Street food is sometimes the best reflection of a local culture. Street food vendors the world over have created some of the tastiest foods available in any given city.
Some of Chicago’s best restaurants also serve some of the best street food, which may sound strange, but in the hands of a capable chef, all the personality and excitement of food that was born on the street can be translated to even a fine dining environment.
Here are five of Chicago’s best restaurants that serve some of the many wonderful foods that originated on streets around the world.
Frontera Grill. The first restaurant in what is now the Rick Bayless empire of restaurants, Frontera Grill has always focused on the simple foods of Mexico, the foods many times served by Mexican street vendors in Chicago as well as south of the border. Veracruz-style Fresh Corn Tamales contain roasted poblano peppers and fresh cheese, and Cheesy Corn Masa Quesadillas, Mexico City-style, are the kind of street snacks you might enjoy in the Mexican capital, filled with cheese, epazote and avocado-tomatillo salsa.
Fat Rice. The East is a rich proving ground for inventive street foods – in China, Thailand, and the Philippines, street entrepreneurs are constantly developing new and interesting foods to tickle the palates of tourists and locals alike. Focusing on the foods of Macao, Abe Conlon’s Fat Rice serves dishes like fried rice, which changes every day, reflecting as do so many street foods the availability of local ingredients and the daily whims of the chef. Also, on the menu at Fat Rice are dishes like Pork and Ginger Dumplings, the kind of easy-to-eat street foods one finds all over Asia and, fortunately for us, also in Chicago.
Fat Willy’s Rib Shack. Fat Willy’s Rib Shack brings to the northside the downhome flavors of southside barbecue vendors, some of whom operate out of brick-and-mortar buildings, while others just set up their smokers in empty lots and start making the neighbors happy. The signature Chicago barbecue item is the rib tip, and our favorite meal at Fat Willy’s Rib Shack is a plate of tips and sides of Cole slaw and beans, a simple and simply delicious meal that reflects the great tradition of Southern cooking on Chicago’s Southside, transplanted to the Northside.
Shaw’s Crab House. The lobster roll has all the attributes of classic street food the world over: it’s simple to make, contains ingredients that are typically available in a specific location, and is easy to eat while standing up or walking on, you know, the street. Presented on a special bun, the mayonnaise-based lobster salad usually contains just diced celery. The lobster roll is an East Coast favorite, sold at humble lobster shacks and, now, fine dining restaurants. It’s really good.
Dutch and Doc’s. The hot dog is one of the few street foods still actually vended on Chicago streets. The fully dressed Chicago hot dog – on a poppy seed bun, with a long dill pickle, fresh cut onions and mustard – is still one of the most beloved and humble of all local street foods, especially during baseball season. At Wrigleyville’s Dutch and Doc’s, Chef Chris Pandel has created one of the finest wieners in the city; made from random scraps of the finest beef, the hot dogs at Dutch and Doc’s raise the red hot to new heights of deliciousness.