Restaurants: Best of the Burbs, March 20, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: Best of the Burbs, March 20, 2008

Seventeen restaurants worth the trip

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Best of the Burbs

Seventeen restaurants worth the trip.

Carlos'429 Temple, Highland Park | 847-432-0770

$$$$$French | Dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

Carlos and Debbie Nieto have operated this intimate French dining room in Highland Park since 1981. The atmosphere is regal, with handsome dark-wood trim, richly toned fabrics, and elegant porcelain dinnerware. Ramiro Velasquez runs the kitchen, dazzling patrons with the expertise he gained under such powerhouses as Jacky Pluton, Don Yamauchi, Eric Aubriot, and Alan Wolf. A la carte dishes include Hot and Cold Foie Gras—seared Hudson Valley foie gras with grenadine-infused caramelized onions and chilled La Belle Farms foie gras on banana bread with vanilla syrup—and herb-crusted rack of lamb. A seven-course degustation menu ($100) with optional paired wines ($155) is a dining adventure, with appetizers like huckleberry-glazed squab breast with grilled pears and New Zealand venison loin with a smoked-parsnip puree, root vegetables, and a cassis gastrique. (A vegetarian tasting menu can be prepared upon request.) The encyclopedic wine list is mostly French but also offers American, Australian, and German options. On Mondays diners can bring their own wine—there's no corkage fee—and servers will suggest food pairings from the menu. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe5557 W. 79th, Burbank | 708-229-8700

$$Southern/Soul Food, Mexican/Southwestern, Cajun | Breakfast: Saturday-sunday; Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Chuck Pine spent two and a half years at Topolobampo under the tutelage of Rick Bayless before striking out on his own, opening a small barbecue shack in the meat-and-potatoes parking lot of south-suburban Burbank. Beginning in 1997 with the occasional pot of gumbo, his Mexican and southern specials have eclipsed the barbecue. Pine wants to show his customers the great variety within Mexican and deep south cooking, at prices much lower and in an atmosphere more casual than at other shops around town started by Bayless's flock. Pine continually travels, studying Cajun, Creole, and Mexican regional cooking styles. Cinco de Mayo and Mardi Gras are the best times to visit, when monthlong blowouts warrant daily specials like a trio of homemade chorizos and chiles en nogada—poblanos stuffed with meat and fruit, covered in walnut sauce and grapes. Pine always throws a few curveballs in as well: paella, say, or Creole-Italian dishes like lasagna with andouille. Normally when restaurants try to do so many different things they do none of them well, but Pine cooks by his whims consistently well. —Mike Sula

Chun Ju Restaurant5707 W. Dempster, Morton Grove | 847-470-0066

$Asian, Korean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

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 are conserved afterward, rice, kimchi, and bean sprouts are dumped in the pan 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

Czech Plaza7016 W. Cermak, Berwyn | 708-795-6555

$Polish/Russian/Eastern European | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Czechs are traditionally frugal foodies, and Czech Plaza delivers a lot of value with a roster of substantial old-world platters, most clocking in at under $10 for soup, entree with two sides (sauerkraut, dumplings, or salad), dessert, and coffee. The bread is quite good, full flavored with baked-today freshness. Meat is the featured player in most preparations, starting with a fabulous soup in which floats one big liver dumpling of preternatural lightness. The signature duck is superb, with crackly skin and moist, flavorful flesh (hint: forgo the gravy). Lamb shank is shaded with cinnamon and served over an earthy blend of bulgur and the beloved hobies (mushrooms). On tap, find Czechvar (the original Budweiser) as well as other eastern European brews. If you're vegetarian, your options are rather limited, though huge, magnificent house-made fruit dumplings—packed plump with blueberry and peaches—could easily make a meal. Desserts are also fruit-filled: kolacky, strudel, tart. —David Hammond

El Chimbombo6725 Cermak, Berwyn | 708-484-9420

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

To build his restaurant Viliulfo Andablo saved his money for five years hawking eyeball tacos from a stand in the Maxwell Street market. Tacos de ojos are no longer on the menu at his Berwyn restaurant El Chimbombo, though there's traditional Mexican barbacoa, and anyone with an eye for an orb could try the conglomerated abeza tacos. Andablo is still in other ways committed to venturing far from the standard Americanized taqueria formula. The quesadillas, gorditas, huaraches, and sopes are handmade and stuffed with the usual fillings as well as more unappreciated ones like pork rinds, zucchini blossoms, mushrooms, and huitlacoche, the earthy and delicious black corn smut. An expanded menu now offers mariscos, and there's live music every Friday and Saturday evening. —Mike Sula

