In the Neighborhood | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

In the Neighborhood 

Have you tried these Wicker Park/Bucktown restaurants yet?

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Angels & Mariachis
1721 W. Division | 773-227-7772
$$
BAR/LOUNGE, MEXICAN | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2
The decorations at this two-story "taco bar & rock cantina"—bull's heads, lucha libre masks, Mexican novena candles, murals, photos, and more—are so overwhelming that it's hard to look away long enough to focus on the menu. And it takes some focus to decide what to order, when ten varieties of tacos vie for space on the menu with soups and salads, queso fundido, tortas, and flautas as well as standards like guacamole and quesadillas. The selection of tequilas, available in flights of blanco, reposado, and anejo as well as in single shots and a variety of margaritas, is respectable, as is the list of Mexican beers. There are also machines (the kind 7-Eleven uses for Slurpees) for frozen margaritas. The patio seats about 50 and can get pretty raucous. —Julia Thiel

Birchwood Kitchen
2211 W. North | 773-276-2100
$
AMERICAN, EUROPEAN | LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-FRIDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
There's not a cheap shortcut to be found at this ambitious sandwich shop from former Pastoral cheeseman Daniel Sirko and partner Judd Murphy (also of Pastoral). Like every new venture these days it invokes the mantra of local, seasonal, and sustainable. But here those words have real meaning, with ingredients on the menu of hot and cold sandwiches—plus a make-your-own option with house-roasted meats (turkey, ham, beef)—largely sourced in the midwest and served on Labriola and Red Hen breads. The prices reflect that commitment, with most sandwiches in the $6-$9 range, such as hand-carved beef with wonderful funky blue cheese, half melted on toasted sourdough, or the club, laden with juicy roasted turkey breast and thick-cut bacon, or grilled Gruyere with sweet caramelized onions. And if the braised lamb baguette comes off a bit dry all it needs is a dip in the jus. The additional selection of small plates, soups and sides is augmented by a weekend brunch menu with items such as croque madame, Belgian waffles, and polenta and eggs. Beginning in August the restaurant will offer burgers. —Mike Sula

The Bluebird
1749 N. Damen | 773-486-2473
$$
BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY-MONDAY TILL 1 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Want some bacon with your porchetta? On the menu at the Bluebird, a late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar, it's hard to find anything not spiked with smoked pig. An otherwise relatively sane addition to the nightlife corridor stretching up Damen from the Wicker Park crotch, Bluebird's a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great—lots of cured meats and funky cheeses, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. The seasonal menu features dishes like beer-braised rabbit leg with saffron, English peas, and (surprise) bacon risotto. By-the-glass options we tried from the wine list were excellent, and the extensive beer list is sophisticated and heavy on the Belgians. —Martha Bayne

Bon Bon
2333 W. North | 773-278-5800
$
VIETNAMESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | CASH ONLY | BYO
I've always been a champion of the miraculous product of French Indochinese colonization that is the banh mi, so I was excited when Bon Bon Sandwiches moved into this Wicker Park storefront, serving up seven separate banh mi at $3.95 apiece in addition to bubble tea, iced coffee, and a range of Asian sweets. I took in portions of four sandwiches, including the classic with thick slices of headcheese and ham, generous swabs of paté, an indiscriminate tangle of pickled daikon and carrot, token scraps of cilantro and jalapeño, and a smear of mayo. The more unorthodox pork char siu and ginger chicken, that one marinated in "savory caramel sauce," both host toothy, irregular knobs of meat in addition to the usual garnishes. There's also a portobello and two new flavors, a lemongrass beef and a lemongrass tofu. The bread is key. Since Bon Bon's comes from Nhu Lan, half the battle should be won—I've never had a Nhu Lan sandwich whose oven-warmed crust wasn't crackly crisp and whose crumb wasn't lighter than air. But Vietnamese baguettes have a short shelf life, and by the time they're passed over the counters at Bon Bon they've gone soft and spongy. Still, I'm all for the spread of the sandwich. —Mike Sula

