BEST Restaurants in Chicago!
With so many dining options in Chicago, we decided to ask some experts to narrow down the list for us. We took off with said list in hand but no firm reservations. We soon found out that this was not a problem since none on the list actually accept reservations.
Our first stop was lunch at a casual, counter service with-a-twist restaurant called Xoco (pronounced SHOW-koh). Upon entering and giving the number in your party, you are assigned a table number, thus assured seating in this extremely busy place. The menu is mainly made up of tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and caldos (meal-in-a-bowl soups). We chose the Roasted Shrimp Sandwich which was the Friday daily special and a Wood-Roasted Chicken Pozole from the caldo offerings.
The shrimp sandwich was housed in a perfectly crusty bread and we could see why it is on the list of weekly specials that fly out the door. The Pozole was a fabulous combination of chicken, pozole corn, rich broth, crunchy garnishes, crushed red chile and lime. This pre-Columbian dish uses a unique variety of off-white corn that has a soft yet firm texture. For me, Xoco’s interpretation of this dish had just the right amount of broth vs. ingredients with interesting textures.
I was told that you cannot make a trip to Xoco's without enjoying a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, and I didn’t need to be told twice. All of their hot chocolates are made with bean-to-cup chocolate from chocolate produced on-site with beans brought in from Mexico. Xoco also makes the chocolate used in their sister restaurants, which is a hands-on lengthy process. There are several to choose from and I went for the ooey gooey Mexico City Thick made with cacao paste, raw sugar, whole milk, cinnamon, clove, allspice, and corn masa to thicken it up. They sure know how to get it right. Tip: order churros with your hot chocolate or you will wish you had (like I did).
Xoco - River North: 449 North Clark Street
Xoco Bistro - Wicker Park: 1471 North Milwaukee Avenue
The original Xoco in River North is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday - Saturday while the full service bistro is open Tuesday – Sunday for lunch and dinner as well as brunch on weekends.
Stop number two was chosen to knock a traditional Chicago pizza pie off the list. Lou Malneti's is the favorite of a high school friend who has been living in Chicago for a number of years so off we went to meet her and her family. There are now 40 Lou Malneti's in the greater Chicago area and it has been a family-owned operation since 1971. We had forgotten the characteristics of true Chicago deep dish – thickness without the heaviness of a dense crust, real tomatoes (not just a smear of sauce) and fresh mozzarella cheese. While savoring the pizza and a bit of Chianti we fondly remembered the story of how we missed a plane once because of this dang pizza. Many years ago we were enjoying a pizza at one of the downtown Uno’s and didn't realize how long it was taking. By the time we made it to the airport and literally ran to the gate with suitcases in hand (pre-roller days) it was too late. All in the name of Chicago pizza.
Saturday lunch we headed out to the The Little Goat, sister restaurant to The Girl and The Goat. We enjoy getting our exercise and seeing the city at a slower pace so the 45 minute walk didn’t bother us. Au contraire, I was dreaming of how many calories I was burning off of the tasty dessert I would eat at the end of the meal.
Both restaurants are owned by local restaurant group BOKA, which runs some of the city’s most unique chef-driven restaurants in town. James Beard award-winning chef Stephanie Izard is at the helm of the kitchens at these two restaurants. She has been on Bravo’s Top Chef and came out with the cookbook Girl in the Kitchen in 2011.
We arrived right around noon so this brunch, diner and bakery was already bustling and had a 45 minute wait. That is, unless there are counter seats open in the adjacent, much smaller bakery area. The stars were aligned and there were two spots just for us. We didn't mind despite being in a smaller, more intimate area instead of dining in the spacious, airy and bright main dining room – especially since we could order from the same menu.
Laurent ordered the Reuben which was accompanied by a delicious serving of “special” sauce. I opted for the salad with kale, chickpeas, topped with chick pea fritters. Since our seats provided a view of what was going on in the pastry / bread kitchen, I had been eying the pastry chef frosting a ridiculously tall cake; his technique so much better than mine could ever be. It just so happened that this Mexican chocolate cake was the cake of the day. The dense chocolate cake was perfect in terms of sweetness and the layer of ganache in the middle had a crunch to it that broke up the monotony of the ginormous piece. The buttercream frosting was to perfection as well.
The duo of servers helping us behind the bar were extremely friendly. Much to our surprise, Leah (our new BFF) was of French heritage so we spoke French together for the rest of our meal.
Once again, we were steered in the right direction.
Saturday night was Laurent’s Big Birthday dinner and we went back and forth on what to do. Go to a fancy restaurant? Go on a “dine around” while enjoy appetizers at one restaurant, moving on to two more restaurants for main course and desserts? This is always a fun option when you don't have much time in one city.
We really wanted to try The Purple Pig, where reservations are not an option and the wait can be up to three hours. We popped in at 6:30 to put our name in for a two hour wait. Not a big deal since they take your cell phone number and call when your table is ready. The place is pretty small and there is no bar to belly up to and wait. The stores were still open so we ambled around a little then decided we were ready to start our evening so went to the closest place to the restaurant to have a drink – The Marriott Hotel. We finally received our phone call a little shy of two hours so promptly headed over to the restaurant. Obviously the place was packed and it was quite loud with chatter and an eclectic mix of music which added to the vibrant, hipster atmosphere. Dishes at The Purple Pig are meant to be shared and our server overwhelmed us a bit by suggesting two plates from this part of the menu, one from here, another two from there and on and on. We slowed down the pace and ordered Pork Fried Almonds with Rosemary and Garlic as well as the Foie Gras & Membrillo. Both were delicious and the Foie Gras had a dollop of pork tenderloin in the middle. We of course noticed the heavy influence of pork as it is referenced in the name of the restaurant and their tag line is Cheese, Swine and Wine. We then opted for the Osso Bucco, not made with the traditional lamb but with – you guessed it – pork. Extremely tender, the bone-in piece of pork was served with soft polenta and gremolata. The only problem was that there were remnants of the dish staring at us from the plate that were too small for a fork and knife. I read Laurent's thoughts and voiced my opinion that bread was a must so we asked the server for a few pieces. Protecting the plate from the servers wanting to do their job and clear off the table became a game until we had sopped up the very last bit with our bread.
The only disappointing part of the meal was dessert. We conjured up in our minds what the Chocolate Sablé would look and taste like and reality was far from it. We did enjoy the thoughtfulness of the candle that was added but it didn't make up for the taste. Next time, maybe we will order more carefully.
Chicago is definitely worth the trip to explore the culinary treasures the city offers. Can’t wait to tick a few more off our list.