The Bento BoxWith just a dozen seats and four main courses, this shoebox of a restaurant seems to traffic in smallness. But slurp rice noodles in a Thai chile-scented broth, or take a bite of the complex curries or juicy bulgogi in one of the namesake bento boxes, and you’ll be hit by big Asian flavors, fresh ingredients (such as Jidori chicken) and the sense that the chef—Rick Spiros—is cooking with real gusto. Tip: The menu changes often, and when Spiros says barbecue-pork steamed buns, you better run. 2246 W Armitage Ave (773-278-3932). El: Blue to Western. Bus: 49, 56, 73. Lunch, dinner (closed Sun–Tue). Average main course: $14.
Caffé StreetsProving that not every coffee shop must take its inspiration from Seattle in the ’90s, Caffé Streets has the look of a European coffee bar and the coffee expertise to match. The staff is comfortable talking beans (the selection of which changes weekly) and brewing styles, such as pour-over, Chemex and siphon. And though the selection of pastries is slim, that doesn’t make it any easier to resist the boxes of artisanal chocolates. 1750 W Division St (773-278-2739). El: Blue to Division. Bus: 9, 50, 56, 70. Mon–Fri 6am–10pm; Sat 7am–10pm; Sun 7am–9pm. Average cup of coffee: $2.20.
CuminChef Min Thapa is a master of Nepalese cooking, and here he proves it with dishes such as paalungoko saag, where he takes whole spinach leaves, sautées them with caramelized garlic and coats them in a trinity of seeds (fenugreek, mustard and cumin), and in the bhutuwa, where goat is flash-cooked with bell peppers, green chiles, onions and flattened rice. If the peppery biryani is any indication, Thapa is no slouch when it comes to Indian cuisine either. Still, ignoring the Nepalese dishes here is like going to a beer bar and ordering wine. You can do it, sure, but you’ll only be making the point that you should probably be somewhere else. 1414 N Milwaukee Ave (773-342-1414). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Lunch (Tue–Sun), dinner. Average main course: $14.
Dee’s PlaceAt Dee’s Place, dinner is eaten in a room that—in perhaps the venue’s strongest selling point—has an atmosphere unlike any other on this stretch of Division. Here, jazz and blues musicians play, and the turf is theirs—they aren’t playing in a dining room so much as you’re eating on their stage. And since this is the case, the food can come second. The jerk chicken will probably lack the punch you’re used to; the macaroni and cheese will only hint at the depth of decadence you want. But the fried okra, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, fried catfish? Well, these folks know how to use a fryer. 2114 W Division St (312-348-6117). El: Blue to Division. Bus: 49, 50, 70. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $12.
Green CornerSisters Elizabeth and Colleen Murzyn provide a healthy way to fuel a liquid diet: smoothies, fruit juices and cleanse programs (in which you drink six juices a day for three to seven days). Inside their Kermit the Frog–green walls, they turn heaps of vegetables into thin, pure juices, such as the signature Green Corner ($9), which tastes like drinking a rustic kale-and-celery salad. But like a good salad, the greens are balanced with a blessed bit of tart lemon and sweet apple. 1880 N Damen Ave (773-292-4393). El: Blue to Western. Bus: 50, 56, 73. 8:30am–6pm (closed Mon). Average juice: $8.
J. Wellington’sWellington’s is a land where burgers are muscular and very unladylike; a place where if you don’t leave vowing to never eat again, you haven’t done it right. How does bacon-fried-egg-blue-cheese-sriracha-mayo stack up against mushrooms-Swiss-chipotle-ketchup? It’s neck and neck, and both are mere accompaniment to the impeccable, crisp-and-pillowy, crinkle-cut sweet-potato fries. The chocolate shake tastes very much like a Wendy’s Frosty—and if that’s what you’re looking for, you can find it at the source. 2045 W North Ave (773-687-9142). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $8.
Lillie’s QWe have to admit we were skeptical that a stylish spot in Wicker Park could deliver memorable barbecue, but we ate our words with bite after bite of impressively smoky, truly tender, low-and-slow meats. Ease into the night with a moonshine-spiked Arnold Palmer or a pick from the impressive beer list and apps like fried pickles, boiled peanuts and pimento cheese. Stellar Southern classics continue with a shellfish and andouille–packed low country boil and shrimp over insanely creamy grits, but it’s the pink-tinged pulled pork and thick slices of smoked tri-tip that prove chef-owner Charlie McKenna is every bit deserving of that Memphis in May trophy behind the bar. 1856 W North Ave (773-772-5500). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $9.
Silom 12A basic lineup of Anglo-Thai favorites seems outdone by the slick digs at this Wicker Park BYOB (where the cool backlit bar serves bottles of water, not booze). But dig a little deeper into the menu and you’ll see that the kitchen is at least trying to keep up with the room. For “Craw Crab,” the meaty end of crab claws are dipped in tempura, then crisped into crustacean lollipops; meanwhile a veal shank is braised to its melting point in mushroom-studded green curry, while pork shank is turned into one big hunk of fried pork, with crunchy skin and surprisingly tender meat. Liberties can veer off-course on occasion (a “Thai seafood reduction” for seared tuna hunks is a garlicky mess), but with a sweet staff, splashy decor and a few dishes of note, Silom just might be able to stand out among the crowd of neighborhood Thai joints. 1846 N Milwaukee Ave (773-489-1212). El: Blue to Western. Bus: 49, 56, 73. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.
The WormholeTo get Wicker Park excited about another coffee shop, you’d have to do something pretty crazy. Like, say, install a DeLorean in the front of the store. Wormhole: You win. So now that this time-travel-themed coffee shop has the neighborhood’s attention, what else is going on here? A small selection of baked goods from Fritz Pastry (including doughnuts!); Cheerios and other assorted cereals; and some very serious baristas, who use beans from a variety of cult roasters and who cold-brew the strongest iced coffee that’s ever graced our parched, caffeine-starved lips. 1462 N Milwaukee Ave (773-661-2468). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Mon–Fri 7am–midnight; Sat, Sun 9am–midnight. Average cup of coffee: $2.