Chicago's most essential and hottest restaurants get all the buzz, but what about the places flying under the radar? Instead of chasing the latest openings, discover some hidden gems. These neighborhood favorites stand toe-to-toe with the city's finest and deserve recognition too. They span a variety of different specialties, from Kurdish and Garifuna cooking to tamales and Philly cheesesteaks, and are as reliable as can be so Chicagoans would do well to try them out. Listed in alphabetical order.Read More
20 of Chicago's Most Underrated Restaurants, 2018 Edition
Sometimes the tastiest foods are hidden in plain sight
1. Al Bawadi Grill
One of the best Middle Eastern restaurants is located right outside city limits in Bridgeview. The festive interior is a sight to behold and complemented by an array of wood-grilled kebabs, seafood, and vegetarian options. Be sure to try the traditional Arabian coffee with cardamom as well; it delivers a real kick.
2. Alegrias Seafood Chicago
Delicious seafood doesn’t have to break the bank. This Mexican spot serves affordable platters of prawns, langoustines, lobsters, crab legs, and more. They’re cooked Nayarit-style in a variety of different sauces. Bring companions in order to sample everything and don’t forget to take advantage of the restaurant’s BYOB policy.
3. Aloha Eats
Believe it or not, Hawaiian cuisine consists of more than just poke. Head to this Lincoln Park cafe to discover other island favorites, such as curry chicken katsu, loco moco, and Spam musubi. With affordable prices and substantial portions, it’s no surprise that Aloha Eats has become a neighborhood standby.
The Green Exchange, a sustainable retail and office building, is home to one of the most unique dining experiences in Chicago. By day, Arbor is a café that sells baked goods, grain bowls, salads, and sandwiches, but at night it becomes an elevated restaurant. Instead of a set menu, the kitchen creates a Midwestern omakase tailored to each individual’s tastes. Reservations can be made by texting the restaurant directly.
It doesn’t garner as much attention as contemporary trattorias or the institutions on Taylor Street, but Bacchanalia is essential Italian dining all the same. The family-run restaurant has been whipping up authentic “old country” recipes for close to four decades. They include reliable versions of seafood pasta, chicken Vesuvio, gnocchi, veal piccata, and more. Save room for a cannoli at the end and bring some bills because it’s cash-only.
6. BBQ Supply Co.
Owner and pitmaster Jared Leonard has been quietly smoking quality barbecue on North Side over the past seven years. The meats are rubbed with a secret blend of seasonings and slow-cooked over wood-burning fire. The restaurant also offers BBQ 101 classes to help aspiring chefs become seasoned masters. A second location in Hyde park opened in 2017.
7. Buona Terra
Housemade pastas, reasonable prices, and a cozy atmosphere have made Buona Terra the kind of family-run trattoria that every neighborhood needs. On Thursdays, the $28 three-course prix fixe includes the choice of any appetizer, entrée, and dessert on the menu. It’s a steal for bargain hunters and Italian food lovers alike.
8. Calabria Imports
Just like a beloved nonna, this deli/restaurant comforts guests with a host of red sauce favorites. Try the Original Freddy (sausage patty, sweet peppers, mozzarella, red sauce) or the Mickey (eggplant and breaded steak combo, mozzarella, red sauce) sandwiches. Then pick up some groceries on the way out and make an Italian feast for friends and family.
9. Da Rae Jung
This mom-and-pop Korean spot is easy to miss but worth seeking out. The small space means there’s often a wait for a table, where diners can cook a number of soups on portable gas burners. For the uninitiated, get the budae jjigae. It’s a popular sausage stew teeming with pork, ham, sausage, tofu, cheese, ramen noodles, and more.
10. Garifuna Flava
The only Garifuna restaurant in Chicago gets a stamp of approval from Guy Fieri and Caribbean food enthusiasts. The menu is chockfull of unique staples, such as Belizean stew chicken, hudut, and conch fritters. The must-try dish, though, is the gumbo-like conch soup. It’s comprised of shellfish with potatoes, carrots, peas, cassava, onions, and peppers.
