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Kamonegi

Kamonegi | 1054 N. 39th St., Seattle, WA | kamonegiseattle.com


I first read about Kamonegi in the New York Times’ “36 Hours in Seattle,” so I knew it had to be special.  But more than anything, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it.  At that point I was eight or so months into my Seattle life, and I thought I’d thoroughly investigated the restaurant scene. After all, I am a foodie.

But Kamonegi had flown under the radar the past year or so not because it wasn’t deserving of the spotlight, but because it’s a modest spot. Modest meaning nothing here is boastful – from the tiny, 32-seat space, to the humble chef Mutsuko Soma.

Even the food here is modest. And let’s not confuse modest with ordinary. What I mean is the food here is straightforward, straight from chef Soma’s heart and heritage into the kitchen.

Known for her soba hand-cut buckwheat noodles, Soma drowns the soba in bowls of flavorful broth and adorns them with proteins, veggies, oils, herbs and eggs. They’re served hot – nanban, or chilled – bukkake. The third option, seiro, is almost a combination of the two – where the chilled noodles are served separately for dipping into the warm broth.

A must order is the Kamonegi soba – go figure, the restaurant’s namesake. But really, this noodle dish features double duck – breast and meatballs. You have the option to order nanban or seiro, and I say go nanban, as it gives the noodles the opportunity to soak up all of that goodness.

And while Kamonegi was put on the map for its noodles, the tempura is not to be missed. If we’re being honest, the tempura was my favorite dish. In fact, it’s the best tempura I’ve ever had. The batter was light, yet still flavorful and perfectly crispy. It clung perfectly to the vegetables. I never wanted it to end, and I was sad when it did.

One final tip, be sure to make a reservation, or be prepared to wait. The good news is, there are plenty of bars nearby to bide your time.


 

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Seattle Freeze

Seattle Freeze | 6014 12 Ave. S., Seattle, WA | 206freeze.com


Whether you’re from Seattle, you’ve recently moved here, or you’re just visiting, you’re bound to hear of the “Seattle Freeze.” Don’t know it? Let me enlighten you. The “Seattle Freeze” is basically Seattleites being, um, not too happy about all of the newcomers. As a result, you may not get a ton of eye contact or “hellos” when walking down the street or into a coffee shop. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s them.

Darren McGill and Kryse Martin-McGill took a clever spin on the phenomenon, opening up Georgetown doughnut and soft serve shop Seattle Freeze. Smart, right?

Clever because they’re serving up frozen treats; however, it’s their doughnuts that are really stealing the show. Open 12-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, the doughnuts are made daily and each batch features a different lineup.

I’m not talking glazed old fashioned or maple long John; this daring duo is breaking the mold with their innovative flavor combinations. Think matcha s’mores, butterscotch root beer, pistachio rose, fruity pebbles with malted milk and endless more. The dough is dense and fresh, and the frosting is never too sweet – fitting for the name, of course.

 These doughnuts not only taste good, but they’re lookers, too. Decked out in confetti, topped with toasted marshmallows, drizzled in black sesame or dusted in crushed candy, the colors and textures always make for an artistic display – whether you’re grabbing one of a half dozen.

 The storefront may be small, but they’ve got a great playlist and solid artwork, so it’s doable for an afternoon working sesh. One downfall – you’ll have to grab your coffee from next door.


 

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Monteverde

Monteverde |  1020 W Madison St. | (312) 888-3041 | monteverdechicago.com


Everyone loves a good Italian meal, right? I mean, it’s hard to go wrong – carbs, cheese, wine, more carbs, more cheese, more wine. Right. What’s not to love?

Although, at times, it can be difficult to find an innovative Italian meal – one that strays from your grandmother’s classic baked ziti. Don't get me wrong, there’s nothing negative about traditional Italian dishes. But, every once in a while, it’s nice to have an Italian dish that’s outside of the box; one that pushes the boundaries. Cue Monteverde.

Monteverde comes from the renowned Chef Sarah Grueneberg, former executive chef of Spiaggia, which earned three consecutive Michelin Stars under her leadership. You also know Grueneberg as the “Top Chef: Texas” runner-up. Ah yes, it’s all coming back now, right?

When a hot new spot from a celebrity chef comes to town, where else would you find it other than, you guessed it, the West Loop? Situated on West Madison Street, Monteverde’s rustic chic interior is layered in neutrals that softly glow under dim lighting.

Dried pasta hangs throughout the restaurant making you feel as if you’ve wandered into an authentic kitchen somewhere in the hills of Italy. A large mirror overtaking the east wall is framed in large, muted turquoise tiles and its presence gives the illusion that the restaurant continues into another dining room.

The main lure; however, is the bar in the center of the restaurant. Not because that’s where the booze come from – which of course, is a great attraction in itself. But rather, this is where two women – who actually could be your Italian grandmothers – are stationed, kneading, rolling, cutting and stuffing pasta made from scratch. An oblong vintage mirror hangs above the butcher-block counter allowing patrons to easily admire the manipulation of the dough.

