Stephanie Izard shook up the Chicago dining scene in 2010 with the nose-to-tail menu at her debut restaurant, Girl & the Goat, and its follow-up, Duck Duck Goat. Here she shares tips for finding the best international fare in the city.
I moved here almost 20 years ago, and at the time restaurants were divvied up into two categories. There was super-fine dining — Charlie Trotter’s, Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill (entrées $20–$36), Paul Kahan’s Blackbird (entrées $33–$42) — and then there were the Chicago staples: hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches and deep-dish pizzas. It’s a stereotype, but only 20 years ago that was pretty much everyday eating.
Charlie Trotter was the first person who got the rest of the world to recognize Chicago for fine dining. Since then, Grant Achatz has carried that torch, and world-renowned places like his restaurant Alinea (tasting menus from $190) have drawn attention to the city in general. Now people visit Chicago just to eat, and restaurants have become a huge part of the city’s culture.
When we were getting ready to open Girl & the Goat (entrées $13–$26), some people seemed a little nervous that diners wouldn’t want to eat duck tongues and pig faces. And I thought, Well, they taste good, so why not? Now diners are a lot more adventurous, and so many chefs are putting interesting things on menus. Chicagoans cringe when outsiders think this city is only about deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.
To me, one of the coolest things about Chicago has always been the international food. This city has a long history of immigration, and there are pockets where different groups have settled and opened amazing restaurants. We have a Koreatown and a Chinatown, and all the great Indian restaurants are on Devon Avenue. Little Village is one of the best areas for tacos, and my absolute favorite spot there is Taqueria El Milagro (entrées under $10). Both the steak and lengua tacos are amazing.
I spent a lot of time in Chinatown before opening Duck Duck Goat (entrées $13–$22). In that neighborhood, Sze Chuan Cuisine (entrées $6–$30) is awesome — especially the mapo tofu. And Ghareeb Nawaz Restaurant (entrées $4–$7) has Pakistani-Indian food that always hits the spot. I love the chile-chicken biryani, and I’m always inspired by all of the different kinds of parathas.
It used to be that when you went to one of those restaurants, the patrons would just be people from that background. When I was a line cook, we’d go to this great Korean place, San Soo Gab San (entrées $10–$35), and we would have to bring someone who could communicate with the servers. Now it’s packed with people from all over.
I think what sets Chicago apart is its small-city charm, which carries over into our restaurants. Yes, there’s good food in New York and San Francisco, too, but when you look at the hospitality side of things, Chicago beats everyone. It’s a city full of friendly people, and from the moment you walk into a restaurant, there’s a genuine warmth that you don’t always see in other places.