The Bristol
2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555
$$$
CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL midnight | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
If we truly lived in a town that cared to eat well, restaurants like chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol would be distributed evenly instead of concentrating in overcrowded, gentrified ghettos like Bucktown or Lincoln Square. The seasonal menu promises interesting variety at accessible prices, with changing offerings that might include a broiled eel sandwich, a perfect pairing of grilled mackerel and romaine in the Caesar, and "Scotch olives," a mutation of a Scotch egg (a boiled egg encased in sausage and deep-fried) and Italian olives All'Ascolana (fat green olives stuffed with pork and veal and deep-fried). Challenges are even more evident on the daily chalkboard menu, where snout-to-tail items beyond pork belly or the increasingly common headcheese put the Bristol (along with places like Mado and the Publican) in the growing class of restaurants catering to the public's curiosity about the fifth quarter and other uncommon proteins. It's indicative of Pandel's guts that he's unafraid to leave the foot on a roasted half chicken, but at the same time he occasionally shows too much restraint. A supper-club-style relish plate special with potted salmon and beer cheese featured beets with a sprinkling of grated bottarga, the delicious, famously funky cured roe of a mullet. But it was applied with such moderation that if I'd never eaten it before I'd think it was nothing more than some ungarnished purple root vegetable. If these dishes still sound fearsome, there's plenty here to feed the timid—duck-fat fries, a burger—and the beer list is deep and fascinating, with lots of large-format bottles and unusual choices. —Mike Sula

Bucktown Soup Cafe
1840 N. Damen | 773-904-8364
$
AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY
Bucktown Soup Cafe, not surprisingly, serves soup. And that's pretty much all it serves. Nine kinds, including two or three vegetarian options, are available daily from an extensive rotating menu; ingredients are seasonally focused, and on my last visit sweet corn was featured in several of the choices. Owner Dino Agudo, who's usually behind the counter, will offer suggestions and cheerfully let you taste as many kinds as you want. All the ones I tried—including a crab and sweet corn bisque, tomato with cheese, vegetable, and "jumbolaya" (a spicy cross between gumbo and jambalaya loaded with mussels, shrimp, sausage, chicken, and okra)—were excellent. Besides soup, there's soda, bottled water, and apple juice; rich crumbly butter cookies from Butter Bella; and a freezer case of Haagen Dazs ice cream treats. While I admire the austerity of the menu, I'd love to see a few kinds of good rolls or other bread added to it. The small piece of Red Hen bread that comes with each order of soup is good, but it wasn't quite enough for me. There's a small dining area with space for a grand total of 16 people, but the soup is served in to-go containers with plastic spoons even if you're dining in. —Julia Thiel

Cipollina
1543 N. Damen | 773-227-6300
$
ITALIAN, DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
This tiny Italian deli and specialty foods store in the short-lived Milk and Honey Bake Shop's former space (still under the same ownership) preserves some of its earlier incarnation with a small selection of pastries, cookies, and cakes as well as a wide range of teas and Intelligentsia coffee. There's also gelato, Italian soda, a soup of the day, and a dozen-odd sandwiches with several vegetarian-friendly options. We tried the marinated artichoke, roasted red pepper, Pecorino Romano, olive tapenade, and arugula sandwich and a special of grilled sweet potato and eggplant with herbed goat cheese. Both had a nice balance of flavors, though a smoked salmon, cream cheese, and red onion breakfast panini was a bit salty. The deli case features cured meats and Italian cheeses, many of which also show up in the sandwich offerings, as well as olives, cornichons, and a few salads. It's not always easy to snag one of the six tables; the focus is on carryout. But the tall saddle chairs next to the plate-glass window are a nice place to hang out if you can. —Julia Thiel