Speaking of dough, it just so happens to be the main star of Monteverde’s menu, with two dedicated sections: pasta tipica (Italy’s pasta) and pasta atipica (our pasta). The rest of the menu is divided into snacks, small plates and larger dishes to share with the table. There are also a few daily features as well as a vegetable of the day. Everything on the menu varies slightly depending on the season, but one thing that stays the same, is the incredible talent behind the dishes and the remarkable flavors that welcome your taste buds with each bite.

What to order: Depending on the size of your party – and of your appetite – the amount of dishes you’ll order will vary. While it’s easy to order individually, I recommend ordering from all sections of the menu and sharing everything family style. Your waiter will most likely recommend this, too.

While the menu is always changing, one item seems to stay put: the arancini. And that’s for a reason. If you like fried goodness, order these.

The snacks and small plates range from light and refreshing like Hamachi crudo to slightly heartier: think crostini. Currently on the menu is the prosciutto butter toast with mixed radish, dill and lemon. This small snack hits every flavor profile you want: salty, sweet, acidic. It’s crunchy; it’s smooth; it’s everything. It’s also beautiful, as are all of Chef Gruenberg’s dishes.

Whatever you do, make sure that at least one dish you order is a pasta dish. The pasta is cooked perfectly al dente, and the ingredients Gruenberg chooses to accompany the starch are picked perfectly. Think tortelli with zucchini, trumpet mushrooms, lemon, parley and freshly grated truffle.

By this point, you’ll probably be quite full, but hopefully you saved room for dessert. Whether or not this is true, make sure you order something sweet. The dessert menu features several inventive adaptations on classic Italian dishes such as a butterscotch budino with pecan toffee. More of a chocoholic? Go for the double chocolate ganache tart. It will change your life.

W&D tip: Sit at the bar. Rick Bayless does it. No really, we sat next to him at the bar. But that’s not why it’s the best spot in the house. From the bar, you have a front-row seat to watch hand-made pasta being rolled and cut, as well as a good view of desert being made and a peek into the kitchen. Plus, it’s easy access to the vino.

W&D says: 14.5/15*

Quick Facts
Good for:
Sharing, date night, dinner
Star of the show: Pasta
Neighborhood: West Loop
Price: $$$

*How I calculate my ratings: There are three categories I rate: 1) Food 2) Ambiance 3) Service. Each has a scale of 1-5. I tally the three scores and then average them. 

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Parachute

Parachute | 3500 N. Elston Ave. | (773) 654-1460 | parachuterestaurant.com


You know, there’s all this hype around the word “foodie.” How do you define a foodie? Who’s truly a foodie and who is a fake? Some critics dislike the word all together. Me? I think everyone’s overthinking it. Foodie: Someone who is obsessed with all things delicious and edible. More or less. 

Anyways, what I’m getting at here is that me being a foodie causes me to obsess over new restaurants in town. Especially those opened by top chef contestants – in this case, Beverly Kim.

Kim and husband John Clark opened their Korean-American inspired restaurant Parachute a little over six months ago, and I have been dying to go ever since. Unfortunately my friends do not share the label of diehard “foodie.” Translated: They would rather spend their money on something else. But last week I finally found someone to go with me. Horray!

No, but really, it was awesome.

I’m not even really sure what neighborhood Parachute is in, but it sits on Elston between Kedzie and Roscoe. Let’s just call it west west Roscoe Village? Anyways, it’s on a nondescript block, sitting on a corner, boasting a small sign with a neon squiggly ‘P’ – their insignia – which lights up and dances at night. If it weren’t for that ‘P’ we probably would have missed it. Actually…we did pass it once.

Stepping inside, the restaurant exudes character. It’s dark, oblong and very narrow with exposed brick and wood peppered throughout the space. Small, uncovered bulbs hang from the ceiling to dimly light diners. With only 40 seats, the majority of patrons sit at the bar top, which extends out into the dining area. The décor is both homey and funky, with a retro flair. On the wall above the handful of tables hangs a colorful assortment of vintage stereos and radios.

Luckily we happened to walk in at some miraculous moment when there was no wait. But as the night went on, I noticed patrons pooling in the front by the door.

We were seated at the part of the countertop that sits across from the bar. This was probably my favorite area of the restaurant. Behind the bartenders sat wooden cubbies that housed cook books, a vinyl record player, stacks of albums, a plant or two and an eclectic assortment of bottles of booze. This little space gave you the feeling of sitting in someone’s kitchen.

Speaking of the bar, let’s talk drinks. The drink menu featured a solid selection of carefully chosen wines, a small variety of bottled and canned beer, and a handful of liquors served in 1.5 ounce pours. Plus one beer on tap and three featured cocktails. I had the luck of getting to try a couple of the wines and all three cocktails. Plus a special desert cocktail, let’s call it the secret #4? My favorite of the lot was the #2: bourbon swizzle, rooibos, amaro and pastis all served in a highball glass filled with that crushed ice we all love. Delish.

Alright, enough about alcohol. On to the most important part: The food. Parachute’s menu is designed to be shared. Starting with smaller plates at the top of the menu and getting larger as they go down. It was recommended we order about four plates to share between the two of us. We had five, plus dessert. Naturally.

