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The Bento Box

2246 W. Armitage | 773-278-3932

$$

ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | BYO

Chef Rick Spiros has finally landed in a place worthy of his talents. After getting burned a few years ago by the quick death of Mantou Noodle Bar and being underappreciated at the loungey Red Canary, he's set up shop for himself in the front of the house at his Artisan Catering. The resulting pan-Asian restaurant is small (it seats just 12) but elegant, with a high ceiling, a warm color scheme—the green west wall is hung with Dali prints—a large mural of a Japanese dude with rice bowl, and Japanese accents. The changing menu is written on a chalkboard and confined to four or so items (there are regular updates on the restaurant's Facebook page). On one frigid night we tried the beef bulgogi, served with crisp, mild house-made kimchi and a spicy Asian potato salad and prettily garnished with microgreens, and the crispy beef over egg noodles in a sweet soy-chipotle barbecue sauce, one of the bento box's sections holding a house-made radish pickle. Both were fresh and well seasoned, but best of all was grilled Thai jidori chicken, arrayed over rice and accompanied by a killer lime-leaf curry my friend dubbed "green gold." Service is low-key and friendly. —Kate Schmidt

Cafe con Leche/D'Noche

2714 N. Milwaukee | 773-289-4274

$$

MEXICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, other nights till 11

Serving breakfast and lunch by day as Cafe Con Leche, this Logan Square spot on a burgeoning stretch of Milwaukee Avenue morphs into D'Noche beginning at 5 PM, dimming the lights, turning up the swank, and dishing out a surprisingly impressive and sophisticated menu of Mexican and Latin fare. We started off with an order of well-presented and delicious black bean tamales accompanied by the obligatory side of guacamole and chips. My buddy described the carne en pipian rojo (skirt steak in chile de arbol sauce) with chipotle mashed potatoes as well-charred but still nicely tender; my cheese and poblano rajas enchiladas were better than expected for a run-of-the-mill vegetarian choice, with a welcome spicy kick. Although neither of us is a fan of bread pudding, we opted for the house-made capirotada dessert, swimming decadently in a sea of syrup and capped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It ended the dinner perfectly. Now if they'd only turn off the flat-screen TVs during dinner, I think I'd be willing to categorize D'Noche as fine dining for the Logan Square hipster collective (of which I'm a certified member). —Kevin Warwick

Dough Boys

626 S. Racine | 312-243-9799

$$

PIZZA | lunch, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 1, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The latest collaboration between restaurateurs Jimmy Bannos Jr. and Scott Harris is a twofer, with a hallway connecting the upscale Salatino's to this belowground pizza joint with the usual trappings: big tomato cans as centerpieces, red-checkered cloth (plastic, actually) on the tables, and a big, handsome oven along the back wall of the open kitchen. Sadly, the menu doesn't suggest any toppings combinations (though a few specials are posted on the walls)—they're a la carte, with prices ranging from $2 per for a small pie to $5 apiece for the three-foot-long, rectangular "metro." Two salads would've benefited from some good old-fashioned flavor; a watery red wine vinaigrette did little to compensate for boring romaine and pink, grainy tomatoes. As we waited for our pizza, I found myself picking through the remnants of the antipasto salad for far-too-scarce wisps of spicy arugula, pieces of Genoa salami, and little slices of a fine, sharp provolone. The red sauce on our stuffed pizza, which we filled with spinach, olives, roasted peppers, and fresh basil and garlic (those last two are free), was rich and packed a nice vinegary punch, though it, too, lacked seasoning. And the special meatball and giardiniera pizza, served on a milquetoast crust neither thick nor thin, neither chewy nor crispy, was more of the same: pretty much fine, though the meatballs were mushy and the house-made giardiniera not nearly as spicy as it might've been. But this restraint, ill-advised on the rest of the menu, finally paid off in a dessert of creamy tiramisu (brought over from Salatino's): neither too heavy nor too sweet, it was the best part of the meal. —Sam Worley

