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Sam & Harry’s, Sequel, Sol de Mexico, Tay Do, Tepatulco, Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood, Xel-Há

1551 North Thoreau Drive, Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center, Schaumburg; 847-303-4050 [$$$]

Ho-hum. Another suburban luxury hotel, another steak house. But wait: Sam & Harry’s, a small D.C.–based chain, is as good as it is gorgeous. The oval gold-and-blue room has a striking central private dining area enclosed by glass walls holding wine racks, which is pretty cool—but you don’t have to sit in there to get prime steaks and fresh seafood on white Sant’ Andrea Royale Porcelain china. The signature is a Kansas City bone-in strip served with a head of roasted garlic. Get one, follow it with an apple blueberry crumble, and you’ll agree that there’s always room for one more steak house.

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa
a plate of salmon at Sam & Harry's Restaurant in Chicago

Sam & Harry's Alaskan king salmon on basil corn cake with whipped goat cheese and steamed baby asparagus

SHOWSTOPPER Thick crab cakes held together with lemon aïoli and served with lemon tartar sauce—in appetizer and entrée portions

NICE TOUCH Comfortable booths feel like twin couches with pillows.

WHO GOES THERE Conventioneers

OTHER FAVORITES Lobster bisque; kicky Cajun rib eye served with horseradish cream and freshly grated horseradish

ADDICTIVE SIDE Roasted diced red potatoes with cherry peppers and onions

THE MYSTERY Without a convention crowd, the room is a ghost town.
–D. R. W.


* * *

dining room in Sol de Mexico in Chicago

3018 North Cicero Avenue; 773-282-4119

The king of mole in Chicago is Geno Bahena, and this Belmont-Cragin BYO banks on that fact, without the guy ever entering the kitchen. But owner Carlos Tello is his brother-in-law, and Clementina Flores (Bahena’s mom) works beside Tello in the kitchen. Surprise: Nearly a dozen dishes on the menu involve moles—terrific, of course—and there are plenty of other regional dishes, too, all attention grabbers.

SHOWSTOPPER Tampiqueña, a spice-rubbed grilled skirt steak alongside a chicken enchilada with teloloapense mole, guacamole, black beans, and queso fresco

WHO GOES THERE BYO fans; locals happy to have a quality restaurant in the underserved neighborhood

LOOK FAMILIAR? The colorful Mexican arts and crafts came from Bahena’s Chilpancingo; Pilsen artist Oscar Romero did the large, vivid paintings.

FIRE QUENCHER Horchata, house-made rice-milk water with cinnamon

OTHER FAVORITES Mexican shrimp cocktail with avocado and serranos; tamales oaxaqueños with shredded chicken and black mole wrapped in banana leaves; champandongo, fresh tortillas layered with shredded pork, almonds, pecans, and red mole

PLEA Get rid of the Chilpancingo menu covers.
–D. R. W.

* * *

Contemporary American
44 Yorktown Convenience Center, Lombard; 630-629-6560 [$$$]

$10 to $19
$20 to $29
$30 to $39
$40 to $49
[amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

Abracadabra. Steve Byrne, who gave Bistro Banlieue to the suburbs, decided after 17 years that it had outlived its usefulness, so he closed it, redecorated it, and reopened it as a contemporary American restaurant. The magic worked. Chef Mark Downing shifted culinary gears smoothly, moving the food up several notches in sophistication to match the new look, but keeping some French accents in dishes like foie gras with date-walnut conserve stuffed crêpes, while adding Asian flavors to others. Fin-ally a sequel worth seeing.

SHOWSTOPPER Braised short rib “Yankee pot roast” with baby vegetables and garlic confit

GUTSY DECISION Wider-spaced tables seat dozens fewer diners than old bistro.

WHO GOES THERE Banlieue regulars and new DuPage County explorers

NOW ON BOARD Pastry chef Matthew Sayers over from Les Nomades, doing lovelies like white goat cheese mousse on sweet lemon pastry with fresh strawberries and Oloroso sherry sabayon

OTHER FAVORITES Asian-style beef tenderloin tartare with daikon sprout salad; chocolate-hazelnut Sacher torte with zinfandel choc-olate sauce and cherry sorbet

ODDEST NEW DISH Grilled freshwater prawns with brown butter and black truffle dumplings come with sauerkraut flavored with bacon.
–D. R. W.

* * *

1232 Bloomingdale Road, Glendale Heights; 630-462-8888 [¢]

Photographs: Tyllie Barbosa
chicken skewers at Chicago's Tay Do

Banh hoi Tay Do, steamed rice noodle cakes with lettuce leaf wrapper for assorted meats and vegetables

As good as anything on Argyle Street—if not better—Tay Do does justice to Vietnamese cuisine in the unlikeliest spot: a scruffy west suburban strip mall. Service is perfunctory, and the décor is all fake trees and tacky reprints, but you don’t come out here for luxury. You come for cheap, superfresh renditions of nearly 200 dishes, from the familiar (spring rolls; deep-flavored pho) to the exotic (stir-fried eel in lemongrass). And then you come back.

SHOWSTOPPER Cua rang me, a whole Dungeness crab with an addictively sticky tamarind sauce, is a beast of a dish for around $23 (market price).

INNOVATION Try the thit kho to, pork simmered in a clay pot with a caramelized sauce, and you’ll never go back to catfish.

