In one word – Unwelcome
Location – 3023 N. Broadway (Broadway and Wellington)
Food – Given that head chef and co-owner, Chuy Valencia, is on this season of Top Chef, my eating partners and I had to go check out what the hype was about. Note: They serve their food on small plates, so despite the extensive list of food that follows, we weren’t porkers during the meal. We started with the guacamole. There was nothing truly unusual about the execution, but they executed well. We then had the young green salad, which was served with jicama, oranges, avocado (they didn’t skimp!) and candied pepitas. Those pepitas were an awesome alternative to the candied pecans you usually see in a salad. Then we had the shitake mushroom empanadas. This was probably my least favorite item – I wanted it to be more substantial, but that was tough to do with just a veggie filling. After that, we had chicken flautas, which were served in this flavorful chipotle sauce. This was my favorite dish of the night – highly recommend. We finished dinner with the mahi mahi special of the day. It was a substantial piece of fish and was served with blue potatoes (love) and brussel sprouts (also love). Impressed with the dish, but liked the flautas more. Now time for dessert (no judgment please): We picked the chocolate mousse which had a spice goat cheese center and was served with marshmallow sauce. My eating partners exhibited restraint when eating this treat. But, not me! I pushed through despite the richness of the dish. No regrets!
Drink – It’s BYOB here, cost saver!
Service – This is where I have my beef. I made a reservation and happened to be 10 minutes late (LSD traffic is OOC these days!). Our server was giving my eating partners (who were on time) a hard time about it. He made it very clear that they need to turn over tables fast – not the way to make your guests feel welcome. On the menu, it advises you to “eat it and beat it” and dictates a 2 beer maximum…for a BYOB place. What is this? Ed Debevics? I get that they want manage their tables, but you can’t do it at the expense of the customer experience. Honestly I felt unwelcome during the entire meal. Not cool.
Scene – The restaurant itself is very vibrant and filled with energy. That being said, the vibe of the place is super casual.
Occasion – There were a few larger groups seated and the rest of the tables were filled with 2-4 people. The space itself is not that big, so it’s probably better to come with a small group. Because of their need to turn tables, I wouldn’t come here for a leisurely date. Come when you want to experience good food in the most efficient way.
Dress – Don’t bother with the fancy dress, keep it comfortable and casual.
Price – Cheap! All that food was $25 per person including tax and tip. #BYOBswinning
If you like, try…Anywhere in Pilsen, Adobo Grill, Salpicon
In one word – Potential
Location – 1800 W. Irving Park Road (Irving Park and Ravenswood)
Food – Come to Cafe 28 for Cuban and Mexican cuisine. Overall, I was satisfied with the food. We skipped the appetizer portion, mainly because I foolishly loaded up on the bread and the sweet chipotle butter. Our server was apologetic at the top of our meal because at 7:3o, they were already out of the day’s special. For my main, I went with the almond crusted halibut. It was a chunky size of halibut, I was expecting something much lighter. It was served with jalepeno mashed potatoes and veggies. I ended up much fuller than I wanted to be. Because I have an obsession with plantains, I ordered a side of sweet plantains, which were perfect. One of my eating partners went with the ropa vieja – again, another huge portion. She gave it top reviews but noted it was a bit salty. My other eating partner opted for the vegetarian comal – which is basically veggie fajitas. I will give them props for the amount of veggies they served her – it was like a farmers’ market on a plate. We skipped dessert, partially because they were out of half of the desserts by the time we had finished the meal – again our server was extremely apologetic about being out of those choices.
Drink – One of my eating partners and I both chose the cocktail special – which had muddled lemon, rum and cava. It was a tad sweet, but it definitely grew on me and was substantial enough to last the entirety of the meal.
