How to Eat Like a Chicagoan

"The Hungry Hound" Steve Dolinsky gives his expert advice on where to get the best dishes in Chicago
Staff Writer
Peking Duck at Sun Wah BBQ

Steve Dolinsky sings the praises of Avec's stuffed dates, must-haves for anyone who wants a taste of Chicago.

Any visitor to Chicago knows a deep-dish pizza and a Chicago dog are must-eats. These iconic foods are the first to come to mind when thinking of the Windy City’s dining scene. While we’ll defend the merits of those meals to the death, they really don’t begin to exemplify the diversity and deliciousness of dining in Chicago. To eat like a Chicagoan, you need to widen your scope and find those spots that locals love.

Wondering where to start? There’s no one better to ask than Steve Dolinsky. An expert in Chicago’s food world, Steve has been exploring the hottest new restaurants and the hidden mom ‘n pop spots since 1995. A winner of numerous James Beard Foundation Awards for his food journalism, he currently shares his finds on Chicago’s ABC 7 as “The Hungry Hound.” He can also be seen contributing on such shows as Iron Chef America and Unique Eats.

Drawing on his extensive experience eating in Chicago, we asked Steve to share his top 10 go-to meals. Hit up these spots, and you’ll really know how to eat like a Chicagoan.

10. Brisket at Smoque BBQ – This small restaurant just off the Kennedy Expressway has its priorities straight. Far from trendy with little décor, Smoque’s focus is on doing right by its barbecue in authentic Texas style. With an emphasis on slow smoking and simple seasoning, they stay away from the syrupy sweet, sauce-heavy dishes. Steve recommends the brisket, which is smoked for 14 hours, resulting in a meltingly tender, smoky and peppery meat.

9. Banh Mi at Nhu Lan Bakery – This Vietnamese bakery gets Steve’s vote for the best banh mi. From the traditional paté and head cheese to more modern tastes of lemongrass pork and chicken, these sandwiches, piled high with pickled daikon, fresh jalapeños, and cilantro, are a satisfying meal at an easy price. The key to Nhu Lan, however, is the bread: baked on site, the baguettes are the perfect balance of crackly and soft. Nhu Lan sells its bread to the other stores around town, so Steve suggests going straight to the source.

8. Breakfast at Meli Café – This restaurant is not usually the first name to come up when speaking about Greek diners, but Steve insists that it stands a step above. From authentic frappes, fresh-squeezed juice, and preserves made daily in-house, Meli Café spares no detail in its breakfast and brunch offerings. Steve highly recommends the Meli Cakes; “meli” means “honey” in Greek, and these sweet cakes are nothing short of heavenly.

7. Brunch at Hot Chocolate – Chicago loves a good brunch, and Hot Chocolate delivers. Steve calls pastry chef Mindy Segal one of the best in town and gives her pancakes top billing. This satisfying dish comes with a solo cake, spruced up with Indiana maple syrup and seasonal fruits and compotes. Light and fluffy, yet dense and substantial, it stands up as one of Chicago’s best breakfasts. The beer list is worth a look too, with unique offerings from brewers near and far.

6. Montreal Style Smoked Meat from Fumare – This small shop tucked into the Chicago French Market delivers the under-appreciated cured smoked brisket. Seasoned with coriander and black pepper, the beef is first cured, then smoked until it is perfectly tender. Steve suggests keeping things simple: enjoy the Fumare meats with yellow mustard and rye bread. It’s great for parties as the holidays near.

5. Monday Night Dinner at Lula Café – Lula Café is well-known for their weekend fare and crave-worthy brunches. However, Steve recommends avoiding the crowd and trying their three course farmers’ dinner. This industry folk favorite showcases seasonal and local foods acquired over the weekend and runs between $25 and $30.

4. Neapolitan Pizza at Spacca Napoli – Deep dish isn’t the only pizza in the Windy City. Steve satisfies his craving for pizza at Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood. The owners stay faithful to the Neapolitan style, relying on double zero flour and long dough fermentation. Pizzas are cooked at 900 degrees in a brick oven, and the results are just the right balance of crispy and tender.

3. Peking Duck at Sun Wah BBQ – While Steve admits that to be a real local, you need to spend some time in Chinatown, Sun Wah in Uptown gets his vote for this iconic dish. A family-run establishment than has been passed to the next generation, the three course duck is handled with care and given plenty of flavor. It is served in three courses: the first is carved tableside, followed by duck fried rice and duck soup. Steamed bao, pickled daikon, and a rich hoisin sauce round out the meal. Be sure to order ahead of time.

2. Stuffed Dates & Focaccia at avec – Paul Kahan is a big name in the Chicago dining scene, and according to Steve, this is the chef-restaurateur’s ultimate expression of Mediterranean peasant food. The kitchen, currently headed by chef-de-cuisine Perry Hendrix, is always finding new inspiration. However, the dates, stuffed with chorizo, and the focaccia, topped with taleggio and truffle oil, are constants on the menu for good reason. This is Steve’s must-go when visitors are in town.

1. Char Dog at The Wiener’s Circle or Superdawg – Visitor or local, you just haven’t eaten like a true Chicagoan until you’ve had a proper Chicago char dog. Superdawg is an institution of more than 60 years, with drive-in service and pickled green tomatoes. The Wiener’s Circle is a classic, serving up a crispy, charred hot dog with those crucial toppings in a poppy seed bun. Add some cheddar fries. For Steve, this is the quintessential Chicago experience.

Honorable mention goes to Logan Square’s Bang Bang Pie Shop. Goose lard is used in their dough, creating completely decadent seasonal pies. Steve suggests going for the biscuits, the “dark horse” of the menu; they come with unique butters and preserves. Breakfast sandwiches boasting ingredients like candied bacon, sausage, and egg will make any morning. Beloved by locals and still maintaining that “hipster” vibe, this is a place only a true Chicagoan would know.

Ready to eat your way through the Windy City? We hope you’re hungry!

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