>> BUDGET BEAT
Don’t let the funky strip mall that houses Tay Do (1232 Bloomingdale Rd., Glendale Heights; 630-462-8888) fool you. Simple comfort reigns inside the deep, spacious restaurant, peppered with landscapes of rural Vietnam and faux tropical greenery. Opened a half year ago by Khanh Le, the restaurant sports a menu of nearly 200 Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Chef Ngoi Phung’s pickings are delightfully varied and prepared with panache. Jump right in by ordering appetizers of shrimp-, lettuce-, and noodle-laden fresh spring rolls and plump, crunchy deep-fried egg rolls, both among the best we’ve tasted. It’s also hard to go wrong with any of the super-size soups, particularly the mellow beef-, meatball-, and slender rice-noodle-studded pho tai bo vien ($5.50) and the soothing hu tien tom thit ($6.25), packed with noodles, shrimp, and barbecued pork. Successfully maneuvering those slippery noodles into your mouth is another trick altogether. When it comes to wide noodles, nothing can top the soft yet crisp-edged pan-fried beauties paired with juicy shrimp and a glossy array of snow peas, broccoli, and carrots (hu tieu xao tom-#132, pictured here; $8.50). Pure bliss on a chopstick. There’s a slew of stir-fried dishes, including several takes on tofu, a sublimely sweet orange chicken, and savory chunks of catfish simmered in a clay pot. For sipping, beer or fresh, sweetened limeade can’t be beat. To have the full-blown Tay Do experience, head over on a Saturday night when multigenerational Vietnamese families gather, teen fashionistas table hop, and flagging down a waiter is iffy at best. It’s worth it.
>> SMALL PLATES
In December, former X/O chef Bob Zrenner unveiled Graze (35 W. Ontario St.; 312-255-1234), a safe house for contemporary American fare. Pairing offbeat dishes (ahi tuna nachos, cookie tower, cheesecake ravioli) with even more offbeat décor such as hanging glass butterflies, sunflowers, cut logs coming out of the wall, Zrenner describes Graze’s style as a sort of “tongue-in-cheek American pastoral.” The menu boasts plenty of shareable dishes: a ‘not-your-mother’s’ meat loaf, braised duck leg, six different kinds of mashed potatoes, and slow-roasted king salmon with olive tapenade and parsley purée (pictured here; $12).
Creativity flows freely in the suburbs, as longtime favorite Bistro Banlieue received conceptual and stylistic makeovers, reopening in November as Sequel (44 Yorktown Convenience Center, Lombard; 630-629-6560). Though a shift from traditional French bistro to contemporary American might be mistaken for a political statement, owner Steve Byrne insists that it’s about cosmopolitanism, not isolationism, bringing ingredients from the world over. Along with the changes in cuisine, a dozen tables have been removed from the dining room for a warmer and quieter experience. There’s no set menu, but the hoisin-glazed Berkshire pork rib chop with spaghetti squash, toasted chestnuts, medjool date, and five-spice demi-glace (pictured here; $27) is sure to be a draw.
Rarely does the opening of a BBQ joint generate the seismic activity of Smoque BBQ (3800 N. Pulaski Rd.; 773-545-7427). Part of it could be due to the straight-faced 1,000-word barbecue manifesto drafted by partner Barry Sorkin that was leaked on the ‘Net before Smoque’s doors opened in December. Judging by the neighborhood’s initial enthusiasm for the joint, though, it would seem that Sorkin wasn’t just blowin’ smoke. After touring the rib shacks of the Midwest and South, Sorkin and his four partners arrived at a flavor that sets them apart from Chicago style barbecue (if such a thing exists). Smoque plays up its spice rub and the smoking process rather than its sauce-see the brisket sandwich and quarter slab of ribs (pictured here; $11.95)-which means that the meat is for the most part lightly sauced.
Photography: Tyllie Barbosa