Service – I wasn’t impressed with the front of the house staff. I really get bothered when I am skipped in line because I am small, so not always seen in a crowd. This hostess did exactly that to me – not cool. I had to be Manhattan assertive to let her know that I had arrived. Then we waited about 20 minutes to be seated despite having made a reservation. Our server at the table was apologetic about not having many of the dishes available, but beyond that, I found her a bit forgettable. Then when the dishes came out, the runner mixed up who each plate was supposed to go to. If the service aspect was up to par, I would have been much more satisfied. For now, I will say they are just not living up to their potential.
Scene – On the Saturday of Halloween weekend, there were a lot of older couples and 30-somethings looking to find a way to avoid a costume.
Occasion – This place is ideal for groups or just couples. It’s got a casual and festive vibe throughout the restaurant.
Price – So my halibut was listed as “market price” and I got stuck with a $27 entree, much more than what I was expecting. I walked out of there spending $54 including tax and tip. A bit overpriced if you ask me.
If you like, try…Coobah
In one word – Empty
Location – 314 W. Erie (Erie & Orleans)
Food – Truth be told, I didn’t eat all that much at Patron’s Hacienda because I used this week’s Gilt City deal which just included appetizers. I went for the Elotitos (corn coated with deliciousness like chili powder and butter). It’s hard to mess it up, and luckily they did not. My eating partner went rogue and chose a non-Mexican food option – the exotic chicken fingers and fries. They seemed to be able to deliver on her expectations. We managed to finagle some free guacamole as well – it was no Adobo Grill, but I still devoured it.
Drink – I picked the Cadillac Margarita made with Tres Generaciones Reposado Tequila. I thought it was fine – I don’t have the best palate to discern the differences between different margaritas beyond “it’s too sweet.” My eating partner grabbed the Mango Margarita, which she did think was too sweet.
Service – No complaints here, we sat at the bar and were always attended to.
Scene – Despite the very authentic Mexican decor, you can still tell this place used to be Chicago’s Coyote Ugly. During primetime eating hours, it was dead. Perhaps because they still haven’t had their grand opening? Maybe it’s hopping during bar hours? If you come here and there are more than 20 people in the space, let me know.
Occasion – I could see this being a stop on a River North bar crawl – just between Citizen and any of the Franklin Street clubs.
Dress – I came from work and fit in just fine. I imagine the later you are there, the more clubby you need to look.
Price – The margaritas are $8-12 a piece. Appetizers tend to be around $8. Legit food like steaks are over $20 (feels cheap for steak, right? not necessarily a good thing).
If you like, try…Uncle Julio’s Hacienda, Moe’s Cantina
In one word – Whelmed
Location – 1434 W. Chicago (Chicago and Bishop)
Food – Remember that pivotal question in 10 Things I Hate About You? – “I know you can be overwhelmed. And you can be underwhelmed. But can you ever just be…whelmed?” The correct response is that you can in Europe and also at Flo. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible – it just was. I opted for the Baja Tilapia Fish Tacos thinking it would be lighter fare. False – a little too much fried and panko for my liking. I did appreciate that they top their fish tacos with Asiago cheese, mainly because I respect the indiscriminate use of Asiago cheese on anything and everything. I will say that I was impressed by the side salad – something that normally I would not notice. It was huge and had beets on it! My eating partner went for the special of the day – shrimp cakes. I suspect that Flo’s forte is brunch and not dinner because we had the same whelmed response.
Drink – They had lots of margaritas on special for cheap. On Wednesday’s their Original Margarita is only $4. Originally I ordered a beer, but they were out of what I wanted. So, I went for a glass of their house Sauv Blanc – surprisingly nice!
Service – I found it strange when the GM of the restaurant came to our table to ask how the service was – this isn’t a hoighty toighty spot where service is critical. I sensed some back room drama, and I didn’t really want to be privy to it. I did find our server to be super endearing. He didn’t have to do much for us, but the little he did was done well.
Scene – I have been here for brunch where it’s hopping. Dinner on a weekday, not so much.
