EDITOR’S NOTE: The year’s end brings out the “best of 2017” lists from people who write about food, and a lot of the same names and neighborhoods turn up on most of them (including mine).

Keng Sisavath, founder of the Strange Foods Festival which had its second successful year in Logan Square in November, offers another way of looking at our city’s vast and varied culinary scene—from the viewpoint of the influx of young Asian immigrants who are influencing the scene not just in traditional Asian neighborhoods like Chinatown and Argyle Street, but all over the city. (He’s of Lao heritage, born on the Laos-Thailand border and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin.)

As he says, “My list is comprised of mostly mom and pop restaurants because it’s where I enjoy eating the most. Some things may be strange to most, but this is what the locals love and enjoy, including myself. I will not list prices because most of the stuff I yearn and pay for can be categorized as cheap eats; what matters to me is that these are the absolute hit-the-spot foods in Chicago for me.” Here’s his list, with 20 restaurants offering a couple of bites at each:


Phò Gà, Lau De: New Asia


Where: 2705 W. Lawrence Ave. (Albany Park)

An order of steaming hot chicken pho (Phò Gà) from here will come with freshly acquired chicken from Aden’s Live poultry next door, for the ultimate hangover cure. The chicken they use here has a little more chew to its meat so expect it to be tougher.  They chose this kind of chicken because older generation Vietnamese love a chewier texture in their food. Another favorite of mine is the Goat hot pot (Lau De) with a side order of egg noodles and watercress. The sticky goat skin and bone marrow in the goat bone are the stars of this dish.  

Tip: The hot pot setup can feed up to 4 people.  Also take the broth home and throw in some pho noodles and voila, leftover pho. 


Spicy Fried Pork Skin,  Fish Egg Soup: Dancen


Where: 5114 N. Lincoln Ave. (Lincoln Square)

This pork skin dish is probably the dish I’ve ordered the most since moving to Chicago.  At first bite you get the crunch from the skin; then softness from the fat, then chewiness from the skin—and that’s just the texture side of it. A great two hit combo is the spicy fish egg soup. The cod egg soup has that nice beady-crumbly texture of the eggs as you bite into it; the cod roe soup is the fish sperm version, although tasty too.  

Tip: Always remember they open at 6pm daily and only one order of the (very popular) pig skin dish is allowed per table. 


Grilled Salmon Head, Wasabi Soba Noodles: Hiromi’s Oriental Restaurant


Where:  3609 W. Lawrence Ave. (Albany Park)

The menu at Hiromi’s is half Filipino and half Japanese, that’s because it’s a Japanese and Filipino husband and wife team. If you’re a fan of fish collar or just picking meat off the fish head, then this grilled salmon head is for you. It’s cooked perfectly with just the right amount of char. The meat is very moist, flaky and there’s tons of omega fatty goodness surrounding it. The soba noodles are also a great dish to eat right after you take a bite of the fish meat. The wasabi is placed on the side to use to your liking.

Tip: This place is hidden really well so you may not want to try and look for it while you drive which can be dangerous. Just park near and start walking. Also expect the TV to be blasting Filipino game shows and karaoke. 


Churrasco Guatemalteco, Langoustines: Tortuga’s Latin Kitchen


Where: 3224 W. Lawrence Ave. (Albany Park)

I’m not a steak expert but this is some of the best steak I’ve had. The cut of choice is skirt steak. This dish also came with a bonus bite, the Guatemalan Longaniza and a few sides such as rice and beans. So not only did this steak only cost $16, but it tasted a lot better then most steak I’ve had at higher prices. This goes to show Latin folks really know how to do their steak. The langoustines were also a favorite of mine, not too salty and great mixed with the rice. Sucking out the brain matter is where it’s at!

Tip: There’s a big dance floor in the middle so if you’ve had one way too many Guatemalan beers, you can showcase your skills there. There’s also live music sometimes on the weekends.


