To score Chicago’s best dishes in 2021, flexibility was paramount. You were just as likely to experience transcendence in a glitzy new dining room as you were in your car devouring something with a plastic fork from a take-out container.
If you found dining out in 2021 confusing, imagine what it was like for those working in the restaurant industry. They’ve had to deal with dining room closures, capacity limits, mask enforcement, labor shortages and more. Now that COVID-19 cases are rising again, they are forced to decide to stay open.
Yet even with all these challenges, people kept opening new restaurants and the public kept clamoring to try them. Seasoned veterans launched their dream projects, while inspired hobbyists decided it was time to try their luck with tried and tested family recipes.
After being named one of the Tribune’s two food critics in May, I decided to try as many restaurants as possible, no matter where they were or if they had an open dining room. Here are 12 dishes that completely wowed me in 2021.
I knew after one bite of the juicy, smoky, and deeply flavorful sandwich ($16) that Soul & Smoke was the most exciting new barbecue operation around. Although the concept has been a catering business since 2015, the pandemic has prompted owners D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick to offer takeout to the public from their commissioner’s kitchen in Evanston. It’s proven so popular that you can also find it in a virtual kitchen at Avondale and the Time Out Market. As good as the smoked meats are, don’t forget the soul side of the menu, especially the Cajun shrimp and grits ($20). 1601 Payne Street, Evanston; 3517 N. Spaulding Avenue; Time Out Market, 916 W. Fulton Market; 847-859-2732; soulandsmoke.com
Although I was initially concerned with Esmé’s art-driven concept, Chef Jenner Tomaska erased the skeptical expression from my face with the very first course. That’s when the waiter dropped in a bowl of white sweet potato and peanut miso ice cream, topped with a nice scoop of caviar. Each spoonful provided a splash of sensations – creamy, brackish, sweet, salty – and set the stage for a truly memorable meal. It’s also one of those dishes that would have been impossible to translate to takeout, which reminds me to never take indoor dining for granted. 2200 N. Clark Street, esmechicago.com
Louisa Chu, fellow Tribune food critic, loves to tease me about being a “known sweets hater.” Although maybe a bit over the top, it’s totally true that I don’t like desserts that are too sweet. It left my co-workers very confused when I kept raving about chocolate chip cookies from Sugar Moon Bakery, Dina Cimarusti’s little Logan Square shop. But while sweet, the cookie also has a nutty tahini backbone and just enough smoked salt to give it a savory edge. $3.50. 3612 W. Wrightwood Avenue, sugarmoonchicago.com
In recent years, a handful of home cooks have experimented with Chicago’s most iconic style of pizza. My current favorite is this place in Cary, where Jerry Czerwinski cold ferments his dough for two days, then tops it with sausages made in the same building by Orchard Prime Meats. Every perfect pie has a crisp, light crust, instead of a hard and greasy one, and just enough cheese to add a tart creaminess to every bite. $23.75 for 14 inches. 133 Main Street West, Cary; 224-888-8663; unclejerryspizzacompany.com
You can find octopus on menus all over Chicago, but this one at Andros Taverna was the most tender and juicy version I’ve ever tried. Chef Doug Psaltis walked me through the cooking process, but it turns out it’s seasoned with little more than olive oil and salt, plus a squeeze of lemon at the end. . The real secret to success is that he has a guy in New York who sources the best octopus he can find in Spain. “The quality is second to none,” says Psaltis. Market price. 2542 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-365-1900, androstaverna.com
No one has ever accused Chicago of having a big bagel scene, especially not New York’s transplants who love to complain about it. But over the past year, a host of newcomers have thankfully changed all that. The best I’ve found in town is the amazing version from one of our most acclaimed bakers, Mindy Segal. Each bite is crispy on the outside, but tender and chewy on the inside. Although her shop is currently only open on weekends, she is preparing to move to a new location that will be open much more often to cater to your bagel cravings. 1747 N. Damen Ave, 773-489-1747, mindysbakery.com
It’s still a little confusing that my favorite taco al pastor in Chicago is from a place called Asian Cuisine Express. But a taste of the freshly grilled pork, stained red from the chili and annatto marinade, was enough to convince me. Cooked on a huge trompo that spins in front of what looks like a huge blowtorch, each slice is both crispy and juicy. The meat sits on fluffy corn tortillas and arrives topped with crunchy onions, fresh cilantro and a few slices of pineapple. 3823 W. 31st St., 773-847-4883, facebook.com/AsianCuisineExpress
I don’t think I expressed correctly how weird Three House’s burger was when I crowned it the second best burger in town. Chicago has plenty of smash burgers these days, and most keep the components simple, focusing their attention on cooking technique (i.e. smashing). But Three House adds heaps of bone marrow to its unique blend of ground chuck and Slagel Family Farm brisket, so the beef has an almost overwhelming amount of meat. It’s then topped with lots of funky, assertive Hook’s Three Year Sharp Cheddar, which would stomp on most burger patties. But thanks to the medulla, everything somehow works. $13. 1450 W. Chicago Avenue, 312-465-2636, threehousechi.com
I personally have to thank the Navarro family for sharing their family recipe with us, as I had no idea flour tortillas could be so soft and comforting. They still don’t have a restaurant, but you can order through the Cocina Paulis Instagram page, and someone will text you with the pick-up address. You can’t go wrong with a dozen of the best flour tortillas ($10) around, but you might as well have a breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs and refried beans ($3 each) while you do it. instagram.com/cocinapaulis
The last thing I thought I needed in 2021 was elegantly prepared French classics, but Chef Trevor Teich and his team at Claudia completely stunned me with their bar menu. While I was under the spell of the foie gras torchon ($22), it was the lobster pie ($48) that amazed me. Instead of an overabundance of butter and cream, each bite featured the sweet essence of lobster offset by the crispy batter coating. $48. 1952 N. Damen Ave, 773-697-9486, claudiarestaurant.com
Few Chicago restaurants take deli meats as seriously as this Logan Square newcomer. Everything is prepared on site by chef Chris Thompson, who has over 15 years of experience in the business. No order is complete without the original sopressata manual, although the fennel-laden Finocchiona comes very close. Each board is also filled with numerous cheeses, including a number of intriguing options from Wisconsin. The kitchen also understands how to arrange everything in an attractive way, so you’ll stop at least a few seconds to admire the symmetry and balance before you dig in. $29. 2200 N. California Ave., 773-697-4444, lardonchicago.com
Did you know that the Mixteca region in the state of Oaxaca has its own style of pozole? I certainly didn’t until Carla and Ricardo Rodriguez opened their own pozoleria in Belmont Cragin this year. Their family recipe uses shredded chicken instead of pork, but the most fascinating addition is the dark red salsa quemada layered on top. Stir the mixture of red chilies and spices into the soup, and each sip becomes seductively complex, with just a hint of spiciness. $11.99 for medium, $13.99 for large. 5037 Diversey Ave West, 773-417-7309, facebook.com/pozolemexicano
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