Occasion – Come for brunch with friends. It is good if you are looking to catch up with a friend in a quiet spot at dinner time.
Dress – It’s West Town, no one cares what you wear.
Price – I spent $24 including tax and tip for fish tacos and a glass of wine. Not cheap, but not a total rip off.
If you like, try…Anywhere in Pilsen
Location – 51 W. Hubbard (Dearborn and Hubbard)
In one word – Manic
Food – By going at lunch, I ensured that I could focus on the food and that there was not a wait. I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to approach the menu: They have sushi and tacos and sandwiches. It was a bit manic for my taste. After interrogating our server about her favorite dishes, I settled on the Crispy Baja Fish Sandwich. Fish sandwiches are always risky; you run the chance of the overfried or old fillet. I was pleasantly surprised, the fish with its cornmeal crush was crispy but not oily. The jicama adds a cooling aspect to the meal. My eating partner chose the Sonoma salad (spinach, grapefruit, avocado, walnuts, sunflower seeds and cranberries) – it’s huge, totally shareable.
Drink – So this place can turn into a scene, but not at noon on a Tuesday. We kept it clean and ordered diet Cokes all around.
Service – The server indulged in my Q&A session when I felt overwhelmed by the menu. Points for that. She did seem to forget our table when we wanted to take care of the check. Not ideal when you have lunch hour clientele trying to get back for a 1 pm meeting…
Scene – With that Rockit vibe, you feel hip without the place being inaccessible to the average person.
Dress – You ought to show some effort when you come here. Jeans are fine, but spray a little extra Febreeze on them this time.
Cost – With an entree, soft drink, tax and tip, you can have a $22 lunch. No cheap, but you’ll be full when you leave.
If you like, try…Rockit, Sushi Samba Rio
Location -1865 N. Milwaukee Ave. (773) 252-5687
In one word – Bland
Food – Watch your back, bland hospital food. You’ve got some competition from Irazu.
I was cruelly disappointed when I went to Irazu with a group of six last Saturday, excited to try some tasty Costa Rican food for the first time. I think I first sensed impending disaster when the Guacamole with Chips ($6.50) arrived and it had the consistency of tooth paste. Word of mouth had led us all to Irazu to sample their burritos, not their guacamole, so even though guacamole is usually a fail-safe appetizer, we didn’t give up hope. Almost everyone in the group ordered Steak or Chicken Burritos ($5.50), except for my Trusty Sidekick who had steak tacos ($1.95 each), and me—I tried their Vegetarian Burrito ($4.95), which Irazu’s menu claims is award-winning. In my opinion, this is false advertising. There’s no kind way to say this, Irazu, but when it comes to burritos, you come up extremely short in both girth and flavor. First of all, our burritos were pretty small. When you only need one hand to pick up and eat your burrito, it is not a good sign. Secondly, there was very poor ingredient distribution—I had to hunt to find any avocados among my yellow rice. Finally, the burritos were so flavorless that our table had to keep swapping the salt and pepper shakers between the six of us so that everyone could season each bite themselves. Think that sounds ridiculous? Well, try asking for hot sauce and you’ll get the surprise of your life: hot sauce is an extra $.50. What!? Even the complimentary salsa at the table didn’t offer any relief from the blandness, as it was neither bright nor firery—only watery. Listen up, Bucktown hipsters eating at Irazu—just like you, I heart burritos. But even evil corporations like Chipotle can deliver a better, tastier burrito experience than this (GB NOTE – Some of us LOVE Chipotle, hungry yuppie, don’t hate on us).
Drink – BYOB
Irazu’s legendary Oatmeal milkshakes ($3.00) also came highly recommended, so we tried one. Don’t. Perhaps it wasn’t well mixed, but the shake separated immediately into think sludge on the top, gritty water on the bottom.
Service – The service could have been better and could have been worse. When we were seated, our waiter immediately brought us a bucket of ice for our beer. However, as the meal went on we got less attention. Water glasses were only re-filled once, and we spent about ten minutes trying to flag down someone to bring us napkins.
