When you walk into Mekato’s Colombian Bakery, you might think they only sell sweets; between all of the dulce de leche-stuffed alfajores, cookies and pastries, you wouldn’t be too far off. But take a look to your immediate right, and you’ll see a small heated box, containing sausages, fried empanadas and arepas. These thin, narrow, griddled corn cakes are jammed with corny, salty flavor, and if you like, you can also get them topped with a thin layer of cheese. Grab a tropical fruit drink from behind the counter, sit at one of the small tables in the front window, and think how lucky you are to live in a city this delicious and diverse.
Ever since Oiistar opened at the end of 2012, the regulars have been talking about owner Sunny Yim’s ramen: the imported Japanese noodle machine, the crazy amount of time (18 hours) it takes to make his pork stock, the abnormally potent level of heat each bowl brings. But just as interesting – and perhaps, more telling of his influence here – are the pork buns, which bear an uncanny resemblance to another ramen-and-pork-bun joint in New York City’s East Village. K-Chang.
Like barbecue restaurants in the ‘burbs, it seems there is no limit to how many burger joints one city can sustain. In Chicago, The Paramount Room has always offered food that aspires to (and reaches) new heights, despite its outward appearance as just another late night lounge. Their craft beers are as good as anywhere, save the Map Room or The Hopleaf, and even when it comes to burgers, they overachieve. Their fatty-rich wagyu, draped with melted cheese, served on a grilled brioche bun that’s been slathered with “secret” sauce is one of my favorites.
In terms of Guatemalan food in Chicago, the first thing most caucasians probably think of is Pollo Campero, the Central American-born, international chain of fried chicken shacks with cult-like fans. But for nearly 20 years, the tiny kitchen at El Tinajon in Roscoe Village has been pumping out Guatemalan classics as well. One of the most significant culinary achievements is the tamale; yet unlike its South American or Mexican cousins, these tamales differ in texture, filling and even the vessel within which they steam.
Naf Naf Grill has quietly been taking over Chicago’s fast food Middle Eastern niche. It started in Naperville – the result of a former Taboun cook’s passion for fresh pita and juicy-as-hell chicken shawarma – and has now spread to Niles, Aurora and thankfully, The Loop. They’ve whittled down the menu to the essentials: falafel, shawarma, kebabs and chicken schnitzel, the latter a dish every Israeli child grows up eating. You can get them in a freshly-baked pita or over rice. That’s about it. The schnitzels are crispy outside, and exude the tender juiciness that is the hallmark of a well marinated and seasoned thigh, lightly coated and fried at the proper temperature. The toppings – including pickles, purple cabbage and a tahini-less Jerusalem salad – also make this sandwich truly unique. (Big thanks to Todd Rosenberg, @toddrphoto, for the fine videography this week).
Takashi Yagihashi’s profile has been given a boost over the last few weeks, thanks in part to his appearance on “Top Chef Masters.” One of the friendliest chefs in the business, he returned to Chicago several years ago (after stints at Tribute in Farmington Hills, MI and Okada at The Wynn Las Vegas) to open his namesake in Bucktown. Problem was, fine-dining – especially for a style of cuisine that could only be described as Asian with French technique – was on the wane. Enter Slurping Turtle in River North. Since his more casual ramen and yakitori spot opened last year, seats have been tough to find and demand for his ramen has exploded. So much so, that he dropped the popular Sunday ramen menu at Takashi, and now just focuses his efforts downtown (as well as at the Takashi Noodles kiosk on the 7th floor of Macy’s). One of my favorites is the tonkatsu ramen, which features hunks of pork in a silky, rich porky broth. The noodles are made for the restaurant elsewhere – to the chef’s specs – but they are nonetheless wonderfully chewy and taught. This is a dish you can eat anytime, but especially on an overcast, autumn afternoon in a sweater.