Posts in the ‘BYOB’ Category

Buon Appetito – Our Favorite Italian Restaurants

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

we say:

Supposedly, if you give a baby hundreds of toys to choose from, he’ll get totally overwhelmed and not play with a single one.  We, like spoiled rotten babies, have had a similar reaction to reviewing Chicago’s Italian restaurants.  Chicago is home to some of the best Italian cuisine in the country, but where do we begin when there are literally thousands of Italian restaurants, one on almost every corner?  And how can we compare a place like Spiaggia to a neighborhood osteria?  And what about pizza? Pizza!  And how many Italian restaurant reviews will you, our friends, read before you fall asleep or abandon us forever?  Life is so complicated; we’ll just do our best and hope you like us anyway.  Andiamo.

Our Top Five:

  1. Enoteca Roma (Wicker Park) – We love this small, somewhat low-key (for Wicker Park) eatery for its incredibly flavorful bruschettas, cheeses and pastas.  We love the family-style approach and the way they pour their polenta onto marble slabs.  We love their patio too.   Really though, there’s no trick to why they’re first on our list; the food is superior and that’s what matters.
  2. Rose Angelis (Lincoln Park) - We doubt you’ll find this one on many other Best Italian lists, but you should.  It’s hard to beat Rose Angelis’  huge portions of hearty, homemade pasta.   Formerly the first floor of a home, the cozy layout and setting will charm your pants off (they’ll already be unbuttoned to make room for your pasta baby).  As impossible as it may seem, try to leave room for one of their spectacular desserts.
  3. Piccolo Sogno (River West) – A “little dream” come true.  This upscale Northern Italian restaurant’s menu is as fabulous as its decor.  An impressive place to take out-of-towners, but make your reservation well in advance.  Their mozzarella cheese melts on the tongue and their wine list is impeccable.  They use authentic ingredients combined in wonderful ways, presented artfully.  If you go to their website, be prepared to rock out to some dramatic Italian crooning that starts off like a smooth jazz rendition of the theme song from St. Elmo’s Fire.
  4. Anteprima (Andersonville) - This one almost didn’t make the cut because one of us finds it underwhelming, but here it is, numero quattro, and nobody has to sleep on the couch.  Everyone’s a winner!  Anteprima serves rustic Italian dishes with local, seasonally-inspired ingredients.  The atmosphere is warm and cheerful and totally unpretentious.  They also make their own limoncello. Yum.
  5. Cibo Matto (Loop) and Pelago (Gold Coast) – Between these two, it’s toss up.  Both are trendy and oozing with swank.  Cibo Matto is located in the ultra-hip Wit hotel; Pelago in the boutique Raffaello Hotel.  Cibo Matto is over-the-top stylish while Pelago is more reserved and sophisticated.  Both serve Italian gourmet with a modern twist.  We suggest the Pollo a Griglia at Cibo Matto and the fettuccine with truffles at Pelago.

Our Favorites (In A League of Their Own):

Our Favorite Neapolitan-style (woodfire oven) PizzaAntica Pizzeria (Andersonville)

Our Favorite Italian Sandwiches – Narrowly beating out the neighborhood fave, Piatto Pronto (Edgewater) is L’Apetito Imported Italian Foods (Near North Side).   Check out this Italian deli and delicacy store and get an amazing sandwich to go.  Avoid the tourist trap in the Hancock and stop by the deli in the cathedral district. We suggest Il Parma. It’s topped with the best fresh mozzarella to squeeze it’s way between two slices of bread.

Our favorite Italian Chicagoan – This Guy:

We’re still in search of our favorite gelato.  Got tips?

If we missed one of your faves, use the comment section to let us know.  We’d love to try it …  or tell you why we omitted it (probably because of the weird smell and the cockroaches).  In the meantime, we’ll just be sitting here, staring at our toys and throwing temper tantrums.