Freddy's Pizzeria1600 S. 61st, Cicero | 708-863-9289

$Pizza, Italian, Ice Cream | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Cash only

The Zabar's of Cicero, Freddy's Pizza offers dry goods such as olive oil and pasta, but the real attraction is a display case of antipasti and hot dishes you can take away or eat on the crowded porch. Primi include a very fine chickpea salad, heart-challenging slices of salami in oil, and buffalo mozzarella with basil and tomato—the last, if you ask me, one of the clearest expressions of Italian culinary genius. I've sometimes thought I'd rather eat my toe than another plate of pasta Alfredo, but the rigatoni here is dressed with light cream, just a little cheese, and a few peas—I'd order it again, especially with some sauteed rapini on the side. The lasagna is quite delicate, house-made noodles layered over fluffy ricotta and discreetly covered with a chunky, conservatively seasoned tomato sauce. Rather than being cracker crisp, the pizza crust is like a good slice of puffy Italian loaf smeared with cheese and sausage (or any of seven or eight other options). The folks at Freddy's bake their breads in a range of shapes and sizes, and there's an array of Italian ices and gelati, ethereally creamy and, like most offerings here, made in the back. —David Hammond

Katy's Dumpling House665 N. Cass, Westmont | 630-323-9393

$$Asian, Chinese | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Cash only | BYO

The name would suggest that dumplings are the draw here, but it's the fresh homemade noodles that instantly turn diners into fervent members of the cult of Katy's. There are two untranslated menus plastered on the wall of this suburban strip-mall storefront. The first lists daily specials like spicy beef tendon and cold pork stomach, which can be found in the refrigerator case (or as I like to call it, the chilled organ grab bag); the second lists frozen dumplings—pork and fennel, beef and scallion, fish stuffed—available to go. Personally I can't be bothered with such exotica when I have noodles on the brain, and fortunately the dine-in menu is translated. Stir-fried noodles with dry chile offers the perfect introduction: meat, seafood, and vegetables are stir-fried with a healthy dose of dried red chiles and served atop of a big nest of the fresh noodles. Because the wok is heated properly, the whole dish takes on the smoky flavor missing from so much Panda-Wok-Suey fare. Szechuan cold noodles are just as good, the slow burn of the Szechuan-peppercorn-spiked shredded pork prevailing over the shredded cucumber that attempts to cool the palate. If you must have something other than noodles, the chewy pancake with shredded pork may be the only worthy substitute—even it's cut to look like a noodle. —Kristina Meyer

Kim's Korean Restaurant1827 W. Algonquin, Mount Prospect | 847-545-9210

$$Asian, Korean | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

In Korea, tableside grilled pork belly, or sam gyeop sal (literally "three-layer pork") is a revered piece of the pig, often matched with equally special partners like raw fermented skate or superaged kimchi and eaten wrapped in sesame leaf with schmears of soybean or red pepper paste. At Kim's it is treated with a similar seriousness, marinated in one of five seasonings: wine, herbs, soybean paste, powdered bamboo leaf, or garlic-curry sauce. These marinades are subtle, and the pork can be jazzed up with a number of wrappings (red leaf lettuce, thinly sliced pickled daikon) and condiments (bean paste, soybean powder, orange-onion sauce, pepper paste-dressed shredded green onion). The pork belly itself, known as "black" pork because it comes from Stygian-hued heritage Kurobuta pigs, is fried on an inclined griddle so the rendered fat runs into a collecting bowl. There's a selection of "casserole" dishes—more like soups—and kitchen-cooked dinners (very tender and sweet bulgogi), but a couple of the enormous appetizers can make a prodigious meal in themselves. Gol-baeng-i-mu-chim is a heaping mound of vegetables, whelk (a chewy snail known elsewhere as scungilli), and hand-cut noodles. A less refined but no less satisfying way to enjoy the house specialty is a gigantic plate of sliced pork belly with kimchi and tofu, and even the hae-mul pajun—the ubiquitous seafood pancake—is fat and crispy, more green onion and shrimp than batter. Panchan are plentiful and of high quality, particularly the very fresh and very spicy kimchi. —Mike Sula

Klas5734 W. Cermak, Cicero | 708-652-0795

$$Polish/Russian/Eastern European | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

