HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >


Tourists Seeking Unusual Chicago Food Spots

I'm new to chowhound and have been browsing for days for our upcoming visit to Chicago. We will be there Tue-Sat Aug18-22 and can't wait for the eating to begin!

Background: We are foodies, not food snobs and we can't get alot of things where we live that we like (from Key West it's a 4hr drive to the mainland...) so when we go on vacation it's a big feeding frenzy ; ) My husband is a grad from CIA and we were both chefs in the past. His family is Thai-American but he didn't eat alot of thai growing up. We are both suckers for artisanal cheese, all forms of charcuterie and secondary cuts being transformed into delicious treats!

We will be staying downtown in order to be close to the different museums and attractions and using mass transit to get around. We will travel up to an hour for something really special...

We are looking for what we don't have here. We have seafood, fine dining and Cuban.
We are also looking to try Chicago-specific foods.

So far we are interested in:

Gold Coast Dogs (theres one in MDW for when we arrive)
Giordano's or Pizanos
Arun's (sounds different, ?)
Pastoral for lunch near Grant park area
M Henry for breakfast once
Garrett popcorn
1492 or Mercat a la Planxa
Avec or Bistro Campagne (marrow bone app-mmmm!)
Hopleaf for a meal and beer
Lao Sze Chuan (hoping to score new food finds for us)
Ras Dashen (never had Ethiopian)
Signatures for a drink/snack instead of the observation deck
Jerry's sandwiches
Hot doug
and some one please tell me where can I get my hands on some Pupusas!

I need to narrow it down a little more, but I would like suggestions of any other Chicago specialties or unusual or ethnic spots before I do.

I know it's a long way out, but I already got so excited about this Chicago style dog that I went out and bought all the ingredients to make this at home from a recipe I'd found online! I had to substitute whole wheat buns for poppyseed, peperoncinis for sport peppers (?), normal relish for the lime green kind... but I steamed the dogs and buns, added: mustard, tomatoes, relish, pickle spear, peppers, cucmber, chopped onion and celery salt. OMG! It was so good we each ate 3!!! I've never in my life eaten 3 hot dogs or enjoyed pickle relish, I can't wait to try the authentic version when I get there!!!!

Any help is appreciated and I promise to write a detailed review when we return.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Great list. You can't go wrong with Lao Sze Chuan unless you really can't handle spicy food -- don't go there without ordering Tony's Three Chili Chicken.

    Gold Coast Dog's (esp. in MDW) isn't particularly "the best" Chicago hot dog experience you can get -- I'd skip it. If you have a rental car, I'd suggest making the trip (and yes, waiting in the long line and dealing with the not-so-convenient hours) at Hot Doug's.

    Avec is one of my favorites, especially the Chorizo-stuffed bacon wrapped dates.

    Generally, though, I'd point you towards another Chicago foodie haunt, LTHForum.com, for restaurant recs. Check out their "Great Neighboorhood Restaurant" list for a large list of places off the tourist track that have excellent food at all sorts of price points.

    Hot Doug's
    3324 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

    Lao Sze Chuan
    2172 S Archer Ave, Chicago, IL 60616

    1. If you're looking for "secondary cuts" you might look into Publican which specializes in all sorts of pork, oysters, and beer (and has marrow). Mado also does all of their meat/charcuterie in-house.

      Chicago has a lot of ethnic food you didn't mention. Greek, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Mexican and more all are represented by neighborhoods which are worth seeking out.

      1. I second Publican. Really delicious and great beer (if a bit pricey).

        Also, don't forget to try Italian beef. These sandwiches shouldn't be overlooked! Try Al's Italian Beef. I would not have the sandwich "dipped" unless you want your sandwich to fall apart :).

        Hot Doug's is fantastic, but kind of a pain to get to from downtown and there is ALWAYS a line. If you decide to go to a Cubs game or something, you can always go to Wiener Circle which is pretty close by and tasty.

        2 Replies
        1. re: tripc

          Thanks for the replies so far!

          I've added Publican and Al's Italian Beef to the list. Still considering Mado.