Duchamp
2118 N. Damen | 773-235-6434
$$$
AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | CLOSED MONDAY
"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," declared Marcel Duchamp. So he'd have to scoff at Michael Taus, whose chummy Bucktown spot Duchamp is aesthetically delectable in a couple ways. Unlike the chef's pricier Zealous, main courses here run between $13 and $21, and for that kind of money they're a lot more satisfying than might be expected. We approached a crispy fried skate wing "fish-and-chips" with tartar sauce with some unease, but the dense pieces of fish held up well to the oil under the bread-crumb batter (though the garlic spuds on the side didn't). The awkwardly named "Return to Thailand Bouillabaisse" was simply a luxuriant coconut curry with mussels, shrimp, and a gorgeous piece of sea bass. The least successful of the large plates we tried was a hunk of braised pork shoulder, luscious and tender but so big it rejected the penetration of the puttanesca that sauced it. Small plates were a little more expensive, relatively speaking, but mostly gratifying: a white pizza with sweet lobster offset by some beefy trumpet mushrooms; an off-menu tempura rock shrimp toast afloat in a thick, rich lobster bisque; smoked salmon tartare blinis like little turbans ornamented with dollops of creme fraiche; duck rillettes set atop swabs of cauliflower puree. Utilitarian desserts—creme brulee, lemon tart—were outclassed by a duo of mini chocolate cupcakes and chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. There are a few questionable decorative choices—clear Plexiglas dining room chairs and bar stools that resemble torture devices might've made the ol' Dadaist happy—but the broad communal tables don't seem to foster a rushed, chaotic environment (see Avec, Urban Belly). This is a comfortable, enjoyable spot the neighborhood's lucky to have. —Mike Sula

Mado
1647 N. Milwaukee | 773-342-2340
$$$
MEDITERRANEAN | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO
By the time you read about what I ate at Allison and Rob Levitt's minimalist new Wicker Park restaurant, you may have to wait until next year to try some of it. That's because much of the menu at Mado, in the space formerly housing Barcello's, reads like a shopping list for the week's Green City Market. Preparations are simple, with all due reverence given to the superior quality of the ingredients, raised by an A-list of regional agrarian rock stars. The porchetta, a riff on the central Italian boneless roast pig, was presented as a slab of luscious pork with amalgamated crispy bits, dressed with a light salsa verde and some arugula. Raw sunchokes, sliced into small coins and tossed with lemon and parsley, were every bit as memorable—and so uncomplicated it's a wonder you don't see this dish everywhere. Trout with walnuts was deftly grilled over wood to yield perfectly lush pink flesh under delicate crispy skin. Desserts were also excellent in their restraint, particularly a rhubarb fool, layers of lightly tart fruit and lightly sweet whipped cream. Don't overlook the fragile, buttery shortbread, which crumbles at a touch— it's listed modestly on the menu but it'll be the last thing I forget about this place. This neighborhood has already rejected one great restaurant built on this model in John Bubala's late Baccala—I hope Wicker Park gets it this time. —Mike Sula

Mana Food Bar
1742 W. Division | 773-342-1742
$$
VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | LUNCH: FRIDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
This Wicker Park vegetarian spot from Susan Thompson (who also owns De Cero and Sushi Wabi) and Jill Barron (executive chef at De Cero) is small but pleasant, and the closeness of the tables in the outdoor seating area encourages conversations between strangers. While it's always nice to be able to grill the people at the next table about what they're eating, our waiter's suggestions were also good, especially the salad of Thai watermelon with cucumbers, spicy green chiles, mint, and lime. Other favorites were a blue cheese tart with caramelized onion and "sliders" of brown rice and mushrooms, served with spicy pickles that saved them from blandness (the menu also says they're served with spicy mayo, but I didn't notice it). We didn't encounter any major culinary disasters, though the bi bim bop was unremarkable and went mostly uneaten. The option of ordering most menu items in small or large servings is nice—it's easy to taste several things without ordering way too much food, and if one item isn't a hit, it's no big deal. —Julia Thiel

