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.
Best dishes and drinks of 2018
At this lively West Town eatery, the Basque spirit reaches its purest form in its seafood-tinged pintxos—like the spring peas, mingled with tender ground-squid sausage beneath baguette slices topped with roasted sweet peppers. $16.
Chef Kaze Chan should win a Nobel Prize in Creativity for this wildly imaginative piece of sushi in which raw fish is replaced with a slab of flavorful roasted tomato. $5.
Pristine ground lobster meat is packed into thin gyoza shells, then set afloat in an herby jade butter. Fun fact: Chef Stephen Gillanders tested 30 gyoza skins to find just the right fit. $16.
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.
It’s no surprise that the world’s first Michelin-starred brewpub cranks out some top-notch dishes, but this one left our taste buds speechless: Pillowy naan cradles fried eggplant, Old Bay–spiced aioli, pickled peppers and garden-fresh herbs. $8.
Toothsome house-made pasta shells float in glistening nori butter with long beans, wisps of fried sweet potato and bracing pickled shallots in this happy marriage of Japanese and Central Italian cuisines. $13.
Bourbon and nutty sherry are brought to life with red currant and black tea, resulting in a smooth, soul-soothing drink that oughta be a new classic. $13.
There’s nothing average about this dessert: House-made custard is injected with peppermint extract and a touch of spirulina before it’s studded with custom-made chocolate chips. $6.
Delicate bay scallops tremble beneath chive blossoms and dribbles of pungent onion puree and house-made XO sauce, an amalgam of dried fish, nduja, chilies and brown sugar that neatly walks the line between sweet and savory. $11.
Earthy-sweet beets, kale and charred blueberries are wrapped in a yogurt dressing that owes its savory, grapefruit-like citrus quality to a mold known as koji. $13.
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.
Take everything you love about crème brûlée—the creamy custard base and the smoky, caramelized-sugar topping—and put it in a pie. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? $8.95.
With 25 pies to choose from, Bebu is not for the indecisive, so steal our go-to order: Spicy in-house sausage, semisweet peppers and red onions are a match made in mozzarella heaven. $20.
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.
In this fire-roasted appetizer, fat shrimp swim in a crimson sauce of smoked tomato, butter, ground shrimp, mint, spicy ginger and smoky chiltepin chilies. Use the pile of blistered pita to wipe the bowl clean. $15.
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.
Black-hued noodles twist around a treasure trove of calamari, prawns, tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs. The best part? It reheats surprisingly well the next day. Half $18, full $27.
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.
A stack of pancakes as big as your head is packed with fresh lemon flavor and crowned with a puddle of blueberry compote—everything you need to get out of bed on a Sunday morning. $12.
If you’re counting calories, skip ahead: This coma-inducing sando is stacked with crispy eggplant, fried chicken, gooey mozzarella, serrano chilies and spicy mayo. $10.
This Smurf-blue take on the beloved ice cream flavor tastes like a concentrated sip of milk from the bottom of a bowl of Froot Loops. Even better, this dense amalgam of coconut cream and citrus oils is vegan. $5.
Creamy grits meet a juicy fried-pork cutlet in this culinary mash-up of Southern and German cuisines that arrives topped with gravy and an egg for good measure. $16.
We have a soft spot for restaurants that serve breakfast all day, especially when it means we can order a pristine omelette for dinner. This one is dressed up with cured sausage, spicy shrimp ceviche, queso fresco, cilantro and hominy. $12.
Who knew an appetizer could steal the show? A gaggle of saucy, bacon-studded clams is served with a plank of garlic ciabatta that’s perfect for sopping up all the rich, lemony goodness that’s left behind. $13.95.
All of chef Paul Fehribach’s biscuit sandwiches are stellar (really—we’ve tried them all), but the crispy boudin, topped with crunchy chow and a molten duck egg, is the definition of decadent. $13.
We’ve never been so excited to see a turkey sandwich on a bar menu, and after a few Wisconsin old-fashioneds, you’ll understand why. $10.
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 vindication of the Cosmo replaces canned cranberry juice with aronia berry liqueur, creating a perfectly balanced, pink-hued sipper. $12.
Lunch in the Loop hasn’t been the same since we discovered chef Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s messy handheld, which lovingly captures his childhood memories in a pita. $8.
Tangles of house-made, gold-extruded noodles mix and mingle with verdant asparagus, Parmigiano-Reggiano and dollops of fluffy ricotta, resulting in a refreshing, satisfying carb course. $20.
An apple martini in 2018? Trust us on this one. Crafted with vodka, apple brandy, green-apple liqueur, lemon juice and demerara syrup, this sophisticated quaff is the grown-up version of the lip-puckering stuff you slurped down in college. $14.
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.
Consider this dish a collector’s-edition box set of tuna: Each 10-piece order includes sea-kissed, ruby-red cuts of tuna loin, chutoro and otoro, plus one roll. $39.
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.
A damn fine latte is made infinitely better with a splash of house-made syrup that’s infused with dried lavender. It’s an oddly calming combination that’s ideal for lazy weekend mornings. $4.75.
At this new South Side hit, fries are an important part of every meal—which is just the way we like it. Bring harmony to your food groups with fresh pomme frites topped with a filet of jerk salmon, mango salsa and dill aioli. $15.
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.
This year, one of the city’s best sushi joints introduced a delivery-only fried-chicken shop, serving poultry that’s braised in soy sauce, garlic and ginger, then dredged in flour and fried to finger-lickin’ perfection. Half $16.95, full $31.95.
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.
You’ll need a fork to dig into this deconstructed Reuben, which arranges bites of pastrami-style duck accompanied by cabbage slaw, mashed potatoes, pickled mustard seeds and pumpernickel crisps. $23.
Forget vodka and go dark with a whiskey martini that’s crafted with Suntory Toki, fino sherry and persimmon liqueur. $12.
This sinful dessert bun tastes like butter-cookie dough and is best eaten molten-hot, so order it at the very end of your meal. $3.95.
Presented as a bowl of what looks like pebbles, the hand-cut granola inside bursts with pistachio and cocoa nib, obscuring a dense bananas-Foster budino. $7.
If you’re a mezcal fiend, chances are you’re a regular at this Logan Square watering hole. But we enjoy switching things up with this sotol-anchored cocktail that has hints of grapefruit, tarragon, chili and lime. $12.
In this classic done right, three flavors of creamy gelato—strawberry, pistachio and chocolate—are enveloped in a hard milk-chocolate shell that’s drizzled with white chocolate. $8.