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Act One Cafe

Act One Cafe

Act One Cafe

1330 W. Morse | 773-381-4550

$$$

American CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, BAR/LOUNGE  | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Act One Cafe. First off, there's the corny name—the restaurant is located in the former Morse Theatre, renamed the Mayne. Add to that an at-first-glance-typical contemporary American menu—chopped, wedge, and Caesar salads, locally farmed roast chicken, steak, and chops. But I was wowed by the fresh and flavorful food. Lumpia-like spring rolls were crisp, tightly wrapped cigars filled with jerk chicken and caramelized plaintains and served with sugarcane-garlic dipping sauce. Appetizers like seared sea scallops with pea puree and Chinese sausage or a Jonah crab parfait with smoked trout, cucumber, and charred tomato aren't exactly run-of-the-mill, and even that Caesar far exceeded the norm, served with a creamy honey-roasted garlic dressing and blessedly free of the dry Parmesan scrapings so many places seem to feel obliged to pile on. Another surprise winner was the seafood boo-yah, bouillabaisse with shrimp, octopus, and the best bay scallops I've had since a trip to the east coast several years ago. A bite of the inch-thick bone-on marinated pork chop, moist and perfectly grilled, has me longing to return. Prices are reasonable, with everything under $20 and all sandwiches under $10. —Kate Schmidt

Black Dog Gelato

859 N. Damen | 773-235-3116

$

ICE CREAM | MONDAY 5-10 PM; SUNDAY, tuesday-thursday NOON-10 PM; FRIDAY-SATURDAY NOON-11 PM | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED | cash only

Onetime Scylla pastry chef Jessie Oloroso's long awaited fuschia-colored ice cream parlor was preceded by gallons of goodwill engendered by her gelato's placement on restaurant dessert menus and in select retail freezer cases. Texturally her execution is flawless, and her flavor combinations are for the most part fascinating—avocado-cinnamon, lemon-ginger, goat-cheese-cashew-caramel and the perpetually out-of-stock sesame-fig-chocolate-chip, to name a few. Occasionally, however, they're almost too aggressive or unbalanced; my tongue remained shriveled the morning after a few spoons of salted peanut, and rich Mexican chocolate packs enough chile heat to seem like an unfriendly dare. House-made sodas and novelties such as the chocolate-and-bacon-dipped whiskey gelato bar and build-your-own ice cream sandwiches add a bit of variety. I'm curious to see what might be offered in the winter months. —Mike Sula

Buen Sabor

4911 N. Western | 773-878-1001

$

LATIN AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

When Pupuseria Las Delicias abandoned this tiny stand-alone building in Lincoln Square for larger digs years ago, it sat sadly empty, waiting for the day some master of the delicious Salvadoran stuffed corn tortilla would reoccupy it. The time is nigh . . . The eight varieties on hand, including standard bean, cheese, pork, and chicken, are surprisingly distinct from the firmer forebears of Las Delicias. These are soft and pliable, much easier to eat, and come with a heaping bowl of the mildly tart slaw (curtido) and the thin red salsa that are de rigueur for maximum pupusa potential. A full array of Salvadoran specialties balance the corn cakes, including empanadas, fried cassava with pork, and soft banana-leaf-wrapped Central-American-style tamales, plus a selection of rice, bean, and protein plates and weekend specials of cow-foot, chicken, or beef-shank soup. Of particular interest area to tropical-fruit hunters are a handful of uncommon drinks including cashew apple (marañon) and two varieties of passion fruit (maracuya and granadilla). —Mike Sula

El's Kitchen

1450 W. Webster | 773-248-5210

$$

BARBECUE/RIBS, SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD, american  | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11

