Whether you are visiting friends, or have friends / family visiting you in Chicago, I have done the work (food, dessert, hang out) so you can have a place to recommend and go.
As a big fan of sites like The Wirecutter, which chooses the very best item in a product category (ex. what is the best TV for me?), I wanted to create a similar guide for Kellogg students traveling into Chicago.
All the places below are those that I have personally eaten at over the last year (vast vast majority over the summer of 2015). There is also at special bonus Hanging Out guide at the very end of this post.
Some things to keep in mind: I am no food expert, and for the most part, I cannot tell good food apart. To me, it’s all just good. However, I will try my best to pick winners (denoted in bold, the first place mentioned in any category) in each category, though I likely have biases towards food that just tastes different and stands out to me. In terms of what to actually order at each, I will make notes when I remember something noteworthy, but for the most part, refer back to Yelp or explore!
How I chose places: I researched information from (mostly) Yelp, friend referrals, The Chicago Reader, and TripAdvisor, as well as guides like the Thrillist and just…Google search for “best of…”. Everything place here will be $25 per person or less unless explicitly mentioned. I preferred going to places that were less than $15 per person ($$ on Yelp).
BBQ / Ribs / Brisket
Smoque BBQ is the considered the best (including by Kellogg MMM and BBQ expert KJ Plank) by the general public. In addition, it’s cheaper than most places but conversely, it is not easy to reach by public transportation. I like the ribs here a lot, but not the brisket so much. Blackwood BBQ, on the other hand, offers tremendous brisket for a great price – you can even pick the fat level of the meat (I choose maximum), but that is all they sell. The location I visited in the Loop is only open for lunch, but there is another location that is open for dinner. Ha (my wife)’s favorite place in the category is Blackwood. Chicago Q sells all the BBQ meats you expect but is a bit expensive and the venue is a bit on the fancy side. Green Street Smoked Meats is a solid BBQ place in the West Randolph area, and while it has solid brisket, it is not the best option for any specific item. Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern (Old Town) is my wild card. It is actually quite famous and has a long history in Chicago. It does not look particularly fancy, and is where where Two Face shoots Officer Wurtz in The Dark Knight. Ha and I enjoyed our ribs (great sauce) at the bar and it was great thinking about that scene just a few feet away.
Wildberry Pancakes and Café is definitely our favorite for pancakes. It’s next to Millenium Park on Randolph, and if you try to get there after 9AM on a weekend, you will definitely wait over an hour (no reservations allowed). I really liked the Fat Elvis Waffles (peanut butter, er.. butter and banana) at Little Goat in West Randolph and the The Local Chicago is more of a standard, but good quality place that is a block away from the John Hancock Center.
Burgers / Hot Dogs
There are many burger options in Chicago, and adding an egg on top seems like the cultural must-have for any burger nowadays. If you want a true expert’s opinion, do ask Ray Su of Kellogg MMM, but my favorite is bopNGrill. People seem to love Au Cheval in West Randolph, and I have had it twice to confirm my suspicions. The burger there is good, but I think of it as the best possible version of a Big Mac (without the middle layer of bread). If you do go to Au Cheval, remember that the single burger is actually two patties. Ha’s favorite burger is the SmokeShack from Shake Shack in River North (opposite of Eataly). I felt that 25 Degrees’ burger was pretty standard, despite the reviews.
As for Hot Dogs, Chicago-style ones are served all over, but the one that I remember going to for that and its famous Italian Meat sandwich is Portillo’s Hot Dogs & Barnelli’s Salad Bowl. I have learned that I am not a fan of either Chicago-style Hot Dogs or the sandwich. The sandwich is served very wet and is thus, hard to grab onto and eat.
Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for you, I did go to the famous Hot Doug’s before it closed last year.
Usually when I see a place crown itself as best something, I think it is BS. However, Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Downtown Chicago really does have great wings. I was pleasantly surprised from my waiter’s recommendation. However, both Crisp (Lakeview, shown below) and Dak make excellent Korean-style wings, and you will not be unhappy with any of these three picks.
