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Chicago's Absolute Best Restaurants

Home, Swede Home
Chicago is among the world's great breakfast towns, from the legendary double-yolk eggs at Lou Mitchell's to enormous soul-food feasts at Army & Lou's, from cheese pierogi at Orbit to satellite-dish-size German apple pancakes at Walker Bros., from peppered bacon at Zinfandel to cheese grits at Wishbone. First among equals is the old-line Swedish-American diner Ann Sather (929 Belmont Ave.; 773/348-2378; breakfast for two $20), famous for ultra-thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, lethally caloric cinnamon rolls, Swedish potato sausages, and Swedish potato pancakes with Swedish meatballs on the side. The original location, a few blocks south of Wrigley Field, draws a notoriously diverse crowd, ranging from blue-haired matrons to blue-haired punk rock kids, but I like the branch next door to the Swedish-American Museum in the Andersonville neighborhood (5207 N. Clark St.; 773/271-6677), decorated with paintings out of old Swedish children's books.

Too Rich and Too Thin
If you own an NFL franchise, a Gulfstream IV jet, or a case of '82 Pétrus, Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773/248-6228; dinner for two $200) may well be your favorite restaurant in the world. A coolly handsome dining room in a Lincoln Park town house, Charlie Trotter's is famous for its multicourse tasting menus, as exquisitely choreographed as a Jerome Robbins entré small, precise fragments of organic game and produce arranged like jewels on enormous white plates are served by waiters who lovingly explain the provenance of each shred of leek.

The wine list is dictionary-size, but most people trust the sommelier's choices for wine by the glass. And while a meal here (there are four set menus that change nightly) may cost a cool hundred clams, tax, tip, wine, and coffee not included, Trotter's virtuosity is unequaled in this part of the country.

His startling juxtapositions of luxury ingredients—a teaspoonful of peekytoe crab, say, garnished with slivered Granny Smith apples; a pickled artichoke heart and a Malpeque oyster, glazed with pungent Lucini olive oil and served on peppery artichoke purée—may be the closest thing in the food world to an infinitely complex Fabergé egg.

Frank Discussion
Pizza may be Chicago's most famous food, but the hot dog is more emblematic, a living, steaming exemplar of the city's working-class culture. The laws of the Chicago dog were as rigorously taught in my parents' household as the Ten Commandments. A Chicago hot dog must be a slender, Vienna Beefbrand skinless frank, steamed to sort of a medium crunch; never fried, never grilled, never boiled in beer. The dog must be served on a warm, steamed bun, perhaps sprinkled with poppy seeds for a little added flavor, but never so soggy that it falls apart. Mandatory condiments are yellow mustard, freshly chopped onion, and a peculiar sort of bright-green relish that looks as if it might have secondary utility as a love lube for space aliens. If somebody tries to pass off a hot dog with ketchup on it in Chicago, I believe the Cook County charter allows you to shoot that person dead.

Garnishes include—must include—two wedges of unripe tomato, a new-pickle spear that runs the length of the bun, and a hot sport pepper or two leaking spicy vinegar. The final touch is a lashing of celery salt, generally enough of the stuff to sizzle around your fillings, but not so much that you actually sneeze. A Chicago dog is one of the great dishes of American cuisine.

Some people assume this dog has had its day. Famous stands now supplement their menus with chili dogs, fire dogs, and charred Polish dogs with cheese. The food section of the Chicago Tribune seems to favor Lincoln Park's funky late-night Wiener's Circle (2622 N. Clark St.), best known for its charred red-hots and beloved trash-talking countermen. The paper's emeritus dining critic touts the hot dogs at the Billy Goat (430 N. Michigan Ave.), a place more famous for cheeseburgers and the late Mike Royko's patronage. This is a little like discovering that the pope leads Baptist tent revival meetings in his spare time—and that the Jesuits think it's really no big deal.

But the original Byron's (1017 W. Irving Park Rd.) is a raffish traditionalist tucked under the El tracks. Superdawg (6363 N. Milwaukee Ave.), with giant hot dogs dancing on the roof, garnishes its franks (not Vienna Beef brand) with fifties ambiance and carhop service. Gold Coast Dogs (159 N. Wabash Ave.) has exemplary classic hot dogs (as well as Chicago's best cheese fries). Just off the Magnificent Mile, it's the only even passable hot dog within walking distance of downtown hotels.