          I've removed Arun's and replaced it with Sticky Rice. It seemed the reviews were not all that great and we were hoping for something a little different. Plus, they have mango and sticky rice for dessert there!

          I really appreciate the link to the other forum, I've found it easier to search and was able to find a one stop shop for www.chicago.menupages.com through another poster- almost all menu pages are listed, even for restaurants w/o websites. They have other major cities as well...

          Also through lthforum.com I found a map of Chicago area restaurants via google http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF... which is pretty cool.

          We regularly visit a Korean BBQ w/ hubby's family, but if you have one that's really stellar we'd be obliged to go.

          Also we won't be there on a Sunday, so the Hispanic market is out. Any other recs for Pupusas?


          1. re: crackedconch

            It's too bad that you won't be here for Maxwell Street, but you can also get your Mexican fix in Pilsen or Little Village.

            Pupusas? I know that there are only a handful of pupusa restaurants spread out around the city.

        2. jibertios at Borniquin
          Pizza at Burt''s in Morton Grove
          and, as mentioned elsewhere, Italian Beef (lot of good options)

          1. I agree with others on Gold Coast Dogs. If you're going to do something like that, I'd go to Portillo's for a hot dog and Italian Beef. I hit Portillo's everytime I'm in town.

            Another uniquely Chicago place is the Billy Goat Tavern. Everyone remembers the SNL skits about the place and I love sending out-of-towners there. Yeah, it's just burgers and chips (cheepz, no fries), but it's an experience you'll never forget...make sure you go to the one on Michigan Avenue.

            http://midmichigandining.com/2008/11/... <---Billy Goat review

            http://midmichigandining.com/2008/08/... <---a Portillo's review..this one's from Oak Lawn, but the foods the same.

            100 W Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60654

            Billy Goat Tavern
            430 N Michigan Ave Lowr 1, Chicago, IL 60611

            1. Not sure if you are up for Persian food, but Noon O' Kabab is an excellent restaurant across the street from the Kedzie Brown Line stop, up the street from Arun's. All the food is excellent. My personal favorite is the rib eye kabob, known there as Chenjeh.

              Also, I'll add my name to the list of people who recommend Hot Doug's. If you get there soon after opening there isn't much of a line, yet.

              Noon O Kabab
              4661 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago, IL 60625

              1 Reply
              1. re: scottcross7

                i think you have a great list of places to try! I am a HUGE fan of Ras Dashen and can't praise them enough. If you go on a Friday (they have live music @ around 8pm on Fridays) or Sat I would go to eat a little on the early side like 6pm or even earlier. They get busy fast and if you've never had Ethiopian you might not get as much help with the menu as you would if they weren't so busy. Have a terrific time while you're here!

              2. I drove by Sticky Rice over the weekend and it was closed with a giant "License Suspended" sign on the door. But in my mind it was always a 2nd place finisher to Spoon Thai... also on Western, about a mile up. It's BYOB and is next to a liquor store.
                Spoon Thai 4608 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL‎ - (773) 769-1173‎

                You must go to Hot Doug's (yes, the line is a pain, and bring CASH) but it's also worth hitting Wiener's Circle or something for a Chicago dog. At Hot Doug's you'll want to try the game dog of the day or something equally interesting... you can get a Chicago dog elsewhere for cheaper.

                The ethiopian at Ras is great.

                And I love Mercat - they have some outdoor tables now on Mich Ave so you can people-watch (though the city buses are LOUD) - every single bite there is amazing... but it's very pricey. $11 for 4 stuffed dates, that kind of thing.

                Also two of my fave brunch spots are Lula Cafe (in Logan Sq) and Hot Chocolate (on Damen in Bucktown). Awesome. But HC was just written up in the Trib so the line may be longer than usual and Lula is always crowded. M Henry is packed, too, so you'll be looking at a wait no matter what.

                We've got a heavy Eastern Euro influence too if that interests you.. Smak Tak (you need a car) has AMAZING pierogis and Beograd Meat Market has burek - I'd call it a meat or cheese pie but that doesn't do it justice. It tastes like you've baked a pot of macaroni and cheese and filo dough. It will change your life.
                Top it all off with frozen custard at Scooters (try the PB&J concrete).
                Have fun!

