big dim sum hall in Chinatown, had pumpkin congee on its menu.
This little neighborhood gem invented a fusion of two cultures breathtaking in its innovation: the gyros Jibarito. Whoa. Take a few minutes to let it soak in, if you need them.
This is a tale of two radically different versions of the same dish, the Korean bowl of rice, vegetables, meat and egg. Is one right and one wrong? Or is it all good? Let's find out.
One of my favorite places to get fried chicken in Chicago is MacArthur's, the famous soul food restaurant on the West side. I go for the chicken, but also for the sides, the desserts, the line, and the experience. It's a place that's the de facto community center of its neighborhood.
Called Farm to Barstool, the video tracks how Pleasant House Bakery's Art Jackson transforms produce from gardens around Bridgeport into fillings for his unbelievable savory pies. The pies are then delivered next door for the hungry patrons at Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar (hence the barstool in the title).
If you're not in the mood for pie, you will be after watching Michael Gebert's latest episode of Sky Full of Bacon that takes us behind the scenes at Chicago's beloved pie shop Hoosier Mama. Owner Paula Haney and her staff make pies the old fashioned way with all-butter crusts filled with local, seasonal ingredients, and revive recipes from the 19th and early 20th-century (oatmeal pie, anyone?). Haney talks about how she started the business, how she makes pie, and her thoughts about the pie lifestyle. Watch the video after the jump....