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 six flavors, from truffle to garlic-parsley to "angry," topped with jalapeños, sriracha, giardinera, 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"—just $4—try the chocolate-banana number or a Nutella malt, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. My only complaint is those hours: 10:30 AM to 4 PM, Tuesday through Sunday. 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
I have a friend, a retired wildstyle tagger of some renown, who's convinced that the mainstream co-option of graffiti art is a sinister conspiracy to neutralize it as a medium of dissent and resistance. If he thought more about food, I wonder how he'd apply that theory to Bill Kim and Yvonne Cadiz-Kim's Belly Shack. With their industrial reclamation aesthetic, their skateboarding tributes, and their polyethnic "Chino-Latino" street-food synthesis, they present an analogy as stark and obvious as the crudely rendered slogans painted on the battleship-gray walls: Bill Kim cooks like a graffiti artist.
Since leaving the upscale and relatively restrained Le Lan, Kim has applied a palette of food traditions and flavors in jagged, animated spray-can swipes, creating dishes that are never subtle, frequently discordant, and often exhausting. Sometimes the pleasures are sustainable: I've previously snarked at his $4 saucers of kimchi, but the two varieties I've sampled at Belly Shack have made me a convert—brilliantly fresh and creative, each with a distinctive top note such as fennel or mint. His "hot & sour" soup (the menu's quotes) is in effect a pozole, brimming with chewy bits of chicken, hominy, and crunchy tortilla, with a funky hint of fish sauce to throw you off the trail. Like bulgogi? Kim offers the aggressively salty-sweet Korean BBQ Kogi, delivered with thick wedges of pitalike bread.
But in most cases he orchestrates a four-way war among salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, and none of them is ever the victor. Noodles and Vietnamese-style meatballs stuffed in more flatbread—is it a pho taco or a spaghetti-and-meatball sandwich? Either way, it's one starch too many. Oil-poached shrimp on cold somen in an oversweetened citrusy dressing are piled atop crunchy tortilla chips like a mushy, tentacular ceviche. A lemongrass chicken sandwich with toasted peanut and coconut blurs the boundaries between satay and banh mi with a tart, fishy sauce—Vietnamese nuoc cham, laying waste to every other sensation preceding it.
It seems like the only time flavors aren't rioting is when Kim makes offerings to vegetarian and gluten-free eaters, and then he goes too far the other way. The Boricua, his tribute to the Chicago-born jibarito, is two crispy (but greasy) planks of plantain sandwiching a vegan trifecta of asceticism: Chinese black beans, brown rice, and a thick slab of tofu. And the seasoning is submerged in a baby squash roasted with pho spices and stuffed with diced sweet potato.
Still, while I'm certain of my dislike for the physical environment of Belly Shack's dining room, which strikes me as designed to wow victims of turnip-truck accidents ("Naked particle board? We're not in Kansas anymore!"), I feel more ambiguous about what goes on in the kitchen: I'm not sure if it's art or vandalism. —Mike Sula
When Matt Fisher sold off Tallulah in August and chef Troy Graves began to focus all his energies on Eve, the restaurant jungle of Lincoln Square lost its most creative and interesting chef. I wouldn't say the void's been filled by Blackbird-Tru-Nomi vet Bradford Phillips, who's heading up the kitchen at LM for Drake Hotel alums Stephan and Nicole Outrequin Quaisser—the new place is a more classically oriented French contemporary spot—but it's a boon for the neighborhood anyway. The formerly cramped and awkward space has been brightened considerably, bathing in a warm amber glow filigreed classics like creamy sea-salt-dusted foie gras torchon or the clod of thymus glands my tablemate described as "fuck-you sweetbreads," delicious despite their alarming appearance.