Chinese / Dim Sum
MingHin Cuisine (Chinatown) is generally considered the best reasonably affordable dim sum in the city; expect a 30 minute wait during peak times on the weekends. Its regular menu is perfectly fine as well. Furama Restaurant (Argyle) is closer to Evanston but not particularly good and despite strong reviews for Sun Wah Bar-B-Que (also Argyle), I did not like it at all (Ha disagrees). Lao Sze Chuan on Michigan Ave is the same place that exists in Evanston – great Sze Chuan (approved by Kellogg MMM and Sze Chuan / Sichuan province native Daniel Xu) cuisine.
Do people ever say, “I really want diner food today?” I am not sure, but Dove’s Luncheonette (the Fried Chicken is fantastic – it’s more like a fried chicken steak than a KFC bucket piece) is a great option in Wicker Park. The previously mentioned Little Goat is a good option as well.
I love fried chicken. There are plenty of places to get it, but I am actually fond of supermarket fried chicken, such as at Jewel Osco. 8 pieces for 7.99. But for a real establishment, check out The Roost Carolina Kitchen in Irving Park. There is also the Harold’s Chicken Shack chain throughout the Chicago area, which Derrick Rose loves. I have heard quality is inconsistent by location, which happens with any fast-food chain. The one I went to was just okay.
For those in Evanston who never venture outside the Downtown area, make sure to check out Chicken Shack before you leave Kellogg.
Indian / Nepalese
Cumin in Wicker Park has great food, but I also liked Ghareeb Nawaz. The former option is great for a night out, while the latter is great for no-frills, very cheap food. Bombay Wraps is a solid, fast-food style option in Downtown.
Picking Eataly Chicago in Downtown (opposite Shake Shack) is a bit of a cheat. It has a number of places within to choose from. While he preferred the NYC location, Italian (and Kellogg Exchange Student from IE Business School) Valerio Patrizi vouches for Eataly’s authenticity. For more of a sit-down restaurant, Ha and I enjoyed Quartino, which is also Downtown.
Japanese / Ramen / Other
Go to Wasabi in Logan Square if you like some serious Ramen. Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Downtown is a great option for cook-it-yourself BBQ, but gets quite expensive for dinner. Ha and I took advantage of its lunch deal.
Japanese / Sushi
While not a sit-down place, Osaka Sushi Express & Fresh Fruit Smoothies is Ha’s pick – it has the best cost / quality value proposition and is located near Grant Park, Downtown. For more of a true social dinner experience, Sunda in Downtown is a great alternative, but will get pricey. Ha and I could only do the lunch special there. Kabuki Japanese Restaurant in Lincoln Park was just ok for me, but is BYOB (Bring Your Own Beer).
Gogi is the winner in this category by default (although I guess I could have included Dak and Crisp from the chicken wings section), but it is an excellent choice for Korean BBQ, having tried it myself and with it frequently visited by my Kellogg KWESTIE Jihyung Kim.
Mexican / Tacos / Burritos
L’ Patron Tacos is my favorite Taco place in the city – its taste really stood out for me. La Pasadita is a Chicago tradition and was well regarded in Five Thirty Eight’s Best Burrito in the United States competition, but I wasn’t a big fan – I felt the burrito was a bit salty. Ha loves Big & Little’s Restaurant (Belmont) for its fusion tacos and soft-shell crab Po’Boy (below), and also likes Taco Joint, especially for its Chile Mango Margarita.
Middle Eastern / Mediterranean
Here are some other places that I cannot quite categorize, but want to mention anyway, good and bad. The ones I recommend are in BOLD.
- Beatrix – a good “American” restaurant. I do not know how else to describe the food, but very solid.
- Bruges Brothers – despite the commotion and long lines over its Duck Fat fries during Taste of Chicago, I was not particularly impressed.
- Dia De Los Tamales – tried a tamales during Taste of Chicago, nothing special.
- Feed (Southern) – great roasted chicken.
