I visited Chicago at the beginning of March 2022 for a week-long conference. Overall, I felt that Chicago lived up to its reputation as an excellent, multicultural, and innovative food city – I always looked forward to my next meal and often considered finding people to skip conference sessions with me to…network? cough cough. To give some context, I was visiting from SF via Hawaii
There are pictures missing for some of the entries below, and you have my apologies for this.
Yummy yummy noodles
Yummy yummy noodles - Chinese, Chinatown
2334 S Wentworth Ave UNIT 105, Chicago, IL 60616
This place is known for its braised beef wonton noodle soup. It was intensely beefy, with pressure cooked tendon and other connective tissue providing nice textual notes. Noodles were slightly overcooked but still good. The pea shoots were the star of the show, though, keeping a nice crunch and brightness that contrasted with the clear and sightly sweet garlicky sauce. The potstickers were also good, definitely homemade.
Xi’an cuisine - Chinese (Xi’an), Chinatown
225 W Cermak Rd, Chicago, IL 60616
I went here twice because of the combination of deliciousness, convenience, and price. The first thing I saw when I walked in was, through the kitchen portal, a muscular woman hand-stretching noodles. This was a good omen.
Xi’an cuisine has many of the best known dishes of its namesake. Across two visits, I ordered:
Roujiamo - almost like an English muffin, stuffed with savory cumin lamb. Hot, juicy, and a perfect pick me up up.
Liangpi - cold noodles, made from rice or wheat flour that has been washed to remove the gluten, then steamed and cut into noodles. These were dressed with a sesame sauce and cucumbers. Good and even better with some chili paste.
Biangbiangmian - wide, hot (temp) noodles, served here with seasoned ground pork, wood ear mushrooms, sauteed tomatoes, red braised beef, scrambled egg, cilantro, and bok choy, all in a broth. The texture of these noodles was incredible – chewy and meaty, slightly slippery, with the perfect snap after you sink your teeth most of the way through.
Cool marinated bok choy - sesame oil, white pepper, salt, and probably a bit of msg. Never had this prep but will be making it at home to have on hot days.
Stir fried bok choy with garlic - Not complicated, very well executed, and full of healthy green fiber. A winner.
Roupaomo - bread and lamb soup.
Cilantro, lamb, torn bread, and bone broth. Warm, comforting, and delicious.
Lamb skewer - crusted with cumin and chili, tender and delicious.
My only (small) gripe with this restaurant is that everything tasted undersalted to me. This was easily fixed at the table, and far better than the opposite, but still a consistent issue across dishes.
Bar Sotano - Mexican (modern), River North
In the alley behind Frontera Grill, 443 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654
After reading @mariacarmen’s review, I got really excited about this Rick Bayless group restaurant. I arrived on a Wednesday at 5 PM (opening), as they have both $1 oysters and happy hour delights until 6 PM – I highly recommend taking advantage of this, as the drinks are great and the HH food selection is nicely varied. I ended opting for the Chef’s Experience (CE, 5 courses @ $60) and supplementing with a few extra oysters.
Drink 1: Oaxacan Pasilla Old Fashioned - Montelobos espadín mezcal, Oaxacan pasilla, Angostura bitters & orange oil mist ($8).
Wow. The smokiness of the mezcal and pasilla pepper…extract? came together in what is now my favorite old fashioned. I’m pretty sure there was little to no sweetness added to the pasilla component, allowing a little of its fruitiness to come through and balance the mezcal.
Oysters: I didn’t quite catch what kind these were (PEI area?) but remember that they were surprisingly sweet and not briny for east coast oysters. They were served with a sour orange mignonette (bitter, wasn’t a huge fan) and a smoky salsa negra (which I loved and ate out of the dish but didn’t need to add to the perfect oysters). A slice of lime (instead of lemon) was provided, which I thought was a nice touch, but I still prefer lemon.
CE amuse - Oyster with tuna ceviche: It’s a good thing I love oysters, having already ordered a few, but this prep was a step above the standard menu item. A small amount of intensely flavored tuna ceviche (salt, citrus, oregano, soy?) was mounted atop the oyster. When the dish was described, I was skeptical about whether I would even be able to taste the oyster. I can now confidently say that, yes, thank you, please do serve all of my oysters with incredible tuna ceviche on top! The ceviche dressing provided a citrus boost, and the firm texture of the tuna contrasted beautifully with the soft pop of the oyster.
CE 1 - Ora King Salmon tlayuda: A tlayuda is a large, thin, crunchy Oaxacan tortilla, and this one was topped by avocado mash, pepita (pumpkin seed) pesto, pickled nopales (paddle cactus), pickled radish, and cilantro. Firm, meaty slices of salt-cured king salmon were the focal point of this dish, but also felt to me like the weakest. Overall, this was a very tasty dish, though I ended up eating the salmon separately from everything else. The flavor of the salmon was roe-like, something I hadn’t encountered in cured salmon before and really enjoyed. However, the thick slices were a bit unwieldy when eaten with the shatter-prone tlayuda, and the salmon flavor overpowered the others. Eaten separately, I loved each component – in particular, the pepita-based pesto (made with parsley?) is something I’m excited to experiment with in the future based on its particular nuttiness.