                1. I sure do appreciate all the posts so far!

                  Our list is growing exponentially, so it looks like now we'll be taking a food tour day. Darn ;p

                  hot Doug's is a definate, I've been looking at his specials all week... yum

                  Chicago style dog is definate maybe Portillos maybe Wieners Circle

                  Chicacagoe style pizza ? not so much . I've hated every deep dish pie I've ever tried... sorry. But we did see the Chicago ep where Tony Bourdain loved Burt's, but it's hardly mentioned in these boards. If you can recomend some so highly, we'll try it : )

                  Thai: spoon, sticky or tac- this is difficult. We have 3 good thai places where we live, but no secret menus. But, hubby is Thai, so maybe just skip it????

                  Lao Sze Chuan sounds like the spot for some off the normal menu chinese

                  Ras Dashen for Ethiopian. I doubt there's an Ethiopian restaurant in the entire state of FL...

                  Bari for Italian sub with delicious meats

                  Blackbird for pork belly sand... maybe

                  Pastoral for chz fix. We ain't got squat here except the St Andre/Manchego "Gourmet Plate" I'd really love to eat some stinky cheeses that smell like my dog's ears.... ;)

                  The Argentinian meat market with cookies and empanadas sounds like it may fit into our "eat-a-thon" day

                  Al's#1 also, sounds like a hot beef dinner w/o mashed potatoes? only, on a sand?

                  Considering Sayat Nova or Salam- love Shwarma, but beef only-not lamb!

                  Pupuseria Cuscatleco found their menu ;sounds good

                  Mercat seems like the best option for tapas, maybe we can get some more people to join us and go in for suckling pig?? (hint, hint)

                  French-undecided. Campagne or Bistro 110?

                  Anyone know much about Jerry's Sandwiches? the menu is utterly bizarre, but intriging!

                  And finally, one last dinner: Publican, Mado or Hopleaf? I know they're all so different, but we have limited time and $ so we can't do them all!

                  Thanks for all your advice!!

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: crackedconch

                    And, I've just been informed to add Banh Mi to the list, so i'm thinking, maybe just a sandwich day to taste things?? Then we could check out jibarons as well...

                    I won't rule out renting a car, but we're trying not to, so might pass on the pierogi stop that needs a car, but I like the suggestion so if there's any closer in town...

                    1. re: crackedconch

                      Well, you could go to Kasia's Deli on Chicago for pierogi, Jerry's on Division for sandwiches, Bon Bon on North Avenue for Banh Mi, Borinquen on California for jibaritos, and Cemitas Puebla for cemitas. They're all relatively close to each other.

                      You might as well throw in Milk and Honey cafe on Division, too, for more sandwiches. Maybe even Cipollina on Damen, or Birchwood Kitchen on North Ave.

                      It just occurred to me that there's a beef place on North right around Bon Bon called Jay's, but I haven't tried it. There are also a lot of Mexican places in the neighborhood, too.

                      1. re: crackedconch

                        It looks like you've developed quite a list, but you might have trouble getting to even 10% of these places in less than a one-week stay. So which of the food items interest you the most might be important.

                        If you're looking for good breakfasts and staying downtown, I would stay away from M. Henry which is a long trip from downtown and not very close to the El. Instead, choose Bongo Room on Roosevelt (pretty close to the museum campus and as good if not better than M. Henry), Fox & Obel for breads/pastries (close enough to Michigan Avenue and on the way to Navy Pier) and Original Pancake House (near Oak St., not far from Michigan Avenue).

                        As far as hot dogs go, I find Gold Coast Dogs to be very ordinary. I think Portillo's makes a pretty good dog and an acceptable Italian beef and they have a location within a short walk from Michigan Avenue. Hot Doug's is great, but it's going to take you quite a while to get there from downtown (red or brown line to Belmont, Belmont bus west to California, walk 1/4 mile north). And if you go, expect to wait in line for 30 minutes if not more. Hot Doug's does great versions of a Chicago dog, but also features wonderful specialty sausages. hotdougs.com If you could make it to Hot Doug's, that should quench your desire for dogs and I wouldn't bother going to other places.

