There’s a school of thought that says there is more and better original theater being produced these days in Chicago than even New York.
The same case could be made for food.
The current restaurant scene in Chicago is absolutely teeming with imagination and culinary daring, not to mention rock star chefs, and some of the most daring and innovative restaurants on the planet.
World-renown food artists like Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard and the “Pablo Picasso of the Kitchen,” Grant Achatz — even venerable old Charlie Trotter — have slowly helped transform Chicago from a town whose most successful restaurants had always been built on traditional renderings of standards like steaks, chops and ribs into a living laboratory of culinary delight, where mad scientists continue to imagine, contrive and create some of the most exotic mixtures of taste, texture and aroma known to man.
And just in case you think that’s hyperbole, pick up the May 2nd edition of Time. Look up the one-of-a-kind Achatz. Then ask yourself: how many New York chefs — or any chefs, for that matter — have ever been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the entire world?
But if you’re not into high-end fusion and/or fancy dining, take heart. Chicago’s age-old network of neighborhood taverns and eateries is as alive and well as ever, and promises to welcome you as it has always welcomed strangers: with open arms, a warm smile and if you’ve chosen well, a noticeably worn and slightly stained menu.
So with that, here are one insider’s recommendations for dining this month, upscale and otherwise:
Girl & the Goat
Ho hum. Another year, another slew of awards for Izard, the young woman named America’s Top Chef in season four. With a Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, a James Beard nod for Best New Restaurant, and a spot on Food & Wine’s list of Best New Chefs for 2011 in tow, Izard has turned her new West Loop eatery into the second hottest dinner ticket in town.
The hottest dinner reservation in Chicago these days? Next, the newest offering from Achatz (ACK itz), whose Alinea (on Halsted, across from the Steppenwolf Theater) in 2005 quite literally re-defined the whole concept of gourmet dining in America. The anticipation for the opening of Next earlier this year was like nothing Chicago had seen since Election Night 2008. (OK, maybe that and Oprah’s farewell bash.) In fact, reservations are still being hawked on eBay and continue to be taken a full year in advance. But hey, this is cable. Home of ESPN, MTV and the Food Network. Plus, Chicago’s a Comcast town. So if there’s any industry full of people with the kind of juice needed to score a last-minute reservation in this town — particularly at Next — look around you. You’re working in it.
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo
Bayless’ famed Clark Street eatery, the Frontera Grill, and its well appointed kid sister (and Obama family favorite), Topolobampo, continue to set the national standard for exotic Mexican fusion fare. Sure, the Frontera has been around for a few years, but it’s truly as great as its ever been. What’s more, unlike some of the newer, hotter and trendier joints in town, you don’t have to sacrifice either a body part or your first-born son to get a table.
Call it pub fare on acid. The Publican, in Chicago’s increasingly chic Fulton Market neighborhood, is a relatively new, wood-clad beer hall known for its great wine, its hearty brews and what one reviewer called ” miscellaneous innards,” such as spicy sautéed veal brains topped with strips of white anchovy, or duck hearts with oyster mushrooms and pine nuts. And if you’re into the whole communal dining thing and “what’s mine is yours,” you simply have to try the Publican’s Grand Seafood Collection, a tiered mountain of seafood that Time Out Chicago said contains “hunks of protein bigger than babies.”
And for more casual fare, as well as a chance to let your hair down a little, here are a few other suggestions:
Your best bet for great ribs near downtown in a classic 60’s-vintage, knotty pine tavern is Twin Anchors, in a residential neighborhood gently nestled between Old Town and Lincoln Park, just a few blocks from a brown line stop. While for pure eating enjoyment and fall-off-the-bone goodness, it’s hard to beat the baby backs at another Chicago classic, the Gale Street Inn, on North Milwaukee Ave, near Lawrence.
Hot Dogs, Brats and Polish
OK, let’s get this straight. The official Chicago-style hot dog is as follows: a steamed Kosher-style, all-beef wiener topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon-green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. All served on a warm, gently steamed poppy-seed bun. And while there are any number of terrific Chicago-style hot dog joints in town, and plenty of places to pick up a state-of-the-art dog, brat or Polish sausage, you might want to try one of the old stand-bys: Hot Doug’s, Maxwell Street Polish (the original, near UIC), Murphy’s Red Hots, Superdawg and the Wieners Circle. Also, keep an eye out when you’re downtown for an all new gourmet sausage wagon that’s making a name for itself, Haute Sausage (www.hautesausage.com). Word is, it’s the bomb.
For savory, melt-in-your-mouth carnitas, travel to Pilsen, the city’s unofficial “Little Mexico” neighborhood and visit Don Pedro, a hole in the wall on W. 18th. You’ll thank me someday. But for my money, the most mouth-watering Mexican food in all of Chicago can be found at Cemitas Puebla (www.cemitaspuebla.com), a tiny BYO joint I discovered one day on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” I’m not sure I have the words to explain the wonder or the majesty of their Carne Enchilada Cemita, an indigenous Pueblan sandwich featuring a butterfly cut of pork chop, lightly breaded and gently sautéed, and served on homemade artisan bread.
On or near Taylor Street, the city’s erstwhile “Little Italy” neighborhood, there are some terrific restaurants, most of which opened after the neighborhood was gentrified. But with all that change, two places in particular were able to abide: Ro-Sal’s, a quaint, cozy and family-owned bistro whose front window offers a street-level view of Taylor Street, and Tufano’s, a classic neighborhood joint in every sense of the word; a place that still lists its menu on a chalkboard, that still plays host to each and every visiting Italian A-lister who ever comes through town, and a place that still, after all these years, accepts only cash.
Just a half a tick below the hot dog and the brat on the hierarchy of Chicago-style fast food is the Italian beef sandwich (or as some might call it, a “sangwich”). If you’re in the Taylor Street neighborhood, stop by the original Al’s Italian Beef and order one loaded (wet, dry or dipped). Then when you’re done, make sure to cross the street for one of Mario’s signature Italian lemonades, which is not only a trip back in time, but one hell of a delicious (and low-cost) way to cleanse your palette.
To read more from M.C. Antil, visit his blog at mcantil.com.