For starters, there are two items you must have: the house pickles and the baked potato bing bread. I know you’re thinking, “Pickles. What?” You’re right. These aren’t what you think of when you think pickles, though. These house-made pickles come in three small glass containers that look like flattened out mason jars. Or we could just call them what they are – pickling jars. Each jar holds a different delight: kimchi, chili chayote and watermelon radish zuke. All three are jam-packed with Korean flavors that aggressively entice your taste buds. They’re sweet. They’re sour. They’re spicy. They’re tangy. They’re freaking delicious. Bonus: You get these rad silver chopsticks to eat them with.

I could eat like four servings of the baked potato bing bread. I mean, potato bread + bacon + scallions + sour cream butter. What does that equal? Greatness. That’s what it equals, absolute greatness. It’s almost like eating a fancy potato skin, but in the form of bread. Is anybody mad about that? I think not.

Moving down the menu, there are a lot of different directions you could go in. Potato and salt cod croquettes, poached salmon, slow-cooked chicken, boudin noir. Don’t worry, there are veggie-friendly options, too: caramelized cauliflower mandu (Korean dumplings), grilled carrots with chermoula, crispy sesame leaves with bourbon barrel soy.

If you know anything about me, I rarely go vegetarian. So we of course took the carnivorous route. First to the table: Pork belly and mung bean pancake. The pancake was crispy so it contrasted nicely with the fattiness of the pork belly. But it didn’t stop there. On top of that goodness was kimchi, black garlic, pineapple and a perfectly cooked hen egg. The spicy and sour flavors from the kimchi mixed with the savory notes of the black garlic and the sweetness of pineapple. Simply scrumptious.

Next up: Smokey thick-cut kalbi. What the heck is kalbi you ask? Great question. Kalbi is Korean barbequed beef short ribs. Woo! That’s a mouthful to say. And speaking of mouthfuls, holy moly were these ribs tasty. And I’m from Memphis, y’all, so I am a ribs snob. But these ribs were some of the juiciest ribs I’ve ever had. Topped with honey, crispy shallots and shiso, there was no lack of flavor here. And a lot of times with ribs, I feel like I’m wishing there was more meat on the bone to be had. Not the case here. These ribs were well-endowed.

Last but certainly not least: Dolsot bi bim bop with barbequed tripe, Brussels sprouts, pickled soy bean sprouts, scallions, perilla seed and a duck egg. This dish was insane in more ways than one. And I mean that in a good way. It came to us in a large, hotpot that was singing loudly. The vocals were coming from the sizzling of all the ingredients in this delicious bowl. As we broke the egg and mixed everything up, the cracking and hissing and popping got even more intense. Think of this dish as an interactive experience. A very tasty interactive experience.

After all that savory, we were craving something a little sweet. More often than not, I skip dessert. Not because I don’t want it – don’t be silly. But because I’m normally so full by that point that I can’t imagine putting anything else in my mouth. But at Parachute, this was not the case – which is a testament to the perfect portioning of their food. For dessert we went with the baked apple. La la la, baked apple – heard it, seen it, had it. Nope, not like this baked apple! This baked apple was topped with a burnt miso ice cream, pine nuts, apple crisps and sage. The ice cream was some of the tastiest ice cream I’ve had. It was salty with hint of sweet. The pine nuts and apple crisps contrasted with the softness of the rest of the dish. Basically it was a happy marriage of flavors and textures in my mouth. Needless to say, I left a very happy camper that night. 

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BIG & little's

I’ve lived in the Lakeview neighborhood for a few years now, and I’ve seen a couple of places come and go at 1034 W. Belmont Ave. For a while, Indie Burger occupied that corner space, but suddenly it closed and there was a bright, new blue and yellow paint job on the brick wall outside that read, “BIG & little’s.

Last Friday night I planned to see a good friend of mine for dinner. We live within a couple of blocks of each other, and are both relatively lazy, so I was brainstorming restaurants within walking distance. When she mentioned BIG & little’s, I was excited because I had always been curious about the little spot around the corner.

After drooling over the menu for a couple of minutes, I was raring to go. Until I realized there was no alcohol on the menu. Roadblock. No worries though, I was soon reassured that it was BYOB. Score.

So we grabbed a six-pack of some beer with a zombie on it – duh – and walked over.

It was obvious when we were getting close, because there was a line out of the door bending around the corner of Kenmore Avenue. That line was consistent from the time we got into it, to the time we ordered, to the time we received and ate our food to the time that we left. Needless to say, BIG & little’s is one hell of a popular place!

Pro to the long line: I had more time to figure out what I was going to order. And boy did I need it. BIG & little’s menu focuses on pretty much the four greatest foods ever: tacos, burritos, po’boys and burgers. It took all of my might not to order one of everything, because every item on the menu sounds scrumptiously life-changing.

Let’s talk tacos. They run the gamut when it comes to our favorite handhelds. From your out-of-the-box banh mi taco to your more classic carnitas and everything in between: Japanese beef short rib, tilapia, spicy pork, steamed blue crab, the list goes on.

Like I said, I wanted everything. But as I stood in line, I kept hearing over and over again, “Oh, I’m going to get the samurai.” And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, definitely order what everyone else is ordering, because they know. And let me tell you, they were right.