Lobster size Crawfish in Garlic Butter Sauce, Bitter Melon Soup: Saigon Bistro Crawfish


Where: 6242 N. California (Rogers Park) 

I’ve been eating crawfish here since before the big surge of Vietnamese-Cajun places hit Chicago in the last 3 years. The garlic butter sauce here is so good people doggy bag the leftover sauce and use it to create other dishes at home. When eating crawfish one would never think about eating the claw meat but over here they’re big enough to. I would also recommend the stuffed pork bitter melon soup. It’s very light and flavorful. The melon has just enough bitterness to satisfy your taste buds if you love bitter food.  

Tip: Call ahead to see if they have the monster crawfish and keep in mind on the weekends they have live DJ’s and serve up food into the wee hours.  


Manty Steamed Dumplings, Shashlik, Lula Kebab: Jibek Jolu


Where: 5407 N. Lincoln Ave. (Lincoln Square)

I would say these are my 2nd favorite dumplings in Chicago right behind the bell dumplings by A Place By Damao. At first bite the dumplings explode in your mouth with tons of flavor, stuffed with beef and onions. The giant skewers of grilled meat combo were also very explosive and juicy. 


Cabrito Estilo Monterrey, Iguana Stew: La Casa De Samuel


Goat leg

Where: 2834 W. Cermak Rd. (Little Village)

I chose to put the iguana stew on the list as oppose to the whole roasted one because of the rich flavor from the broth. Although the whole roasted iguana is a great way to entertain clients or special guests, it’s a tad pricy and didn’t satisfy my taste buds. The baby goat leg is also a must order; you have the choice of different parts of the goat, but I prefer the leg. It’s served with fresh tortillas and various sauces to make a taco. You get a big hunk of tender juiciness when you order this bad boy. This place also serves exotic dishes such as crickets, rattlesnake and bulls’ testicles.  

Tip: The exotic dishes are very pricy so if you want to try everything bring friends to minimize the cost.  Also expect a mariachi band to entertain you as you eat. 


Laotian Tapioca Noodles Stew, Black Pearl Dessert: Ryuu Asian BBQ


Where: 2766 N. Milwaukee Ave. (Logan Square) 

This Laotian noodle dish is made from half tapioca flour and half rice flour.  It looks like udon noodles but the texture is very different, very chewy and doughy. What really makes this dish shine is the chili garlic oil added at the end. Also order the Lao dessert to top off your meal: black sticky rice coconut milk lychee fruit. Ryuu BBQ is run by a team of Korean and Thai husband and wife. The wife’s mother is a Laotian chef which is why there are a few Laotian items on the menu.

Graziano prosciutto


Gaeang Gai Normai, Fried Chicken Skin: Immm Rice and Beyond


Where: 4949 N. Broadway (Uptown)

The fried chicken skin surely isn’t good for your cholesterol level but it’s pretty damn tasty. I love the crispiness at first bite, then a little bit of chew towards the end. The chicken curry (Gaeng Gai Normai) is great also because it has bone-in chicken along with the crunchy texture of the sour bamboo. I love the ligaments part the most because it’s cooked to the point where you can easily chew them. Great dish to eat with sticky rice.     

Tip:  Order the sampler platter, it’ll minimize cost and allow you to try everything.  


Raw Crab Papaya Salad, Yum Talay Glass Noodles: Fireside


Where: 5739 N. Ravenswood Ave. (Andersonville)

If you want the best Papaya salad in Chicago than I suggest you come here.  It does come at a cost, though, if you’re not use to staying up late: you won’t be able to get this dish until 11:30 pm on the weekends. I love the papaya here because of the strong funky flavor and the crunchy texture of the papaya itself. What makes a great dish even better is the raw crab and rice noodles they mixed in with it. Another must- have dish is the Yum Talay seafood salad with glass noodles. The glass noodles are what makes this dish. I love the slippery texture of it as it’s coated with the sauce of the salad and slides down your throat.

