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30 dishes to eat while visiting Chicago

Have friends or family visiting Chicago? Go beyond the usual tourist fare with our 30 picks

By RedEye staff, @redeyeeatdrink

RedEye

1:00 AM EDT, June 17, 2014

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You've already waited in line for popcorn at Garrett. You've endured verbal abuse at The Wieners Circle. And you've devoured the Chicago classic that is the Italian beef sandwich (Al's #1 and Johnnie's being the best, depending on who you ask).

So what should be next on your hit list when it comes to eating your way through Chicago? No doubt, you don't need another person pushing the Chicago-style pizzerias (Uno's, Giordano's, Lou Malnati's) or the legendary steakhouses (Gene & Georgetti, Chicago Chop House, Morton's, et al).

Instead, tackle our list of must-try dishes. Some are old-school classics in their own right and others deserve the distinction of new-school favorite. Most of all, they'll give you an excuse to explore the flavors of Chicago's different neighborhoods, from Chinatown to Little Italy to the increasingly tasty strip that is Randolph Street's Restaurant Row in the West Loop. Suit up (preferably in the stretchiest pair of pants you own) and go forth!
 

1. Crispy pig face at Girl & the Goat. Chicago's own "Top Chef" queen, Stephanie Izard, nearly blew the city's mind with her boldly named dish, which is just as indulgent as it sounds: wood oven-roasted pork face, topped with a fried egg for good measure ($16). Welcome to Chicago. --Kate Bernot

2. Churros at Xoco. Didn't plan ahead and make a reservation at celeb chef Rick Bayless' restaurants Frontera Grill or Topolobampo? Walk a few steps to the corner of Clark and Illinois streets and jump in line at his counter-service eatery focused on Mexican street food. The original cinnamon-sprinkled churros make a fine substitute for a morning doughnut; the versions glazed with pistachio or margarita-almond icing made a decadent dessert. ($1.60-$2.25 each) --Lisa Arnett

3. Cheese grits at Wishbone. You'd think Southern cuisine would be difficult to pull off in Chicago, but West Loop resto Wishbone has it perfected, especially the grits. No breakfast, brunch--or dinner, for that matter--is complete without a side dish ($2.50) of the cheese grits (the plain grits are good, too, but not as delicious as their cheesy brethren. They're creamy, they go with anything and they are not to be missed. --Brian Moore

4. Chocolate croissant at Medici. "Obama Eats Here," according to the T-shirts worn by bakers and servers at this Hyde Park cafe. Fortunately, capitalizing on the tourism the president has brought to this U of C-area bakery hasn't dragged down the quality of the food at all, and these croissants ($2.95) are a signature item. I go in the morning to get them while the chocolate is still warm and gooey; they're often all gone by midday. --Rachel Cromidas

5. Chocolate cake at Portillo's. Proof you don't need to pay $8 for some fancy dessert, Portillo's chocolate cake ($2.89 a slice) is the perfect chocolatey, decadent end to a meal, without any pretention. Don't even think about storing it in the fridge, either. Not that it will be around long enough for that to matter. --Chris Sosa

6. Bacon-wrapped dates at Avec. If you haven't been to this always-crowded West Loop wine bar, you might think that this dish (arguably its most-ordered) is just like the ubiquitous version you see at tapas restaurants or dinner parties. But trust me, it's just so much better. Massive medjool dates are stuffed full of spicy chorizo, wrapped in bacon and served in a pool of sauce made from tomatoes and piquillo peppers ($12). Trust your server to recommend the best wine or beer to quench the spice. --LA

7. Smoked fish at Calumet Fisheries. Take a mini-road trip to this iconic smoked fish stand, made famous in the "Blues Brothers" movie and by Anthony Bourdain. Order up some fishies--try the salmon for $15.29 a pound or shrimp for $20.99 a pound--and eat them the right way, on the hood of your car in the parking lot. --KB

