The 100 best things we ate (and drank) this year (1-10)*
*in no particular order
Elote @ Schwa
1.“Elote” @ Schwa
When Schwa opened in 2005, we knew it was destined for greatness. What we didn’t know was that the talent of Schwa boys Michael Carlson and Nathan Klingbail would make getting a reservation in 2006 next to impossible. Every visit unveils a new favorite, such as this play on the Mexican street snack elote (corn-on-the-cob)—roasted corn soup with grilled corn, popped corn, lime emulsion, sprinkles of chili powder and a smear of mayo. (For prices, addresses and phone numbers, see our pull-out checklist on page 28.)
2. Toasted ham sandwich @ Hopleaf
We deal with a lot of cold weather in Chicago, and no place does a better job of melting the chill than this Belgian-style gastropub. The beer list is one of the best in the city, the semiprivate wooden booths are cozy (if you can score one), and the menu is packed with spot-on belly-warmers like this to-die-for sandwich: thick-cut Nueske ham, Gruyère cheese and apple-tarragon coleslaw piled onto pumpernickel bread and griddled.
3. Crispy eggplant @ Bravo
Another tapas joint? Meh. Sure, the standards are fine, the scene is “bumpin’?” and the sangria is lappable. But the main thing that brought us back for repeat visits is the impossibly thin eggplant slices, which are coated in crunchy pankolike breading, fried and finished with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, fresh torn mint and a drizzle of lavender honey.
4. Beef noodle soup @ Katy’s Dumpling House
It seems crazy to drive to Westmont for noodle soup, but you won’t think twice about jumping behind the wheel once you’ve tried this Chinese version of pho: The rich beef broth is redolent of star anise and studded with ginger, garlic, chiles, pickles and unbeatable long, soft, house-made noodles.
5. Rib tips and hot links @ Uncle John’s
Arkansas native Mack Sevier smokes some of the best meat in town: The rib tips are smoky, extremely juicy, meaty and crisp around the edges, and the hot links burst with searing bits of red chili and smoky, porky, sage-packed flavor. Be sure to opt for the mild sauce; the hot nearly scorches the taste buds off your tongue.
6. Fried chicken @ Ina’s
This past summer, we held a fried-chicken tasting with four French chefs who know their poulet: Martial Noguier, Didier Durand, Jacky Pluton and Pierre Pollin. Of the six different drumsticks we gave them (yes, Harold’s was included), the bird from Ina’s swept the votes. And Ina Pinkney’s chicken is fried in trans fat–free oil, as if we needed another reason to love it.
7. Roasted quail @ Riccardo Trattoria
Choosing a favorite dish at this year-old Italian gem is nearly impossible, but in the final analysis, it’s chef Riccardo Michi’s way with roasted game that makes us drool. Perfectly juicy, bacon-topped quail are served over a crisp-edged polenta cake with a thick, fork-coating red-wine reduction spooned around the plate. If Michi’s quail supply dwindles, we swear we’ll take up hunting them ourselves.
8. Thai sausages @ Thai Grocery
Make your way down the narrow aisles of this little grocery till you reach the hot-food case, where you’ll find addictive pork-and-rice Thai sausage balls packaged with roasted peanuts, fresh ginger and fiery chiles.
9. BBQ-and-coleslaw panini @ Cooper’s—A Neighborhood Eatery
Chef-owner Craig Fass brines the pork for this sandwich for 48 hours, caresses the skin with a special spice rub, lets it sit for another 48 hours, smokes it for about ten hours and finally finishes it in the oven for five or six more hours. It’s that four-and-a-half-day process that makes this perfectly balanced sandwich so delectable—and why it lasts only minutes on your plate.
10. Squab @ Alinea
At this point, what’s left to say about Alinea? Everyone from our dry cleaner to our grandma has heard of it. Our favorite of chef Grant Achatz’s 2006 creations was this pan-seared squab with macerated strawberries, sorrel and Balinese long peppercorn custard. It jolted us out of trancelike bliss and into “sweet Jesus” mode.
12. Seared tuna with pickled ramps @ del Toro
11. Margherita pizza @ Spacca Napoli
This was a banner year for pizza fans, but we found the perfect pie at this Ravenswood spot. A custom-built, oak-stoked oven kicks out bubbling Neapolitan-style beauties with perfectly charred peaks and valleys in less than ten minutes. Keep it simple with tomato sauce, basil and the fresh buffalo mozz that’s flown in each week.
12. Seared tuna with pickled ramps @ del Toro
Come spring, ramps (little wild green onions) pop up everywhere, but this year we liked chef Andrew Zimmerman’s take the best: He “quick-pickles” the garlicky onions in a tart vinegar blend and then adds them to a plate of seared sashimi-grade tuna with a dollop of house-made tomato marmalade.
13. Infused vodkas @ Matchbox
This place is truly as tiny as a matchbox, it brings in the occasional cigar-smoker, and the ventilation system consists of whatever tiny cracks are between the windowpanes and walls. But the cocktails are tops, especially anything made with the house-infused vodkas. The glass vessels behind the bar with chunks of floating ginger, mango and pineapple will make you overlook the RV-like bathrooms.
14. Jerk chicken wings @ Tropic Island Jerk Chicken
Finding good jerk chicken on the South Side is as easy as finding a gay man at a Madonna concert. But among the good, we found the great. The Caribbean-native Grant family works in concert, taking orders and heaving jerk-rubbed chickens out of cloudy smokers before packaging them in Styrofoam containers along with sides of cinnamon-candied yams and buttery braised greens.
15. Caramel and sweet-corn ice cream @ Flamingo’s
The toughest part of going to Guadalupe Lopez’s haven for ice-cream lovers is choosing from more than 100 flavors. Verdict: One scoop of caramel and another of sweet corn served in the same cup is the way to go.
16. Banana-cream pie @ Prairie Grass Café
We’ve known chef Sarah Stegner was a star since her days at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, but now we’re in love with her mom, the hands behind various pies Stegner serves at the Northbrook restaurant she runs with her husband, George Bumbaris. The apple is great, anything berry is fantastic, but it’s the supersimple, flaky-crust, ultrafluffy banana-cream pie that makes us consider moving to the ’burbs.
17. Polish sausage @ the Cell
Well-done, extra grilled onions, plenty of mustard. Go Sox.
18.Tepache@ Las Palmas
For this Aztec pineapple “beer,” chef Mario Rivera and sous chef Gumecindo Moreno adapted a recipe from Moreno’s uncle, taking fresh pineapple skins and adding an orange-juice reduction, cloves, cinnamon, piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar), barley and yeast. The mix ferments for about five days, with tangy, beerlike results.
19.Carne en su jugo (beef soup) @ Taco Veloz
Want to find us on Saturday morning? More than likely, we’re slouching in a booth here, squeezing limes into this beef-broth soup, trying to get a bit of avocado, pinto beans, bacon, cilantro, chiles and beef chunks onto the spoon at once, and following each bite with a torn piece of freshly made warm tortilla. If you see us, say hello.
20. Bar snacks @ the James Hotel
Don’t get us wrong—it’s great that the lobby bar in the James Hotel offers the opportunity to taste master mixologist Eben Klemm’s fabulous cocktails without having to endure the velvet rope and miniskirts of the adjacent J Bar. But the real reason to drink here is these buttery Japanese pretzel sticks, whose rich flavor is cut by house-made chili oil—and made more delicious by the fact that they’re free.