Tip: Coming here at 11:30 pm will show you an empty dining area but coming here after midnight will give you a lively atmosphere full of Thai patrons.  So you choose how you want to enjoy your atmosphere while you dine on the funky goodness—quiet and peaceful or lively and rowdy?


Pork Ribs Verdolagas Sauce, Mexican Beef Jerky: Lindo Michoacán Grocery Store


Where: 3142 W. Lawrence Ave (Albany Park)

Every now and than I crave that funky chew that this place has to offer. The Mexican jerky here has a nice tough chew that I look for, funk that I love and the beefy taste that us carnivores yearn for.  They sell this by the pound at $17.99 a lb. If you’ve ever had dry-aged steak, that’s exactly what the aftertaste is like. The other dish I love is the pork ribs verdolagas. If you like spicy green salsa and pork ribs than this dish is for you. What I like about this dish is the pork riblets. It’s just something about pulling the meat off the bone with your tongue that gets me every time.  

Tip: There’s also an attached restaurant on the other side of the market so make sure you check that out too.  


Noodle Bar: C’est Bien Thai


Where: 3900 N. Lincoln Ave. (North Center)

Some wouldn’t think of this as a noodle bar but it is—an underground noodle bar.  The noodle menu isn’t advertised to the general public, so even if you able to get the noodle menu you still have to decode it.  I really love the yen ta fo noodles here.  I’m a noodle guy so I love all sorts of noodles but what I like about the yen ta fo is the fat wide noodles they use. The pinkness from the broth comes from a paste they use to season it. I would say there’s about 8 different noodle items on the menu.  

Tip: If you can’t read Thai I would advise you to randomly pick from the menu or just bring a translator. Picking randomly makes it more exciting though.


Periwinkle Snails, Stir Fry Watercress: Original Triple Crown Restaurant


Where: 211 W. 22nd Pl. (Chinatown)

It’s very hard to know if certain Chinese restaurants will have the snails in season, but over here they seem to have it every time I crave it.  Periwinkles are small black snails, cooked in garlic and black bean sauce.  I also like it that that chop off the tail end of the shell for better airflow when you suck the meat out. I do advise you to remove the hard casing on the top of the snail. I added the watercress dish because whether it’s here or any other Chinese restaurant, I always get this dish.  

Tip: Eat everything with your hands including rice and the stir fry watercress.  There’s no grace in eating this dish which is why it’s so fun to eat.  Oh and another thing, I really don’t care to order anything else from the menu except these two dishes.


Roasted Pork Knuckles, Bell Dumplings: A Place By Damao


Where: 2622 S. Halsted St. (Chinatown)

Every time I’m in Chinatown I always order the roasted pork knuckles from here, to go. Although it’s best to eat it there sometimes, I just want to enjoy it at the comfort of my own home. I’m a big fan of pig trotter already and then you roast it Chengdu Szechuan style? Prepare to feel a little tingle sensation and stickiness to your lips as you eat this dish.  The bell dumplings are also a favorite of mine. The molten red pepper sauce they put on it is everything although it taste great without it. I have a feeling you’ll place another order of these dumplings after the first. 

Tip: There’d also a cafeteria style service so get your doggy bag ready to order some takeout.  I recommend everything from the hot bar.


Kobe Beef Pho, Chopped Chicken Salad: Pho 5Lua


Where: 6261 N. McCormick Blvd (North Park)

The beef used in this pho is advertised as kobe beef, but I’m not sure it really is. It does taste a lot cleaner and more flavorful then the regular beef pho, though. There’s no need to add any condiments except Sriracha sauce if you need that little kick. I personally think a good bowl of pho shouldn’t need to be dressed up. Another great dish is the whole chopped chicken salad,  It’s a great dish to nibble on as you slurp your delicious pho. On the salad you’ll find mountains of unfertilized egg yolks.  It’s basically just the yolk of the egg that hasn’t been fertilized yet. It has a nice creamy texture and yolky flavor. The salad also has big chunks of liver and gizzards and comes with the same dressing you’ll find for dipping spring rolls.