90 Miles Cuban Cafe
2540 W. Armitage | 773-227-2822
$
CUBAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
The second outpost of Alberto and Christine Gonzalez's Cuban cafe has table seating and a charming outdoor dining area in addition to a counter, but it retains the warmth of the tiny original on Clybourn, as well as sharing the menu. Sandwiches include innovations like one with tofu in Creole sauce alongside traditionals like a medianoche, lechon, and Cubano, the last one of the best I've had in town. Amply portioned dinner plates also offer a few vegetarian options in addition to ropa vieja, lechon, steak, and chicken; all come with plantains and a molded round of rice and beans. We went with a special of masas de puerco, delicious deep-fried pork chunks smeared with mojo and served with rings of white onion. We also liked the crispy tostones and a savory goat cheese empanada. In addition to the food, a big part of the appeal of 90 Miles is the crack service, the staff assiduous and outgoing, making jokes, pouring water, checking on the meal, backslapping. On a friend's last visit Alberto was going around offering wine to his guests (the restaurant is BYO); on mine it was samples of Cuban coffee that left me vowing to return for breakfast. There's Latin music on the sound system, and the space is decorated with wallpaper showcasing vintage Cuban posters and hung with photos—sure enough, that's Alberto with White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras. —Kate Schmidt

Taxim
1558 N. Milwaukee | 773-252-1558
$$$
GREEK | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 1 | CLOSED TUESDAY
Seems like Chicago's been waiting since the Bronze Age for someone to challenge the gimmicky orthodoxy of Greektown, a place to take tourists more than a place to take expectations of a memorable or original meal. But at Taxim 29-year-old former caterer David Schneider, with the help of sous chef Jan Rickerl (Green Zebra, Scylla), has raised the bar for what passes as serious, interesting regional Greek food in a dramatic scrubbing of the late Wicker Park dive Big Horse Lounge. The brass lanterns in this Byzantine lounge (dimly) expose some of some of the freshest yet oldest ideas in village cuisine: humble, seasonal ingredients in simple, wonderful dishes like fresh-shelled favas with yogurt and lamb confit, a recipe from a mountain region where the traditional use of animal fat reflected a scarcity of olive oil. That's not to say Taxim is a bastion of tradition. Pomegranate-glazed duck gyros are an updated nod to street food, dressed in a thin, unstrained house-made yogurt that's deployed with amazing results in a number of dishes, from sauteed baby eggplant to a brawny (if dry) minced goat kebab, as well as on its own for dessert, accented with some tart candied kumquats. The so-far moderately sized selection of hot and cold mezzes and large plates—which also includes supersweet roasted peppers, capers, and kefalograviera cheese and a phyllo-clad goat feta and ramp pie—apparently just hints at Schneider's repertoire, said to include hundreds of recipes from Greece and Asia Minor. The all-Greek wine list (including nine by the glass) is affordable and interesting; add to that a daytime yogurt bar in the front of the house and the promise of rooftop dining amid native Greek verdure from Schneider's grandparents' village. —Mike Sula

Tocco
1266 N. Milwaukee | 773-687-8895
$$$
ITALIAN, PIZZA | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | CLOSED MONDAY
"Remember: good shoes, good wine, and good food make your life better. Ciao from Bruno." That's the sign-off on the voice mail for Tocco, Bruno Abate's high-fashion Wicker Park pizzeria/trattoria/runway, an adjunct to his couture-themed Follia. And it does look mahvelous in a menacing, modish sort of way—the sort of place one's droogies might peet the milk with the knives in it before doing the ultraviolent on some of the lewdies that are filling it up on weekends. But no one should doubt that serious pizzas emerge from the two wood-burning ovens hidden in plain sight behind the bar, particularly the three varieties of schiacciata, minimally topped flatbreads whose saucelessness allows the thin crust to develop in all its full blistered chewiness; I particularly liked the one with funky, full-flavored speck and melted Taleggio. However, the small rear kitchen responsible for the rest of the menu—antipasti, salads, house-made pastas, and meatier second courses—seems less capable of its mission and hampered by less-than-ideal ingredients. A plate of gnocco frito, knobs of fried dough that were undercooked inside, were accompanied by supermarket-quality salumi. And someone in the kitchen seems to be scared to death of overcooking starches. Gelati said to be made by a mysterious "old man from Melrose Park" were variable—a simple vanilla was smooth, creamy, and excellent, but chocolate was icy and over-the-hill. Service is well drilled—as if an inordinate focus on the front of house might make up for neglect of the back. I've never had a look at Abate's footwear, but I found myself wondering if the primary ingredient in his particular recipe for la dolce vita isn't actually fine Italian shoe leather, with the vino and the food running a long second and third. —Mike Sula

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