The samurai taco starts with fried whitefish. Then add jalapeño, lettuce, special sauce (chili aioli), samurai sauce (soy-based sweet sauce), lime juice and sesame seeds. The fish is battered perfectly – not too thick, just the right amount. It’s not greasy, and greets you with the perfect crunch. The sweetness of the samurai sauce contrasts with the spiciness of the jalapeños and the savory note of the chili aioli to make the perfect marriage of flavors in your mouth.

From there I wanted to mix it up a little bit, so I got the lamb taco. The guy taking my order described it to the girl in front of me like this: “Have you ever had a gyro? Well it’s exactly like that, but just a mini version.” And he was dead on. The taco shell was actually a warm, soft pita. Yum. Then stuff that with perfectly seasoned gyro meat topped with fresh tomatoes, onions and a generous glob of tzatziki. A little too much sauce for my liking, but that didn’t stop me from eating every bite.

Another BIG & little’s star is their raw Ahi tuna poke taco. They take sashimi grade tuna and toss it in ginger, chili paste, sesame seed oil, special sauce, samurai sauce and sesame seeds. Then it’s all jam packed into a hard taco shell. And when I say jam packed, I mean it. They do not skimp you on the tuna. Speaking of the tuna, it is insanely fresh and literally melts in your mouth. To make it even better, that silkiness pairs perfectly with the crunch of the tortilla shell.

Moving on to other showstoppers, specifically BIG & little’s soft-shell crab po’boy. They take soft-shell crab, deep-fry it, throw it on a toasted baguette and top it with lettuce, pickles, lime juice and special sauce. The presentation alone is reason enough to order this sandwich – with the full, fried crab staring up at you atop its toasty throne.

In case you haven’t noticed, BIG & little’s food is neither lacking in flavor nor creativity. And those same traits are mirrored throughout the menu from their burritos like The Honkey – fried pork belly, fries, cabbage, pickles, special sauce, BBQ sauce – to their burgers like the al pastor: fried pork belly, American and Swiss cheeses, jalapeño, pineapple and special sauce.

And don’t skip out on the sides here. BIG & little’s is serving up piping hot fries with flavors like Cajun and truffle. And occasionally they’ll feature kimchi fries – one of my personal faves.

All in all, you can’t go wrong at BIG & little’s. So grab a buddy, your favorite booze and head on over to the little joint on the corner of Belmont and Kenmore (there’s one in River North, too). If you want to miss the line, go early. Otherwise, be prepared to wait. I promise it’s worth it though. 

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Avec

The fact that “avec” means “with” in French is actually perfect. Because I could go to Avec with friends. With family. With a date. With myself. With snow outside. With rain. With sun. I could eat their dishes with wine. With beer. With cocktails. With water. With no beverage at all.

Basically, what I’m getting at here, is that Avec goes with everything.

This can be attributed to its phenomenal food: Mediterranean-influenced small and large plates as well as selections of cheese. Pair all of those with wines from southwestern Europe, and it’s a match made in heaven. Well, a match made on West Randolph. But that’s even better for us.

Located in the Near West Side, it’s almost like Avec and it’s equally fantastic neighbor Blackbird, are the gateway to “Restaurant Row.” Apparently, that’s what they’re calling it these  days – restaurant row. But it makes sense, because West Randolph is home to some of the greatest eateries in the city.

Back to Avec.

Avec is one of those restaurants where you’re not just dining, you’re having an experience. And everything about that experience is unique – from the exceptional food to the drink list to the décor.

Speaking of décor, let’s talk about it. I like to describe Avec as a giant wooden box. Alright, maybe giant isn’t the best word here – the dining area itself is rather small, with five oblong, wooden community tables. The wooden tables match the paneling on the walls, the ceiling, the floor and the 18 or so wooden stools placed at the 48-foot bar.

The entire restaurant is oblong. I likened it to a wooden box, but I guess wooden rectangle would be more fitting. At the back of that wooden rectangle is an installation of hundreds of green, glass bottles that from afar give off a sort of matrixy feel – you know, the movie.

If you’re at the far end of the restaurant – by the matrix display – you can see into the sleek, stainless steel kitchen. The same stainless steel that matches the bar at which patrons sit. Everything in Avec is elegantly simple, which contrasts with its complex cuisine.

On that note, let’s transition to the food.

With small and large plates, the food at Avec is designed to be shared. I know that stresses some people out. Trust me, when food is that delicious, the last thing I want to do is share. But sharing is actually the best way to try out more items on the menu!

Everyone is different, and every group is different, so it depends how many items you want to order. We normally order about two or three small plates per person and then a couple of large plates for the whole table. Now that may seem confusing. When I say per person, we’re still all sharing – it’s just a way to make sure we get enough food for the group.

As I said, everything here is delicious. But I have a couple of go-to items that I cannot leave Avec without having had: the medjool dates, the pork shoulder and the focaccia.

Thought I was going to leave it at that? Hah, no way.

A lot of places do dates, especially Mediterranean restaurants. Needless to say, I’ve had a lot of bacon-wrapped dates.  And nothing’s wrong with that. Bacon + dates, pretty hard to screw that up. But Avec takes dates to a whole other level.

They take their dates and bacon, too. But before they wrap that delicious bacon around the dates, they stuff the fruit with chorizo. Divine. But it gets even tastier. Add to that some piquillo pepper-tomato sauce and homemade rustic bread. In one bite you taste the sweetness of the medjool dates with the saltiness of the bacon and the savory element of the chorizo. Absolutely phenomenal. But don’t be silly. You can’t eat these dates in one bite. They are huge. I normally make it in two.

