NORTH & NORTHWEST
A sophisticated strip-mall spot that knows how to handle its meats.
OK, technically this is not one restaurant but, rather, a collection of more than 10 food court stalls. And while each provides something special, together they add up to one joyous whole, a movable Japanese feast best experienced by ordering widely. After all, why limit yourself to just Sutadonya’s sincere plate of thinly shaved pork topped with a runny-yolked egg when you could also have a fortifying bowl of beef dumpling and rice cake soup from the Korean-inflected MaMa House and a swirl of matcha soft serve from Re Leaf? Or how about a bowl of cloudy-brothed shrimp udon, which is like a hug you can eat? Or a slice of the delicate multilayered chestnut crêpe cake at Lady M? No matter your choices, you order the same way at each: Go up to the cash register, get a receipt with a number, and wait at a nearby table for it to be called over the loudspeaker. The fluorescent lights and linoleum floors call to mind a high school cafeteria, but you’re not here for ambiance. You’re here to feast.
Boston Fish Market
Home to some of the freshest fish in the Chicago area (shipments from all over the globe arrive daily), and if you pick out a specimen, they’ll cook it for you on the spot.
This spot, with its endearing hand-drawn menu and comfort food, is popular with visiting Japanese executives.
Edzo’s Burger Shop
A college student’s (or former college student’s) dream dive: thick milkshakes, giardiniera fries, and lacy-edged griddled patties.
Owner Amy Morton descends from a meaty lineage (Morton’s, ever heard of it?), and her airy steakhouse, with its gently funky dry-aged rib eyes and fillets, does the family proud.
Bombay Chopsticks by India House
The hyperfocused menu — an ode to the cross-cultural cuisine along the India-China border — is filled with fried bites like vegetable meatballs in a peppery chile sauce, which taste like extremely well-traveled bar food.
iChef Asian Cuisine
Hiding in its massive menu is a Sichuan restaurant with real verve.
Psistaria Greek Taverna
Its breezy interior matches Psistaria’s joyful celebration of Mediterranean fare: The stuffed grape leaves swim in a lemon cream sauce that tastes like an entire citrus grove, and the toothsome gyro meat arrives in pleasingly oversize hunks.
Prairie Grass Cafe
The astoundingly good burger — ground sirloin, tomatoes, grilled onions, and blue cheese, popped under a broiler until fused together as one umami-rich masterpiece — is matched only by the seasonal fruit pies kept in steady rotation.
The true Jewish deli is in Skokie, it’s thriving, and its fat-streaked corned beef may make you swoon.
The best local French restaurant in a generation, thanks to chef Michael Lachowicz’s delicate hand.
It may as well have been created by scientists trying to engineer the perfect date-night restaurant: light yet satiating small plates, a deep wine list, pleasingly dim lanterns overhead. Let the romance begin.
It feels almost frozen in time: a cramped deli with a pressed-tin ceiling from which dangle cured sausages, smoked cheeses, and ham hocks. The menu is painted on the wall (new prices taped over the old) and still has a five-digit phone number on it. What started as a slice-and-frozen-lemonade shop has become an emporium of all things Italian, and its deli cases beckon with grandma-approved entrées (chicken Marsala practically dripping with butter; pillowy little gnocchi) and luscious housemade gelati. They’ve still got slices, too — bready and rectangular, shellacked with vibrant tomato sauce. Pretty much the only thing that’s changed here is the line. It seems to get longer every year.
What’s more charming: the puffy Sardinian spinach ravioli or the chef’s menu note insisting that “if you don’t like it, please, call my sister Rosaria”?
This spot makes some of the best tacos in the entire Chicago region. The punchy mojitos, which are most enjoyable to sip on the patio while huddled near the fire pit, are even better.
El Pollo Vagabundo
Four words: succulent char-grilled chickens. And six more words: a delightful 16-option salsa bar.
A seven-sandwich menu with surprising depth: All the proteins, from the bacon burger’s dripping eight-ounce patty to the Polish sausage in a bun with giardiniera, are sourced locally and prepped in-house.
Citrine has everything a fashionable restaurant is supposed to have in 2019. Sort-of-Mediterranean-but-not-really food? Check. A taut yet compelling craft beer list? Check. A rolling barn door that may have been ripped straight from your “redecorating” Pinterest board? Check. It would be easy to dismiss it for coming straight off the Ideal Restaurant Assembly Line. And yet there’s a far more singular spark here. Cauliflower, that oh-so-trendy veg, is enlivened by a quick fry and a coating of gochujang, a play on Korean fried chicken. A simply seared branzino pops with a healthy dose of caper sauce. And tucked on Citrine’s beverage list is a selection of adventurous housemade sodas, like a Peruvian purple-corn fizz with apple and pineapple. Rather than chasing trends, Citrine is the one setting them.
Maya Del Sol
Fusion wouldn’t be so ridiculed if it was like this more often: The flavors, as in a plate of shrimp with bamboo rice and coconut-plantain sauce, mesh like they’ve known each other all along.
Gene & Jude’s
The cash-only home of the obsession-worthy Depression Dog: a Vienna Beef frank topped with mustard and French fries.
Nobody does tastier things with pickles and Midwestern fare than Paul Virant.
The beef soup alone, with its thick tangles of homemade noodles, is enough to make a city dweller consider buying a car for easier access.
SOUTH & SOUTHWEST
Maple Tree Inn
A fire last year pushed this Cajun restaurant out of its historic digs, but the quality hasn’t wavered. Its specialty: Cajun-Creole classics, such as smoky gumbo and fried oysters enlivened with bits of pickled radishes.
Al Bawadi Grill
Just beyond Chicago’s southwestern city limits lies Bridgeview, a village densely packed with Middle Eastern culinary delights. Many are good. Several are great, even outstanding. But Al Bawadi Grill reigns supreme. Yes, aesthetes may shudder at the garish red-striped tapestries hanging from the walls and ceilings, meant to evoke a desert caravan, inside what used to be an Arby’s. But such quibbles evaporate the second you start eating: baked bread bursting with chicken, Syrian cheese, and a potent garlic spread; juicy kofta kebabs kissed by wood-fire flames; lamb glowing with cumin and cayenne. Even the rice — both saffron-tinged yellow and smoky biryani —leaves an indelible impression. You will leave smelling faintly of smoke and charred meat. You will be happier for it.
Spicy Thai Lao
The Laotian and northern Thai offerings at this husband-and-wife shop warm from within: The egg rolls crackle with spice, and the hearty kow tome soup makes you feel like you’re in a chile oil sauna.
Louisa’s Pizza & Pasta
Downtown, deep dish is for tourists. But here, the inch-thick pies, studded with housemade sweet Italian sausage from the eponymous Louisa’s own recipe, meet the stringent standards of an all-local crowd.
Fry the Coop
Hot chicken that’s actually, legitimately, eyebrow-singeingly, grab-a-glass-of-milk-ASAP hot. Also in Elmhurst.
Al Sufara Grill
This butcher shop with a restaurant attached has roots in Amman, Jordan. You’ve never had meat as tender as the long-braised lamb here. Also in Palos Hills.
The Original White Fence Farm
Its fresh chickens are coated in a secret-recipe breading and then pressure-fried so they cook faster and don’t soak up extra oil, which lets the well-seasoned batter sing. For all locations, see whitefencefarm-il.com.