The days when deep-dish pizza and dawgs were considered Chicago’s sole contributions to global cuisine are long gone. In fact the city has shot to the top of the country’s food chain in recent years, driven by a fresh crop of on-trend chefs, and its dynamic new restaurants have turned entire Chicago streets into running buffet lines. Where to go now? Consider the following guide a little taste of what’s getting dished up right now.
Best Korean BBQ
Pan-Asian kitchens are popping up everywhere in the city, but BellyQ, a barnlike dining room on West Randolph’s endless restaurant row, is one of the most assured. That’s partly because chef Bill Kim is no novice; his Urbanbelly and Belly Shack restaurants have earned him a devoted fan base. But it’s also because BellyQ’s increasing focus on Korean comfort food, particularly barbecue, makes for a sharply curated meal that balances lusty and refined flavors. Start with fried chicken marinated in sweet chili and lime, which is as good as it sounds. Then move on to either the tea-smoked duck breast or the sweet-meats, smoky baby-back pork ribs roused by homemade hoisin. Order a side of feathery steam buns, so you can bundle up the velvety meat into an unforgettable sandwich.
Best Asian Tapas
If BellyQ serves up a bellyful of food, Sumi Robata Bar, a tiny River North diner, represents the more minimalist Asian approach. If you want the best view of the cooks grilling delicate skewers of asparagus, shiitake, shrimp, wagyu rib-eye, beef tongue and chicken hearts over pressed Japanese white oak, take a seat at the long glossy wood bar (more white oak) and consider the options. The robata salmon is particularly juicy, but the most memorable things on the grill-happy menu may be two outliers: a small but flavor-packed bowl of yakitori don, its poached egg bleeding yellow yolk over slices of smoky chicken; and a two-bite beef tsukune slider dressed with miso mustard that could be Chicago’s best, or at least most elegant, yet.
bottom-dollar top-chef Lunch (or Dinner)
Chicago’s master chefs, a democratic bunch who want to feed the whole city, are prone to opening casual diners once they earn their Michelin stars. That means if you can’t afford much-touted Blackbird on West Randolph’s restaurant row, you can still dine on chef Paul Kahan’s cuisine at Big Star. At this Wicker Park gem, $3 buys you one knockout of a taco al pastor, the marinated, spit-roasted pork shoulder dressed with grilled pineapple and cilantro. For another $3 get the taco de Panza, a little marvel of crispy braised pork belly, tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco; up it to $5 for a squash, corn and black bean tostada. Not enough? Then try Rick Bayless’ Xoco, which sits close to the master chef’s Topolobampo in River North, but drops the price. The café’s crusty tortas fresh from the griddle can be had for under $12 (particularly good: the chicken with pickled jalapeños and tomatillo-avocado salsa).
Best Silver Service Afternoon Tea
The newly opened Langham hotel sits in a 52-story riverside Mies van der Rohe tower that’s a modernist Chicago landmark. But the hotel brand’s own roots are high Victorian English, and that means afternoon tea — in the cream-colored lounge under a shimmering canopy of floating glass pebbles — is one of the most elaborate in town. Battling for space on the silver tiered trays are cranberry scones, pistachio cinnamon chouquette, chocolate caramel petit fours and every iteration of finger sandwich (smoked salmon rillette to coronation chicken). The choice brew? A wild elderflower tea.