Irazu, Bucktown

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

she said:

We spent half of our honeymoon on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica so when our friend Laura asked us to meet her at Irazu for some Costa Rican cuisine, we were pretty excited.  We arrived at the small, bustling Irazu on a Saturday night and were told we’d have a table in thirty minutes.  Not bad, but after waiting outside in the cold drizzle for over an hour, our enthusiasm wasn’t the only thing that had been dampened.

Enter Omar, our waiter, whose personality was as large as his physique and whose booming apologies were backed up by several complimentary snacks, including black beans and plantains splashed with spoonfuls of Lizano salsa.  Lizano salsa, by the by, is a spicy sweet Costa Rican sauce made with onions, carrots, cauliflower and cucumber.  Although it’s ubiquitous in Costa Rica, it’s uncommon here.  Within five minutes of sitting down, I’d forgiven the long wait.  I knew why the place was so packed, and why nobody wanted to leave.

We started with a combo order of empanadas (cheese, black bean, spinach, zucchini and plantain, if you must know), which were very tasty, especially when topped with pico de gallo.  For dinner, I ordered the “award winning” vegetarian burrito, which was straightforward and delicious, stuffed with occasional hot peppers that nearly burned my lips off my face.  I love plantains so I ordered them on the side; they arrived in a perfect combination of goo and crisp.

It’d be a shame to leave Irazu without trying one of their trademark Aveno (oatmeal) shakes.  I tasted the fresa (strawberry) and the chocolate and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since.  In addition to being uniquely scrumptious, they also come in handy as cooling remedies when you think you might have to be hospitalized for the relentless burn that’s spread from your lips, through your cheeks and is now tingling its way into your sweating scalp.  (I’m exaggerating.  They’re just peppers, but if you don’t like crying, you may want to avoid them).

Icing on the cake?  Irazu is BYOB.  At the end of the day, we didn’t pay more than $10 per person, if that.

In Costa Rica, you can’t walk down a street without hearing or reading the phrase, “Pura Vida.”  It’s on menus and t-shirts.  It’s painted onto the sides of buildings and etched into cliffside rock.  Pura Vida can mean hello and goodbye, thank you and you’re welcome.  It can express wonder or satisfaction, best wishes or respect.  In Spanish, it translates (though backwards) to Pure Life, but it means something closer to Good Life.  It’s an affirmation that this moment, experience, taste, smell, sight, person, friendship, interaction, etc, is real and true and….. well, good.

Pura Vida is not the same thing as the sweet life.  It’s simpler than that, and more humble.  You can get a taste of it at Irazu.

he said:

I think my wife undersold just how miserable the wait was. About the last thing on my mind as we were standing outside this little restaurant was the warmth and beauty of our honeymoon. It was cold, it was wet, we had to stand near a group of louts who arrived after us, only to realize that this loud, obnoxious group had deposited one person there earlier who had put their name in, so they got to go in ahead of us while we watched them from outside as they warmed up and enjoyed the delicious food and their insipid conversation.

In fact, by the time I finally made it inside, I wanted to smack the Costa Rican rainforest in the face (much like it had smacked my wife in the face when we went ziplining, though that’s a story for another time). But she was right. Omar was the best. The food was amazing. All was forgiven before the feeling returned to my toes.

Costa Ricago Favorite

I’d read online that Irazu had wonderful sandwiches. I hadn’t tried a Costa Rican sandwich when I was in Costa Rica, but they’d received such glowing reviews that I wanted to give it a go. After having one, I’m ready for another trip down south to compare Irazu’s to the originals. And that’s setting the bar pretty high for that small country, I have to say.

I had the Pepito Sandwich, which was described as a Chicago favorite. I opted for the ribeye, and added the hot peppers, cheese and avocado. When you’re starting with a sandwich for $4.95*, why not add a few delicious things on top?

*I rarely mention price on this blog, but this is one of the best values I’ve ever had at a restaurant. I’d have paid three times that for this sandwich.

The steak in the sandwich was amazing, good enough to eat by itself. And the beans and Lizano sauce complimented it perfectly.