A couple other FYIs—it’s cash only, though there’s an ATM on site. A standard 18% gratuity is added to parties of 6 or more. Because the space is so tiny, reservations are not accepted, so expect a wait.
Scene – From the outside, Irazu looks pretty sketchy. The first thing you’ll notice—thick, iron security bars on the outside of all the windows—is anything but welcoming. The inside of the restaurant is tiny. The dining room is snug with only a handful of tables, and the décor is plain, aside from a really lovely mural painted on the main wall. That mural and some good people watching are Irazu’s best features.
Dress – Wear your best hipster wear to truly fit in with the in-crowd here. In other words, you’ll be dressed to impress in jeans and your favorite ironic graphic tee.
Cost – With tax and tip, it was $10 per person. Definitely cheap eats.
If you like, try… hospital food. Seriously.
Ok, restaurants with a similar menu and feel are El Famous, La Pasadita, Tio Luis.
p.s. Dear Readers, I appreciate the fact that Irazu came highly recommended and seems to have a large, cult-like following in Chicago. You tell me—is my review unfair? Did I just come to Irazu on an extremely off off-day?
Written by hungry yuppie
Location – 1529 W Chicago Ave (between Armour & Ashland)
In one word – Haricots verts (GB Note: BYOBoy, this is TWO words…just saying)
Food – Concept : Mexican with an emphasis on French influence. Sounds great, but it didn’t quite come together on a plate. The brunch options were limited, but the place smelled great nonetheless. Fresh.
Any restaurant that calls itself French should make a good quiche, so I tried it here. *Sigh* It was a bit soggy and I think it had deli ham in it? I was confused, and not really into my meal. My date had the stuffed crepes, which were saved by the poblano sauce. Her green beans were amazing though. Score one for the French.
I think my hesitation with this place is that I’m not so sure what they’re trying to do with the whole Mex/French thing. It’s not fusion. It’s more like a highlighting of French influences in Mexican cuisine resulting from the occupation (circa 1860). Muy muy Meta. It has great potential, so I will be coming back for dinner, or for the mussels (when I have baller status).
Drink – I had a Bloody Mary (with cucumber!), my date, a Mimosa. Both delicious. I was surprised to hear there was no espresso. Minus French points.
Service – No line, no wait. There were maybe four other groups there on a Sunday. We were seated promptly. Our orders were taken quickly. I think my quiche delayed our meals a bit, but aside from that, I was impressed with how speedy they were. I am a klutz and spilled my drink and our server brought me a new one and said, “It was the glass’s fault.” Cute.
Scene – Super casual. The décor is great. The space is small, but they use it well. I personally take all things French very seriously, but I also don’t need an occasion to dress up. Another party had a girl with a women’s lacrosse hoodie from my alma mater, and I was close to saying “Put a real shirt on girl, you’re making me look bad!” Don’t wear school/sports/hoodies to brunch.
Occasion – This could be a nice dinner date. Or a brunch for four?
Cost – Solid $15, $20 with drink.
If you like…, try – Bom Bon Americano, Mundial, Maize.
Written by BYOBoy
Location – 1721 W. Division (Division and Hermitage)
In one word – Michelada
Food – The way the owners describe their place a “taco bar and rock cantina” is amazingly accurate. My eating partner and I stopped here for a late night bite. I sampled the tacos al pastor (pork). My dish was a platter full of pork with grilled vegetables. On the side I was given tortillas to make tacos (each order gives you 3-4 tacos). The food was fine, but nothing to get particularly excited about. I don’t think I would come here for a full dinner again. Instead, I might grab an fail-safe appetizer like nachos or guacamole.
Drink – So my eating partner told me about this drink called a Michelada. Maybe you’re more drink saavy than I, but this was my first foray into this beer cocktail. It feels like you’re drinking a Bloody Mary meets Margarita meets beer. It was a whole lot of flavor, more than I could handle.