La Gondola

1258 W. Belmont | 773-935-9011

$$$

ITALIAN, PIZZA | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11 | BYO

Its somehow comforting that even in a restaurant scene as sophisticated as Chicago's, a place like La Gondola can not only survive but thrive. The second location of this unapologetically old-school Italian joint, in the former Joey's Brickhouse space on Belmont, brings in pictures of Venice, a Rat-Pack soundtrack, and red linens to showcase the Italian-American comfort food—think pasta, pizza, veal, and chicken. Despite the dim lighting and sports on TV, this is a family-friendly restaurant, especially when you come on the early side. And portions are generous—our order of a dozen stuffed clams came with a few extra to make up for the fact that they were tiny that day. Too bad the breading was disappointingly dry. It's generally best to stick to the classics, such as wonderfully soft gnocchi stuffed with ricotta and served with a creamy pesto that packed a garlicky punch without drowning the delicious little packets, and chicken piccata with moist and tender meat and the familiar flavors of mushrooms and white wine. In Italy dishes like a mixed seafood grill, served with only garlic butter and lemon, are intended to highlight the freshness of the ingredients; but slightly rubbery octopus, shrimp, and calamari demonstrated only that the creatures were either overcooked or not very fresh—though the tilapia was flaky and delicious. The vibe is very "mangia, mangia," and our server even sent us home with complimentary tiramisu. This location is temporarily BYOB; it expects to get its liquor license at the end of January. Weekend reservations for large groups only. —Heather Kenny

Gyu-Kaku

210 E. Ohio | 312-266-8929

$$$

japanese | Hours: Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-Thursday till 11

This Japanese barbecue (aka yakiniku) chain has successfully repackaged and rebranded the elemental Korean barbecue experience—even going so far as to rename varieties of kimchi. If you're going to pay to cook your own food, the least you should expect is an unlimited array of side dishes, grains, and greens to sustain yourself amid the heat and smoke. But Gyu-Kaku ("bull's horn") nickel-and-dimes you to death. As you're led in among the semi-isolated tables inset with roaring gas-powered grills, line cooks in the rear open kitchen bellow the traditional welcome, "Irasshaimase!" Servers issue precise instructions for grill placement and cooking times, but first you'll be asked to choose some apps, among them small plates of simple cucumber, daikon, or cabbage kimchi priced at an astonishing $4 apiece. (The growing practice of charging a la carte prices for kimchi must stop.) The main event is supplied by an extensive beefcentric selection, very fresh, and certainly more varied and specialized than that at a typical Korean joint, ranging from higher-end Kobe options and chateaubriand to gnarlier, cheaper cuts such as brisket and ribs. Wild cards like lamb chops, pork jowl, duck, shrimp, scallops, tuna, Kurobuta weenies, and a few odd bits (tongue seems be a popular order) provide balance. Each and every one is bafflingly customizable with one of five different marinades (white or sweet soy, miso, garlic, or basil), which might explain why orders take so remarkably long to arrive from a kitchen that doesn't have to cook them. Vegetables play a supplementary role—foil packets of, say, garlic cloves and sweet potato or unseasoned broccoli florets, corncob sections, and shisito peppers meant to be thrown naked on the flame are priced in the same $3-$6 ballpark. Most outrageously, a handful of red lettuce leaves runs $3, and a small portion of steamed rice—an essential and usually gratis accompaniment to any Korean meal—is $2. It's a lively, hip environment, but for all that, this remains culturally appropriated Korean barbecue lite. —Mike Sula

Meli Cafe on Grand

540 N. Wells | 312-527-1850

$$

AMERICAN, vegetarian/healthy | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Any breakfast food you can imagine is likely to be on the menu at Meli Cafe. The list of almost 100 plates ranges from standard eggs, toast, and potatoes, to scrambles, skillets, French toast, and pancakes, making ordering a daunting task. With ingredients like asparagus, figs, and various sausages and cheeses, Meli's offerings skew slightly more modern than standard diner fare—but not enough to elicit much excitement or curiosity. Where Meli sets itself apart is in its execution: fresh ingredients, cooked perfectly. Spinach folded in a crepe remained bright green and full of life next to melted mozzarella, tomatoes, and near-crisp, thick bacon. The crepe itself had been pumped up to burritolike proportions, spongy with extra eggs and slightly browned, with herbs mixed into the batter. The ham-and-Swiss eggs Benedict was delightfully savory, standing up well to a lemony hollandaise sauce and bedded in well-cooked red potatoes. The cafe makes its own marmalade and houses a full juice bar of made-to-order blends like beet-apple-celery-lemon or orange-banana-strawberry, which even with honey blended in managed to be well-balanced and not overly sweet. Though the emphasis is clearly on breakfast Meli also carries a lunch menu, which features a smattering of salads, wraps, panini, and sandwiches. —Emily Withrow

