In a given year, Steve Dolinsky does about 92 stories, some of which have multiple locations. Then figure in all of the places he tries that don't make the air, and you're talking about dozens of restaurants, bakeries, bars and food shops visited each year, always looking for just one thing: delicious.
So this year, as we take a long look back over the past 12 months, he's sharing seven of his favorites from 2019, and they're really all over the map.
Big Ed's Barbecue opened 11 years ago in North Chicago, and since it moved to Waukegan in 2012, they've attracted a devoted following. Slow-smoked baby backs, tips and burnt ends are all top-notch.
Grains, hops and flour are the recurring themes at Middle Brow Bungalow, located along West Armitage in Logan Square. The brewpub started out as a passion project. Jess Galli oversees anything coming out of the oven, including the high-moisture loaves that are formed by hand each day, proofed, scored and baked-off in heavy cast-iron. Get 'em with whipped mortadella or just the simplest butter, seasoned with French sea salt.
In the Spring, we visited Bun Cha Hanoi, located in a predominantly Korean Glenview strip mall. It's a restaurant focused on one dish. Bun cha is a series of components including boiled rice stick noodles, topped with a bit of fried shallot; a bit of fresh lime, garlic and chili; roasted and then grilled pork - both the belly, in skewers, as well as ground pork patties. It comes with a tiny egg roll, and of course, like nearly every Vietnamese dish, a condiment plate with crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, herbs and lettuce.
One of Pilsen's legendary carnitas restaurants opened a second location in Gage Park this year, allowing them to increase production. The Carbajal family started making and selling carnitas in Pilsen in 1975 and the recipe for their beloved dish hasn't changed a bit. What are carnitas, you ask?
"They're essentially the main staple dish that comes out of our hometown of Uruapan," said Marcos Carbajal, whose father started Carnitas Uruapan 44 years ago. "Carnitas is essentially a catch-all term for ribs, shoulder, pork belly and pork skin."
In Hyde Park, Chef Erick Williams converted the space at 53rd and Harper into Virtue Restaurant and Bar; an homage to Southern American cooking. His inspiration comes from all over the South with menu items like creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, which form the base for a short rib that's been braised and then topped with homemade onion rings. Biscuits are a given here, but the soft butter and the assertive pimento cheese only serve to increase their attractiveness.
Back in March, I had lunch with the Turkish Consul General at Cafe Istanbul, a fantastic Turkish restaurant in Wicker Park, where kebabs are the star. You can get the adana; doner; or a unique, horizontal one called cag kebab, which is cooked over charcoal, skewered, then served with rice.
This fall, a trip to Elk Grove Village yielded some of the best Cuban sandwiches in the region. When the guys behind Cubano Bros. wanted to open their restaurant, they knew that if they were going to serve Cuban sandwiches, they would have to use the right kind of bread.
"It was very difficult to bake the bread so we actually flew down to Miami, met with a baker and we have a baker that sends us the dough, and we bake the bread here every morning," said co-owner David Fernandez. "It's a little difficult but it's definitely worth it."
The long loaves are sliced in half, brushed with some melted butter, then proceed to get topped with slices of ham and shredded pork that's roasted in-house. There's Swiss cheese, tart pickles, a squeeze of mustard and then the sandwich is topped and brought to the giant press. The outside of the sandwich is almost completely brushed with butter. It gets pressed for a couple of minutes until the bread is flat and crisp. Sliced on the diagonal, it's perfect and just like you'd see in Miami. The key is no one ingredient dominates.
"You want to get a little bit of everything in each bite. Bigger is not always better, they're pretty large sandwiches; it's getting that right taste that makes it a Cuban sandwich," said Fernandez.
In Steve's Extra Course Video, he goes back to Chez Benoit in Highland Park, for one of his favorite Extra Courses from the past year - a raspberry pistachio cake that he still can't forget.
Big Ed's BBQ
4030 Northpoint Blvd, Waukegan
Middle Brow Bungalow
2840 W. Armitage Ave.
Bun Cha Hanoi
1705 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview
2813 W. 55th St.
Also: 1725 W. 18th St., 312-226-2654
1462 E. 53rd St.
2014 W. Division St.
571 Landmeier Rd., Elk Grove Village