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).
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Dusek’s brunch is popular—and whatever you decide to get, the breakfast potatoes are the must-order side. They’re not fancy, but they’re delicious, salty and tender with a crisp exterior. $4.
The Ploughman’s Platter is served with your choice of selections—but you know we're getting the anchovies. Smear a slab of butter on the bread and top with a sliver of anchovy. The dish pairs delightfully with your navy-strength cocktails. Each selection, $5.
Feeling like you can’t quite make a decision at Shaw’s? With the cold appetizer combination, you don’t have to. You’ll get oysters, jumbo shrimp, Maine lobster tail, and blue crab fingers—all with cocktail sauce and lemons to dress them with. $22 per person.
The Angry Crab is the go-to spot for a low-country boil, but their other appetizers are worth trying too. Definitely hit up the fried softshell crab. The tender, yielding shell allows you to bite right in and enjoy a tender crab that’s been dunked in batter and hot oil. $11.
These tiny cornbread nuggets are fried and served with habanero crema that carries a kick we’re totally into. They’re slightly sweet from the corn, but mostly just tender and delicious hunks of masa. Careful, or you’ll be addicted, too. $5.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Folkart Restaurant Management is behind the food at Old Irving Brewing Co., and that is something we will not complain about. The kölsch-battered salt cod fritters are a perfect start to your night—especially if you like savory snacks. These tender hush-puppy–like balls of fried goodness are topped with oregano and lemon gremolata. $12.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Charred eggplant and white beans are paired with toasted almonds and Taggiasca olives for the base of this dish. The nuttiness pairs well with the sweetness of the two tenderly cooked scallops on top. Make this one a priority. $19.
You can get these xiao long bao en masse and on the cheap. An order nets you eight dumplings, filled with pork and broth and sized just right (crucial, when you’re talking broth-filled XLB). $8.
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.
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.
Rootstock is the place to go for pairing wine and snacks—and an absolute must for snacking are these almonds, skinned and fried with a bit of sea salt. The touch of oil puts them over the top with a savory umami flavor we can't get enough of. $5.