ropa vieja from habana libre in chicago

Chicago Avenue, east of Ashland, could easily be dubbed chow central, being home to such hot spots as Green Zebra, Flo, and West Town Tavern. New to the mix is Habana Libre (1440 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-3303), a tropical cutie done up in shades of papaya and pineapple and outfitted with enough plants, paper lanterns, and photos of old Havana to keep the windchill outside. Opened this past summer by two pals, Cuban-born Osmin Arce and Mexico native Josefina Gonzales, it has become a genial hangout for neighborhood hipsters, Latino families, and anyone with a jones for gently priced Cuban vittles. This means everything from robust chicken soup to a host of traditional sandwiches to a stellar coconut flan. Many of the appetizers are deep-fried, but done with such finesse that neither grease nor guilt should be a problem. Top examples are papas rellenas, golden-toned mashed potato balls stuffed with ground beef, and a trio of thumb-size chicken croquetas as refined as fifties tearoom fare. Everybody’s ordering sandwiches, especially at lunch. Check out the deservedly popular Cubano, thinly sliced pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard all piled into French bread; the combo is then pressed to a toasty turn ($4.95). Heartier entrées include garlic- and lemon-infused sautéed pork chunks ($9.95), a splendid rendition of chicken fajitas ($9.95), and ropa vieja-a homey, well-stewed shredded beef (pictured here; $10.95). Accompaniments-rice, earthy black beans, and sweet fried plantains-add their own considerable charm. And don’t forget to try the coconut flan ($3). BYO.
–Jill Rohde

entree from the Gage in chicago

NEW: The Gage
You’ll soon find a new gastro-tavern, The Gage (24 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-372-4243), just steps from Millennium Park. The owners, Billy Lawless Sr. and Jr., converted an old hat warehouse, preserving a 1930s Chicago industrial vibe: think vintage factory glass windows, subway tiles, brass, and leather. The diverse American menu promises “rustic flavor and a refined approach-or vice versa.” You can keep it simple with a big Angus burger on a toasted malt roll, or up the ante with more sophisticated fare, such as lamb stew vindaloo and roasted lamb chop with baby vegetables and reduction sauce (pictured here; $27).
–Erin Freier

entree from the chalkboard restaurant in chicago

NEW: Chalkboard
Displayed prominently on oversize chalkboards, the organically inclined American menu at Chalkboard (4343 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-477-7144) will rotate around “whatever is fresh and available.” But instead of listing the ingredients, chef-owner Gilbert Langlois will provide the personal story behind each dish. Take the seared sea scallops with pheasant confit, wild mushrooms, and black truffle oil (pictured here; $7): Langlois came up with it for his wife, who eats scallops made only by him-crispy on the outside and barely cooked in the center. (He picked the accompaniments.) Expect healthy options for kids and budget-friendly prices, too, when the place opens-at press time, the ETA was soon after Thanksgiving.
–Erin Freier

hotdog from fredhots and fries in chicago

When is a dog more than a dog? When it’s a buffalo bratwurst, or one of the other wild-game sausages at Fredhots and Fries (1707 Chestnut Ave., Glenview; 847-657-9200). In addition to Vienna beef wieners, Italian sausage and beef, and burgers, you’ll find offbeat choices such as spicy chicken sausage with tapenade and roasted red peppers, meatless burgers and dogs, and fresh-cut Belgian-style fries with chipotle, wasabi, or even artichoke sauce. When it comes to the controversial question of ketchup on hot dogs, owner Fred Markoff is adamantly pro-choice, meaning no harm will come to you if you order it-or don’t.
–Joanne Trestrail

Photography: Tyllie Barbosa