As we left, I noticed that Irazu has a pretty generous delivery area. It won’t deliver to our house, but it would deliver to my work, so I’m thinking about impressing my coworkers with some delicious delivery one of these days. At the very least, I know that I won’t have to wait in the cold and the rain.

Ethiopian Diamond, Edgewater

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

she said:

The Ethiopian Diamond and I go way back.  It was at this auditorium-sized restaurant that I had my first taste of Ethiopian food.  I was a freshman in college; it was a year of many new experiences, but we’re sticking to Ethiopian food for the purposes of this blog.  Like many things in my freshman life, the Diamond was decked out in Rasta colors.  The paint job has changed since then, but the amazing food has not.  Nor has the clientele.  I still see the same group of Ethiopian men gathered around the large TV in the back.  Usually, it’s tuned to soccer. 

You may want to skip this paragraph if you’re an Ethiopian food aficionado.  We’re about to begin our Ethiopian Food 101 lesson for readers who might be less familiar.  Still with me?  Comfortable?  Here we go… adjusting glasses, clearing throat…  Ethiopian food is characterized by the communal dining experience.  All the food is served on one large plate and is accompanied by injera, which is spongy pancake-like bread that tastes a little bit like sourdough (more on this later).  You use the injera to scoop up the food with your fingers.  The food comes in the form of a stew (or that’s what the Diamond menu compares it too, though I think it’s thicker than what most people would consider stew-consistency) called watt or alicha.  Watt is relatively spicy.  Alicha is quite mild.  Both are composed of chicken, beef, fish, lamb or vegetables.  The vegetables vary widely because vegetarian eating is a significant component of Ethiopian cuisine. 

When I visit Ethiopian Diamond, I order the Veggie Combo or the Vegetarian Taste of Ethiopia.  Doing this saves me from having to choose just one of their eleven incredible vegetarian dishes.  Here’s a little trick: if you convince your dining partner to share two Veggie Combos, you can pick six different dishes (three each).  My Guy is more easily persuaded after a glass or two of their delicious honey wine.

 Among my favorite vegetarian dishes: Yesimir Watt Spicy (spicy red lentils), Kik Alicha (yellow split peas), Gomen (collard greens) and Quosta (spinach). 

I notice that almost every dish is “simmered with onion and garlic” and most utilize ginger in some way.  Interestingly, onion, garlic and ginger are never the predominant tastes.  The magic comes from the Ethiopian spices, though they’re never specifically identified on the menu.  They have a unique flavor that you need to try for yourself.

Vegans, come hungry.  All the vegetarian dishes are free of eggs, butter, milk and honey. Gluten intolerant?  No problem.*  The injera is made of teff (it’s fermented, hence the sour taste), a grain that is generally a-okay for people with celiac disase.   Actually, teff is a rockstar grain.  It’s high in fiber and contains iron, calcium and potassium.

So, a lot of what I’ve said in this post is true for most Ethiopian restaurants.  What makes Ethiopian Diamond special is simply that their food tastes better than all the rest.  And they have a huge selection.  And their portions are large and satisfying.  In fact, I had leftovers from our last visit.  I’ve been looking forward to eating them all day.  Unfortunately, somebody picked today to clean out the refrigerator** while I was working late.  I’m not pointing fingers, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t our cats.

*This is a food blog, not a medical journal.  If you’ve got gluten issues, you should trust someone who knows more than I do about it. 

**Seriously, he’s never once cleaned out the fridge.  Not until today.  What a coinkydink.

he said:

I never thought I’d like Ethiopian food.  Don’t ask me why.  Let’s just say I grew up a picky eater. But we’ve gone to the Diamond enough that it’s one of our go-to spots. (That’s right, I called it the Diamond. It’s reached one-word status.)

I usually just go with whatever my beautiful Gal tells me I’m going to like, which means vegetarian. And even though she’s usually wrong about everything, like everything she just wrote above, she can pick out some good dishes.