When a casual dining place gets its stuff so right and with such heart that you want to applaud the people who made it happen—Ellen Haran (former real estate gal) and GM Mark Cymerman—somebody, somewhere must get her wings. This corner spot across the street from Webster Place boasts an 18-table sidewalk patio and still smells brand-new inside. But if the decor is ordinary, the food is anything but. Hand-cut onion rings with a barbecue ranch sauce were surprisingly light and wonderfully crunchy; a crisp baby spinach salad with crumbles of feta was sweetened up by candied walnuts and dried cherries. The dilemma of the night—whole or half buttermilk-battered fried chicken?—was solved by our impressive server with Belgian roots and the beer expertise to go with it, who suggested the half along with the brisket sandwich. It turned out to the best fried chicken we've had in years—golden, succulent, and perfectly salty. The delicious chopped brisket is smoked for 12 hours in-house and saturated with a sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce; order it sliced and there's the option of a Carolina-style sauce as well. A bread pudding made by the general manager's 11-year-old son was a warm, supersweet creation with a whiskey sauce that, much like the young man himself, was totally disarming. —Izidora Angel

Gaztro-Wagon

5973 N. Clark | 773-942-6152

$

Global/Fusion/Eclectic | lunch, dinner: Tuesday-saturday | closed sunday, monday | open late: friday & saturday till 11 | byo

Matt Maroni's the man with the plan—the proprietor of chicagofoodtrucks.com and a crucial contributor to the proposed local food-truck ordinance, backed by 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack and currently in committee. While he waits for the sausage to get made, Maroni's opened up Gaztro-Wagon, an Edgewater storefront and—as of just last week—decked-out "mobile food facility." Chicago's ripe for street cuisine that pushes the envelope, and Maroni, a former chef at the Mid-America Club, doesn't disappoint, offering "naanwiches" that deserve a citywide airing. Slow-roasted lamb with "gyro fixins" comes piping hot, with tomato, microgreens, a tad of tzatziki, and a dash of cherry vinegar. Roasted belly of wild boar with pickled red onions was overwhelmed by the olives and underwhelmed by fennel, but the roasted chicken thigh with mushrooms and bites of melted Brie was among the most delicious sandwiches I've ever tasted—succulent, deeply flavored, and redolent of fresh thyme. Cold sandwiches—there's no AC in the storefront—include salmon with watercress, creme fraiche, and mache and a lobster-roll naanwich. Deep-fried plantains are sliced vertically and served in a paper sack the size of a coffee bag with chimichurri I relished. Seasonal soups include chilled watermelon and Crenshaw melon with corn and basil; desserts, which we didn't try, include oatmeal cream pies, caramel popcorn, candied nuts, and "macaron mixta," all from Fritz Pastry. We also appreciated the BYO policy and the freely jawing owner and counter guy. I haven't caught the Gaztro-Wagon out on the streets yet, but you can track its location on Twitter @wherezthewagon. —Kate Schmidt

Joey's Shrimp House

1432 N. Western | 773-772-1400

$

SEAFOOD, CARIBBEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

A surprisingly unremarkable effort for two veterans of the Japonais line. It's your standard Chicago shrimp shack with nautical flourishes, offering the typical battered swimming species (catfish, shrimp, frog legs, etc) deep-fried to dull uniformity and sold by weight. The one absurdly high-ticket item, a tiny $10 crab-cake sandwich, is full of filler and overwhelmed by its bun and dressings. —Mike Sula

La Lagartija Taqueria

132 S. Ashland | 312-733-7772

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY  | BYO  | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

La Lagartija Taqueria is the latest from chefs Luis Perea and Laura Cid-Perea, School of Bayless vets and owners of the popular Bombon Cafe, relocated nearby on Ashland after a fire forced its relocation from Pilsen. The place looks hip and inviting, done up with a bright southwestern color palette and the eponymous "little lizard" represented in various design elements. But though it seems to aspire to be more than a humble taqueria, what's on offer is for the most part yeoman renditions of Mexican and Tex-Mex standards. Queso fundido, a pot of melted cheese with chorizo, was flat and uninspired, with a rubbery substratum of melted cheese. In addition to the usual tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, there are several alhambres, fajita-like mixtures of peppers, onions, cheese, and usually meat meant to be scooped with tortillas. For breakfast there are various blanquillos (eggs with vegetable, cheese, and meat), though you can get anything on the menu anytime. Prices are reasonable, and shrimp tacos are a high point, lightly breaded and fried, then topped with crema and chipotle salsa. —David Hammond

