Chicago has become one of America’s most iconic cities for its history, architecture, diversity, arts, sports teams (go Cubs go) and more.
The Windy City is also known as the home of an eclectic, delicious array of restaurants able to satisfy any palette. The city is famous for deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs. It houses famous joints like Harry Carry’s Steakhouse and the Billy Goat Tavern, and several of the world’s top chefs have chosen to open restaurants there.
Anyone can tell you that a deep dish pie from Lou Malnati’s or a sandwich from Al’s Italian Beef are great options. So on my most recent trip to Chicago, I wanted to find some places of the beaten tourist path, a few places you might not have heard of but definitely need your attention.
The Au Chavel burger does come with its share of acclaim, as Food Network and Bon Appetit named it the best burger in America. The humble restaurant, which can maybe serve 50 diners at a tiny in its skinny, corner-side location, offers a number of upscale menu items such as bone marrow, foie gras with scrambled eggs and toast, and honey-fried chicken.
But the real draw is the burger. I made sure to glance at each table upon leaving the restaurant and, I kid you not, every single patron had this glorious option in front of them. Its reputation has clearly spread, a factor I did not account for on my first attempt to visit. We arrived around 11 AM on a Saturday and were told we would likely have a three-hour wait. No burger could be worth that, right?
This rejection only strengthened my resolve, and I returned on a Wednesday around 10:45. The restaurant was almost full, but fortunately we were seated this time. There are few options with the burger–it can be ordered with one or two patties and with a fried egg (additional $1) and/or bacon ($3.50).
This burger is worth every penny. While I absolutely adore the Croque Garcon from Block 16 in Omaha, another burger that has received national praise, this was the best burger I’ve ever eaten. The patties alone are tremendous. Even a “single” burger has two thinly-sliced patties, which puts extra char on each slab of meat.
The yolk from the fried egg adds a creamy texture to the dish, but the MVP is the bacon. Two thick, salty slabs adorn the burger, each of which is candied to provide a nice sweetness to the meal. Tart pickles and a creamy sauce round out this masterpiece.
It’s tough for me to endorse a burger that costs nearly $20 and can cause a near three-hour wait. But if such a beast exists, it’s at Au Chavel. The hype is deserved.
If you want more detail on Smoque BBQ, visit this earlier post. The restaurant serves the best brisket I’ve ever had, upending some of the famous spots in Texas and Kansas City. It’s the perfect combination of fatty, tender and succulent, all contained within a salty, firm bark. You won’t find better brisket in the Midwest.
The ribs are tremendous as well, and the sides are solid. The only way you can go wrong at Smoque is if you arrive at peak lunch of dinner hours, as the line typically stretches out the door. But if you’re willing to bear the wait, it’s more than worth your time.
Around Wrigley Field
Duped By Three Fingers (wheated bourbon, carob, gunpowder tea bitters)
Picture this scenario: a Cubs game has just concluded and you’re looking for a high-end establishment to relax/celebrate. Addison Street staples like the Cubby Bear are fantastic, but you’re seeking something a bit more sophisticated and low-key.
I doubt you’ll find a better location than Mordecai, a two-tiered addition for cocktail fanatics on Clark St. The bar has a swanky, upscale atmosphere with the drinks to match. It features wine, beer and 12 signature cocktails that are nearly guaranteed to have you ordering more than you originally anticipated.
If you enjoy whiskey, I cannot recommend the Duped by Three Fingers highly enough. A combination of bourbon, carob and bitters, it’s the best version of an Old Fashioned I’ve ever had. The Peerless Leader (bonded rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, benedictine, amer picon), Mordecai’s take on a Manhattan, is excellent as well.
My girlfriend enjoyed all her drinks as well, and we found ourself staying at the bar far longer than anticipated. Originally planning on stopping in for a quick drink to allow the postgame crowd to dissipate, we ended up sticking at Mordecai for almost three hours, a testament to the amazing drinks and inviting atmosphere.
- Clockwise from top left: Taco de papas con rojas; Taco de panza; taco el pastor
Located steps away from Mordecai is Big Star, another recent addition to the Wrigley scene. Big Star built its reputation in Wicker Park but opened a second location to satisfy diners in Wrigleyville.
The joint is famous for its street tacos, which come in five varieties–pork belly, al pastor, potato, fish and chicken. The portions are on the smaller side, but what they lack in size, they make up for in flavor. The al pastor was a real hit, as the delicious marinated pork shoulder is amped up by a hit of sweetness from grilled pineapple chunks. The papas con rojas was a bit of a wild card, as it replaced the traditional protein in a taco with diced potatoes. But the chopped bits of starch were coated in a pleasantly spicy sauce that was amplified by the poblano peppers and cotija cheese.
Taco de panza
The taco de panza, which features chunks of pork belly, didn’t quite reach my lofty expectations. The pork belly is fatty and flavorful, but I expected more of a punch. It’s still a solid option, and the tortillas were tasty and didn’t tear.
The chips and guacamole are definitely worth your time. The crispy, salty chips are delicious on their own, as the deep fry adds a brilliant crunch. The guacamole is top notch, and the provided salsas (verde and chipotle) both bring a nice balance of heat and flavor.
Big Star isn’t perfect–it’s expensive for the amount of food, and it gets packed around game time. Arrive within an hour of a Cubs game and your best bet is hunting for a spot at one of the two bars. You have little chance of earning a seat otherwise. But if you have time and are craving Mexican, Big Star is a solid move.
