Not to get all morbid on you, but we only have a finite amount of time on this big blue marble and it’s not intended to be spent huddled over your desk eating microwave dinners. With so many amazing meals just begging to be eaten in Chicago, we narrowed the field down to best foods from around the city.
Chicago’s barbecue scene is surprisingly impressive, but other local ribs can’t touch the dry-rubbed, apple- and oak-smoked St. Louis-style racks at this North Side gem.
Bad news: the original Humboldt Park restaurant has closed. Good news: the posh West Loop one serves just as great a version of this Mexican sandwich with three kinds of meat, cheese, avocado, the herb papalo, and smoky-hot chipotle.
Known as the deep-dish pizza locals actually eat, the pies at this Clybourn Avenue mainstay sport a hallmark caramelized cheese crust that’ll make you think twice about how you want to tackle each colossal slice: crust first, or save the best part for last?
This sandwich was invented here at La Borinquen to represent the whole Puerto Rican character in one bite — meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on a garlicky “bun” of fried plantains. There are still La Borinquens around, though our favorite example today is at this rotisserie chicken place.
Arroz Gordo (Fat Rice)
Having been a fixture in Chicago’s underground dining club scene for years, the Fat Rice chefs’ blend of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine is embodied in their eponymous dish. Meant to be tackled by groups of four or more, feasting on the bountiful bowl is like digging for buried treasure in the form of prawns, sofrito, and Chinese sausage.
This upscale Korean restaurant from Top Chef alum Beverly Kim and her husband Johnny Clark has many good dishes, but one was an instant classic — the warm, nourishing bread stuffed with bacon, potato, and onions, which seems to be Asian food by way of your Polish grandmother.
Seoul Sassy chicken wings
It’s hard to think of a food that wouldn’t benefit from a coating of the ginger-soy-garlic panacea known as Crisp’s Seoul Sassy sauce. Needless to say, we weren’t surprised the Korean chicken wing spot took top honors in our local wing ranking.
If you’re the sort of person for whom Thai food means pad Thai and nothing else, please, just this once, throw something else into the mix. In this case, that thing should be this impossibly flavorful assembly of brisket, pork rinds, and other goodness in all its sweet, spicy, meaty glory.
Churros and chocolate
Rick Bayless’ casual sandwich place (and its very similar airport sibling Tortas Fronteras) is recommended for lunch. But a couple of freshly made churros (like unrolled donuts) and a pot of thick chocolate dipping sauce is a combo that works anytime.
Best steak in Chicago? Here it is: the 28-day aged-in-house ribeye at David Burke’s is very good for a better-than-standard steak. The 55-day aged ribeye is for the bold, who like a taste of blue cheese funk and iron bar in meat. The 40-day aged ribeye is stronger than the former, not as off-putting as the latter — in short, it’s just right.
French fries and ice cream
Inspired by Chef Phillip Foss watching his daughters dip their fries in their ice cream, this dish has taken different avant-garde forms. But however it gives you potato to eat with your ice cream, it’s everything charming about Foss’ playful South Side fine-dining tasting menu spot in one bite.
Ma po tofu
With its bobbing cubes of squishy tofu, this is a quintessential Chinese comfort food — if your idea of comfort includes a bowl of bubbling volcanic ooze, like chili pepper-flavored lava. One of the city’s great vegetarian dishes, especially when you order it with pork.
If you’re looking for “artisanal” scoops and chic digs, you’ve come to the wrong place: Margie’s is a dingy yet charming relic from the past, and slings the best old-school sundae in town — complete with nuts, whipped cream, caramel, hot fudge, a cherry on top, and a wafer cookie.
There’s nothing more metal than a burger that boldly defies burger convention. Case in point: Kuma’s Slayer, which involves a 10oz patty stacked atop a bed of fries, and smothered in chili, cherry peppers, caramelized onions, andouille sausage, shredded and melted Monterrey Jack, green onion, and a side of angel’s tears (not really).
This legendary chain goes full-tilt dessert Inception with a dessert within a dessert known as a “cake shake,” into which an entire slice of diabolically rich chocolate cake is ground. Balance out all that sweet with a Chicago-style dog.
The best sub in the city of Chicago features a spicy array of top-quality meats and cheeses from this old Italian wholesaler and grocer, all on a crusty coal-fired roll from the equally vintage D’Amato’s Bakery nearby.
Remember concocting “suicides” at soda fountains as a kid? Well, this is kind of like that, but actually great — as in, “some of the best ice cream in America” great. The cone comes stacked with a scoop each of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (NY vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and orange sherbet.
Between a golden meat-to-bun ratio, house-made pickles, Dijonnaise, supremely thick and juicy bacon, and an oozy fried egg, Au Cheval’s single (which is confusingly actually a double) will leave you wanting for nothing.
South Side cop? Trucker hauling a late-night load? U of I student trying to soak up some beers? They all come together all night long at this standup-only hot dog stand, famous for these plump, garlicky sausages served with mustard and grilled onions since 1939.
Say “hello” to your new favorite porcine delicacy (and yes, it really is worth the months-long reservation wait). The juicy meat has been wood oven roasted until tender, and is served with cilantro, tamarind, red wine-maple sauce, crispy potato sticks, and a perfectly runny sunny side egg.
Shopping mall cinnamon rolls can’t hold a candle to the pillowy, made-from-scratch buns at this time-tested diner that arrive at the table in pairs (!), come doused in a seemingly indelible pool of glaze, and are best washed down with a cup of coffee and shameless conviction.
Get a big group of friends, get your BYOB ammo ready, call ahead to reserve your birds, and get ready for the perfection that is a bite of succulent duck with crispy skin. Then take many more bites and find yourself pleasantly surprised by how cheap the bill is.
Glazed old-fashioned donut
There are many great donuts in this city, but nothing is more iconic than a wonderfully moist old-fashioned donut lacquered in sugary glaze from Brendan Sodikoff’s seemingly always-sold-out donut emporium.
With the noticeable absence of Hot Doug’s in our lives, we’ve glommed onto a dog that’s much more simple but still every bit as traditional. The late-night hot dog stand offers steamed dogs simply dressed in mustard, relish, onion, sport peppers, and an overly generous mound of fresh-cut fries.