8. Supreme Steak from Taurus Flavors. A rare treat that can only be found on Chicago's South Side (Taurus has several locations; I like to stick to the Stony Island location in Chatham.) the Supreme Steak (also referred to as a sweet steak) is a bit of an anomaly. Imagine a cheese steak, but instead of the usual onions/peppers/cheese combo, the steak and cheese are drenched in a sweet-and-spicy sauce, then topped with tomato slices and candied bell peppers ($6.59). It's a behemoth and a real mess to eat, but it's worth the struggle, trust me. --Ernest Wilkins

9. Deep-dish pizza at Pequod's. This Lincoln Park pizzeria takes Chicago-style deep dish to a new level. You still get that thick, saucy pie, but with a caramelized cheese crust as the grand finale. I recommend pepperoni and mushroom; prices start at $10.95 for a small cheese. Buon appetito! --Jessica Cantarelli

10. Pho at Tank. The super savory, noodle-packed pho broth at Tank (aka Pho Xe Tang) is a great introduction for Vietnamese food newbies (scan the gigantic menu for the dishes number between 39 and 51). And at less than$10 for a bowl the size of a small satellite dish, it's also a great value. --KB

11. Steak at Chicago Cut Steakhouse. If you've already done/don't care to do the classic Chicago steakhouse thing, this relative newcomer to the steak scene (it opened in 2010) defies the dark wood-paneled stereotypes with floor-to-ceiling windows and patio seating with killer view of the Chicago River. The filet ($34 for six ounces, $42 for eight ounces and $49 for ten) is my favorite, though, in my mind, you can't go wrong with any of the dry-aged, butchered-on-site cuts; they also make a darn good burger. --LA

12. Menudo at Nuevo Leon. Already done tacos in Pilsen? Then it's time for menudo, a spicy Mexican soup made with tripe ($4 for a small, $6 for a large) that's known for its hangover-curing powers. If you had a rough time last night, sop it up with some corn tortillas and you'll thank me later. --LA

13. Fried bologna sandwich at Au Cheval. The atmosphere at this uber popular, hip "diner" is best late at night, when foodies feel bold (or inebriated) enough to indulge in the piled-high, cheese-covered fried bologna sandwich ($10.95). Make no apologies. --KB

14. Mushroom sliders at Mana Food Bar. I've seen plenty of die-hard meat eaters devour these sliders ($3.50), made with patties of mushroom and rice, by the half-dozen--no regrets. I recommend garnishing them with the sliced pickles served on the side. And if you want to share, don't try to cut yours in half—just order another round. --RC

15. Tacos at Big Star. Cheap whiskey, beer and one heck of a patio all contributed to Big Star's "new classic" status among Chicago restaurants—but it's really the al pastor (pork belly) and pescado (fish) tacos that started it all. Oh, and they're $3. --KB

16. Wings from Harold's Chicken. How customers order their wings from any of the Harold's locations is a science in itself. Some people like them "fried hard" (extra-crispy), some don't. Some want their sauce on the wings, some don't. Me? I take mine fried medium and doused with lemon pepper, mild sauce on the side. No matter how you take it, the wings are a winner. --EW

17. Savory pies at Pleasant House Bakery. You think you know flaky pies? Not until you've tried the ones at this Bridgeport restaurant. The English-style royal pies ($7.95-$9) are buttery, piping hot and bursting with tender meat and fresh veggies grown at nearby Pleasant Farms. --KB

18. Caramel cake at Brown Sugar Bakery. The staffers at this Greater Grand Crossing bakery call the slices ($3.50) of its best-selling cake a "single serving," but these generously cut, multi-layered beauties are begging to be shared. --LA

19. Goat cheese-cashew-caramel gelato at Black Dog Gelato. How do you know it's summer in Chicago? When the line for a scoop ($3.50-$4.75) of this sweet, tangy, rich gelato stretches out of this tiny Ukie Village storefront and around the block. P.S. After being closed for a winter break, the Roscoe Village location is now open on the weekends. Both locations will resume full summer hours by May 1. --KB