California chicken sandwich
Full disclosure here–Merkle’s is an Iowa bar that embraces all things Hawkeye. That may be enough to turn off most Nebraska fans, and I completely respect that. I admit that I didn’t notice the bar’s Iowa lean until we had already ordered, and had I done so I likely would’ve chosen elsewhere. I also would have missed out on a fine meal.
To be clear, Merkle’s isn’t necessarily breaking down any barriers. It’s typical bar food, most burgers, wings and sandwiches. But for it’s a solid option within walking distance of Wrigley Field, has plenty of TVs and a fast, friendly atmosphere and, while the food might not be anything to write home about, it’s better than most bar options.
The portions are massive, and the California chicken is a solid choice, especially if you’re searching for something not deep-fried or drowning in fat. A healthy chicken breast gets amped up with a healthy dose of avocado, bacon and monterey jack cheese, all housed by a delicious pretzel bun. The meals can be ordered with tots, which are perfectly crispy and fairly irresistible.
Tacos (clockwise from top left): chicken tinga, blackened cod, al pastor
The tacos are another fine option. These street tacos are small, but at $2 apiece and very flavorful, they’re more than worth it. The slightly spicy blackened cod and marinated pork of the al pastor are worth your time.
Merkle’s is not a gourmet experience by any means, but if you’re looking for a place to catch up on the day’s sporting events and have a quick meal and/or drink before the game, it’s a fine Wrigleyville option.
I was very disappointed upon being rebuffed on my first attempt to visit Au Chavel, but that frustration melted into satisfaction after audibiling to the nearby Bar Siena. This two-story West Loop restaurant boasts a large Italian menu of dishes made entirely from scratch in house. While most of the options are Italian staples like pizzas and pastas, brunch is also available on the weekends.
We visited on a Saturday, opening our eyes to the glory that is a breakfast calzone. Bar Siena stuffs its calzone, which is the size of a small child, with sausage, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon and a spicy tomato sauce. All the elements complement each other perfect, and the bites of salty bacon are a particular treat. The dough itself is airy and delicious, especially when dipped in provided tomato sauce.
Meatball & mozzarella calzone
If something traditional is more your style, the meatball and mozzarella calzone has you covered. Stringy, fresh mozzarella cheese hugs the generous hearty meatballs, which combine with their doughy home to create an elevated version of a meatball sub. With its patio seating, expansive menu full of fresh Italian and delicious drinks, Bar Siena is worth a visit.
Corned beef hash
I generally prefer local restaurants over chains, and I must admit I was wary when Yolk‘s menu boasted it was voted the best breakfast in Chicago, Indianapolis, Dallas and Forth Worth, I was more than skeptical. But the restaurant originated in the Windy City in 2006, and its menu was tempting enough to get me past my chain-related biases.
I’m glad I did, because Yolk is far from a traditional chain. The menu is overflowing with tempting choices, ranging from multiple omelets, variations on eggs benedict, chicken and waffles, cinnamon roll French toast and much more. Simply choosing an entree is a bit of a chore.
The corned beef hash, served with two eggs any style, is a win. The salty, flavorful corned beef sits atop a plentiful, crispy mound of seasoned potatoes, green peppers and onions. The yolk from the eggs oozes through the dish and permeates every bite, and the meal is only amplified by Yolk’s duo of delicious hot sauces (signature and habanero).
The dish is more than a meal in and of itself, but it comes accompanied with a pair of enormous pancakes. These frisbee-sized morsels have great consistency and are plenty sweet on their own, even without syrup. The cheesy egg sandwich, even with pesto, is a bit bland, but the bacon waffle is an awesome twist on the original dish, planting large, salty bursts throughout the sweet waffle.
Naf Naf Grill
This last one is admittedly a bit of a wild card. Normally I research restaurant destinations fervently to ensure I’m hitting some of the top spots, but my girlfriend and I stumbled into this place while just walking around downtown Chicago.
Think of Naf Naf (which means “fan the flame”) as a Middle Eastern-style Chipotle. It offers very customizable meals, which start with a base of bismanti rice, couscous, romaine lettuce, hummus or a pita. Diners then choose a protein (chicken shawarma, steak or falafel) and one of five sauces with varying flavors and heat levels before adding Middle Eastern pickles, purple cabbage, sumac onions and/or chopped salad. Everything is cooked and plated in plain view.
I’m a huge fan of couscous, a lighter, airier version or rice. It’s delicious on its own, but combining it with the delicious, tender chicken shawarma, which is sliced from a giant meat cone upon ordering, is just brilliant. The harissa sauce, Naf Naf’s spiciest offering, puts a nice punch on the dish.
Tasty as the bowl was, the pita was the real hero. Naf Naf markets its pita bread as a “cloud-like circle of yum”, which sounds ridiculous until you take the first bite. The dough is so soft and tender that it practically melts in your mouth, and it’s appetizing enough on its own. These fresh morsels, which are cooked fresh daily, are only amplified by dipping them in sauce or stuffing them with meat.
I by no means fault anyone who visits Chicago and heads for the classics. I love a good deep dish pizza or Italian beef sandwich and highly encourage anyone to try these options. But if you’ve been to Chicago a few times and are looking for some things off the beaten path, I hope this list helps. From killer burgers, cocktails, street tacos and calzones, Chicago has a lot to offer. So if you’re searching for something outside a Chicago dog, this list should help you out.