A pair of soups (including thick, rich lobster bisque jazzed up with crispy beignets), a pair of salads, and you're free to negotiate a list of familiar entrees: whitefish, veal cheeks, seared scallops, grilled sturgeon, etc. These range from outstanding (a juicy pan-roasted poussin with chanterelles and bright green parsley-chive gnocchi) to bland (a tender grilled sirloin whose blanket of shallot jam couldn't rectify its lack of flavor). At dessert, a classic tarte tatin for two was unforgivably soggy, but a magnificent peanut butter cream and chocolate tart with honey mousse was luscious and the most surprising bite I tried. LM breaks no new ground, but in a neighborhood that rewards the unthreatening it's doing way better than it needs to. Still, I hope the Outrequin Quaissers will let Phillips stretch out a bit. —Mike Sula
New Too: Six more recent openings
660 N. State | 312-202-6050 | $$$$
ASIAN, JAPANESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: Thursday-Saturday TILL 11
What do you get when you drop the Kobe and other expensive steaks from Ajasteak? Answer: Aja, a more casual, less expensive concept that—as the name suggests—tweaks traditional Asian cuisines. The eye-candy-filled corridor of a room remains much the same, but the balcony that used to be the sushi bar was closed on my quiet weeknight visit. The helpful server told us our amusing amuse—a smoke-spewing bowl of lemongrass granite—would wake up our palates, and it might have if we'd managed to get the crystals onto the little wooden ice cream spoons. Next came delicious pickles—kimchi, baby carrots, green papaya, cucumber, pearl onions—followed by jars of house-made sauces to use on the food we ordered. Our one choice from the "snak-bar" lineup of sushi, ceviche/carpaccio, crudo, and warm dishes (some of them Ajasteak holdovers) was tuna ceviche; bedded on thinly sliced avocado, topped with julienne Asian pear, spiked with cilantro and mint, and coated with a lovely green chile-coconut dressing, it didn't need anything except less salt. From the dinner menu's "begin" section, a pair of authentic-tasting Korean omelets studded with lobster, scallions, and other vegetables outclassed meaty Duroc spare ribs in sweet-spicy glaze that were too fall-off-the-bone soft for my taste. Of our mains, the "big fish" disappointed, because the snapper wasn't especially big or crispy as promised, and the thin, tart black bean nam pla sauce seemed to be missing the black beans. Iron-seared, flattened teriyaki chicken (breast and thigh) on cut-up long beans strewn with tempura onions suffered from a dryness the teriyaki sauce couldn't hide. A twist on Oreos—fudgy cookies sandwiching white-chocolate mousse, served with a glass of milk—was a fun dessert, and sake sangria, a specialty cocktail with muddled lychees, tangerine, and maraschinos, got the meal off to a nice start. But the wait for the drink and appetizers made me wonder how well Aja handles a full house. —Anne Spiselman.
212 W. Van Buren | 312-408-2365 | $
MIDDLE EASTERN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
With its plywood accents on electric-green walls, flame-scorched lunch counters (seemingly attacked by blowtorches gone wild), and flat-screen TVs pumping out hip-hop, BenjYehuda vaguely resembles a set from Blade Runner. Nonetheless, the amiable counter folks serving up tasty chow from a menu that melds Israeli and Mexican street food quickly make the place feel like home. If you go with a friend, you can probably sample everything on the limited menu in one visit, though the vast range of condiments allows nearly endless variations. Add Jerusalem salad for minty freshness, baba ganoush for smoky notes, or the signature hot sauce for a capsaicin rush. Of course, any place seeking street cred must sell fine fries, and Benjyehuda’s are excellent, accompanied by a dipping cup of Merkts spreadable cheddar for over-the-top fat-on-fat deliciousness. Main events are steak, chicken shawarma and falafel. Both meats, minimally spiced, benefit from a peppery blast of salsa; the falafel is delectably crunchy, flecked with parsley, and actually tastes like chickpeas. You can order a "flight" of steak, chicken and falafel in adorable micro-pitas for $7.29, or try them singly in regulation pita, laffa (think burrito), or on romaine (for you carb counters). The cabbage and carrot salads are just fresh vegetables, sliced, minimally dressed, and delicious. Soups, which on our visit included tortilla and a somewhat leaden matzo ball, change regularly. For dessert, there’s churros and nothing else; make sure they’re fresh from the fryer. Prices drift toward the upper edge of mid-level for a lunchtime stop like this, though to paraphrase Lance in Pulp Fiction, when you try it, you’ll know where the money went.—David Hammond