11. Golden Bull
Chinatown is brimming with intriguing dishes. Exhibit A: Golden Bull’s home-style cooking, which extends beyond the scope of typical American Chinese fare. Pan-seared steak and jumbo steamed oysters are best sellers, but dig deeper to find specialties like beef tongue in XO sauce, jelly fish, and fried pigeon as well. And because the restaurant is open until 1 a.m., those staying out late can end the night with a hearty rice casserole.
12. The Gundis Kurdish Kitchen
The city’s first dedicated Kurdish eatery opened in 2017, providing Chicagoans with a fresh spectrum of flavors. The recipes draw inspiration from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines so expect plates of lamb shank, eggplant stew, sac tava — a traditional stir fry — and more. Or swing by in the morning for a lavish breakfast spread that includes soft scrambles and an assortment of side dishes.
When venerable Hot Doug’s closed up shop in 2014, Chicagoans were left with a sausage-shaped hole in theirs hearts. Fortuantely, two former line cooks — Juan Carlos and Octavio Garcia — decided to carry on Doug Sohn’s legacy with their own restaurant. This worthy successor boasts a similar menu and even uses the same sausage purveyor as Hot Doug’s so fanatics can still enjoy a rich foie gras dog.
14. Isla Pilipina
Filipino cuisine is underrepresented in Chicago but Isla is a standout that makes up for its scarcity. Classics like lumpia, pancit, and lechon are well executed while colorful halo-halo is a refreshing finish to every meal. Stop in during weekday lunch hours for specials that’ll satisfy both the stomach and wallet.
15. Mini Hut
Often overlooked in the debates over the city’s best fried chicken is this no-frills, hole-in-the-wall shack on the Southwest Side. The chicken is brined overnight and dredged in a secret butter-flavored breading. Call ahead: It takes 20 minutes to pressure fry but it’s well worth the wait.
Brotherly love has never tasted as good as it does at this Lincoln Square bar. Philadelphia natives James Gottwald and Jennifer Monti set the standard for cheesesteaks in Chicago with their irresistible sandwiches. The bread is sourced from Amoroso’s and the menu offers variations like “The Rocky,” a fiery combination packing onions, smoked provolone, jalapeno, scotch bonnet, charred Serrano, and spicy mayo.
17. Nhu Lan Bakery
Argyle Street is the recognized mecca for Vietnamese dining in Chicago. It’s a bit of a revelation, then, that the best banh mi is being made in Lincoln Square. Nhu Lan’s sandwiches, a French-influenced Vietnamese staple, are a paragon of the form. On the house special, a freshly baked baguette comes loaded with pate, headcheese, ham, fried pork sausage, and the usual accoutrements. Feeling extra hungry or looking to sample multiple sandwiches? Purchase five and receive the sixth for free.
18. Uncle Joe's Tropical Dining
Everyone needs an uncle who makes jerk chicken as tasty as this Cottage Grove restaurant. The tropical setting and mellow vibes go hand in hand with the kitchen’s authentic Jamaican cooking. Dig into jerk fish, curry goat, oxtail, and, of course, chicken that’s been rubbed with a blend of spices.
The sights and smells of Devon Avenue can be overwhelming for those who are unfamiliar so sticking with where the locals eat is always a smart decision. This Indian spot features vegetarian fare from both the north and south regions of the country. Even carnivores will find bites to enjoy, such as masala dosas — crepes stuffed with lentil and rice — and samosa chaat, a fried pastry topped with chickpeas, potatoes, yogurt, and chutney.
20. Yvolina's Tamales
Tamales might seem simple but it takes a true craftsman to produce great ones. Mother and daughter Marcelina and Yvonney Hernandez fit that bill as their shop presents a fine selection of masa delights. These homemade tamales are filled with everything from chicken and pork to soy and eggplant. Some are smothered in mole, yet they’ll all have guests coming back for more.