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Best suburban Chicago restaurants: North/Northwest

An Uzbek teahouse, pizza that's graced the cover of Saveur, and Exhibit A in the case that the best Korean no longer exists in the city

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Barnaby's Northbrook | $$

960 Skokie
Northbrook, IL
847-498-3900
barnabysofnorthbrook.com

The Northbrook outpost of this once-mighty pizza chain—now significantly shrunk and Balkanized under separate ownership—banks on oceanic reserves of nostalgia among suburbanites of a certain age for its unique thin crust Master Pizzas. With their fluted edges and malty-tasting, cornmeal-dusted, paper-thin crusts, the pizzas can be ordered par-baked for takeout and freezer hoarding. These are top-heavy with tangy sauce, and the fennel-rich coarse ground sausage is a particularly exceptional topping. Despite the pizza's popularity, you'll see plenty of blistered cheese-topped bowls of French onion soup, half-pound Angus burger specials, chicken parm, and baked mostaccioli come over the counter. While the point of purchase system is awkward—order and pay for food at the cashier, do the same with the bartender, then wait for your name to be called to serve yourself—complimentary pimento cheese and Ritz crackers after 4 PM ease the hassle. —Mike Sula

Burt's Place | $$

8541 N. Ferris
Morton Grove, IL
847-965-7997

Ham radios, antique telephones, and oversize kitchen utensils decorate this spot situated on a quiet road in suburban Morton Grove and run since 1971 by owners Burt and Sharon Katz. The pizza leans toward Chicago-style deep dish but avoids the gut-busting mismatched proportions commonly found in that concoction: Burt's mid-deep is well balanced, with a tart tomato sauce that complements the fragrant sausage and good-quality mozzarella. The key, though, is the deeply caramelized crust, crisp with cheese and skating right up to burnt. Be advised that orders must be called in a day (preferably two or more) in advance. Seriously. There aren't many pizza places that can say they've been on the cover of Saveur, but Burt's can. Cash only. —Gary Wiviott

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Chaihanna | $

19 E. Dundee
Buffalo Grove, IL
847-215-5044

Chaihanna, often spelled choyhona, means "teahouse," and in Uzbekistan the teahouse is the center of social interaction. Ideally in a shaded outdoor setting near a stream, it's a place where folks—men, for the most part—while away the hours, drinking tea and snacking at leisure. That's hemispheres away from the soulless-looking suburban strip mall that houses Chaihanna, but inside, decorative touches like the gorgeous hand-painted blue and white dishes encourage a reasonable suspension of disbelief. And the pace is authentically relaxed. On a typical weekend night you'll find long tables filled with multigenerational parties sharing plates of kebabs, blintzes, lamb shanks, garlicky spiced eggplant, and pickled vegetables. Uzbek food is a cuisine of conquest and commerce, bearing the mark of the many ethnic groups that have passed through—or been forced through—the territory. Along with the majority Uzbeks, minority Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Tatars have overshadowed smaller but significant groups of Bukharan Jews (who emigrated en masse after the fall of the USSR) and even Koreans who were forcibly settled there by Stalin in the 30s. It's tempting to see those influences in foods like the pickled vegetables. The cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes aren't predominantly spiced by chiles, though they're heavily impregnated with other flavors—cumin, clove, garlic, dill—and the bracing, dissociative shock of fizzy, fermen­ted, salty watermelon reminds me of nothing so much as a thoroughly aged kimchi. The noodles Berrina in the meat soup laghman are related to the liang mien of the Chinese Muslim Uighur minority—that's lo mein to you and me. Turkish manti are small, ravioli-like beef dumplings, but the Uzbek versions here are supersize; one's stuffed with pumpkin and redolent of baking spices. Samsas are crispy, baked, meat-stuffed cousins to the Indian samosa. —Mike Sula

Cho Jung | $$

952 Harlem
Glenview, IL
847-724-1111

Cho Jung is Exhibit A in the case that the greatest quality and variety of Korean food no longer exists in the city. At this mom and pop, which got its start on Western and Peterson but relocated to a Glenview strip mall nearly a decade ago, there's a lot to love: a varying and generous selection of housemade panchan including unusual varieties not served anywhere else (chayote, eggplant, soy-infused hard-boiled egg); brown rice upon request; mountainous piles of fat, spicy, and chewy snails, shredded carrots, cabbage, zucchini, onions, and perilla leaves; huge plates of tofu, kimchi and pork belly (samgyeopsal bokkum); char-grilled pancakes bulging with fresh seafood (haemul pajeon); and much more. But the real strength are the soups and stews, from roiling soft bean curd soondubu jigae, enriched by a raw egg yolk, to the green-tea-scented oyster and seaweed soup, to the fiery pork neck stew, to the unusual, and perhaps original, beoseot tang, a three-mushroom bowl of deep beefy umaminess, spiced with peppery chrysanthemum leaves and perilla seeds. —Mike Sula