Pierogi Heaven

169 N. Wells | 312-263-9305

$

POLISH/RUSSIAN/EASTERN EUROPEAN | MONDAY-FRIDAY 10 AM-7 PM, SATURDAY 11 AM-5 PM | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The friendly Polish gents behind this shoebox of a storefront were dead on the money opening in mid-November, just before the cold hit. Lines for the 14 varieties of pierogi, ten savory and four sweet, have stretched to the door ever since, and while the counter guys and cooks do their best, there's a good chance you'll have at least a 20-minute wait. I expected to like the spinach and meat or the potato cheddar best, but the sleeper turned out to be the tangy, light kraut and mushroom. There are also single-ingredient pierogi in addition to the fruit-filled dessert dumplings: potato, meat, mushroom, spinach; all can be ordered with bacon and/or sour cream on the side. The pierogi are frozen, but that seems a requirement for assembly-line quick-service. Borscht, with or without dumplings, rounds out the menu. —Kate Schmidt

Red Flame

2417 N. Clybourn | 312-462-0486

$$

PIZZA | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, TUESDAY-THURSDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Red Flame's claim to fame is a two-step cooking process where they first grill the dough, then add the toppings and put the pizza under a flame—but gimmicks are more palatable when they produce something good, and Red Flame's pizzas are excellent overall. The menu is divided into "redflame" (with red sauce), "whiteflame" (white sauce), "crazyflame" (the sauce is on top!), and "sweetflame" (dessert pies); aside from pizzas there are a couple sandwiches, a few salads, and appetizers that all sounded too similar to the pizzas be to appealing (baked mozzarella with diablo sauce, for example). The crust is thin, chewy, and slightly charred around the edges—the margherita arrived a little blacker than we would have liked—without the soggy center often associated with traditional Italian pizza. Toppings are plentiful and high-quality; dollops of whipped garlic goat cheese on a wild mushroom pie worked particularly well. The hands-down favorite, though, was the s'mores dessert pizza, smeared with Nutella and sprinkled with mini chocolate chips, graham cracker crumbs, and meticulously arranged mini marshmallows. The place is reasonably priced to start with, but weekday specials sweeten the deal considerably: half-price bottles of wine on Tuesdays, two for one pizzas on Wednesdays, half-price draft beer on Thursdays. —Julia Thiel

Rudy's Bar & Grille

69 E. Madison | 312-332-8111

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, BURGERS, AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

Housed in an awkward space down the street from its parent restaurant, Pizano's, Rudy's Bar & Grille has a high-ceilinged bar out front that leads into ever more compact dining recesses in the back. Seated in the far corner, we felt the table shake against the wall from some unseen nearby dynamo throughout our dinner. Yet the food somehow overcame that, as well as the cliche olde Chicago photos on the walls. The Tallgrass Beef burger was lean and subtle, fine in spite of being unevenly cooked. Yet that only served to set off the Plain Jane, which was anything but, cooked rare as ordered and juicy on its pretzel bun. The turkey chili was a bit sweet, not just from the corn kernels tossed in, as was the New England clam chowder on a subsequent Friday visit (albeit a bargain $5 as soup of the day), but the Caesar salad was enormous and damn decent, served with anchovy. For bar patrons, the drinks are reasonably priced by Loop standards, and Cub haters take note: the front room devotes walls to the White Sox, Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks, but the Cubs are tucked away around the corner in the first dining nook. —Ted Cox

Sabor Express

1230 W. Taylor | 312-733-4800

$

LATIN AMERICAN, SOUTH AMERICAN | MONDAY-SATURDAY 10:30 AM-9 PM, SUNDAY 11 AM-8 PM | BYO

As the name would suggest, Sabor Express is a quick-service spot for (as the menu puts it) "fast, casual, Brazilian cuisine." It's relatively well-appointed, with abundant fake flowers and brightly colored walls that are surprisingly classy in combination with the stone pillars and huge wood-framed photos of the large space. And the food is a definite step up from your average fast food. Much of the menu focuses on little fried things stuffed with various fillings, including the empanada-like pasteis; kibes, with a bulgur shell; and risoles and coxinhas, or croquettes. Also on offer are a couple sandwiches, several meat skewers, and sides like rice and beans, salads, and fries. Grilled skewers of garlic steak and Brazilian sausage, served with pineapple and rice and beans, were nicely cooked with a good char flavor; other favorites included chicken coxinhas, steak kibes, and chicken pasteis in a flaky shell. Also excellent was the creamy, tangy passion-fruit torte, made in-house; cheesecake, on the other hand, was chalky and bland. On the weekends there's feijoada, a Brazilian black bean, smoked pork, and sausage stew, served with collard greens, farofa (toasted manioc flour), and rice. —Julia Thiel

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