Authentic city restaurants versus suburban chain dining

Do chains deserve their bad rap? To find out, we pitted them against their “authentic” city counterparts in a blind taste of kid-friendly faves.

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  • Photo: Jamie Kraus

    THE JUDGES FOR OUR TASTE TEST

  • THE JUDGES FOR OUR TASTE TEST
    TOC Associate Food & Drink Editor Julia Kramer (a Highland Park native pictured in her food critic disguise)

    Photo: Nicole Radja

  • City fave Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S Archer Ave, 312-326-5040), $11.45

    Photo: Erica Gannett

  • Suburban chain Pei Wei (1021 N Elmhurst Rd, Mount Prospect; 847-704-4095), $8.25

  • City fave Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap (41 E Superior St, 312-266-0400), eight jumbo wings, $10.95

    Photo: Nicole Radja

  • Suburban chain Buffalo Wild Wings (301 E Euclid Ave, Mount Prospect and multiple other locations; 847-255-5000), 12 medium wings, $9.29

    Photo: Erica Gannett

  • City fave La Scarola (721 W Grand Ave, 312-243-1740), $13.95

    Photo: Erica Gannett

  • Suburban chain Maggiano’s Little Italy (4999 Old Orchard Center, Skokie and other locations; 847-933-9555), $12.95

    Photo: Nicole Radja

  • City fave Smoque (3800 N Pulaski Rd, 773-545-7427), full slab, $19.95; sliced brisket sandwich, $7.95

    Photo: Erica Gannett

  • Suburban chain Famous Dave’s Barbecue (206B Yorktown Center, Lombard and other locations; 630-620-6363), full slab, $22.99; Texas beef brisket sandwich, $9.49

    Photo: Nicole Radja

Photo: Jamie Kraus

THE JUDGES FOR OUR TASTE TEST


The dish Orange chicken

City fave Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S Archer Ave, 312-326-5040), $11.45 

Suburban chain Pei Wei (1021 N Elmhurst Rd, Mount Prospect; 847-704-4095), $8.25

Stella says “I really like [Lao Sze Chuan’s] sauce. It’s not spicy and kind of sweet. The [Pei Wei chicken] is too dry. Of all the dishes, this is the one I’d pick [Lao Sze Chuan’s] to have again.”
Julia says “Neither is particularly a standout, orange chicken–wise. But the [Pei Wei] chicken is very bland. [Lao Sze Chuan’s] is a little gloopy, but it had a nice orange-y flavor.”
Winner Lao Sze Chuan

The dish Buffalo wings

City fave Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap (41 E Superior St, 312-266-0400), eight jumbo wings, $10.95

Suburban chain Buffalo Wild Wings (301 E Euclid Ave, Mount Prospect and multiple other locations; 847-255-5000), 12 medium wings, $9.29

Stella says “[Jake Melnick’s] wings are less chewy than the others, and more moist. They have a lot of flavor.”
Julia says “The [Jake Melnick’s] wings seem more heavily fried, and I like that. Stella’s right—the others are chewier; they have bigger bits of fat.”
Winner Jake Melnick’s

The dish Lasagna

City fave La Scarola (721 W Grand Ave, 312-243-1740), $13.95

Suburban chain Maggiano’s Little Italy (4999 Old Orchard Center, Skokie and other locations; 847-933-9555), $12.95

Stella says “There’s just too much cheese on the [La Scarola] one, and it’s really salty. And it doesn’t look as nice on the plate. But it’s still really flavorful.”
Julia says “Presentation-wise, [Maggiano’s] is the winner. It’s a more sophisticated-looking lasagna. And I like the layer of ricotta. But [La Scarola] is impressive, too. They’re both huge. If you ate an entire portion of either, it could kill you.”
Winner After lots of back-and-forth, Stella chose Maggiano’s. For Julia, it was a draw.

The dish St. Louis-style brisket and spare ribs

City fave Smoque (3800 N Pulaski Rd, 773-545-7427), full slab, $19.95; sliced brisket sandwich, $7.95

Suburban chain Famous Dave’s Barbecue (206B Yorktown Center, Lombard and other locations; 630-620-6363), full slab, $22.99; Texas beef brisket sandwich, $9.49

Stella says “[Smoque’s] brisket is too dry for me. For the ribs, the [Famous Dave’s] ones are meatier and very tender. I’d eat more.”
Julia says “[Smoque’s] ribs and brisket have a deeper smoke flavor—it depends on your preference, but that’s a positive for me. [Famous Dave’s] brisket is more juicy and tender. It tastes more like Jewish brisket.”
Winner This was the surprise upset: Stella preferred Famous Dave’s brisket and ribs. Julia liked both briskets for their different preparations, but declared Smoque the winner on ribs. 


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