A few weeks before our anticipated return to Chicago, we started a list of the restaurants we wanted to hit up when we were back in the city. It was impossibly long, and it brought up tons of fun memories of dining out with friends. Here’s our favorite, still open (RIP Kith & Kin) restaurants in Chicago — these spots are filled with good, simple, neighborhood food. I’m drooling just writing this post.
Fish Bar opened up in our neighborhood just a few months before we moved out. We proceeded to eat there every chance we had. It became wildly popular, and annoying, so we tried to visit at increasingly odd times and days. The place is very small, reservations are only accepted for groups of three or four, and there are just three tables available for reservation. All other seating is first come first served, around the bar…the fish bar. When it’s warm, you can sit outside, but most of the year the place is as tightly packed as a can of sardines.
Sure, it’s a bit uncomfortable to sit at a narrow bar with hungry patrons breathing down your neck, sending silent and not-so-silent vibes for you to finish up, and quickly. And it’s annoying to wait for an hour, huddled against the wall, sipping a delicious cocktail from the obligatory mason jar. But the food makes up for it — it’s simple, fresh, basic seafood served on paper plates with little fanfare. You can get an oyster for a dollar if you swear you’ve never had one before and aren’t sure if you like them. This is something that Chicago had always been missing.
But even with the flash and dazzle of Fish Bar, Paul’s favorite seafood place remains Half Shell, the old-school basement dive that’s been around for four-plus decades. If Fish Bar eventually fizzles, Half Shell will live on forever, serving impossibly fresh shrimp, smoked sturgeon, and giant king crab legs on beds of grease-absorbing french fries and white bread.
I never got on the Chicago-style pizza bandwagon. I guess I was never cut out to be a true Chicagoan. It was impossible, really. I grew up eating NY-style pizza, and I never could have been satisfied with anything else. But I’m not a NY-style pizza purist. I’m happy with anything thin and crispy, cheesy and greasy. So in addition to NY-style, a CT-style and a Roman-style pizza place also made my list of favorite pizza places in Chicago:
1. Santullo’s in Wicker Park. This is it for me, the best pizza in Chicago. It’s the extreme opposite of Chicago-style pizza: the crust is practically non-existent. The pizza is constructed of cheese and cheese alone. Santullo’s has a crew of (sometimes) endearingly surly staff that make ordering fun, too!
2. Cafe Luigi in Lincoln Park. Luigi’s was always dangerously close to our apartments. We often stopped to bring home a slice, especially as the stress of selling our condo mounted. At first, we ordered one slice each. Then we started ordering three slices and splitting one in half. Luckily we got out before we moved up to two slices each.
3. Piece in Wicker Park. This is the center for Connecticut-style pizza outside the northeast. People are often surprised that there is such a thing as CT-style pizza. It’s just like NY-style pizza, but…well…I don’t know what the difference is. One of the pizzas has clams and white sauce and lemons for squeezing. Other than that it’s quite similar: thin, cheesy, maybe a little less greasy. The other wonderful thing about Piece is that they brew their own delicious, delicious beer.
4. Pizzeria Via Stato in that tourist neighborhood. Somehow Pizzeria Via Stato was never that busy. We could drop in after work and sit right down on a Friday night — in the middle of one of the busiest tourist dining districts in Chicago. Somehow we always had the same waiter. Somehow they have amazing wine, and cheap. Located in the Embassy Suites, it’s almost like the Olive Garden of pizza places — not cool enough for the locals, not obvious enough for the tourists. But it’s SO GOOD!
For Old-School Italian
When Club Lago closed for repairs after a neighboring building’s chimney collapsed on it in 2009, I was worried it might never reopen, or that the owners might take the opportunity to upgrade the decor and ruin the appeal in the process.
My fears were unfounded, as Club Lago shortly reopened with the same checkered tablecloths, the same dusty sailing decor, and the same ornate bar as always. And the same old-school, old-fashioned Italian menu.
There was just one change, one that was sure to confound regular patrons for months, if not years, to come. The bathrooms were switched. The former men’s room was now the women’s room, and vice versa. So, in addition to delicious Italian food and wine, they’ve provided entertainment as well.
It must be Opart Thai. There are a lot of BYOB Thai places in Chicago, and we didn’t come close to trying them all. I only realized I liked Thai food a few years ago, and only recently branched out from the standard pad thai. Still, this is the place that made me feel comfortable expanding my Thai horizons, and I haven’t been disappointed.
Los Nopales does all of the regular Mexican classics well, but they’re not important — you can get them anywhere. What is important: they do the other stuff too. Like nopales (pickled prickly pear cactus) tacos. Or a variety of more complex entrees, like never-fishy tilapia en salsa verde. But the real standout for me is the coffee flan, my favorite dessert in the world. This is the only dessert that I have ordered just for me, no sharing allowed. It should be simple enough to recreate — just substitute coffee for water when making flan. But we’ve tried and failed enough times that I’m now certain there’s some secret ingredient they’re not sharing.
Los Nopales is closely followed in my book by Cocina Tarascas, just down the street from our old condo. The margaritas are amazing. And STRONG (lessons to live by: do not order more than one, do not order a jumbo, and by all means, do not order a pitcher). The food is the typical Mexican classics, but one step up. The number of margarita-induced crazy conversations I’ve overheard is astronomical.
For “Korean BBQ”
Del Seoul. Kimchi fries? Sesame-chili shrimp tacos? Market Piklz? This “Korean BBQ” spot that opened down the street from our old condo JUST before we moved almost made us sad we were leaving. Almost.
If I say one more word about these places, the universe will implode. The weight of the already-written text is reaching critical proportions. Let me just say that, of the places that were super trendy and hipster when we rolled out of Chicago, we loved Bangers & Lace and Longman & Eagle, despite the hype. And the less-trendy Tiny Lounge is just as hype-worthy, in a quieter neighborhood.
Oh, Chipotle Chicken Pozole Bowl. My all-time favorite lunch was only offered in Colorado, Illinois, and Wisconsin area Chipotles in 2011, then disappeared unexpectedly one day. I actually started to cry when the manager told me that it would only be served seasonally, and may never come back. Got a free lunch out of it, but it wasn’t pozole. Pozole, in the Chipotle incarnation, is a soup of hominy, tomato, and tomatillo, served over cilantro lime rice, topped with grilled chicken and lots of cheese. I don’t think it’s coming back. All good things end! Enjoy them while they last! Long live the Chipotle Chicken Pozole Bowl!