Working at The Chopping Block, one of the most common questions I get asked as a chef actually has nothing to do with cooking at all. Guests always want to know “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
Of course, as a professional in the field trying to answer this question gets tricky pretty fast. Can a three Michelin star restaurant make a hot dog as delicious as my favorite neighborhood hot dog stand? Probably not, but does that mean the hot dog stand is a better restaurant? Hard to say (but probably yes). Extrapolate this conundrum to all the many diverse cuisines on offer in the city, and choosing just one restaurant as your favorite becomes nigh on impossible.
Well, the time has just about come for me to bid this lovely city farewell. I’ll be moving to upstate New York at the end of the month, so I figured I could take some time to lay out some of my current favorite restaurants to get an answer to this question on the record for everyone to refer to after I’m gone. People will do that right?
In the interest of fairness (and brevity), I have limited the list to places I’ve actually been and can vouch for. Also, some of these entries have nice photos, but many of them don’t, because I have basically completely stopped taking pictures of the meals I eat (gotta live in the moment, man).
Hot Dogs: Fatso’s Last Stand
When I first moved to Chicago, I will admit I didn’t quite ‘get’ the Chicago dog. It just always felt like too much stuff on top of a too-small hot dog. If I wanted a salad I would have ordered one (I also think it has too many acidic toppings, but I understand that's probably a character flaw of mine). Then one day I made the pilgrimage to Chicago Ave. to try Red Hot Ranch and got something called a double char dog. Char, because they’re cooked on a char grill, and double because, you guessed it, there are two of them in one bun. This completely changes the ratio of dog to toppings, and upon taking my first bite I thought “Oh, this is why people like Chicago dogs.” It's a masterpiece, honestly, and couple that with excellent smash burgers, great cheese fries (though you really want to eat them as fresh as possible), and other Chicago staples, and Fatso’s was a no brainer for a spot as one of my Chicago favs.
Honorable mention: Red Hot Ranch
Chinese: Four Seasons Dumplings
I really love Chinese food, and Four Seasons Dumplings is some of the best I’ve had. The dishes on offer are fairly standard, but the execution is absolutely inspirational. They serve the best, most flavorful, crispiest, freshest yu xiang eggplant and salt and pepper tofu I’ve ever had, as well as a world class egg and tomato stir fry, and of course spectacular dumplings. A little bit off the beaten path, but well worth the effort. If you go for lunch, you might even be one of the only tables in the place.
Thai: JJ Thai
Thailand might have my favorite cuisine in the whole world (though as you can imagine choosing a favorite regional cooking tradition is far more thorny than choosing a favorite restaurant). The flavors are so dynamic, the balance of sweet, savory, hot, and sour is so adept as to be almost magical. JJ Thai lives up to everything Thai food promises and then some. It is head and shoulders above any other Thai food I’ve had the good fortune to try, and that's clearing a high bar. This small, family run establishment has some of the best tasting food I’ve experienced in Chicago, or anywhere.
Mexican: 5 Rabinitos
Not as charmingly rough around the edges as your small neighborhood taqueria, but much more relaxed and casual than any of the top billed ‘fine-dining’ restaurants in the city, 5 Rabinitos is the perfect place for a weeknight meal on the town, or even Sunday brunch. The mole and pozole here are outstanding, and they have one of the best al pastor tacos I’ve eaten in Chicago.
Vietnamese: Pho 888
Pho 888 is, to my palate, the best pho in Chicago. It has a spice-forward (clove in particular) broth that is just an exemplar of the dish. Everything else I’ve tried on the menu is also great, but this hole in the wall is definitely worth visiting for the pho alone. If you’re interested in Vietnamese food as well ,and want to try your hand at some, why not check out our upcoming virtual Vietnamese class?
Neighborhood: Le Bouchon
When I am home from a hard day at work and just want to relax with a glass of wine, and a few small plates and not have to worry about whether any of it will be anything less than superb, there’s nowhere I’d rather end up than Le Bouchon. A pretty classic French bistro that I would confidently put up against many of its Parisian counterparts. Execution is superlative, and the wine list is sure to please even the most persnickety of dinner companions. It's a… cozy arrangement inside, but the vibes are immaculate. Plus Monday is half price wine day (half price, you hear me?)
Fine Dining: Kasama
This place is absolutely incredible. By day they serve excellent coffee, and some of the best pastry and vienoisserie in the city, and by night they switch it up to a calm, sophisticated fine dining spot serving one of the most interesting and delicious tasting menus along with some of the most beautiful cocktails you can hope to find in the city. All their offerings are vibrant Filipino flavors refracted through the lens of fine dining or haute patisserie. They also include ridiculously cute miniature versions of their black truffle croissant as a pre-dessert which, honestly, is almost worth the price of admission all on its own.
Thanks for following along on my virtual food tour, and if all of this got you thinking about delicious food and beverage, consider joining our upcoming Essential Building Blocks class to hone your foundational skills, and join us for our virtual wine class The Family Pinot to learn the perfect beverages to pair with your newly created meals. Cheers!