Omnivorous columnist Mike Sula knows what he likes—and what he doesn't. A good plate of chivo, a well-made cubano, an epicurean feast from the sea? All good. Budweiser foam, all-you-can-meat, stripper poles? No thanks. Here are his picks for the best new Chicago restaurants so far this year, from the humble but heartwarming storefronts that sustain so many of us to the upscale restaurants that continue to make this town a culinary mecca.
We also solicited picks from Sula and other critics for additional noteworthy new spots; you'll find full reviews of these online at chicagoreader.com/notablerestaurants08. And for tips on some promising places so new we can't even review them yet, see our sidebar on where the new star chefs are heading on their nights off.
Birrieria Zaragoza Juan Zaragoza learned to make birria from a master: Miguel Segura, who runs the venerable Birrieria Miguel at the market in Zaragoza's native town of La Barca, Jalisco. Birria is a regional Jalisciense variant of the more widespread barbacoa, meat traditionally slow-cooked in a pit. Originally goat was wrapped in pencas de maguey, or agave leaves, set over a vessel to collect the drippings, and buried in an underground pit, where it steamed for hours over hot wood-fired rocks, absorbing the essence of the leaves. When finished it was portioned and served either added to a consomme made with the drippings or seca ("dry"), with consomme on the side. These days ovens have replaced the pits.
Zaragoza goes through five to seven young goats in a weekend, seasoning the meat with kosher salt before gently cooking it in a sealed steamer on a stovetop for up to six hours. Unlike most birrieros, he makes his consomme, which is tomato based, without drippings; it's a method he learned by videotaping Segura's wife, and it results in a clean broth without the fat and excessive saltiness that can ruin a plate of chivo. After steaming, he lightly applies an ancho-based mole to the meat and transfers it to an oven. He's hired Guanajuato native Maria Guadalupe Jungo to come in a couple times a week to make tortillas on a mesquite wood press he brought back from La Barca. When these are freshly pressed and heated on the grill until slightly puffed, they're an exquisite vehicle for the goat, lightly drizzled with the consomme and garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime. Breakfast Sat-Sun, lunch Sun-Mon, Wed-Sat, dinner Mon and Wed-Fri, cash only, BYO, 4852 S. Pulaski, 773-523-3700. $
Cafecito Prior to opening his South Loop Cuban-style cafe, Philip Ghantous was a frustrated actor-waiter with zero kitchen experience. So how the hell is it that this Lebanese-American from Peoria is now pressing the best damn Cuban sandwiches in the city? It probably has to do with the near-manic pursuit of perfection that should have made him a success at anything—and would probably put him out of business if he weren't situated in a part of town desperate for a high-quality, low-investment breakfast-and-lunch spot.
The sandwiches on the board are divided between the rigorously authentic and appealing riffs on the classics. The cubano is a perfectly proportioned construction of light, cracker-crisp Gonella bread, mustard, pickle, ham, cheese, and mojo-marinated, house-roasted pork shoulder that fairly drips with flavor; it's also used in the lechon sandwich. The steak on the palomilla, two breakfast sandwiches, and in a chimichurri-dressed sandwich is marinated in yet another mojo. I hate to use the word fusion, but that's what Ghantous uses to describe some of his less traditional efforts, such as a Cuban-Italian hybrid of tomato, fresh mozz, and basil or a jerk chicken variant dressed with his habanero-lime mayo. He allows his Middle Eastern heritage to peek through on a roasted veggie version, swiped with jalapeño hummus. The less common, Argentine-influenced choripan—a dry, salty, Spanish-style chorizo with grilled onions and chimichurri—may not be for everyone, but it's in the running for my sandwich of the year. Ghantous admits to having a heavy hand with seasonings, most evident in the garlicky chimichurri, which he makes a week in advance so the flavors have time to integrate. But the real secret to these phenomenal sandwiches lies in his sense of overall balance and proportion. Small-batch house-made salads fill out the backside of the menu, and the coffee comes from Tampa roaster Caracolillo. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days, 26 E. Congress, 312-922-2233. $