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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

The 100 best dishes in Chicago 2016: Appetizers and sides

Move aside, entrees. We found the best in small plates, appetizers and dishes to accompany your meal in 2016.

Written by
Elizabeth Atkinson
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Oysters, dumplings and killer bar food dominated our list of the best appetizers and sides of 2016. But we also found some gems at Chicago's Mexican restaurants and sushi spots. Whether you want some breakfast potatoes to go along with brunch or killer guacamole, these are the best appetizers and sides of the year (in no particular order).

RECOMMENDED: The 100 best dishes and drinks in Chicago

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  • Restaurants
  • French
  • West Loop
  • price 3 of 4
There isn’t a day we’d pass up French onion soup, so when we saw our favorite liquid umami bomb turned into a dip we had to try it. The hot and cheesy Gruyere and onion concoction is served with crispy slices of baguette, and is perfect for when it’s just a little too warm to commit to a cup of soup but you need to get that incredible oniony goodness. $14.
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  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Albany Park
There are three types of guacamole to choose from at this hip Albany Park taco joint, and we’re fans of the spicy pumpkin seed variety. The creaminess from the avocado balances the chipotle heat and acid from caramelized pineapple. We could keep dipping our tortilla chips in this pot of green gold all night. $6 for a single, $8 for a pair, $10 for a trio.
  • Restaurants
  • Fusion
  • Bridgeport
  • price 1 of 4
We couldn’t have been more excited for the team at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar to expand its back bar and open Kimski. We were even more delighted that the food is out of this world. Hot chicken wangs come covered in Kimski’s own All Purpose Sauce, giving them a kick of spice and just the right sweetness. $8.
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  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • River North
The Shanghai xiao long bao at Imperial Lamian are perfect, with warm umami broth inside delicate wrappings. Pierce your bao before you eat it, or do what we do and just pop it in your mouth, letting the dumpling explode for an incredible single-bite experience. $18 for dinner combo, $7 for lunch a la carte.
  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • East Village
  • price 2 of 4
If you’re going to get house-made bread anywhere, you should get it from one of the Fifty/50 Group’s restaurants. Chris Teixeira knows how to bake a basket of bread—just look at the one at Homestead on the Roof. Changing daily it’s paired with accoutrements to complement perfectly. Just hope that the croissant is in the basket when you’re there and try every single last house-made butter, jam and compote. You won’t be sorry. $8.
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  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • West Loop
  • price 3 of 4
Uni (sea urchin) is tender, briny, smooth and buttery. The uni at Leña Brava is West Coast sea urchin served with a side of baja salsa made with cactus, sea beans, tomato and olive. You’ll get house-made chips to scoop up the stellar mix of crunch and brine. Feeling extra extravagant? Ask your server to pair a drink with the uni; they’ll be able to pick something that brings out the best in the uni, furthering the whole experience. $24.
  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Rush & Division
  • price 3 of 4
For the health-conscious Chicagoan, pork belly can be a no-go zone: you can feel your arteries clogging up just saying the words. But when it’s done right, it is worth the dive. Chef Art Smith does his just right—letting the fat get to a point where it melts in your mouth while the meat is nicely crispy. It’s prettily plated, with carrots and pineapples and dots of sauce made with pea shoots, but the pork belly is the star. $9.
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  • Restaurants
  • American
  • West Loop
  • price 3 of 4
These bivalves are served with cucumber, melon, apple vinegar and macadamia nuts, toppings that truly make them shine and set them apart from other oysters we’ve had this year. There’s nothing we don’t like about the briny oysters at Honey’s, which have a refreshing bite while keeping their velvety feel. $3.
  • Restaurants
  • American creative
  • Logan Square
  • price 2 of 4
Biscuits as apps are quickly becoming a thing, and to our biscuit-snob sensibilities, these are among the best in town. They have a great crunch with a sugary top, but what really puts them over the edge is the jalapeño butter. It has a nice hot kick tempered by the sweetness from the biscuits. They come individually, so you’ll need at least a few orders. $3.
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  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • West Loop
  • price 1 of 4
The main dishes you order at Jaipur—like their excellent chicken curry—will come with plenty of sauce, so it’s handy they have an array of excellent rice dishes for absorbing it all. We suggest the Jeera rice: long-grain basmati rice with cumin seeds, cardamom and cloves. On its own it has a nice warm sauce; with your paneers and masalas, it shines even brighter. $7.
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  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • Logan Square
Looking for some entry-level offal? Start with the lingua—beef tongue—at Animale. The restaurant has a few untraditional cuts, but the lingua is beefy (just think of it as a fall-apart-tender piece of steak) and spiced perfectly. It’s a great gateway cut; you might soon find yourself chewing on sweetbreads. $13.
  • Bars
  • Hotel bars
  • Loop
  • price 2 of 4
The chicken-skin chips at this swanky hotel lounge come crusted with quinoa and marcona almond—they’re salty, savory and, most of all, chicken skin-y (without the grease). These guys crunch perfectly when you bite into them, as if they’ve been pulled straight from the fryer. $8.
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  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Logan Square
Dos Urban Cantina can’t stop astounding us. This charred cauliflower is in a parsnip puree and a cumin crema and topped with dots of thick salsa macha and parsley leaves. Comforting and warm, the dish brings heat, with tender pieces of cauliflower making the plate shine brightly on a black dish. We just wish the bowl was a little bit deeper. $8.
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  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 4 of 4
The “paper” dish is one of the first you’ll get at Alinea, where it’s served as dried sheets of scallops with a corn broth poured on top. It’s a one-two flavor punch: First you’re hit by the sweetness of the corn, then by a wave of butter that gives the scallops—noodlelike in the soup—the chance to shine. $175 and up for tasting menu.
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  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 3 of 4
This Lincoln Park restaurant serves seriously good sushi and sashimi, but the real star is a dish that isn’t always on the menu: the uni. You can order it served on top of rice or on its own, though we prefer with the rice. It’s a perfect display of what uni should taste like: tantalizingly briny and buttery, smooth and worth every penny. $18 for two pieces.
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