One. Six One

1251 W. Taylor | 312-226-1611

$$

SMALL PLATES, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | Sunday brunch | OPEN LATE: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11

One. Six One touts its "global cuisine," but a quick glance at the menu suggests they may be taking the concept a bit far. Fusion, sure, but fish tacos, arancini, ceviche, and hummus? Still, the samosas were excellent, and the salsa that accompanied the freshly fried chips had a nice flavor even if it was too thin for optimum scoopability (and I would have identified the "avocado mousse" that came with it as guacamole if I hadn't been informed otherwise). Bread didn't arrive until after the appetizers—the server was a little distracted, though very friendly—but the accompanying herb butter was one of the highlights of the meal. Another was the crisp, slightly spicy fried crawfish (it looked like popcorn shrimp) that was part of the "crab and crawfish" entree; the lemony crab cakes were also respectable. "Pasta and rice," though—ricotta-filled agnolotti and mozzarella-stuffed arancini—was a strange-sounding combination that turned out not to make any sense in reality, either. Small portions seem to be the rule here, but we finished with an exception: a rich chocolate pot de creme with a salted coffee-toffee sauce that filled a medium-size mug. There's a patio next to the building that affords a view of grassy lots, which is surprisingly pastoral if you can ignore the passing cars and pedestrians. —Julia Thiel

Shabuka Grill

6604 N. Sheridan | 773-262-5545

$

Indian/pakistani | Lunch, dinner: seven days | byo

I was pleasantly surprised by the food at Zyggyz, this quick-service restaurant's predecessor in the space, but after a change of ownership, the decor and menu are still in a process of transition. On offer currently are straight-up Indian standards like chana masala, saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, and lamb roganjosh in the form of combos (choice of one vegetable and one meat with basmati and naan for $6.99), wraps, and Indian pizzas. The food could be spicier, but you can't beat the prices—especially now through September, when everything's half off. —Kate Schmidt

Smokey Bears BBQ House

3312-14 W. Foster | 773-583-2327

$$

BARBECUE/RIBS | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY  | CLOSED SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

With every neighborhood in Chicago seemingly getting its own rib place these days, Smokey Bears is a more-than-respectable entry in North Park. The ribs are moist and substantial if slightly dry on the outer edges, cooked in a manner that rejects the meat-Jell-O school; the house sauce is recommended over less-successful options of sweet, spicy, mustard-based, or Carolina. The brisket tends toward the fatty, though that keeps it from drying out a little like the pulled pork. Yet all are flavorful, and the sides set Smokey Bears apart from the standard storefront rib joint. The Yukon Smashed Potatoes are rich with cream cheese and butter; the slaw is of the sharp, vinegar variety, with fennel and fresh cilantro thrown in for a nice change of pace; and Mama's Baked Beans features a blend of baked beans, kidneys, limas, and Great Northerns in a good, honest broth. Sweet-potato fries are almost candied with seasonings, but go down fine dipped in any of the sauces. Smokey Bears is AC challenged, with ceiling fans instead, and isn't BYO, perhaps because it's just across the street from North Park University. Yet many in the area will find that the shorter drive—and shorter lines—make it a handy alternative to the justfiably renowned Smoque. —Ted Cox

Sumo Grill

3942 N. Sheridan | 773-880-9520

$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO

This no-frills, family-run, quick-serve Korean joint is considerably scaled back from its predecessor, Bbop. And there's nothing wrong with that, particularly when there's a $5.99 lunch special and the bi bim bop, rice plates, and chap-chae combos will run you less than ten bucks at dinner. They're all customizable with beef, pork, or chicken and come with a side of respectably funky kimchi. A few burgers, a few fried wing variants, french fries, fried dumplings, and vegetable tempura augment the minimal offerings. —Mike Sula

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