CE 2 - Leg of lamb taco: The waiter described this as “a mexican take on a gyro,” which I thought was spot on. A house-made corn tortilla was griddled with cheese and dressed with habanero crema, smoky/spicy chipotle sauce, onion, cilantro, and (of course) roasted leg of lamb that had been crisped up on the griddle. I was a little tipsy at this point, lacking any sort of alcohol tolerance, and this dish was perfect – each bite bursting with a little lamb fat, crisp cheese, savory taco, smoky chipotle, spicy-creamy habanero, and sharp onion.
CE 3 - Chochoyos (masa gnocchi): blue corn masa “gnocchi” with tomato sauce, delicata squash, blackened trumpet mushrooms, baby oregano (?), and cheese (name missed). I’d say that this is a play on gnocchi, but I’ve never had them prepared similarly (except for the tomato element). I’m biased, as I don’t particularly like gnocchi (I want them to be chewy!), but this dish as a whole was grounding, especially after the sharper flavors of the previous courses. Strong savory notes from the tomato and cheese provided a good foundation for the blue corn flavor to take precedence, while the black trumpets added smoke and crunch.
CE 4 - Duck breast with escabeche: I’m a sucker for duck and this didn’t let me down. Cooked medium to medium-well, the meat was firmer than many other fine-dining preps. This was a good thing in my opinion, as the escabeche sauce (peppers, onion, vinegar, and many other things all roasted and then blended) was sharp, tangy, and fairly thin, which meant that each bite of duck could get just the right amount of sauce to provide fun and contrasting flavors. Sweet and savory duck, acidic and slightly fruity escabeche, I almost asked for another one.
CE 5 - Chocolate cake with passionfruit puree, roasted mezcal marshmallow, puffed amaranth: The week before I arrived in chicago, my P2 made a passionfruit-coconut cake and had leftover passionfruit puree. I was in the mood for chocolate pudding, so I mixed the two together and had a great time. How could I have known that I was preparing myself for Sotano’s dessert course? Fluffy and earthy devil’s food chocolate cake, smoky mezcal, butterscotchy marshmallow, crunchy amaranth, sweet and tangy passionfruit. I may have licked the plate clean. Apparently, this dish was Sotano’s “classic” valentine’s day dessert, turned up to 11.
Go here. Especially on a Wednesday. There are so many other delicious-looking things on the menu, and it’s clear to me that the creativity + execution is on point.
At this point, I waddled out of the restaurant, letting myself be guided by the river until I passed by…
68 W Hubbard St, Chicago, IL 60654
It was St. Patrick’s day, so all of the donuts were green-ish. I got a couple to try, and enjoyed the flavor of the strawberry-filled raised/yeast donut more than the chocolate-frosted buttermilk old-fashioned, but was (unsurprisingly) too full to eat much of either. I did, however, have a fantastic oat milk hot chocolate with a shot of (decaf) espresso, which kept me warm on my way back to the hotel.
916 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607
This was the most disappointing non-conference-center meal of the trip.
Mini Mott - Mott Burger with bacon: I’d tried to get into Au Cheval for a burger, but there was an hour wait, it was raining, and I was carrying my luggage, so that was a solid no. I’d read about Mini Mott and thought it sounded interesting, but the experience was overwhelmed by sweet flavors. Between the sweet potato frizzles, hoisin aioli, miso butter, and sweeter-than-expected bacon, I should have known better. I also found it odd that the bacon was cut very thick, while the burger was more-or-less smashed, making it feel like a bacon sandwich with added burger rather than the other way around. Good bun, though.
Lil Amaru - Crispy Yucca: Fried yucca is a hard dish to make well, in my opinion. An often starchier and drier base than potato, you have to balance the size of the fries against the cooking time and the oil temp. When it’s good, it’s brilliant – shatteringly crisp on the outside, fluffy and a little moist on the inside. Unfortunately, this prep was very dry on the inside. The crema that came with it was tasty but was so thick that it ended up emphasizing the dryness. I remedied this by buying a side of…
Bar Goa - Makhani sauce: Yes, I spent $3 on a small side of sauce. Yes, the proprietor looked at me oddly when that was all that I ordered. Yes, it was worth it. Tomato, butter, cashew, spices, and onions make a sauce so rich and flavorful that it feels like a sin to even look at it. Go there, eat this. Buy something to dip into it, if you must.
Thanks to everyone who helped along the way – I can’t wait to visit Chicago again!