                        Pizza - Burt's is my favorite pizza place around, both for the crust and the freshest ingredients. But it is far from downtown so unless you're headed out to Evanston or Skokie or the northern suburbs, you should skip this. And maybe you just don't like deep dish pizza . . .so what. But if you want to find out for sure, there are Lou Malnati's and Pizano's locations downtown and both are also excellent. If you go, I recommend ordering with butter crust (shorter, a little crunchier). Malnati's and Pizano's are nearly identical, so it really does not matter which one you go to (they're owned by different members of the same family).

                        If you're looking for cheese or sandwiches, you have two good options downtown. My first pick is Pastoral which has a Loop location close to Millennium Park. I prefer to Fox & Obel for cheese and sandwiches, although F&O is still very good.

                        Garret Popcorn - Addictive - a guilty pleasure of mine . . . buttery and warm, hard to put down and good for snacking while walking around.

                        If you're doing Asian food, Lao Sze Chuan is very good, although I think Chicago is better when it comes to Thai food. My favorite place for Thai food is Spoon Thai, although TAC Quick is also outstanding and I'm also a big fan of Sticky Rice. Spoon Thai will bring you a copy of their translated Thai menu when you sit down, but you'll need to ask for it at TAC Quick. These spots are byo and there are liquor stores nearby for wine or beer. Some of my favorites at Spoon include the one bite salad, catfish curry custard, crispy pork with Chinese broccoli, shrimp paste fried rice w/ apples, sliced omelet and pork, banana blossom salad, fried chicken w/ tamarind dipping sauce, curries, beef jerky and mango w/ sticky rice. Spoon is inexpensive but quaint, friendly and in my opinion, one of the most hidden gems in Chicago. You should also know that it is not only better than Arun's, it is about 20% of the cost. Check out these links which include pictures of some of the food at Spoon Thai: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.... and http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

                        I would probably skip Ras Dashen. Don't get me wrong . . . I like it. But I don't think Ethiopian is one of Chicago's strong points.

                        Banh Mi sandwiches - I have 2 ideas here. First, my favorite spot for banh mi sandwiches is Nhu' Lan Bakery on Lawrence just west of Rockwell. They also have excellent croissants . . . some of the best in the city. If you go here, you'll be just a little over 1/2 mile from Kedie/Lawrence, which is where you'll find the majority of the middle eastern restaurants. I'd suggest a banh mi or 2 from Nhu' Lan, and then head to either Salam or Dawali (my preference) for either shawerma or falafel.

                        I know that Dawali uses a beef/lamb combo, but they also do chicken. I absolutely love the smoky baba ghanouj at Dawali, as well as the classic falafel sandwich. I think Dawali's classic falafel sandwich (which also holds roasted eggplant and potato) is the best falafel sandwich in town, and the freshly baked pita are also excellent, but everything here is good and the staff is extremely welcoming. Dawali is on Kedzie in a small strip mall about one block north of Lawrence.

                        Alternative two might be a stop at Tank Noodle (corner of Broadway/Argyle) for banh mi sandwiches and more. After sandwiches, head to Patisserie P for very good Chinese and French pastries, including excellent croissants. Argyle is a fun street to walk around with many Vietnamese, and some Chinese, restaurants and bakeries. My favorite Chinese restaurant in the city, Sun Wah, is here and a great place to stop for roast pork and duck. See these links to find out what I'm talking about: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.... and http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

                        French - My favorite spot is Le Bouchon. Bistro Campagne is also very nice, especially for outdoor dining. I'm not a fan of Bistro 110.

                        Tapas - I liked my one visit to Mercat quite a bit.

                        One thing you don't really mention is Mexican. What Chicago does better than most cities is Thai and Mexican - hence, my Spoon rec and now Mexican. Frontera Grill and Salpicon are both very good and close to downtown. Even better and easily accessible from downtown via the El is Mixteco Grill.

