First off, this is certainly not an attempt at naming the “all-around best restaurants in Chicago.” If that can even be accurately done, it’s certainly not something I’m qualified for based on the few visits I’ve made there. But recently, fellow food writer, Kevin Shalin (The Mighty Rib) and I zipped off to Chicago for a weekend and ate as much food as humanly possible in 3 days. The results were superb…and gotta say, I seriously heart Chicago right now. It was, perhaps, the best food tour I’ve ever experienced…only New York City has impressed me as much.
We ate a lot of food…more than anyone should consume on any sort of regular basis. And while this is not an attempt at comprehensive Chicago coverage, we did thoroughly research our choices and found some fantastic options. So Little Rockers…if you’ve never been, or if it’s been too long since you visited The Windy City, do your sweet stomach a favor and book your trip ASAP. Flights are cheap and even the drive is reasonable. What are you waiting for?
Here’s a short list of the 3 best restaurants from our recent Chicago trip, followed by a few more notable bites and random notes on some very reputable restaurants.
Belly Shack – Let’s face it, Little Rock. The Korean food scene in our city pretty much sucks. You might find a few decent to good options here and there, but we are seriously lacking in the Seoul food department. Now, Belly Shack isn’t exactly a traditional Korean restaurant. It bills itself at a Korean-Latin American fusion joint…which may not be two cuisines you picture playing together well, but it works…trust me here. Chef Bill Kim has several restaurants across town, all of them excellent, but the food, atmosphere, and overall vibe of Belly Shack still sets it on top for me. Menu changes from time to time…but while there we sampled the “Belly Bowl”, their play on bibimbop, with daikon-carrot slaw, lentils, egg, and Korean BBQ beef. Wonderful dish. We were also in love the with deceptively simple, but dangerously delicious “Hot Tots” … perfectly fried tater tots, pickled jalapeño, cheddar sauce, and curry salt. We added a side of their famous curry mayo for an over the top experience. Their popular “Belly Dog” should not be overlooked either. This beautiful concoction takes an all-beef hot dog and tops it with egg noodles, pickled green papaya, and pairs it with their togarashi-spiced fries. Take the Blue Line to the Western stop…the restaurant literally sits under the train tracks. You won’t be disappointed.
90 Miles Cuban Cafe – Again…Cuban scene in The Rock? Not so hot. So there’s no better time to nab some sensational Cuban cooking than while visiting Chicago. You could take Guy Fieri’s word for it, as the place recently made an appearance on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives…and trust me, Guy definitely got this one right. It’s a small, casual restaurant with a wonderful outdoor patio and sensational authentic Cuban cuisine. Get the house special, “Peurco Rostizado.” It’s kinda awesome. Marinated pork that’s roasted overnight with bacon, guava, ham, malta and prunes…served alongside black beans, arroz blanco, and fried plantains. We also did the “Fricase de Pollo” … a stew of chicken and potato in a rich creole sauce. I’m drooling just thinking about it. They’ve got three locations…but you could hit the one off the Western stop on the Blue Line, over by Belly Shack mentioned above.
Crisp – Korean. Fried. Chicken. I just can’t get enough of the stuff. This tiny joint doesn’t have a huge menu, but they’re specializing in one of this world’s most satisfying bites since the beginning of time. Crispy chicken coated with a number of available sauces. We did the “Seoul Sassy” … a sweeter sauce with ginger, soy, and garlic. After eating here, we probably muttered to each other, “Damn, that was some seriously good chicken!” about 24 times over the rest of the trip. There’s a few other things on the menu…Korean burritos, rice bowls. Didn’t try them…don’t care. That chicken is my everything.
A few other notable bites:
If you are a doughnut-aholic like me…or even if you only slightly enjoy them, you absolutely MUST visit Stan’s Donuts. I have made it my life’s work to try the best doughnut shops in every city I visit, and honestly, Stan’s might be the very best I’ve had. There are several wonderful options…but the doughnut I can’t stop thinking about is the Banana Biscoff Pocket. Seriously…GET OUT OF MY HEAD, BANANA BISCOFF POCKET!
I wish we could have tried more food at Little Goat Diner. We happened to slip in briefly while we were waiting on a table at its sister restaurant, The Girl & The Goat. We only sampled one thing, the Asian Chicken Sandwich. Sounds fairly boring, right? It was not…it was wonderful. Definitely heading back there on my next trip.
If you want a classic Chicago dog, done right, by folks who’ve essentially perfected the art…go to Portillo’s for a quick bite. Totally worth doing.
A few other random thoughts…
The Purple Pig – my second time here. It was by no means bad, but was it worth the usual 2-3 hour wait? In a cramped space where you’re literally elbow-to-elbow with strangers at a communal table? Maybe not. I was slightly less impressed on this visit, and it may be a while before I make my way back.
The Girl & The Goat – Another highly-acclaimed restaurant any decent foodie needs to knock off their list at some point. Again…3 hour wait. Whatever. But there were some issues with overly rich, very heavy plates, and overall, we were a bit let down. I imagine more sampling across the menu would yield some sensational food, but we missed those dishes, for the most part, on this visit.
Au Cheval – Some claim it’s the best burger in America. That’s quite a reputation. We stopped in. 5 HOUR WAIT. We didn’t wait. Maybe next time.