Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Recent Chicago Restaurant Visits: Bucktown/Wicker Park Edition

For the first few years that we lived in Chicago I was very timid about spending time in Wicker Park. It always had a rougher around the edges reputation and I had really only been to the neighborhood once or twice until about a year and a half ago. Since then, I have conquered my fear of the area (it's actually more up than up and coming anymore) and have fallen in love with it. We spend a lot of time in Wicker Park dining, drinking, and hanging out. Recently, my BFF Alexis moved into the neighborhood so we have been spending a lot of our weekends up there. The bars there are cool-- and a bit more grown up than the ones in Lakeview and a bit more laidback than the ones in River North. And the restaurants are great. I'm a convert!

Here are my thoughts on a few of the Wicker Park restaurants we have dined at recently...


Red Door
Bucktown

On Sunday Alexis and I met at Red Door for a leisurely brunch. Red Door has an adorable outdoor patio that's almost twice the size of the whole restaurant, which is where we ate. Red Door's brunch menu included a few twists on traditional breakfast items like a shrimp Benedict or the croque madame, which is what I ordered. The service here was a bit underwhelming and the food here is good, but certainly not the best brunch I have ever had in this city. The highlight of brunch at Red Door though, is the option to pay $22 for a brunch entree and bottomless mimosas. The mimosas and patio are what would have me coming back again!
Red Door on Urbanspoon

The Southern
Bucktown

We had dinner here for the first time about a year ago, but I recently went back and met Alexis for some cocktails and snacks after work. The Southern has amazing outdoor spaces-- a cute and spacious patio (where we sat) and various indoor nooks and spaces that open up and convert to outdoor spaces. It's a perfect place for a summer dinner or cocktails and this place is usually crazy busy later on weekends with a big bar crowd. I would describe the food here as southern comfort chic. They are famous for their mac and cheese (they even have a mac and cheese truck that roams the city during weekday lunch hours), which I tried on my first visit here along with some really delicious crab cakes. This time around, Alexis and I stuck with appetizers-- an order of hush puppies served with spinach and artichoke dip. It was rich and a splurge, for sure. We also got an order of their southern edamame, which I loved! It's actually big char-grilled sugar snap peas that you can slide out of the pods like you would edamame and they serve them with a green goddess dipping sauce. A really different and really tasty appetizer. Also, a fresh and lighter compliment to the heavier hush puppies.

One thing to mention about The Southern (that we have never tried) is that they have a more extensive menu for large parties. If you reserve ahead of time for a big group, they offer big family-style options like a fried chicken, brisket, or pork shoulder dinner. These are items you can't find on their regular menu.
The Southern on Urbanspoon

Francesca's Forno
Wicker Park

Francesca's Forno is the Wicker Park sister of the Mia Francesca family of restaurants-- a group of Italian restaurants dotted all over the city and surrounding suburbs. The food at Francesca restaurants is consistently good (we even hosted our rehearsal dinner at their Gold Coast restaurant Francesca's on Chestnut), but I was pleased to find out that Forno had a bit of a different feel than the rest of them. It's got more of a laidback pizza and wine bar vibe. The emphasis here is on forno, or oven, so there are a lot of pizzas and grilled options available here versus the more traditional menus at their other restaurants.

I met Alexis here (are you sensing a theme?) on a Monday evening because they offer $10 wine flights on Mondays. Yes, please! Your choices are red, white, or sparkling and then the bartender curates a flight of three of his/her choice. I ended up with a flight of rose, Moscato, and prosecco. So fun!

For dinner, we started by sharing my new favorite dish: a roasted corn panzanella that I recently recreated and shared here. After that, Alexis went with a risotto with sausage and peas and I decided on pasta. It was served with eggplant in a tomato basil sauce and big chunks of cheese. It was simple and delicious, which is a good way to describe the majority of the menu here.
Francesca's Forno on Urbanspoon

Piece Pizzeria & Brewery
Wicker Park

Piece is one of the most fun-- and cost effective-- dining options we have found in Wicker Park. It's also one of my husband's new favorite places. We brought his brother Patrick here since the pizzas are tasty, the atmosphere is fun, and because Patrick is a beer afficianado and Piece is a pizzeria and brewery.

At Piece your pizzas are fully customizable, which is a big draw for me. You start with a red pizza (sauce + mozzerella), white pizza (oil + spices + mozzerella), or New Haven style pizza (sauce + parmesan), choose a size, and then add your toppings. They have the basics like pepperoni and olives to the more exotic like bacon and clams. The pizzas are served family style at the table on big sheet pans and they are so good! On this visit the three of us ordered two small pizzas-- a New Haven with veggies and goat cheese (my choice) and a red pizza with pepperoni and sausage (their choice). Even with two small pizzas, we returned home with 3 or 4 leftover slices.

It's a great place to come with groups or even with kids-- it's loud and fun and who doesn't love pizza?
Piece on Urbanspoon

Big Star
Wicker Park

I am ashamed to admit that until recently, I had never dined at Big Star. Big Star is known around Chicago as home to the city's best tacos, which explains why there is always a huge crowd outside and a 2 hour wait no matter what time of day you show up. I'm an impatient person and I am all about making reservations (they don't take them), so this is a big part of why we have never eaten here before.

Spoiler alert: Alex hates all beans.

The actual restaurant is very small, but in the summer months Big Star opens up a spacious patio in front that probably more than doubles the available seating. I have also heard several rumors that they are expanding into the lot next door too. They definitely should!

My Wicker Park dining partner in crime.

We ordered a LOT of food and drinks here and it was all surprisingly affordable. Sidenote: Big Star is cash only.



We shared a pitcher of margaritas, an order of chips and guacamole, and also an order of the queso fundido. The guacamole was super fresh and probably one of the best that I have ever had. I'm not usually a big fan of queso, but this one was actually really good-- a little spicy from the chorizo and poblanos with melty cheese, served with warm tortillas.


The tacos and other entree options are all served a la carte and family style. I was a particularly big fan of the fish taco. I also tried their special tostado which was topped with a mix of summer veggies and black beans. Alex went totally rogue and ordered a few tacos and Big Star's version of a hot dog-- wrapped in bacon on a bolilo roll topped with lime mayo, mustard, onions, and pinto beans (he hates beans and picked them all off... I ate a few of them).


Big Star is really good and definitely worth the wait. Are they the best in Chicago? I'm not totally sure as I am still really partial to the tacos at Taco Joint. Are they better than the ones at Flaco's, La Cocina, de cero, and Mercadito? Hands down, yes. Next stop: Antique Taco and then I can provide you with some more Chicago taco knowledge!
Big Star on Urbanspoon



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