High Wattage

The last time we went, this past week, I decided to try a meat dish. I had been scared off since the first time I had one of their meat dishes, the zilzil tibs. That beef dish came out stringy and dry. So I’d been staying away, which is a shame, because “zilzil” is just about the most fun word to say. Go ahead, say it…You’re smiling right now aren’t you?

Anyway, back to my point. I had the Yebeg Tibs Watt, a  spicy lamb stew. It was delicious. The meat was tender and moist, the sauce a perfect accompaniment. I loved it.

Injera turns everything into fingerfood

Before I finish this post and continue with my helpful household chores, I need to say that I love the injera. It’s the tastiest thing. And I love not using utensils. I’m going to start using it for everything I eat–spaghetti, soup, pudding… If only I had known there was some in our refrigerator, but how could I?  Gal had a half dozen leftover boxes in there.  I wasn’t about to start sniffing around.

Indie Cafe, Edgewater

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

she said:

Indie Cafe is one of my favorite restaurants on the North side of Chicago, if not my hands-down numero uno.  It’s certainly my favorite Thai place.

While sitting in Indie Cafe, whether it’s with Guy or a group of girlfriends, I often notice a certain bustling energy.  There is, for lack of a better word, a scene.  It’s clear that everyone in the room loves being there.

Although Indie is low key, the decor is quite stylish, with cool artwork and romantic lighting.  The food is so artfully presented and delicious, it’s hard to believe it’s so affordable.  Everything about being there says high-end dining.  Everything except the prices.

Generally, I order from the Thai menu, though their sushi menu is equally large and impressive.   My friends who order the sushi are addicted, but I find the Thai curries to be totally irresistible.   The Panang and the Indie Signature Curries are at the top of my list.  Both are nutty and intensely flavorful; the Panang is a bit spicier.  Guy doesn’t like curries very much.  More for me, sucka!

The crab rangoon is also top notch – and this from a girl who doesn’t eat much seafood – as is the Tom Ka Kai, a sweet and sour coconut broth soup.  I substitute the chicken with tofu.

For dessert, try a mochi ice cream ball.  My favorite is the green tea.

And, if you still need convincing, Indie is BYOB so you can stop in the nearby Dominick’s or the liquor store around the corner and grab a bottle or two.

I don’t have a single complaint about this gem of a restaurant.  I love it so much; maybe I’ll marry it.

he said:

I like when we get Indie as take-out. They serve good Thai food, but when I’m in there I feel like they’re trying to play dress up.

Let me explain, because I don’t want to suggest that they’re food isn’t good. It’s excellent. I almost always get pad thai or chicken fried rice. And my preference for those two colors my experience.

Pad thai and chicken fried rice are comfort food. They’re great as take out. When I eat them in a restaurant, I like it when the setting is as low key as the meal. While the ambience is nice at Indie, it’s unnecessary in my mind.

Of all the Thai take out I’ve had in Andersonville and Edgewater, Indie has the best. Last time we ordered it through GrubHub (which is a great website that lets you order food online; but you already knew that right?) and it came quickly and was delicious as usual. And when I eat it in the comfort of my home, the ambience is just right.

La Ciudad, Uptown

Monday, January 4th, 2010

she said:

Don’t judge a book by its cover.  This very new Mexican restaurant is tucked away in an Uptown mini-mall, just a few doors down from a pawn shop and two fast food chain restaurants.  You forget that as soon as you walk in.  The decor is sophisticated, with dark red walls and stylish black and white photos.  Every single table was full while we were there and everyone looked to be having a great time.

In addition to ambience and friendly service, the food is also delicious and affordable.  We had a queso fundido* appetizer that I loved and the mole sauce is wonderful.  And it’s BYOB.  High five.

Oh, and don’t be fooled by the seemingly meat-centric menu.  They can make most items vegetarian and are happy to accommodate.  If you have a hard time eating Mexican food without a margarita to wash it down, bring the fixins’ and they’ll fix ‘em.

*Queso fundido is awesome because it makes eating an entire plate of melted cheese totally acceptable.  The trick is that the name of the dish is in another language.  Smoke and mirrors, my friends.  Smoke and mirrors.