On to the focaccia. When it comes to your table, it looks like a sizeable pizza. That should give you some perspective on the size of this large plate. The focaccia is thin and soft and seasoned with fresh herbs. But wait. It’s not just bread. There’s something inside. Taleggio cheese, ricotta and truffle oil. And it’s all sandwiched by another layer of focaccia. The whole thing comes hot out of the oven so that the cheese is warm and melty and the bread is perfectly toasted with just enough crunch to contrast with the soft cheeses. I could eat this dish every day and never get tired of it.

Another one of my favorite large plates – the pork shoulder. First of all this pork shoulder is slow roasted to the point where the meat falls off of the bone as soon as your fork hits it. The pork shoulder sits in a stout, black pot with vadouvan curried lentils, roasted brussels sprouts, apricots and apples. The flavors hit succulent, savory and sweet all in one bite. Incredible.

Alright, I’m not going to describe every dish in vivid detail, otherwise we’d be here all day and I’d be drooling all over my keyboard. But I’ll touch quickly on a couple of other small and large plates I’m a fan of. Small plates: charred cauliflower, chicken liver crostini, steamed mussels and the roasted salmon. Large plates: braised lamb neck and the whole roasted fish. See? Short and succinct.

Now I’ve told y’all before, I am a super-carnivore. So the majority of my choices are meat-heavy. However, Avec is vegetarian-friendly with large plates like the oyster mushroom pizza and pappardalle pasta.

And of course to add to all of this deliciousness, you need…wine. You guessed it. Avec has over 130 wines, 30 of which are offered by the glass. It’s like every wine lover’s playground. If you’re struggling with what to pair with your meal, ask your waiter. The staff there is incredibly knowledgeable about the wine list.

Funny aside: I went on a date there recently. No, that’s not the funny part. The waiter was helping me choose a wine to go with our meal and talked for about 10 minutes about various bottles. He used so many words – many of which I had never heard of – and I just nodded my head in agreement so that I looked impressive to my date.

Okay, back to things y’all actually care about like dessert. If you’ve still got room after your meal, Avec has sweets like homemade nutter butters, affogato, chocolate mousse and bread pudding. You can’t really go wrong with any of them.

I like to end things on a sweet note, so we’ll leave it at that! One last thing I will mention, though: Avec gets very crowded and does not take reservations. So either try to beat the rush by going early, or be prepared to wait for a while. But don’t worry, it’s well worth the wait. 

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Antique Taco

The name “Antique Taco” is intriguingly appealing. You hear it and you might think to yourself, what on earth is an antique taco? Or, if you’re like me, you don’t think twice about it – you just like the sound of it. Antique Taco – cool.

But the name doesn’t just sound cool, it’s also very fitting for this quaint taco shop on North Milwaukee Avenue. Take a step inside, and it’s almost like you’ve traveled back in time. With aged wooden tables and old-timey signs, the restaurant exudes a strong dose of character.

Still confused about this whole antique taco thing? To put it simply, owners Rick and Ashely Ortiz are fans of old things. So their restaurant basically celebrates that: great food and antiques.

Names aside, let’s move on to the best part: The grub. These tacos aren’t for the fainthearted.

A lot of times when we think tacos, we think street tacos – two thin, corn tortillas with flavorful fillings that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand. Well, these tacos certainly have the flavorful thing down pat, but you’re going to need two hands for these babies. Not to mention, you get two tacos per order.

Funny story: The first time my friend and I went, we somehow misunderstood why there was a “dos” above the taco menu. Little did we know, that meant there were two tacos to each order. So, we each ordered two or three tacos, only to end up with about eight giant tacos. Plus cheese curds, sopa and a pitcher of margaritas. Am I complaining? Absolutely not. Saddest part though – we both speak Spanish. Best part? We got a hefty goodie bag to take home.

Speaking of cheese curds – get these to start. Cheese curds in general should get your whistle wet, but I’ll go ahead and describe them in detail so that we’re on the same page. Needless to say, these aren’t just any cheese curds. They’re chili cheese curds – meaning they take beer-battered cheese and layer it with chorizo chili. Then it’s all topped off with a crema and scallions. Cue drooling.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can move onto the main star: Those giant tacos I was telling you about. Whether you’re feeling carnivorous or more veggie-friendly, you really can’t go wrong.

I’d definitely get an order of the fish tacos, though. The batter is not too heavy, and just perfectly crispy. Tempura battered, tossed in a tortilla with smoked cabbage, scallions and sesame then drizzled with a Sriracha tartar sauce. Yes, I said Sriracha tartar sauce.

If you’re trying to get your meat fix, go with the pork carnitas tacos. First of all, they season their carnitas with an adobo rub and tamarind glaze. In other words, I could just have the meat, and I’d be a happy camper. But then they add spinach, onion, avocado and queso. Best part – that’s right, we haven’t even reached it yet – they put crispy strips of bacon on top. Not bacon crumbles or pieces, full on strips. Basically this is a pork lover’s heaven.

