Blackbird's pork belly (©Christian Seel)
The focus on local food, the rise of gluten-free options, the enduring appeal of oysters, the celebration of ethnic foodways, the return of bourbon and pork belly—all may be more traditions than trends, but they’re all alive and vibrant themes on Chicago’s robust culinary landscape.
» Local. Any restaurant seeking to be taken seriously serves seasonal, sustainable and local food. Some of the most recognized restaurants—including Sixteeen, Blackbird and Topolobampo—look first to ingredients grown close to home (sometimes, literally, in their own backyards).
» Gluten-Free. According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, extreme gluten intolerance affects one in 133 Americans. Some restaurants, like Senza and Rose’s Wheat Free Café, are totally gluten-free, while places like Le Colonial and Uno’s dish up non-wheat alternatives alongside staples.
» Oysters. Based on menus archived in the Chicago History Museum, oysters figured prominently at the very first restaurants in our city. Today, several, including Bow & Stern Oyster Bar, Joe Fish and Kinmont, boast a bevy of beautiful bivalves.
» Ethnic. What's the City of Neighborhoods without its ethnic restaurants? A number of breakthrough restaurants are even serving food of less well-represented culinary traditions. Case in point: Fat Rice, where locals line up for hours to taste the food of Macau, and Red Square Café and Lounge.
» Bourbon. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson passed a resolution naming bourbon our “Native American Spirit.” Then, hippies denounced all things that adults held dear, including dark liquors. Bourbon is now undergoing a renaissance, with new distilleries even in Chicagoland. Still, most bourbon comes from Kentucky, and in Chicago, find it at many places, including County Barbeque and Longman & Eagle.
» Pork Belly. Considering that Chicago has long been hailed as hog butcher for the world, it’s alarming that it took us so long to love pork belly in any form other than strips for breakfast. Whether you’re sitting down at a Filipino, German or just about any other restaurant in Chicago, it’s highly likely pork belly will make an appearance. Pork belly makes the menus of fast casual places like Big & Little’s as well as Alinea, a Michelin three-star restaurant.
North Pond: Granddaddy of local eating in Chicago
Anyone who knows Chicago food was shocked when, in 2012, Bruce Sherman took home a James Beard award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region—not because he didn’t deserve it, of course, but because Chicagoans thought he would have scored the medal years ago. Sherman’s hand with local ingredients is unerring: Recently, we enjoyed the humble Great Lakes Whitefish, crusted with herbed potato, in a French-inflected sauce, alongside a beautiful vegetable accompaniment, local and delicious. 2610 N. Cannon Dr., 773.477.5845, www.northpondrestaurant.com
Fiorentino’s: Old School essence, without wheat
“When my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease, he thought it would be the end of the world,” says Frances Fiorentino, owner and hostess at Fiorentino’s, Lakeview’s somewhat traditional and totally excellent Italian restaurant. “Then we started serving gluten-free pasta. If you didn’t know it was wheat-free pasta, you’d probably think it was better than most wheat pasta you’ve had.” The gluten-free ravioli is somewhat firmer than wheat versions, with good tooth and an earthy mushroom sauce. 2901 N. Ashland Ave., 773.244.3026,www.fiorentinoscucina.com
Shaw’s Crab House: Freshest, best-est oysters
Oysters keep fresh for a long time, but they’re best at restaurants where high traffic means high turnover and a steady stream of oysters at the peak of their goodness. Shaw’s Crab House has long been an excellent source for oysters: They not only keep a dozen or so varieties available at all times, they charge the same price for any of them. “We do that,” says managing partner Steve LeHaie, “so that people will experiment with different varieties and not be afraid of the price.” There are new oyster places opening in Chicago every quarter; Shaw’s endures as the best place to learn about—and eat—this incredible raw food. 21 E. Hubbard St., 312.527.2722, www.shawscrabhouse.com
Tanta: Behold the power of Peruvian
With television appearances and restaurants in Lima and around the world, Gaston Acurio is the international face of Peruvian cuisine, touted as the big next thing. Peruvian food’s popularity is not hard to understand. It's not too spicy, and foods like traditional tiraditos (fish dressed in citrus right before serving) are a low-cal/high-protein option that look and taste great. With a good blend of fish, meat and vegetables, the menu shows a fine balance of the adventurous/exotic (skewered beef hearts) and the safe/familiar (grilled beef tenderloin). 118 W. Grand Ave., 312.222.9700, www.tantachicago.com
Delilah’s: Killer selection of bourbon
Bourbon offers a breadth of flavors resulting from such factors as the mash bill (the grains used), varying degrees of char on the oak barrels, and the amount of time the liquor ages. At Delilah’s, do side-by-side sips of many bourbons from “all styles and eras” to gain a sharper appreciation for just how many shades of flavor a single spirit can achieve. Don’t let Delilah’s “punk bar” rep deter you; bartenders are friendly, and you’ll not likely find another battery of bourbons so wide and deep. 2771 N. Lincoln Ave., 773.472.2771, www.delilahschicago.com
Blackbird: Did Paul Kahan invent pork belly?
Blackbird was the first stone laid in Paul Kahan’s food empire. Early on, Blackbird was lauded for its then-innovative servings of lush pork belly. Kahan’s inventiveness and commitment to quality are also apparent in many other fancier meat dishes, including flat iron Wagyu beef and elk loin. At Blackbird, the pork belly's lush, mouth-filling silkiness and clean flavor never fails to please. 619 W. Randolph St., 312.715.0708, www.blackbirdrestaurant.com