WHO GOES THERE Asians aplenty, adventurous suburbanites

BIGGEST SURPRISE The fact that one of Chicago’s top Vietnamese spots is between a dollar store and a pawn shop

OTHER FAVORITES Banh xeo, a crispy pancake enfolded with shrimp and pork; bun thit nuong cha gio (rice noodles with grilled marinated beef
and bite-size egg rolls)—both real crowd pleasers  

BEST LINE When we asked what was in the “Saigon-style sandwich” (banh mi thit nguoi), our server said, “pork, and more pork.”

GRIPE Invest in some bigger napkins, please.
–J. R.

* * *

2558 North Halsted Street; 773-472-7419 [$]

Since his days costarring as managing chef at Frontera Grill, Geno Bahena has moved beyond the food of his native Guerrero to all regions of Mexico. He combines classics with contemporary reinterpretations at Tepatulco, an understated—for him—corner storefront. Impeccable offerings move from traditional queso fundido to innovative garlic-marinated and pan-roasted shrimp in a creamy chipotle sauce with ribbon pasta.

SHOWSTOPPER Any of Bahena’s moles. Doesn’t matter what meat or fish—they’d be fantastic soaking into cardboard.

NOT WHILE SITTING UNDER A SMOKE DETECTOR Huitlacoche (corn fungus)–stuffed jalapeños

NICE TOUCH Six-course tasting menu ($45) with matching wines for $19

SCARIEST-SOUNDING DISH Oaxacan picaditas de chapulines: delicious masa boats filled with black beans, chile de árbol tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, and fried grasshoppers

WHO GOES THERE Bahena groupies, casual neighborhoodies

HANGOVER CURE If you’re still hurting from last night, look into the sope birria de res, a skirt steak cured with pulque (fermented agave juice), wrapped and roasted in century plant, flavored with chile ancho and guajillo.

GRIPE Just when I learn to pronounce the name of one of his restaurants—Ixcapuzalco, Chilpancingo—Bahena closes it and opens another.
–D. R. W.

* * *

dining room at Chicago's Tramonto

Westin Chicago North Shore, 601 North Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling; 847-777-6575 [$$]

Photograph: Pete Barreras
lemon meringue pie at Tramonto's Steak and Seafood

Lemon meringue pie with crème fraîche

It’s not Tru, but Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand know their way around a steak house just fine. Some of the steaks are dry-aged, some are not, but they are all in their prime; and Tramonto can’t resist sending them out with French sauces and toppers such as the beloved foie gras that’s verboten downtown. He also serves a beautiful whole pan-roasted loup de mer, while Gand’s warm deep-dish cherry pie is every bit as good as her fancier confections at Tru.

SHOWSTOPPER The 40-ounce dry-aged rib eye for two, dubbed a “tomahawk” because of its giant protruding long bone

NICE TOUCHES Glitzy décor includes a 30-foot vertical wine wall and a water wall behind the bar.

INNOVATION Perfect truffled risotto, an alternative appetizer amid the usual raw oysters and shrimp cocktails

WHO GOES THERE Hotel guests, steak lovers, devotees of Tramonto and Gand

OTHER FAVORITES Dry-aged New York strip; braised short ribs with horseradish mashed potatoes

ADDICTIVE SIDES Wood-roasted Brussels sprouts; caramelized cauliflower with cheese crumbs

GRIPE Mammoth streetside video screen showing Tramonto at work.            
–D. R. W.

* * *

710 North Wells Street; 312-274-9500 [$$]

best new restaurant logo

Dudley Nieto, a Puebla native, has been bouncing be- tween local Mexican restaurants for years. He has finally found a home in the former Meztiso location that looks good for the long haul. Focusing on Yucatecan cuisine—rare in Chicago—with a good dose of other regional styles, he shows delicious mastery of them all, from Tarascan Indian pasilla bean soup to sautéed shrimp with ancho-chipotle salsa in the regional style of Huasteca.

SHOWSTOPPER Zic de venado, shredded venison salad with orange-lemon vinaigrette and salsa tamulada made with habaneros

OTHER FAVORITES Panuchos de pato, tortillas stuffed with black beans and topped with achiote-marinated shredded duck confit, red pickled onion, and habanero chili; turkey in black recado (a classic Yucatecan seasoning mix) with xcatic chilies, epazote, and Chihuahua cheese tomato crêpe; buñuelo yucateco, a flat crisp fritter basted with piloncillo sugar and guava sauce

WHO GOES THERE Almost no one, which is a damn shame: it’s the year’s best new restaurant.

THROUGH-THE-ROOF HOT Ask for the straight habanero pepper salsa and earn the respect—or snickers—of staff.

REMEDY Focus on the name Xel-Há, which means "spring water" in the Mayan language of Yucatan.

SECOND REMEDY Tequila shot trio, one with shrimp, one with oyster, one with octopus.
–D. R. W.

Aigre Doux, Blu Coral, Chalkboard, Chiyo, DeLaCosta, Erba, Ginger Asian Bistro

Habana Libre, Koda, Marigold, Mulan, Niche, Osteria Di Tramonto, Sage Grille

Sam & Harry's, Sequel, Sol de Mexico, Tay Do, Tepatulco, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, Xel-Há

Rest of the Best - Wine Bars, One-Dish Wonders, New & Notable, What's Hot & Not

Q&A with Rich Dyer, a Great Waiter

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