We’re officially stuffed. Throughout 2018, we sampled our way through some of Chicago’s best restaurants—both newcomers and mainstays—to hunt down knockout dishes and drinks that left us feeling inspired. We ended up with a collection of menu items that is as diverse as the city itself, from lobster dumplings and vegetarian sushi to a surprisingly awesome apple martini and a stack of lemon-blueberry pancakes. Better yet: Most of the dishes and drinks on this year's list ring up under $15. Check out the amazing morsels and tipples that top this year's list and plan your upcoming dining adventures accordingly.
The 50 best dishes and drinks in Chicago in 2018
From breakfast to booze, these are the all-time best dishes we tried in Chicago in 2018
Best dishes and drinks of 2018
When this prim-and-proper dessert arrives at your table, take a moment to admire its beauty before cutting into the sheets of lemon curd, meringue and crunchy pastry. $10.
Roulades of thigh and breast meat encase garlicky hen sausage—all painted with schmaltz before cooking to deepen the fowl’s earthiness. It’s paired with potato dumplings and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, lending the dish a nostalgic, Stroganoff-like feel. $28.
Editor's note: The dish has since changed to include Green Circle chicken leg, chanterelles, kale and a smoked egg yolk.
If you consider yourself a taco enthusiast, add this low-key Avondale joint to your list and treat yourself to an order of al pastor tacos. Juicy and slightly charred, the meat is wrapped in two tortillas and sprinkled with raw onions and cilantro (as it should be). $2.50 each.
The crown jewel of Lito’s empanada lineup is stuffed with spicy chorizo, potato, and melty mozzarella and Muenster cheeses, which glue everything together. Pair it with the in-house sweet sauce, a mayo-based creation that tames the heat. $3.25.
Ignore the fact that you don’t love the word smelt (really, the small, mild-tasting fish deserves a better name) and dig into this salad of Parmesan-tempura–battered smelt, Bibb lettuce, dill and butter-pickle mayonnaise. Oddly enough, this dish tastes just like a Big Mac. How’d they do that? $12.
Like many of the menu items at this Chengdu-homaging restaurant, these supple pork dumplings swim in a searing, bright-red oil made from dried chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. A slow burn will haunt your lips long after the meal ends. $6.
20. Matt’s Veal Parm
There’s no denying that Matt Wachsman and Jon Glaser make a damn good veal parm sandwich, but half the fun is walking into a stranger’s apartment to get it. The duo hosts pop-up events at home (buy a ticket to get the address) and donates all proceeds to Purple Asparagus, a Chicago nonprofit that educates children and their families on nutrition. Oh, and did we mention that the sammy is out of this world? $14.
Chicago, we found the ultimate breakfast sandwich: A hash-brown patty is topped with bacon, a fried egg, American cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickled red onion and crammed inside a brioche bun. It’s a heart-stopping creation that’ll keep you stuffed till dinner. $10.
No matter how full you are, don’t you dare skip Natalie Saben’s inspired desserts, like this wholly original sundae of honey ice cream slathered with puckering huckleberry syrup and shards of meringue dusted with Urfa Biber, a Turkish chili pepper whose sun-dried sweetness will linger on your tongue. $11.
Earlier this year, the folks behind Honey Butter Fried Chicken debuted a passion project at Revival Food Hall: a pop-up Cubano stall. Unsurprisingly, the namesake sandwich, which has layers of mojo-roasted pork, chipotle mayo and pickles, was a huge hit. Here’s hoping the concept finds a permanent home in 2019. $10.95.
This no-frills Back of the Yards restaurant slings a first-class beef jibarito that’s accessorized with cheese, tomato, grilled onions and lettuce. But the star of the show is the plantain “bun,” which is expertly seasoned and fried to crispy-chewy perfection. $6.95.
By now, we can all agree that Rick Bayless knows his way around a tortilla, and his West Loop taqueria’s vegetarian taco is further proof. The grilled florets are rendered silky-smooth with the help of poblano-onion rajas, crema and queso añejo, and a pinch of cilantro brightens up each bite. $4.
In this deceptively humble-sounding flatbread, two runny eggs cap a balanced, brunch-ready pie that layers sharp provolone and salty bacon with jalapeño, tomato and a slick of pesto, all atop a squishy crust that has a mild rye-sourdough tang. $13.
You can’t call yourself a real Chicagoan until you’ve visited this Bridgeport gem, which specializes in tavern-style thin crust. If it’s your first time, order the sausage pie, which has a thin-crust base, savory tomato sauce and some of the best Italian sausage in the city. $10.30–$23.
Derived from the elegantly brazen Boulevardier, this subtle variation subs in half the whiskey base with cognac for a stronger backbone; next, it’s embittered with Campari and smoothed over with sweet vermouth. The result is an ideal synthesis of flavors. $12.