As I mentioned, there are vegetarian options, too. Like the roasted sweet potato and pablano tacos, with green beans, chipotle cream, leeks and pumpkin seeds. So if you’re not feeling meat, you can still get your grub on, too!

And then there are your staples of course, like chips and gauc, taco salad, habanero popcorn. Wait. What? Habanero popcorn is not a staple – but it is a must have!

On the sweet side, Antique Taco features Bang Bang! Tequila key lime pie for dessert. If you’ve never had pie from Bang Bang, you’re in for an amazing treat. Especially something like tart, key lime pie. Mmmm. Not in the mood for pie, though? You could go with a traditional horcahta milkshake. Who doesn’t love horchata?

Last, but definitely not least – drinks. In fact, these probably should go first. That way you can sip on ‘em while you wait for your delciousness to arrive. Antique Taco has a selection of beer, wine and seasonal agua fesca (virgin or with vodka). But I think the star of the drink menu is their rosemary margaritas. Because rosemary. And margaritas. Two things separately that are delectable. So why not put them together? Great idea. You can grab them in a pint or a quart. I always say go big, or go home. But then again, I am known to be a little excessive. Either way, your taste buds will be happy!

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Pleasant House Bakery

So you’re a couple of cocktails in at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, and your stomach starts to rumble. You check out the menu for a tasty bar snack to munch on, only to find beverages.

Don’t worry though. Buttery, flaky deliciousness awaits you less than five steps away. Right next door to Maria’s sits Pleasant House Bakery – a quaint English restaurant serving up scrumptious, savory pies.

From the outside, Pleasant House looks like a small, cream-colored cottage you might actually see in the English countryside. Take a step inside and you’ll be greeted with the wafting smell of fresh-baked dough and braised beef. Yum.

With only about six tables, the dining area is small, but that’s what gives this bakery character. You feel as if you’re sitting down to eat in your grandmother’s dining room – in England, of course.

Pleasant House offers a daily selection of sweet and savory Royal English Pies. You can’t really go wrong with your pie selection – all of the fillings are nestled inside of their perfectly flaky, perfectly buttery homemade crust.

If you’re a carnivore, go for their classic steak and ale pie – beer-braised beef married with carrots and herbs. My only wish was that it had been packed more full of meat. You know – I want it exploding out of the pie as I cut in. Again, that’s my carnivorous side coming out.

Vegetarian? Try the mushroom and kale pie – flavorfully filled with scallions, white wine, herbs and Parmesan.

If you’re not feeling a pie, they have salads and spuds. And each day of the week has its own special. I say try Friday for another English staple: fish and chips. But, if you’re craving red meat, pop in on Tuesday (aka burger night). Did I mention I like red meat?

Pies, burgers and fries – oh my! But wait, it gets better. Pleasant House and Maria’s have a little kinship going on. You can order your pies at the bakery then walk back over to Maria’s and enjoy your cocktails while waiting. They will even deliver your pies to you at Maria’s, where you can sip on your brew and munch on your grub simultaneously. So that’s meat pies and boozy cocktails all brought to you without barely having to move a muscle – basically my ideal situation.

What more could a girl ask for? Oh, dessert you say? You got it. Pleasant House offers an assorted selection of desserts daily: tarts, trifles, cookies, bread pudding, the list goes on. Chocoholic? The dark chocolate custard is a must. The texture is dead on – not too dense, just the right amount of airiness. Plus, it’s dark chocolate so it’s not too sweet.

So next time you’re headed to Maria’s, make sure to put in your order at Pleasant House first. Talk about a power couple. 

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Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar

If a foodie is someone with a relentless love for cuisine, what do you call someone with a passion for good beverages? Whatever the term, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar provokes thirstiness in everyone who walks into this seemingly nondescript spot.

With over 475 beers and a selection of seasonal cocktails on tap – that’s right, on tap – it’s no surprise that the front of the house at Maria’s doubles as a liquor store. Upon entry, you’re greeted by symmetrical shelves lined with an assortment of neon-colored bottles of booze and beer.

Walk past the brigade of beverages and enter into a dark, pub-like room. The bar sits to the right and is illuminated by two rustic chandeliers crafted with clusters of old wine bottles. Two guys in t-shirts stand behind the bar waiting to take patrons’ orders before customers find their table of choice.

Looking for the best spot to sit? Go for one of the communal wooden tables on the back patio. With a vine-covered brick wall and low-hanging strands of light bulbs, the patio offers a homey spot to sip your brew. Maria’s rotates its 18 beers on tap, so make sure to ask what’s on the list.

If you’re looking for a refreshing cocktail for a warm evening – go for the G.T.L., a take on the classic gin and tonic, jazzed up with a little lemongrass. Fancy an Old Fashioned? Try the NOLA – a stout rye drink partnered with Creole bitters and lemon.

One of my personal favorites – the Rosemary Fizz – tastes like lemon gelato in a glass. What’s not to love?

Or, you could go for one of Maria’s most popular drinks: The Repollo Corral. Although the bright green hue might be off-putting, the spicy rim around the glass will zing your taste buds. This drink mixes tequila with cilantro, jalapeño and pineapple to hit your spicy, sweet and savory all in one glass.