Chun Ju Restaurant | $

5707 W. Dempster
Glenview, IL
847-470-0066

Among foods in Korea said to improve virility (octopus, dog), goat seems to play a few more roles, at least according to posters on the walls at Morton Grove's Chun Ju, which tout it as a tonic for wrinkles, osteoporosis, circulation, liver, kidneys, and poor vision. (It's allegedly good for pregnant women and for stamina in the hot summer months too.) The specialty of the house here is jeuk suk yum so bok um, or goat stew, an exceptionally earthy tabletop meal (for two) that combines a huge pile of fresh wild sesame leaves and toasted seeds (with their own medicinal properties) with green onions and shreds of rich, gamy goat meat. The leaves cook down in a thickish, mildly spicy broth and mingle with the meat and vegetables. If enough of the cooking juices remain afterward, rice, kimchi, and bean sprouts are dumped in the pan and heated until crisp on the bottom; called nurungji, this is scraped and amalgamated with the rest of the rice and vegetables for a satisfying final course. There's a good selection of typical Korean noodle and rice dishes, soups, and stir-fries here, but the real attractions are the stews, which aside from goat include beef, pork, tripe, octopus, and monkfish. Panchan are good quality and include a terrific, chewy, raw pickled skate with shredded daikon (ask for hongeo hwe if it doesn't come immediately). Note: the menu is bilingual but the only identifying English outside says "Korean Restaurant." —Mike Sula

Edzo's Burger Shop | $

1571 Sherman
Evanston, IL
847-864-3396
edzos.com

My first thought was Edzo's Burger Shop is to burgers as Hot Doug's is to encased meat. And in fact Eddie Lakin purposely patterned his Evanston burger hut after Doug Sohn's renowned hot dog stand in certain respects—his cruelly limited hours, for example. But where Sohn is an innovator, Lakin's genius is in going back to the basics. His hamburger, ground daily and unmistakably fresh, is available in two forms: a thin griddled patty or a nice, fat charburger. The former's best in the form of a double; the latter's irresistible cooked medium rare. It's not all about the beef, though: a Maxwell Street-style Polish on a poppy-seed bun arrives piled with grilled onions and streaked with yellow mustard; its char is transcendent. Lakin, a chef who's worked at the likes of Tru and Nacional 27, did go hog wild with his hand-cut fries, which are available in flavors ranging from truffle to garlic-parsley to "angry," topped with jalapeños, sriracha, giardiniera, and buffalo sauce. But best of all might be the "old fries," crispy brown remnants perfect as a complement to Lakin's soft, decadent cheese fries (made with Merkts sharp cheddar spread). And don't skimp when it comes to the "$5 shake" (which is just $4). Try the chocolate-banana number or a Nutella malt, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. My only complaint is those hours. On one of my visits a couple plaintively asked Lakin whether he'd ever be open for dinner. Maybe when his kids are in college, he said. How old are your kids? one of them asked. One and four, he replied. —Kate Schmidt

Evanston Chicken Shack | $

1925 Ridge
Evanston, IL
847-328-9360
evanstonchickenshack.com

Once a month or so, I call in a lunch order at Evanston Chicken Shack. They offer fried chicken, fried fish, rib tips, and hot links, but I usually opt for five wings with salt and pepper, hot sauce on the side. After I drive it back to the office my old Hyundai smells of chicken fat and grease for a full week; crumbs have taken up permanent residence in the cracks of my hot-sauce-specked desk chair. Nestled among mounds of crinkle-cut fries, the wings are steaming hot even after a 15-minute car ride, thanks to careful packaging in a red-and-white cardboard box with the look of late 70s design. On the side is a tiny plastic container of terrible coleslaw. Apart from that my only complaint is with the hot sauce: more, more, I want more. —Seth Zurer

Inovasi | $$

28 E. Center
Lake Bluff, IL
847-295-1000
inovasi.us

It's a schlep out to Inovasi, John des Rosiers' two-year-old restaurant in Lake Bluff, but it's well worth it, and the Metra stop's a mere block from the place. A cozy wood bar welcomes you, offering craft cocktails and artisanal American whiskeys from makers like Noah's Mill and Prichard's. The extensive, reasonably priced wine list emphasizes smaller producers, many of them sustainable or organic; draft and bottle beers are all craft brews. The Prairie-style dining room features a semi-open kitchen, where des Rosiers works intently alongside two other chefs. He improvises his seasonal, sustainable menu with the help of his staff, changing about three to four dishes a week. It's divided into vegetable, meat, and seafood categories and reasonably priced, with most dishes under $13. The most expensive, at $22, is an Equus Oaks Farms Kentucky squab. Another option is a five-course, $48 tasting menu. A salad of local organic arugula and red oak lettuce stood out, served with hearty house-made bacon and slivers of fried ginger and shallots to complement a sesame vinaigrette. Don't skip the "inovacchia," cappuccino capped with thick goat's milk froth. —Kate Schmidt