Tip: The small size pho is big enough to fill you up and you can ask them to throw in a few unfertilized chicken eggs too. The chicken salad is big enough to feed 3 people, so be careful not to over order. 


Offal Rice Congee, Headcheese: VN Tofu and Fast Food


Where: 1024 W. Argyle St. (Uptown)

In this small shop they sell all sorts of Vietnamese snacks and a variety of tofu, to go only. Offal rice congee is a favorite bite of mine here. The congee has blood cakes, liver and intestines. It’s very hearty and comforting when you’re sick or hungover.  The headchesese is made from wood ear mushrooms and various pig parts including the ear and snout. At first bite you’ll sink your teeth into gelatinous texture then you’ll get an awesome crunch from the pig ears and wood ear mushroom.  

Tip: The congee is only available on the weekends and the headcheese is available every day. The congee usually sells out before 3 pm so get there quick.


Shrimp Squid Ink Fried Rice, Shrimp Cakes: Bites


Where: 3313 N. Clark St. (Lakeview)

A great starter here is the shrimp cakes.  It comes as 3 huge puck size cakes and a side of dipping sauce. I personally don’t use the sauce since it’s already good on its own. It has a texture like an Italian sausage with a crispy skin on the outside. The squid ink fried rice dish here will leave your mouth black but it’s well worth it. Actually you can rinse it away with a sip of water or beer. The edamame and the squid ink adds a nice earthy flavor to this dish. 

Tip: On the weekends they serve food late night.  

HP


Bacalao Blanco En Hojas De Platano, Huitlacoche Quesadilla: Kie-Gol-Lanee


Where: 5004 N. Sheridan Rd. (Uptown)

Black corn fungus (Huitlacoche) doesn’t sound appealing so let’s just call it Mexican truffles for now. The way they use it here brings out that earthy flavor we yearn for when eating truffles. What’s even better is the cheese they merge it with to form my perfect quesadilla. That makes a a great starter to prepare you for the cod dish which is wrapped in banana leaf cooked with rice and vegetables.  When you first open the Bacalao Blanco En Hojas De Platano dish, it releases an aroma that will make you float in mid-air. 

Tip:  Always look out for the venison stew and be adventurous and try the Grasshopper tacos.


Caldo De Salchicha, Trucha Frita: Restaurant Ecuador


Where: 2923 W. Diversey Ave. (Logan Square)

Blood pork sausage offal soup (Caldo De Salchicha) is only available on the weekends and is compromised of intestines, blood sausage, liver, kidneys and tripe, which makes the broth really rich.  They may be some hearts in there too if I remember correctly. The fried whole trout (Trucha Frita) is also a great combo to eat with the soup.  

Tip: Expect a live band on weekends to entertain you as you dine on some blood sausage soup. 


Grilled Prawns with Tom Yum Seafood Sauce: Seafood on the Tables


Where: 2965 N. Lincoln Ave. (Lincoln Park)

If you’ve ever seen those giant prawns on TV shows about Thailand and wonder where you can get them, wonder no more.  At this seaside style Cajun seafood joint, they add some Thai influence to the Cajun seafood boil. As it says on the outside of the restaurant, the seafood is served on the tables. The prawns are split in half, lathered with butter garlic and grilled until the molten brain matter starts to bubble. The best way to eat this dish is to dip the meat in its own brain juice or in the sour chili sauce they give you. They also offer a variety of sauces for their seafood boil such as sweet chili basil and curry sauce.  I personally like the garlic tom yum sauce the best. You could put that sauce on shoe leather and it’d taste good.

Tip: If you’re hungry late night in the LP area, they are open after hours and serve up regular Thai dishes too.

 


Keng Sisavath is the founder of the Strange Foods Festival. Follow him on Instagram @strangefoodschicago.

Cover image: Grilled Prawn, Seafood on the Tables


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