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Our critics' top comfort-food dishes—a save and a splurge

The cheeseburger at North Pond


Toroniku hot miso ramen (special pork with spicy noodle soup), $9.99
Santoka Ramen
(at Mitsuwa Marketplace), 100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-357-0286
A stateside tendril of a Hokkaido-based chain of ramen shops, Santoka remains the best Chicago-area purveyor of honest-to-God Japanese-style noodles in soup. The “salt” ramen, which bathes the silky, curly noodles in a porky soup so dense it approaches creaminess, has its die-hard partisans; but I prefer the saltier miso broth enlivened with chili. Having made the drive, go whole hog and order the “toroniku,” which adds a plate of six exquisitely yielding, against-the-grain slices of fatty braised pork cheek. Dunk, slurp, repeat.

Cheeseburger, $15
North Pond
2610 N. Cannon Dr.; 773-477-5845
This huge and satisfying sandwich makes its fleeting annual appearance on North Pond’s lunch menu, which the restaurant offers during the summer Tuesdays through Fridays only, from June through September—
which is a pity since this burger is delicious simplicity at its best. The patty, made from local pasture-raised beef and smothered in a salty Cheddar from a family-owned Wisconsin co-op, sits high atop a monster-size brioche bun and a fat slice of ripe tomato. Oh, and let’s not forget the view.

Kai thawt (Thai fried chicken), $6.50
Spoon Thai
4608 N. Western Ave.; 773-769-1173
Strictly speaking, Spoon Thai’s kai thawt is not fried chicken in the KFC sense of the phrase, since it’s not battered poultry. But why quibble? These nuggets of moist bone-in, skin-on chicken are fried to deep mahogany brown and seasoned to the hilt with chilis and lemongrass. Dip them in the accompanying sweet and spicy tamarind sauce dotted with ribbons of cilantro, and you’ll kick the bucket habit forever.

Braised beef short ribs with horseradish cream puffs, $29
Custom House
500 S. Dearborn St.; 312-523-0200
Braised short ribs—fatty cuts of beef cooked slowly in a rich liquid to the point of melting tenderness—are a dime a dozen these days at the fine-dining establishments around town. But Shawn McClain’s take is exceptionally fine: a three-rib section of beef is marinated overnight, neatly bundled, seared, then lovingly braised for five hours in red wine and veal stock. The plate is a stunner and the side starch—savory beignet-like potato- and horseradish-
infused cream puffs—pure genius.

BBQ meat loaf,  $13.95
Weber Grill
539 N. State St.; 312-467-9696 and two suburban locations
This dish combines Mom’s and Dad’s respective fortes into one perfect meal. At Weber Grill, the kettle-
cum-restaurant in the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn near Michigan Avenue, chefs take three thick slices of homey Black Angus meat loaf, slather them in the brand’s sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce, and grill them up, transforming the ultimate in mundane family fare into a smoky delight. So savory and tender, the results may cause you to slap your head and ask, Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

Beef Wellington, $32
Sage Grille
260 Green Bay Rd., Highwood; 847-433-7005
This smart, sage-toned north suburban restaurant is doing American cooking with a nod to Europe. The crowning glory of chef Greg Darrah’s menu is his appealingly retro and regal beef Wellington for one. An update of a dish that, let’s face it, is basically a fancy meat pie, Sage’s take would fit comfortably in a 1950s Continental restaurant: a crisp and tender round pastry shell encases succulent, medium-rare beef tenderloin topped with mushroom duxelles. This soothing beauty is cut in half and served with black truffle bordelaise and green beans.

Chili cheese fries, $5.75
The Handlebar
2311 W. North Ave.; 773-384-9546
It’s a big plate, first of all, big enough to be an entrée—if we lived in a nirvana where cheese fries were an acceptable meal. The thickish fries are piled high with a terrific fresh veggie chili, and somehow they never get droopy, not even under an additional swarm of melted Monterey Jack, green peppers, corn, and onions. It’s vegetarian, like almost everything else on the menu, but no way is this healthy.

Bulgogi (barbecue beef), $16.95
San Soo Gap San
5247 N. Western Ave.; 773-334-1589
All over the North Side, you’ve got these Korean barbecues with tabletop grills. Most of them use gas grills, but San Soo Gap San uses blazing real wood charcoal, which gives the thin, tender bulgogi (literally, “fire meat”) an addictively smoky overtone. Just give the sweet, lightly garlicky beef a quick dip on your own personal grill, flip it once, then wrap it in a lettuce leaf and pop it into your mouth while it’s still sizzling. One order is more than enough to share—but why do that?



Photography: (Images 1 & 3) Anna Knott; (Images 2 & 4) Maes/Maes Studio


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