BEST ROOT BEER
DOG N SUDS
People mostly don’t know how to describe the taste of root beer, but when they taste Dog n Suds, they say, “That’s it.” Bottled by the West Side company Clover Club, Dog n Suds balances the classic root-beer flavors of wintergreen, vanilla, cherry, and anise (along with a few other notes), transporting our tasters to childhood birthday parties and root-beer floats. Old-school though the winner may be, our tasters preferred it overwhelmingly to newfangled craft brews.
RUNNERS-UP: The minty/anise-y concoction from Berghoff ran a close second with our panel, with a few tasters calling it too sugary. Gale’s Root Beer, created by the pastry chef extraordinaire Gale Gand, polarized the panel: Some adored its strong cinnamon flavor, while others accused it of tasting like a doughnut.
BEST INDIAN BUFFET
It’s 11:30, you’re losing your focus on work, and samosas are starting to dance before your eyes. The remedy is the River North location of India House, which offers what’s probably the biggest and priciest ($14.95 to $15.95) lunch buffet near the Loop, brimming with an abundant selection of Indian favorites such as vindaloos, saags, and masalas. Standouts from the buffet include the hot-out-of-the-oven naan and a sizzling platter of exceptional tandoori chicken served tableside. 59 W. Grand Ave.; 312-645-9500
RUNNERS-UP: Not your typical buffet, at Jaipur (847 W. Randolph St.; 312-526-3655) the $14.99 lunch special comes delivered to your table. Second, third, even fourth helpings are included, but you won’t have room. Somewhat hidden in a residential tower lobby, Chicago Curry House (899 S. Plymouth Ct.; 312-362-9999) had a less extensive buffet, but at $10.95, it’s one of the best deals around the Loop.
BEST NEW BREAKFAST
FRED’S AT BARNEYS NEW YORK
When Fred’s at Barneys opened here in April, the ladies who lunch made it an instant see-and-be-seen destination. The breakfast served on the weekends—it’s technically a brunch, name- and hourswise—keeps the luxurious setting (and the price that goes with it) but carries a more casual vibe. A cocktail, a baked-goods basket, an entrée, and a dessert are offered for a prix fixe; our highlights were the firm-on-the-outside, yielding-on-the-inside potatoes and the cloud-fluffy three-egg omelet. The prix fixe meal runs $24 or $38, depending on whether you want the fancier Champagne. 15 E. Oak St.; 312-596-1111
RUNNERS-UP: We didn’t love the stark hotel atmosphere at LB Bistro & Patisserie (Sheraton Chicago, 301 E. North Water St.; 312-464-1000), but the cinnamon-batter-dipped, strawberry-cream-cheese-filled brioche French toast won us over. The banana-stuffed French toast with toasted pecans stands out on the affordable, British Isles-tinged menu at Bananas Foster Café (1147 W. Granville Ave.; 773-262-9855), but the portions reflect the prices.
BEST TORTILLA CHIP
You probably know them as “the green bag.” No one seems to remember what they’re called or where they come from (Archer Heights), but you can’t forget the thick, distinctive chips themselves. Made with pure corn oil, a little salt, and lime, these deep-fried beasts bring a blunt corn flavor and unparalleled dipping power, regardless of what’s in the bowl. Beefs about inconsistency—in seasoning, in crispness—fall on deaf ears here; in supermarkets lined with bags of mass-produced products, El Ranchero’s charming unpredictability only adds to the excitement.
RUNNERS-UP: Considerably more elegant but somehow almost as brawny, Donkey Chips boast an addictive restaurant-style snap without the heft of El Ranchero. (Points off for the entire colony of salt at the bottom of the bag.) Even lighter, but less distinctive, is El Milagro, a white corn option strangely devoid of grease.
BEST ASIAN-STYLE CHICKEN WINGS
TAKE ME OUT
Sweet, spicy, and perfectly shaped like lollipops for no-mess (OK, a-little-mess) eating, these drumettes beat out even those at the legendary Great Sea, the Chinese restaurant owned by the parents of Karen Lim, owner of Take Me Out. Crispier, juicier, and ever so slightly more intense than Great Sea’s, these “little hotties” come with a bowl of sticky white rice, which—after finishing your chicken—you’ll want to dump in the leftover sauce and enjoy as a second meal. Seven pieces for $6.59, 14 for $11.99. 1502 W. 18th St.; 312-929-2509
RUNNERS-UP: The Albany Park stalwart Great Sea (3254 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-478-9129) serves up the original platter of tender, glazed goodness for wing fans on the North Side. One of the few Korean grocery stores in the city, Chicago Food Corporation (3333 N. Kimball Ave.; 773-478-5566) sells a pack of sweet, garlicky, and not-as-spicy drumettes for just $7 in the snack corner near the back.
A soggy pastry shell, overly sweet filling, mushy chocolate chips, no candied citrus to speak of, green-dyed peanuts instead of pistachios—the faults of the run-of-the-mill cannoli are legion. Fortunately, Natalina’s version—thin, light shells filled to order with an airy, subtly cheesy ricotta dotted with still-firm chocolate chips and bits of house-made candied orange and lemon peel—shares precisely none of them. Ballyhooed it may be, but not overhyped. 5406 N. Clark St.; 773-989-0662
RUNNERS-UP: At D’Amato’s Bakery (1332 W. Grand Ave.; 312-733-6219), the light filling, crisp shell, and bits of citrus make up for the peanuts. Sicilian Bakery (4632 N. Cumberland Ave.; 773-589-2602) doesn’t fill to order, but it gets more right than wrong and moves its pastries fast enough to keep them fresh.
Served piping hot, this crispy chickpea patty is seasoned with fresh garlic, parsley, onions, salt, allspice, cumin, and, for a kick, jalapeño peppers. But the best part is that they’re always made fresh to order and come with homemade tahini. Four golf-ball-size pieces go for $3.50. 4639 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-279-8900
RUNNERS-UP: Slightly milder than the falafel at Semiramis, the generously portioned patties at Chickpea (2018 W. Chicago Ave.; 773-384-9930) finish a close second. Fresh cilantro and a “secret spice” infuse the 25-cent falafels from Zahrat Al Madaa’en (4503 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-279-7200), just opened in April in Albany Park’s Middle Eastern enclave.
SHAW’S CRAB HOUSE
We don’t live in oyster country. That makes an attentive, skillful, knowledgeable oyster presentation here even more impressive. Shaw’s Crab House deftly outperforms its few rivals. The Shaw’s shuckers have the technique down—grit and shell fragments at a minimum, oysters dependably separated from the shell, maximum liquor retention—and the servers really know their bivalves. The menu lists oysters’ names (an obvious move), points of origin (nice to have), and species (unnecessary, but hard-core). Hit the half-price special, before 6 o’clock. 21 E. Hubbard St.; 312-527-2722
RUNNERS-UP: Porter’s Oyster Bar (446 W. Virginia St., Crystal Lake; 815-356-0700) misses on the plating and the lack of mignonette, but the Blue Points are a 1971-throwback 35 cents apiece during happy hour. Hugo’s Frog Bar (1024 N. Rush St.; 312-640-0999) nails the skill and delivers an ingenious crushed-ice mignonette—but do they have to cost $2.50 each?
Photography: (omelet and oyster) istockphoto.com, (all others) Michael Boone