For more than 85 years, Klas has served hearty eastern European cuisine to customers that have included Al Capone and George H.W. Bush. It's one of the best dining bargains in the Chicago area: most of the reasonably priced dinners come with a medium-dark Bohemian rye, homemade soup, a trip to the salad bar (laden with red cabbage, delicious ham salad with dill pickle slivers, and beets), a main course, spaetzel or dumplings, dessert (most often a cakelike kolacky filled with fruit or poppy seeds), and coffee. The Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein (one of the more expensive items at $14.95) is topped with two fried eggs, anchovies and capers, and it's a superb combination of flavors and textures. Some meat dishes, such as sauerbraten, are drenched in sauces that tend to be a little heavy and sweet. There's a bar attached to the restaurant that offers a full selection of domestic and Czech beers (including draft Staropramen and Radegast), as well as wine and mixed drinks. After eating, take a tour of this castlelike building: there's a pleasant walled garden; the Dr. Zhivago Room on the second floor is decorated with colorful murals depicting scenes from Russian history; and a long rehearsal space has side rooms that hark back to a time when the restaurant accommodated the world's oldest profession. —David Hammond

Maya del Sol144 S. Oak Park, Oak Park | 708-358-9800

$$Mexican, Latin American | Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In the beginning there was Bayless, who did beget . . . well, it's a long story, the most recent chapter of which is being written at Oak Park's Maya del Sol, where Frontera alum Ruben Beltran serves pan-Latin offerings in a space balancing a laid-back low-lit dining room and a more extroverted bar space festooned with flat-screen TVs. Like his mentor, Beltran employs fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes finely shaded with south-of the-border spicing. Flavors in a tuna ceviche, one of three, popped cleanly and were satisfyingly simple. Our salmon was moist, almost sashimi-like at the center, and seasoned with restraint to let its naturally beautiful taste come to the surface. Nachos are quirkily but successfully crowned with pot roast braised in honey and cider vinegar. Moist and savory, cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of achiote-marinated pork, is perked up by the traditional accompaniments: red pickled onion, house-made habanero salsa, and handmade tortillas. Mojitos, caipirinhas, and pisco sours are, like the food, well-balanced and pleasingly proportioned. There's live music Fridays and Saturdays. David Hammond

Myron & Phil's3900 W. Devon, Lincolnwood | 847-677-6663

$$$Steaks/Lobster, Kosher/Jewish/Deli | Lunch: Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In 2000, when noted jewel thief Joseph Basinski groped a female police officer at the bar in Myron and Phil's (and then sucker-punched his mistress in the parking lot), it was only the latest in the restaurant's long history of adventures with the underworld. But that's only one reason to love it. This Lincolnwood steakhouse is the Jewish answer to Gene & Georgetti's old-school vibe. You could make a meal in the bar alone, where stiff, well-poured drinks are mitigated by quality snacks like salty garlic bread and cheese on Ritz crackers. These aren't best steaks in town, but they're good enough for pols, wiseguys, and celebrities as varied as Jackie Mason and Jenny McCarthy (plus lots and lots of grandparents). The hospitality extends to the dining room, where fressers sit on studded leather chairs that could have been upholstered out of Rob Halford's codpieces, and meals commence with the relish tray, an antiquated and magnanimous gesture that includes bialys, thick slices of pumpernickel, pickled tomatoes and peppers, and chopped liver. There's live music Thursday through Saturday. —Mike Sula

Osteria di Tramonto601 N. Milwaukee, Wheeling | 847-777-6570

$$$Italian | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

I didn't care how much of a Midas Rick Tramonto might be as I schlepped up the expressway through a gulag of office parks: would Osteria di Tramonto, his casual Italian hotel restaurant, really be worth this expedition to Wheeling? The menu ranges all over the boot with antipasti, four crudos, a very sexy collection of cured salumi hanging in a glass "cave," wood-fired pizzas, pastas, and meaty entrees. Among my favorites were an incredibly plush and creamy burrata caprese salad, house-made meatballs in a bright San Marzano red sauce, and big cuts of meat like a lamb porterhouse with salsa verde in garlic jus and a pork porterhouse with baby brussels sprouts and sour cherries. Everything about the place is big, from the menu to the army of attentive waitstaff to the towering two-story glass "wine wall" and the extensive list of Italian liqueurs, which includes some pretty uncommon options. This restaurant is one of the superchef's four in the North Shore Westin Hotel complex, and as befits a place that's gotta play to lots of different kinds of people with different needs, it serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. —Mike Sula

Prairie Grass Cafe601 Skokie, Northbrook | 847-205-4433

F 7.6 | S 7.3 | A 7.0 | $$$ (6 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch

It's no surprise that this suburban contemporary American room is always packed. Consider the roster—the executive chefs are Sarah Stegner, who used to cook at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and George Bumbaris, who's worked with her for 21 years. The menu is seasonal, mostly organic, and very midwestern: there are no fussy dots or drizzles, and you won't find any dishes with multiple sauces. Stegner concentrates instead on simple dishes like crab cakes (with minimal bread crumb filler) served with grapefruit-avocado salad. Entrees include shepherd's pie made with Tallgrass beef, a crispy half duck over braised red cabbage, steaks and seafood, and house-made sausage with polenta. Raters go nuts over the bunless 12-ounce sirloin burger, topped with mild blue cheese and warm beefsteak tomato. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Russell's Barbecue1621 N. Thatcher, Elmwood Park | 708-453-7065

$Barbecue/Ribs | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

A legend and a local favorite, Russell's has been doing business since 1930 along a curvy stretch of tree-lined Thatcher Road in the dingy shadow of Maywood Park Racetrack. A big part of its allure is no doubt the building itself, which sports a tall white chimney with the restaurant's name running down the sides in red neon, and an eating area out back with Depression-era brown-red picnic tables. Inside, every night of the week you'll find large tables full of families comfortably lounging, alternatately sucking their fingers and rib bones. The ribs here are done all-American style, with a fall-off-the-bone tenderness favored by many though scorned by BBQ aficionados. Prices are reasonable, though: a full slab of ribs, with nicely browned fries and vinegary coleslaw, sets you back $13.49, which ain't bad. I prefer them cooked without their signature sauce (available in bottles to go). —David Hammond

Tramonto's Steak and Seafood601 N. Milwaukee, Wheeling | 847-777-6575

$$$$Steaks/Lobster, Seafood Dinner: seven days Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

The North Shore Westin is pretty utilitarian looking, but once inside Rick Tramonto's steak house you'll find characteristic Tramonto flourishes: a 1,200-bottle climate-controlled wall of wine, a waterfall. The luxe treatment extends to the menu, which offers sybaritic steak toppers such as bone marrow, a whole roasted foie gras, and a truffled poached egg. Starters included pristine Penn Cove oysters and escargots overpowered by pureed spinach. A grain-fed bone-in rib eye, with its fresh, clean beefy flavor, was memorable, but Tramonto's Tomahawk Chop, 40 ounces of dry-aged beef meant for two, merely hinted at the intense mineral tang of properly dry-aged beef. Sides were well executed, in particular the twice-baked potato with Irish cheddar, roasted wild mushrooms with crispy croutons, and wood-roasted brussels sprouts. Scrumptious Gale Gand desserts include her takes on s'mores and a root beer float. Service is beyond reproach, and there's a $35-and-under section on the mostly upper-end wine list. —Gary Wiviott

Vie4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs | 708-246-2082

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

Located in Western Springs (well within the known universe, 30 minutes from the Loop), Vie is a restaurant on a kind of a mission, and part of that mission is educational (the menu has a glossary). One theme of this instruction is that there's great grub grown nearby and you should eat it whenever you can (but don't feel bad about enjoying food flown in from Florida or France). After working at places like Blackbird (an influence reflected in Vie's elegant black-white-silver interior design), Chef Paul Virant struck out on his own, getting the very first liquor license in his hometown. You're going to find items on his menu that pop up rarely at other Chicago-area restaurants, for example friesago grano (Minnesota pecorino). Virant and his staff also "put by" a larder of vegetables and herbs for use during the winter and early spring, and pickles play a supporting role in many presentations, providing a pleasantly tart counterpoint to rich meats and cheeses. My marinated quail was studded with pickled garlic and onions, and the bird was cooked as little as possible to keep it moist and juicy. Brined pork—center cut, wood-grilled and splayed into rich slabs—was luscious, carrying a phyllo purse of subtle house-made choucroute. Lamb was done two ways: as a roasted rack and as wieners pressed through an antique sausage maker passed down by Virant's grandmother. Preserved strawberries with ice cream were fabulous: luscious, deep red, and much sweeter and more dense than many fresh-picked berries. —David Hammond

Xni-Pec

5135 W. 25th, Cicero | 708-652-8680

$$Mexican | Lunch: Saturday-Sunday | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 11

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the Chicago area got a rare Yucatecan restaurant when Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") opened in Cicero. "We didn't want to do any advertising until we were ready," explains owner Antonio Contreras. His mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes. Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec (it means "wet nose") and other incendiary salsas made from habanero chiles. Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motulenos—the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul—are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweet-potato-like tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange, another example of a basic but delicious preparation of common ingredients. Beverages include a light, refreshing cantaloupe water or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise. —David Hammond

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