Pollo Vagabundo | $

101 W. Grand
Northlake, IL
847-288-0713

When Carlos Payan opened his Northlake polleria nearly a decade ago, his menu was simple, with charcoal-grilled chicken in the style of "Durango y Chihuahua" as the draw. But over time he's supplemented this with a variety of burritos, tacos, and platillos, including specialties from his native Durango like deshebrada, shredded dried beef in tomatillo salsa, and his mom's guisado, a red beef-and-potato stew. He's also a stickler when it comes to extras, offering the handmade flour tortillas common in northern Mexico but hard to find here, in addition to handmade corn tortillas and gorditas. Most impressive of all, though, is his salsa bar, featuring 16 house-made varieties, six made fresh daily. The range is broad, but the differences between them can be minute: There's a simmered tomatillo-jalapeño and grilled tomatillo-jalapeño. There's raw, simmered, and grilled tomato, and one made from raw jalapeño that Payan smashes with a stone to maximize flavor and punch. His hottest is a brick orange habanero, jalapeño, and arbol combo. It's hard to resist ladling some of each and every one into a little paper cup, no matter what one's ordered or how much. —Mike Sula

Royal Malabar Catering | $

991 B Greenwood
Glenview, IL
847-998-5635

Over the years William George has fed high-ranking politicians and celebrated screen actors. But his bread and butter is supplying the working Keralite expats of Chicagoland with the everyday foods of their homeland, which include a remarkable variety of meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes flavored with a brilliant palette of spices—cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, chiles, garlic, ginger, coriander, and turmeric. In rough translation Kerala means "land of the coconut," and the meat of the nut finds its way into a great number of edibles, from the thin, almost translucent fermented rice flour pancakes called palappam to the chunky, fiery, beef fry to the family of dry-fried minced vegetable dishes known as thoran. For the most part George's cooking represents Kerala's Syrian Christian community, which is noted for brewing spicy stews from beef, chicken, fish, and mutton, typically eaten at breakfast with palappam. An alternative morning meal might include thinner, lentil-based vegetarian sambars, accompanied by coconut chutney, steamed fermented rice and lentil cakes called idli, and parippuvada, toothy deep-fried yellow split pea fritters seasoned with ginger, onion, curry leaf, red pepper, green chili, and fennel seed. Sour tamarind-flavored fish stews known as meen mouly are also common, as are coconut-based curries made with duck, mutton, chicken, or beef and a vegetarian dish called avial, a multitude of vegetables simmered in a creamy coconut and yogurt sauce. George is particularly well-known for his beef cutlets, gingery breaded deep-fried patties of minced meat, potato, onion, and garlic eaten with red onion salad. Carryout only. —Mike Sula

Tori Shin | $$

1584 S. Busse
Mount Prospect, IL
847-437-4590

The "master" at Tori Shin, located in a small strip mall near the intersection of South Busse and Dempster, is Toshio "Tony" Kaneko. He's been cooking there for 28 years; the restaurant's been open for business since 1976. It's a small space, with a bar and open kitchen opposite a handful of tables set under framed autographs from ballplayers like Kosuke Fukodome, the former Cub now with the White Sox. There's an English menu with a collection of appetizers, noodles, and sushi and sashimi specials, but the really interesting stuff is on a dry-erase board, written entirely in Japanese. Unless you can get Kaneko's full attention or read it yourself it can be tough to suss out what's what. But persistence—or simply pointing at what your neighbors are eating—pays off. You might get slices of ankimo, cold monkfish liver bathed in ponzu, or a hearty bowl of chicken liver and mushrooms stewed in sweet, slightly spicy miso. Kaneko has served up crystalline sweet potato noodles tossed with briny cod roe (harusame mentaiko) and fried smelts (shisyamo), their tiny bellies pregnant with eggs, along with skewers of grilled "black pig" pork belly (butabara kushiyaki) and, in the winter, plump oysters set atop fresh shiso leaves. On Friday nights the tables are usually filled with salarymen drinking, chatting, and snacking—a scene you won't find anyplace in the city. —Mike Sula

Wiener and Still Champion | $

802 Dempster
Evanston, IL
847-869-0100
wienerandstillchampion.com

In a city blessed with so many Vienna Beef hot dog stands, Wiener and Still Champion stands out, both for its attention to detail and its creativity. The fresh burgers and Chicago hot dogs are among the best of their kind, but it's the more unique offerings that make the trip to this unprepossessing storefront truly worthwhile. The signature item is the Dippin' Dog, a corn dog handmade to order. A large number of dipping sauces—including Argentine herb, garlic aioli, and curry ketchup, among others—go well with the Dippin' Dogs, as well as the hand-cut, double-fried, skin-on fries. And don't tell your cardiologist, but Wiener and Still Champion also offers some of the best country-fried bacon you'll find anywhere. If the owner, Gus, is in the house (as is usually the case) ask him about any off-menu items he may be working on—you're likely to be pleasantly, greasily surprised. Cash only. —Tom Keith

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