Best of Chicago 2011: Food & Drink

Our picks for the best savory pies, Italian ice, new BYO, and more

Bite Cafe
Bite Cafe
 

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BEST OF CHICAGO 2011:

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BEST NEW RESTAURANTS 2011 »

NEW BYO BITE CAFE In 1995, Bite Cafe opened as a no-frills BYO storefront in Ukrainian Village. The food was tasty, but over time, Bite fell off the radar. Until six months ago, that is, when the owner, Bruce Finkelman (Longman & Eagle), closed the joint, regrouped, and reopened Bite as a spiffed-up no-frills BYO storefront. The food is still affordable, but now it’s crazy good: We love chef Rodney Staton’s garlicky chicken and his lemony whitefish. And since Finkelman also owns the Empty Bottle next door, Bite patrons may cross over to the bar and bring back beer or wine to wash it all down. 1039 N. Western Ave.; 773-395-2483, bitecafechicago.com

FOOD TRUCK 1. TAMALLI SPACE CHARROS The most shamelessly gimmicky of Chicago’s food trucks is also the best: This gritty “tamale spaceship” is helmed by two sci-fi-obsessed Mexican luchadores, who hand out moist, piping-hot masa tubes filled with flavors both authentic (pibil-style shredded pork) and rustic-gourmet (roasted beets and goat cheese). Add well-executed moles for dipping and a creamy serrano-spiked guacamole, and results blast off. @tamalespace101 2. 5411 EMPANADAS Baked and flaky with superfresh fillings. The velvety sweet-corn turnover, crammed with juicy kernels, is a standout. @5411empanadas 3. GAZTRO-WAGON Our favorite of Matt Maroni’s creative flatbread “naan-wiches” is the wild boar belly with truffle honey, cherries, pistachios, and manchego. @wherezthewagon. PLUS: Follow our Chicago food trucks list on Twitter »

Doughnut VaultDOUGHNUT THE DOUGHNUT VAULT Everything you’ve heard is true: The gargantuan glazed doughnuts ($3), sold from an adorable nook attached to Gilt Bar in River North, are airy, greaseless sensations. The smaller gingerbread cake doughnuts (three for $3) are tender and dredged in cinnamon and sugar. The old-fashioned buttermilk ($2) could not be craggier. Limited daily quantities—about 750 on weekdays and 900 on Saturdays—only add to the frenzy. 401 1/2 N. Franklin St.; thedoughnutvault.tumblr.com

FOCACCIA FOCACCIA DI RECCO AT DAVANTI ENOTECA Who doesn’t love focaccia, the dimpled, spongy flat loaf frequently seen in breadbaskets these days? So when we came across the stuffed Focaccia di Recco at Davanti Enoteca, we were intrigued. Little did we know that the appetizer—two superthin, puffed, warm, and crisp layers holding sweet-tart melty cheese—would soon become an addiction. 1359 W. Taylor St.; 312-226-5550, davantichicago.com

FOX RIVER DINING BISTRO ONE WEST You have the option to dine indoors at Bistro One West in St. Charles, but Doug D’Avico’s menu is clearly built for the plein air. The flavors are downright breezy: deviled eggs topped with buttered lobster, grilled steak served with tomato-rich panzanella salad, and French sugar cookies dipped in lemon curd. The result, when enjoyed on the patio overlooking the Fox River, is something approaching a fine-dining picnic—simple elegance meets natural beauty. 1 W. Illinois St., St. Charles; 630-444-0600, bistro1west.com

FUDGE KILWIN’S Last October, Kilwin’s, the Michigan confectioner, opened its only Illinois shop in Old Town—down the street from The Fudge Pot, a beloved Chicago institution. The truth pains us, but we cannot lie: The newcomer is the best in town (apologies to Margie’s, too). The perfectly dense slabs at Kilwin’s are churned out daily, and the shop’s own flavor creations rival the best candy bar you’ve ever had. Old Town Mud packs chunks of dark chocolate and globs of melted caramel into vanilla fudge, and the German chocolate is cakey and coconutty. No road trip required. 1405 N. Wells St.; 312-654-1962, kilwins.com/chicago

Pleasant House Bakery's savory piesSAVORY PIES PLEASANT HOUSE BAKERY At 38, Art Jackson may finally be living the dream: Although he always wanted to be a chef, Jackson says he dutifully detoured through college before culinary school and an eight-year stint cooking in someone else’s restaurant. Now the part-time urban farmer has opened Pleasant House Bakery, where he and his wife, Chelsea, serve organically grown salads and the most amazing savory pies we’ve tasted in a long time. Their corner slot, with 15 or so seats, is about as basic as it gets—until you taste the pies. The chubby pastry-perfect beauties (steak and ale, chicken balti, mushroom and kale) are baked fresh to order for lunch and dinner. 964 W. 31st St.; 773-523-7437, thepleasanthouse.com

NEW BARBECUE AUSTIN BBQ In January, a crane lifted an authentic seven-foot-tall, 4,200-pound J&R wood-burning smoker into the new kitchen at Austin BBQ in Wheaton. Now the self-taught pit master, Doug Pierce, is using it to bathe slabs of beef brisket and shoulder in oaky plumes of smoke for 12 hours at a clip, yielding a flavorful inner pink band and peppery black crust. Served on white bread with sides of corn-bread hush puppies and blue-cheese potato salad, the results aren’t merely an imitation of Texas Hill Country barbecue; they’re the real thing. 226 W. Front St., Wheaton; 630-690-0526, austinbbq.net

NEW CUPCAKE 1. SPRINKLES CUPCAKES The cupcake trend shows no sign of slackening, so we compared the raft of newcomers, only to find that the interloper from Beverly Hills easily wins for its crisp and sugary American buttercream and alluring flavor combinations. 50 E. Walton St.; 312-573-1600, sprinkles.com 2. CRUMBS BAKE SHOP Eyes will pop when you show up with these monstrous specimens. But the frostings are off-the-charts sweet. 303 W. Madison St.; 312-263-6500, crumbs.com 3. TURTLE’S CUPCAKES Competing with the indulgent creations made at Marla’s Sweet Bites across the street, Turtle’s won us over with homespun charm. And its chocolate cupcake. 469 Central Ave., Highland Park; 847-748-8627

Anthony's Italian IceITALIAN ICE 1. ANTHONY’S Black cherry with bits of fresh fruit; mango made with imported Indian purée; rich, bright chocolate; and coconut that tastes fresh from the tree: We couldn’t find a loser. The owner, Michael Mednick, might credit his commitment to making the ice from scratch with natural ingredients. We might agree. 3442 N. Southport Ave.; 773-868-4237, anthonysice.com 2. GINA’S Family-owned since 1977, Gina’s always has more than ten flavors on tap, but it’s the perfectly balanced lemon that keeps us coming back. 6737 W. Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn; 708-484-0944, ginasitalianice.com 3. JOHNNIE’S BEEF Some say the lemon ice is a fine complement to Johnnie’s hot beef and fries. We think it’s the other way around. 7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park; 708-452-6000 (and Arlington Heights)

 

Photography: Kim Thornton; (Bite Cafe, doughnut, savory pies, Italian ice) Anna Knott

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