Crowds fill this watering hole on the weekends, but each night has its own special, so try stopping by one night after work. I recommend Mondays, when a special catered BBQ starts at 5:30 and is served until it’s all out. Plus, their top 13 beers and all whiskeys are $1 off.

Either way, you won’t leave Maria’s thirsty! 

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5411 Empanadas

You know those Toaster Strudel® commercials? “Warm. Flakey. Gooey...” Yes, they drive me insane, but that’s sort of what I think of when I think of empanadas. Well, minus the gooey part.

Empanadas are like beautiful little pockets of dough that have been stuffed to the brim with scrumptious ingredients and then deep-fried. I mean, come on. What on earth could be better?

A lot of restaurants offer your standard empanadas – spinach and cheese, beef, chicken. You know. And 5411 definitely has those staples. But they don’t stop there. They go above and beyond with flavors like bacon, date & goat cheese. Yes, that is all in one empanada. Um, hello, I’m drooling.

Or how about their scaled-up version of your regular beef empanada – a Malbec beef empanada! Slow-braised beef, carrots and onions in a wine reduction. Come on. I hear “wine” and “beef,” and I am sold.

Shout out to all my vegetarians! Y’all get love here, too. Like I said, not just your average flavors. If you’re looking for a veggie option that’s outside of the box, go for the Ratatouille empanada – stewed zucchinis, red peppers, carrots, onions, garlic and mushrooms. Or chow down on the sweet corn empanada. It’s not just filled with corn, but also mozzarella, sautéed onions, béchamel sauce and nutmeg. Yum. Just yum.

Looking for a sweet something to end your empanada extravaganza with a bang? Say hello to the banana  & Nutella® empanada.  Yep. Not just any old bananas, but brown sugar-coated bananas. And then you add Nutella®? Oh, yes.

5411’s shops are in Lakeview and Wicker Park, but they not only deliver, they also have a food truck! Whoop whoop! Who doesn’t love a food truck?  So stop by their shop, order ‘em up online or check their website or Twitter to see where the truck will be each day! Only down side to delivery (has anyone ever said that?) – there’s a $25 minimum, or in other words, about 12 empanadas. I’m not going to lie to y’all, I’ve definitely done it before. By myself. Worth every last calorie. But, I’d recommend if you’re doing delivery, team up with some coworkers or besties. Or not. Up to you. 

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2 Sparrows

First of all: Yes, that is a cinnamon roll with GOAT CHEESE FROSTING. I’m sorry for all caps. I just felt it was necessary.

2 Sparrows seems pretty non-descript from the outside. Located in a strip of shops that all look the same, you might walk right by this breakfast spot on Diversey. If you do find yourself strolling down that stretch (between Clark and Sheridan), keep a look out for an orange banner on the glass windows. An orange banner with little sparrows, because what else would you expect?

Take a step inside and you’re instantly greeted with the smell of freshly baked doughnuts and other breakfast goodies. Oh, you’ll be greeted by a hostess, too, but let’s be real – we’re more concerned with the food.

The décor is simple, yet modern. Reclaimed wood-paneled walls are peppered with large, colorful abstract paintings. Small orange lamps hang over the tables and seem to draw out the orange from the artwork. Notice a theme here? Orange. Good job.

Ok, so enough about the way it looks. We’re here for the food. 2 Sparrows offers a range of breakfast items from your traditional eggs and bacon to your not-so-traditional pork belly breakfast sandwich. Although, let’s be real, nothing here is “traditional.” And I’m alright with it.

Start off with a baked good. Forget the cals, you can go to the gym later. I’ve already told you about their cinnamon roll with goat cheese frosting. If you want one of those, you need to get there early, because they do run out. If you’re not feeling the goat cheese frosting (which I don’t know why you wouldn’t be), go for the maple bacon doughnut. I mean, bacon + doughnut. What else do you need to know? Or, if you’re just not a doughnut person, no worries. They have homemade pop tarts. Yep. 2 Sparrows changes their menu to match the season, so don’t be surprised if your favorite pop tart is there one day, and gone the next. Flavors range from mushroom & goat cheese to pumpkin & spice glaze. Yum.

Alright, on to the savory! As I said, 2 Sparrows has your staples like eggs benedict and French toast, but they really mix it up with dishes like shrimp & grits and chile relleno. Not used to shrimp and grits for breakfast? Neither am I, but I’ll take it. While the shrimp and grits were not the most flavorful item on the menu, they’re a comforting dish to start off your morning.

Looking for something with more pizzazz? Go for the chilaquiles. Don’t know what chilaquiles are? No worries, I didn’t either until I lived with a Texan. Think nachos meet scrambled eggs, except in this case they’re sunny side farm fresh eggs! Sounds strange? It’s delicious. Especially with the fire roasted tomatillo salsa and anaheim aioli. Oh, and did I mention you can add shredded chicken or chorizo? Yes, yes you can.

2 Sparrows also serves lunch. Featuring items like a salmon BLT and mac ‘n’ cheese. But, if you’re headed into this joint, I’d say go for the breakfast. You wont be disappointed. Best part? 2 Sparrows serves breakfast daily until 3 pm. So you can get your breakfast fix in, even after we’ve transitioned well past lunchtime. 