20. Frites at The Publican. This European beer hall-inspired restaurant was ultra-trendy when it opened back in 2008; it's still so solidly popular that you won't have trouble convincing the Chicagoans you're visiting to take you there. Order the addictively crispy, just-salty-enough frites ($5; $7 with an egg on top). If needed, justify your choice by noting that they're listed under the "vegetable" section on the menu with all the salads. --LA

21. Dry chili chicken at Lao Sze Chuan. No trip to Chicago is complete without a trip to one of chef Tony Hu's Chinatown restaurants; this dish ($12.45) is a house specialty that Hu recommends you order "served spicy." It's a little intimidating that the chilis appear to nearly outnumber the morsels of chicken on the plate, but it'll give you that bump of endorphins that spicy food lovers live for. --LA

22. Margherita pizza at Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana. Naples native Nella Grassano makes a near-perfect Neapolitan pie. There's not much else to say, except to bring your appetite for a slightly charred crust, floppy center and tangy San Marzano tomatoes ($12.99). --KB

23. Saganaki at Parthenon. I don't care if you think it's cheesy; a trip to Greektown is a Chicago must. As for which restaurant along Halsted Street in the West Loop is the best, it depends who you ask; I say you can't go wrong at the restaurant that claims to have invented saganaki ($5.95), a plate of kasseri cheese drizzled with brandy. Don't be the buzzkill who's too cool to shout, "Opaa!" when it's set aflame. --LA

24. Mussels at Hopleaf. Hopleaf recently doubled in size--and can still be quite full—which is a testament to the popularity of its hundreds-deep beer list and European-leaning tavern food. For the ultimate Belgian experience, order a Kwak beer, some beer-steamed mussels ($13 for a half pound; $22 for a full pound) and dig into the huge accompanying cone of salty and addictive frites. --KB

25. Samosas at Hema's Kitchen. Many restaurants along Devon Avenue serve this popular Indian street food, but when I'm hit with a craving, I always end up at Hema's. Crispy fried shells give way to fillings such as cilantro-flecked lamb or coriander-spiced veggies ($2.99-$3.99). --LA

26. Pasta at Nellcote. True, Chicago has no shortage of lovely Italian restaurants making their own pasta from scratch. But this swanky West Loop hangout is the only using flour that's milled right on-site to do so. Try whatever's currently on the menu; this spring choices include spaghetti, cavatelli and rigatoni ($8-$18). --LA

27. Rainbow cone at Original Rainbow Cone. This warm-weather ice cream parlor is named for its signature creation, a 5-layer treat that puts a double-scoop cone to shame. It goes like this: chocolate on the bottom, then strawberry, then Palmer House (a golden-hued vanilla with walnuts and maraschino cherries), then pistachio and finally, orange sherbet on top ($3-$4). –LA

28. Famous Kuma Burger at Kuma's Corner. This cheese, bacon and fried egg-topped patty on a pretzel bun ($12) is the measuring stick to which other burgers in Chicago are inevitably compared. Just go and wait as long as you need to try it. Though it admittedly doesn't have the same patina as the original location in Avondale, the recently opened spinoff, Kuma's Too in Lincoln Park, is closer to downtown if you're pressed for time during your stay. —LA

29. Italian lemonade at Mario's Italian Lemonade. Little Italy is best experienced on a warm summer day, when a walk down Taylor Street concludes with a sweet-sour, citrus-flecked cup of Italian lemonade ($1.50 for a small). Eat with a spoon, a straw, however you'd like—just don't mistakenly call it "Italian ice." –KB

30. Gourmet sausage at Hot Doug's. Owner Doug Sohn has reported for years that the Chicago-style dog is the top seller at his Avondale sausage shop, but here's how we suggest you do it. 1. Wait in line. 2. Look for whatever sausage with off-the-wall toppings is featured as the "Game of the Week." 3. Order it -- and fast. The restaurant is scheduled to close for good in October. –LA


>>What are your favorite dishes to eat in Chicago when you have visitors in town? Add to our list by sounding off in the comments below.

 

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