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Appetizers, small plates and sides | 100 best things we ate and drank in 2012

Photograph: Sarah Lawhead

Mushroom and blue-cheese empanada at 5411 Empanadas
Normally something as small as this palm-size pocket would be overpowered by blue cheese. Here, it's balanced by a strong dose of thyme.

Photograph: Colin Beckett

Biscuits at Acadia
The tiny biscuits served with every meal here have an uncountable number of buttery layers. Naturally, they're served with even more butter and a pile of sea salt.

Photograph: Sarah Lawhead

Blue crab salad at ATK
Thai chef-about-town Andy Aroonrasameruang has an answer to ceviche: raw blue crabs, shells intact, marinated in fish sauce and lime juice before crowning a garlicky, spicy salad of Chinese celery and long beans. Pick up the shell, slurp out the intensely salty and sour crab flesh, and repeat.

Photograph: Kari Skaflen

Chopped chicken liver at Au Cheval
This is the richest, lushest, silkiest, most sumptuous chopped chicken liver in the world and it comes with a big quenelle of soft, salted butter.

Photograph: Jason Little

Belgian-style fries at Backwoods
The best fries in Chicago? No. The best salty, crispy, mayo-accompanied food served from a takeout window until 2am in Boystown? Oh, hell yes.

Photograph: Jason Little

Thai-style fried chicken at bellyQ
McDonald�s chicken nuggets, left in chef Bill Kim�s hands, would taste like this: tender, boneless meat triple-battered and coated in a sticky-spicy glaze.

Photograph: Kaitlyn McQuaid

Cheese burek at Beograd Caf�
Each morning, this Serbian bakery/caf�/bar bakes a couple hundred flaky rounds of feta-stuffed pastry pies, ideal as a breakfast washed down with the drinkable housemade yogurt (think fresh kefir). Arrive early while they�re still warm.

Photograph: Colin Beckett

Pa amb tom�quet con jam�n serrano y queso Manchego at Black Bull
True, there is no actual cooking involved in the making of this simple dish, unless you count the toasting of the bread, which is softened with tomato and topped with a slice of earthy Manchego and a ribbon of great Spanish ham. Tell us why that�s a problem?

Photograph: Jessica Zerby

Hummus at Falafel & Grill
Every grimy exterior cue to the contrary, this dive is doing everything right, down to the shockingly creamy, tahini-rich hummus.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Chestnut-mushroom soup at Goosefoot
Between the scent of truffles and the creamy chestnut flavor, this soup bespeaks richness and luxury. Yet adorned with a few delicate crudit�s over celery-root puree, it�s just as much a display of chef Chris Nugent�s delicate, restrained sensibility.

Photograph: Sarah Lawhead

Onion rings at Indie Burger
There�s a lot to like about Indie Burger, not the least of which is its politics: These guys have done their research on what it means to be �local� and �sustainable� and haven�t sacrificed the burger�s flavor in the process. But enough political talk. Let�s talk about their crunchy, greaseless, perfect onion rings.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Uni toro special at Kai Zan
File making our own sushi under too much like work. Except: if one of the chefs here hands us this occasional special and instructs us to stir the quail-egg yolk into the surrounding rice, uni and super-fatty tuna, then dollop the silken mixture onto sheets of nori, yielding a hand roll whose combination of flavors feels�effortless.

Photograph: Jason Little

Moqueca at La Sirena Clandestina
Some things are harder than they look, and getting the fish, shrimp and mussels in this Brazilian seafood stew perfect is one of them. Luckily, this is the kind of thing that�s easy for a veteran chef like John Manion. The stew is even easier to eat.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Soup at Lula Cafe
If this year�s frequently changing, always surprising soups�squash with cacao nibs, apple with black quinoa�are any indication, we will never be able to predict what Lula will put into a soup, and the combination of flavors and textures will always be astounding.


Shaved vegetable salad at Maude�s
Read this list a hundred times and you�ll find only one bona fide, meat-free salad, and you�re looking at it: an inspired combination of thinly shaved vegetables (beets, fennel, carrots, cabbage) with rich Bleu d�Auvergne cheese and big sprigs of fresh parsley.

Photograph: Nicole Radja

Jumbo buffalo wings at Monti�s
Chef James Gottwald and wife Jennifer Monti�s neighborhood spot is an homage to Philly, so, um, no one tell them the origin of these impressively meaty wings.

Photograph: Erica Gannett

Biscuits at Nana
They share a bill with fried chicken, jalape�o slaw, and mac and cheese, but these fat, rich buttermilk biscuits (part of Nana�s Sunday-night family-style supper) still hold their own.

Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

Baccal� frittole at Ombra
We slowly came around to Ombra this year, learning to appreciate the lively Italian joint for what it�s good at: namely, a glass of wine at the bar and snacks like these piquant, crispy cod fritters.

Photograph: Anjali Pinto

Charcuterie board at Paris Club
It�s not a board; it�s a miniature table. And the pistachio-studded country p�t�, short-rib-and-foie-gras terrine and devastating foie-gras mousse atop it are so fantastic we wish we were miniature people so we could just sit down at it every night for dinner.

Photograph: Erica Gannett

Ribollita soup at Publican Quality Meats
It wouldn�t be a Paul Kahan restaurant if it didn�t put extraordinary care into a rustic, replenishing $4 cup of peasant soup.


Zaalouk at Shokran
This traditional cold salad of soft, sweet eggplant and tomatoes is the sleeper hit at this quiet Moroccan spot (which itself is a sleeper hit of the Northwest Side).

Photograph: Kaitlyn McQuaid

Yang-nyum tong doc (deep-fried chicken with spicy sauce) at Ssaboo Hourglass
Every Korean bar worth its soju has a take on fried chicken, but ever since it was a Lawrence Avenue dive bar back in the �90s, this favorite has reigned supreme for its version: a whole hacked-up chicken marinated in top-secret gingery-garlic goodness, chilled overnight, double-fried and bathed in an equally secret sweet-and-spicy glaze.

Photograph: Drew Templeton

Croquetas at Tavernita
What can we say? Ryan Poli had us at fried Ib�rico ham bites.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Beef tongue at Yusho
Just like all the small plates at Yusho, the tongue dish changes week to week. Here, we�re referring to the first iteration, where thin slices of tender, fat-slicked tongue, tasting like the best pastrami, were bunched together on a skewer. You know what they say about tongue tasting you back? We ate this tongue so quickly it didn�t have a chance.