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A10

I’d take a gander and say most of us don’t venture down to Hyde Park all too often. Well, now you have an excuse to go! Actually, a couple it seems, as Hyde Park is blowing up lately with lots of hot, new dining spots. One of which is A10.

Sleek, sexy and almost a modern meets rustic feel, A10 boasts wooden tables, wooden bars and large-bulbed, simple chandeliers dangling from the industrial-like ceiling. Following up with the industrial feel are exposed brick walls, draped with vibrantly patterned tapestries.

Small plates, large plates, pizza plates, pasta plates. They’ve got ‘em – bringing us upscale Italian with an edge. So, where to start you ask? Go for a couple of small plates and a pizza to snack on with your table. The pizzas are easily sharable, but they are small, which makes them great for a first course. A10’s small plates range from your standard oysters on the half shell to your not-so-standard citrus cured trout bruschetta with black radish, celery and pomelo (southeastern citrus fruit – don’t worry I didn’t know what it was either).

As for the pizza, go for the country bacon. I mean, you should want it just from the name alone, but I’ll describe it for you. Caramelized onions, crème fraîche, and generous pieces of bacon lay atop a crisp, rustic crust that’s cut into two-medium sized triangles. As I said, you should try to share this, but eating it alone is definitely doable (and acceptable in my mind).

Moving forward, here’s where the tough decision comes along. Pasta or large plate? Of course you could get a bunch of both and share with the whole table, but that’s a little more difficult to do. Cool tidbit: You can get smaller portions of the pastas if you’d like to make them small plates as well. Or, you could do dinner size. Go big or go home, I say. But let’s remember, I like to eat a lot. Plus, the pastas are made in-house.

I went for the lamb chops for my main course, which were cooked perfectly, although they had some interesting garnishes and accompaniments. However, the lamb chops are no longer on the menu, so I guess we can forget about those. Current large plates range from poached halibut to chicken alla Milanese. Milanese basically means thin meat lightly breaded and shallow-fried. In other words, delicious.

Looking for a sweet treat to end the night? A10 has some interesting choices like sweat tea soft serve, but again they also have more classic Italian desserts such as panna cotta. If you’re not one with a sweet tooth, try the daily cheese plate. Oh so Italian.  

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Au Cheval

So I’m going on my fourth year here in Chicago. And ever since I moved here, I’ve heard over and over again, “You have to go to Au Cheval. They have the best burger in town.” So you’d think – being the foodie that I am – I would have gone 200 times by now. But it seems every time I made plans to go, they somehow fell through and I was left hungry and heartbroken. Not a good combo.

But wait, this story has a happy ending. I made it to Au Cheval. Cue sigh of relief. Yes, it took me three and a half years, but that’s not the point. I made it.

And I enjoyed every finger-licking last minute of it.

Okay let’s start with the downsides first, just to get them out of the way. Being that it is a super well-known dining destination in Chicago, there is always a wait. Alright, that’s it for the cons. Glad we got that over with.

Let’s talk décor. It’s dark. But that gives it an almost speakeasy-esque vibe to it. Like you’re in a VIP club that’s invite only. Which, by the time you get a table, you might actually feel that way.

Jokes aside, it’s well worth the wait.

The restaurant is oblong with a handful of booths against the wall and tables near the back. Across from the booths is a diner-style bar. The majority of the interior is black, minus the exposed brick by the windows. Simple bulbs hang from the ceiling to slightly light your table. The ambiance is simple, yet sultry.

Alright, enough about the looks. On to the eats.

Did I mention the air smells like butter when you walk in? Well it does. If Au Cheval had a catchphrase, “gluttonous” would be a good fit.

I pined over the menu for a good 15 minutes when I sat down. Of course I had already looked it over online a million times, but I had to reassess the situation once there. My friends and I were looking for something to start with. I had read a lot about the roasted marrow bones, and I saw a couple of orders float by that looked divine. I had also heard great things about the foie gras terrine. Remember that time I mentioned gluttony? See where I was going?

But after careful consideration, we decided to go with General Jane’s honey-fried chicken. What led to that decision you might ask? Well, besides the fact that it sounded insanely delicious, we knew we wanted to relax on the richness of our starter since we’d soon be indulging in our much-anticipated burgers.

Luckily I read up before we went, and I knew going in that the single cheeseburger at Au Cheval is actually a double. Which leaves me wondering, is the double actually a quadruple? I guess I’ll have to return to investigate.

When you order your burger you have the option of adding a fried egg and bacon. I said yes, and yes. The egg is cooked perfectly so that the yolk breaks when you bite into your burger. But let’s talk about this bacon. It’s about half an inch thick. Okay, it’s not that thick, but it is about three times the thickness of your average bacon. While delicious, I actually preferred the burger without the bacon. Sacrilege, I know. But I felt that the bacon was almost like another patty on the sandwich, and it took away from the main star – the burger.

Anyways, back to the goodness.  Egg, bacon or not - it’s all layered on top of two deliciously seasoned, perfectly cooked beef patties that are cloaked in melted cheese. Aka paradise in your mouth.

Wash it all down with a beer or “strong drink” as Au Cheval refers to its charming cocktails. From staples like the Old Fashioned to more original drinks like the Strange Brew – gin, pineapple, lemon and IPA – you can’t really go wrong. Cheers, y’all.

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