Still, Fluky's (6821 N. Western Ave.), a cafeteria-style restaurant that was, not incidentally, my dad's high school hangout, continues to serve the best hot dog in Chicago: a steamy thing with a snap not unlike a plucked cello string and a heavenly rush of garlicky juice.

The Dish on Deep-Dish Pizza
There may be as many theories about deep-dish pizza as there are Chicagoans: Pizza must either be ordered when a restaurant is crowded (because the oven temperature will be right) or when the restaurant is deserted (to ensure proper attention to your pie). Sausage must be laid in thick, wide slabs, for heft, or crumbled, to let the heat circulate within the pie. Tomato sauce must be smooth or it must be chunky; a double crust is either essential to the crunch of the pizza or a crime against nature. The only things that almost everyone seems to agree on are that deep-dish pizza takes time—at least 45 minutes—and that it must be baked in a battered black iron pan.

The editors at Chicago magazine are so bored with the pizza debate that they included things like Bosnian flatbread in their last survey. Having revisited most of the famous deep-dish pizzerias myself recently, I can tell you this: Chicago pizza isn't what it used to be.

My first pie, at the dim, fragrant Pizzeria Uno (29 E. Ohio St; 312/321-1000), where Chicago pizza was invented more than half a century ago, was barely warmed through and had a hard, sweet, dry crust that tasted like week-old cake. The pizza at Giordano's (5159 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773/582-7676), swamped with melted cheese, was marginally better, but the vaunted double crust was soggy. Edwardo's famous spinach-pizza soufflé had all the appeal of frozen supermarket lasagne. Gino's East (160 E. Superior St.; 312/943-1124) served a cheesier version of the basic Uno pie, while Lou Malnati's (6649 N. Lincoln Ave.; 847/673-0800) had a meatier, though drier, variation. (I suspect that Chicago pizzas used to contain way more fat in the crust; the flaky crusts I remember from childhood tasted almost as if they'd been fried in oil.)

So I developed a survival plan: If the crust is basically uninteresting, order pizza with lots of stuff on it. And the next two pies I tasted, with everything, at Pizzeria Due (619 N. Wabash Ave.; 312/943-2400), the sister restaurant to Uno, and Malnati's, founded by a longtime employee of Uno, were just fine.

Are These the World's Best Ribs?
What do we mean when we talk about "Chicago ribs"?Are we referring to the soft, bland spareribs at Twin Anchors (1655 N. Sedgwick St.; 312/266-1616), the fragrant Old Town family restaurant that serves as a shrine to both Frank Sinatra (who reputedly loved the place) and the Cubs?Could we mean the barbecue at Biasetti's (1625 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773/281-4442), a dark steak house near Wrigley Field (and the favorite of public-radio phenomenon Ira Glass), with lousy pasta, passable steaks, lounge singers on weekends, and remarkable racks of honey-sweet baby back ribs?Or do we mean—God forbid—the stuff charred to order in back-yard-style kettles at the suburban Weber Grill?

Carson's Ribs (612 N. Wells St.; 312/280-9200), a white-tablecloth chain restaurant that may be as famous for its chopped liver as for its barbecue, has won almost every rib poll ever conducted in Chicago: its sweet, tender slabs of baby-backs, a little crunchy, almost caramelized, are chewier than you might expect from expense-account barbecue. If your definition of barbecue is on the liberal side, you won't find better barbecued chicken than the smoky, allspice-rubbed jerk chicken at the Southside Jamaican restaurant Tropic Island Jerk Chicken (1922 E. 79th St.; 773/978-5375), and there's even a drive-through window.

But Chicago is most notably a world capital of cosmopolitan, intensely spiced African-American barbecue, a style that is to uptown 'cue what Château Lafitte is to watery domestic red. And even among the hundreds of barbecue stands on the Southside, Lem's (311 E. 75th St.; 773/994-2428; take-out only) is just astonishing, a forties shack, all glass and tile, whose tall, rusted chimney puffs hickory smoke into the troposphere. (I wouldn't be surprised if astronauts could smell Lem's from the space shuttle.)

Of course, the ambiance at Lem's is somewhat different from that of Charlie Trotter's. The interior is sheathed in grease-filmed bulletproof glass, and beverages come from a vending machine. The neighbors may not always seem entirely glad to see you. But the spareribs are worth any amount of fuss, falling off the bone in lean, leathery smoke-reddened strips that have almost the chaw of jerky, and the sauce has tempted better men than you and I to gnaw the flesh right off their fingertips.

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