                        Just a few more notes: Hopleaf is excellent as far as pubs go, both in terms of food and beer. Publican too, although Publican is higher end. Avec is one of the best restaurants in Chicago although you can get out of there easily for under $50/person. Just note that it's loud, communal dining and you will wait (maybe a long wait). Blackbird is Avec's pricier, less casual sibling and the food is every bit as good as Avec.

                        1. re: BRB

                          I really appreciate your detailed reply!!!! Want to come to Key West? I'll totally point you in the right direction... :)
                          We are making our decisions based on all of your recs and the other hounds as well.
                          PS Still looking for Pupuserias and maybe Afghan -got it there?
                          Thank you so much!

                          1. re: crackedconch

                            There are a fair number of pupuserias in Chicago but not a lot really convenient by public transportation from downtown. If you follow BRB's route from Nhu Lan to Kedzie, you will pass Pupuseria y Restaurante Cuscatleco at 3125 W. Lawrence. There is a newer Salvadoran restaurant a couple of blocks east of Cuscatleco, but I do not have any information on it and have not had time to check it out. For more information see: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...
                            Note that Nhu Lan is a little over a standard block from the Rockwell Brown Line el station. Another pupuseria is Las Delicias at 3300 W. Montrose, a block west of Kedzie. See http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/food/2... for a bit about their 2007 move. There does not seem to a lot of coverage in the new location although early reports were that it was even better than when it was on Western Avenue.

                            Afghan Kabob at 4040 W. Montrose is not very public transportation friendly from the tourist district but is doable using the Montrose bus. This is about a mile west of La Delicias. The menu has expanded since some of the mentions in the LTHForum thread. http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

                      2. re: crackedconch

                        "French-undecided. Campagne or Bistro 110?"

                        Given these two I'd choose Campagne, but take a look at La Sardine or Le Bouchon (under same management), Both are closer than Campagne to downtown, and both provide, I think, a fairly authentic French-bistro experience.


                        And, oh yeah, sandwich only for Italian beef. No exceptions. Try the combo (w/ sausage) and if you go to Als on Taylor don't pass up Mario's across the street for Italian ice.

                        1. re: crackedconch

                          One last place if you have a car.....Cemitas Puebla

                          You probably have never heard of a cemita but it is out of this world....great place for lunch...you will not be disappointed.

                          1. re: crackedconch

                            I wouldn't exclude pizza just because you don't like Deep Dish...other places in the country that claim "Chicago-style" are not true Chicago style pizzas. The fat heavy crusts and uncooked sauce are usually two very important parts of the pizza imitators skip. Unless you've had one in Chicago, you haven't had a Chicago pizza.

                            Also, there is more to Chicago pizza than the traditional deep dish. On the South Side, they do a cracker thin crust "very well-done" Two places I like are The Original Vito & Nick's on Pulaski and Palermo's 95th in Oak Lawn. Like the traditional deep dish, these types of pizza are hard to find anywhere else in the country

                            http://midmichigandining.com/2009/02/... <--Vito & Nick's
                            http://midmichigandining.com/2008/10/... <--Palermo's 95th

                          2. Go to India by taking the Red Line subway north (direction Howard) to Loyola 20 min from downtown) then right outside station wait for Devon 155 bus and ask driver to call Western Avenue (10 min). When you get off, walk west (direction bus was going). Dozens of Indian and Pakistani restaurants offer an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Also there are many exotic shops selling Indian jewelry, clothing, gifts, CDs and videos, sweets, and groceries---very fine browsing.

                            1. I'd recommend the Beijing Duck at Sun Wah. $30 for enough food for four and spectacularly good. Take the Red Line to Argyle, turn right out of the station, first place on your right.

                              You can get great Banh Mi across the street and take them home with you. There's also great pho in the neighborhood, at Pho 777 and Tank, both near there.

                              At Hopleaf, get the mussels.

                              1. san soo gab san ---- korean bbq till 5am -- is awesum

                                cozy noodle - thai food ---crazy interior

                                ala turka --- nice turkish/middle eastern cuisine

                                pequod's for pizza

                                or Louisa's in the burbs- crestwood. best ever