Service – We were there late on a Saturday night. By that point in the night, most people were there just for drinks instead of an actual meal. Despite this, our server paid enough attention to us. I couldn’t hear most of what he said though because the restaurant was SO loud.
Scene – This place is like eating during Dia de los Muertos all year long. I stared at a bunch of skulls hanging on the wall through out the meal. Totally distracting. I stand by my opinion that Wicker Park is the new Lincoln Park. So, if you’re there late at night, expect to see at least one Trixie crying in the bathroom because she’s reading too much into the fact that her crush didn’t acknowledge her when he walked in that evening.
Dress – If you’re me, you’ll wear a comfortable cotton dress with appropriate give (because you know you’ll finish that plate of nachos). Otherwise, you can get by with some clever hipster t-shirt and jeans.
Cost – Tacos and a Michelada cost me $16. If I liked the meal more, I would have considered this a steal.
If you like, try…Uncle Julio’s Hacienda, Zapatista
Location – 445 N. Clark (Clark and Hubbard)
In one word – Stirring
Food – As you probably know, Frontera Grill is run by the renowned chef Rick Bayless. This guy is the expert when it comes to creating gourmet Mexican food. Frontera is the middle priced option in Bayless’s restaurant mix. After scouring the menu for a while (over pretty fab guac), I finally settled on pork tacos. Yes, I wanted to pick something a little more sexy, perhaps something with mole, but my stomach led me to the tacos. I wasn’t disappointed. Everything on my plate was wonderfully seasoned. The food really felt sophisticated. Surprisingly, I was stuffed after lunch, so I didn’t take advantage of dessert…this time.
Drink – You drink the margarita here. I was content with the standard Gold Margarita. At first, I thought it tasted weak. Then an eating partner instructed me to stir it and all of sudden, it was perfect. My only beef is that if I order a drink, it should be ready to drink when I get it. Needing an extra stir is minor, but if you have a reputation to hold, take care of the details.
Service – Despite the stirring episode, the service overall was good. We came at lunch, when the restaurant is unexpectedly busy. I always felt well attended to and our server was able to give us good recommendations and confirmed I was doing something good in ordering the pork tacos.
Scene – It’s lively here. There’s music playing and colorful art all over the walls. Compared to its more upscale neighbor Topolobambo, Frontera is more business casual. Jeans and a tee would be under dressing, but a suit is overdressing.
Cost – You’ll probably dole out $30 – 40 here for dinner.
If you like, try…De Cero, Zapatista
Location – 1640 W. 18th Street (18th and Ashland)
In one word – Friendly
Food – I was really excited to visit Mundial as I had received so many recommendations to go there. Mundial changes their menu (which I loved), so my experienced eating partner had as new of a menu as I did. We started with the empanadas. I liked that the dough was really flakey! For my main, I got the squash ravioli. It was served with a coconut cream sauce, probably not the healthiest choice…but those are the sacrificies I make in order to report on good food! We then ordered two desserts – both full of cream and sugar. My favorite was actually the ice cream recommended to us by our server.
Drink – The place is BYOB. As you know, I’m a real fan of BYOB, it’s the easiest way to keep costs down in a meal.
Service – I think by the end of the meal, we were good friends with our server. She took pleasure in the fact that we enjoyed the meal. It was really refreshing to be in a place where the staff felt responsible for whether or not their customers had a good experience.
Scene – I thought it was going to be a lot more trendy than it was. On a Thursday night, the place was filled with 30 and 40-somethings. I noticed that the floor was linoleum, which gives the restaurant a more casual vibe.
Dress – No need to dress up, especially going into summer. You’d be fine in jeans and a nice shirt (for both men and women)
Cost – We ordered a lot and I tipped really well, as a result, it was $39/person. However, I think you don’t have to order as much and could eat for $30.
If you like, try…May Street Cafe