- Cafecito (Cuban Sandwiches, Downtown)
- The Purple Pig – this place is very, very, popular, but I think it’s overrated and a bit expensive ($30 per person before drinks). Everyone loves the bone marrow here, but I suspect that these are people who did not grow up eating much bone marrow. I did, however, thus $15 for a bit of bone marrow seems excessive.
- Garrett Popcorn Shops – shops are all over Downtown, very good popcorn, a Chicago treat!
- Pierogi Heaven (Polish, Downtown) – Ha really liked this. I am more neutral but would give it another try.
- Chick-fil-A / McDonald’s – I do not think I need to comment much on these. You likely have an opinion already.
Although we seem to be in the minority on this, Giordano’s is both Ha and my favorite deep dish pizza. You do not need to go to Chicago for this, of course, as both Giordano’s and Lou Malnatti’s have locations in Evanston. The Art of Pizza is another good option, and for thin crust pizza, Ha and I are big fans of Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, which again, has a location in Evanston.
Kellogg friends Nancy Lee and Matt Shin introduced us to Aroy Thai Restaurant and even after trying out other city favorites in Opart Thai House Restaurant and Sticky Rice, I feel Aroy Thai to be the best.
I should know Vietnamese food well, having grown up in a Vietnamese household and spending over 7 years as an adult in the country, but I cannot really recommend any specific Vietnamese place for Pho. They are all pretty similar to me, and not necessarily better or as good as anything in Vietnam or in Vietnamese-dense areas like San Jose. That said, I really like Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) and che (dessert dish) at Ba Le Bakery. Other places I have tried for various dishes include: Little Vietnam, Le’s Pho, Tank Noodle Restaurant (Tank is the most well known place, with a great corner location), Little Vietnam, New Asia, Pho Viet, and Nha Hang Viet Nam. Ha is a Pho-elite, able to break down how different Pho broths are made and feels that most of the Pho’s in Chicago have too much MSG.
Desserts / Sweets
Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park is definitely the favorite in the city, while Ha LOVES the Passion Passion Passion cupcake at More Cupcakes (Downtown). We enjoyed Ms Tittle‘s Cupcakes at The Taste of Chicago, and Sprinkles Cupcakes is known for its cupcake ATM machine, but is not unique to Chicago.
Finding the best donuts became my personal passion over the summer, with Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken winning as my personal pick. Do-Rite also makes a highly regarded fried chicken sandwich. Glazed & Infused Doughnuts / Glazed & Infused Doughnuts and The Doughnut Vault are great options that I liked, but The Doughnut Vault almost always runs out before 12PM. Stan’s Donuts & Coffee is a popular stop around Chicago, but I did not like it as much as the others.
Ice Cream / Other Desserts
I liked the unique flavors at Black Dog Gelato (ex. Goat cheese cashew caramel), but Mindy’s Hot Chocolate is where to go if you are “MBA rich” and really want to have high-end dessert. Worth trying at least once. Other good options are Margie’s Candies / Margie’s Candies (there’s two) and Lickity Split Frozen Custard.
This is a bonus section, as after all, after you eat, there should be something to do! I am not a big bar or club person, thus this section is a bit weak, but I do want to mention two places that I enjoyed, beer arcades, where you can play games and have a drink (without the juvenile experience at Dave and Buster’s).
Both Logan Arcade and Headquarters Beercade River North are highly recommended. Logan Arcade has Killer Queen, of which less than 10 machines exist in the world. It’s a 5 on 5 (required, not optional) team battle game that is hard to describe but easy to pick up. Only .25 cents to play and the community around the game is great. I came with a bunch of friends (not quite 5), and the other players were generous about teaching us the game and letting us play for free. It is very addictive.
Beercade, on the other hand, is Downtown and most of its arcade and pinball games are free. Thus, you can buy a drink and just relax and play whatever you want. Ha loves Pinball and can handle very little alcohol, thus she became a very cheap date here.
If you have questions about any of these places or would like to add your own recommendations, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, enjoy and I hope this guide helps!