Best Thing We Ate

The 10 Best Things We Ate This Year (So Far) in Chicago

By Sarah Freeman  |  June 30, 2014
Credit: Nick Murway

One drawback of eating out for a living is that all the food starts to blur together. Did we eat that tender pasta with the tangy tomato sauce at restaurant A or B? Did we enjoy the perfect burger last week, or was that just another vivid food dream? But, somehow, the standout dishes stick in the mind. In the past six months we've eaten countless meals at restaurants, food trucks and street vendors around town. These 10 dishes were simply the best. 

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  • Sweet-Potato Pie at Lula Cafe

    Why We Love It: This slice of pie — certainly a factor in pastry chef Kelly Helgesen landing a spot on this year’s 30 Under 30 list — is hidden among more elegant options on the winter and spring dessert menus. However, sometimes the simplest dishes are the most impressive. The deep, almost caramelized graham-cracker crust makes a perfect vessel for the thick, smooth filling. Housemade mini-marshmallows cover the top, and their light cardamom flavor provides a nice counterpoint to the subtle sweet potato.

    2537 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-489-9554

  • Credit: Nick Murway

    Aged Hanger Steak Carpaccio at Cicchetti

    Why We Love It: This dish takes a staple cut of beef and transforms it into something sophisticated. The hormone- and antibiotic-free meat is butchered in house and aged for two weeks to intensify the flavor, and then sliced paper-thin to reveal ribbons of fat and deep-red tissue. These tender, rich slices are further elevated by a mosaic of toppings — color from green sorrel, texture from dehydrated cauliflower and pops of flavor from marsala raisins and caper aïoli.

    671 N. Saint Clair St.; 312-642-1800

  • Soft Scrambled Eggs at Kinmont

    Why We Love It: Easy to overlook on a menu teeming with scallop crudo and whole-fish preparations, this unusual take on the breakfast staple has a briny flavor, the result of both golden roe and smoked Lake Superior whitefish. The heartiness of the accompanying country bread — crusty on the outside, soft in the middle — pairs perfectly with the silky eggs.

    419 W. Superior St.; 312-915-0011

  • Salt Toroniku Ramen at Santouka

    Why We Love It: The star of this ramen, found in Arlington Heights' Japanese market Mitsuwa, is not the broth, although its rich flavor and subtle salinity with a hint of fishy funk are certainly noteworthy. Rather, it's the tender, almost silky pork cheek, a serious upgrade from the uninspired meat found in many a noodle bowl. 

    100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-956-6699

  • Leige Waffle at The Winchester

    Why We Love It: Donuts are delicious and all, but we’re waiting for the great waffle boom. And if anyone can tip the scales on waffle's popularity, it will be The Winchester. The Ukrainian Village cafe serves theirs Belgian-style, leaning more on the chewy side rather than fluffy, with an almost cookielike consistency. They're made with yeast dough that's given three hours to rise and then sits overnight to intensify the malty flavor before hitting the waffle iron. Note: no syrup necessary, as these waffles are speckled with pearlized sugar.

    1001 N. Winchester Ave.; 773-698-8703

  • Credit: Nick Murway

    Lamb Chop at Sumi Robata Bar

    Why We Love It: The coal used for this Japanese style of cooking is made from compressed hardwood — white oak "bincho" in this case — that allows it to burn hotter and cleaner than traditional charcoals. Chef Gene Kato grills a variety of meat, seafood and produce on the robata grill, everything from beef tongue to king crab, but the lamb chop satisfied our taste buds most of all. The single chop, seasoned with a spicy miso and coarse sea salt, is seared until the outside forms a crisp char and the inside is still juicy.

    702 N. Wells St.; 312-988-7864

  • Kouign-amann at Bad Wolf Coffee

    Why We Love It: We may or may not have referred to Jonathan Ory as a pusher who deals in pastries. It’s not our fault that his sweets are so satisfying that we have violent cravings for them. The kouign-amann, or “cake butter,” is his prime product. Flaky layers of pastry are baked in a knot, with each sugary bite better than the last. Ory, a self-proclaimed perfectionist always looking for a new challenge, has mentioned the possibility of replacing his most famed item. Let us be the first to say, if this happens, things will get messy.

    3422 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-969-2346

  • Credit: Galdones Photography

    Fried Tofu at Fat Rice

    Why We Love It: The ultimate sweet-meets-savory brunch item can be found at this Logan Square hot spot. One of the few sweet dishes on the Macanese dim sum brunch menu is a fusion of American French toast with Asian fried-egg tofu. It starts with small rounds of tofu that are deep-fried. The process brings a rich caramel flavor out of the soy, which is then slathered in maple syrup and served with trumpet mushrooms and scallions.

    2957 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-661-9170

  • Credit: Nick Murway

    Tomato-Watermelon Salad at Café des Architects

    Why We Love It: This is the type of salad we could eat every day. It appears on the “market inspired” section of the menu and begins with bright-pink compressed watermelon that's bursting with an almost floral flavor. It's served on a bed of Bellwether ricotta, a natural salty counterpart to the sweet watermelon that also brings out the ripeness of red, orange and yellow cherry tomatoes. Leaves of Urban Till lemon basil are another welcome addition in a dish that's all about simplicity and freshness. The kicker on this sophisticated interpretation is the caviarlike balsamic pearls resting on the watermelon cubes.

    20 E. Chestnut St.; 312-324-4063

  • Credit: Nick Murway

    Steak Tartare at The Brixton

    Why We Love It: We’ve had a lot of steak tartare in our time, and not all are created equal (talk about a first-world problem). There’s an artfulness required to deal with raw meat and seafood. Chef Kevin McMullen takes the dish to another level with choice sirloin. The meat is treated with the traditional seasonings of salt, black pepper, lemon juice, cornichon and capers, and then artfully arranged on a large white plate with a 65-degree egg yolk, smoked beef fat, shaved Parmesan and breakfast radishes. It’s an unexpectedly elegant take on the classic dish.

    5420 N. Clark St.; 773-961-7358