Just a few notes, on mostly familiar places, to add to the pot.
The Berghoff (17 W. Adams St., 312-427-3170)
I tried this place for the first time last month, and was surprised by how good the wienerschnitzel is, thin and crisp; we also liked the pan-browned spaetzle. Most of the other food was subpar, especially the flavorless sausages.
Bills Drive-In (120 Asbury Ave., Evanston, 847-491-9844)
Although the beef patties are formed in advance, the main excellence of the burgers here is that theyre cooked when ordered - the fresh preparation gives them an appeal they might not otherwise have (the quality of ingredients is not many notches higher than at McDonalds). Its refreshing to be able to get a thin hamburger made when you order it. Another nice touch is that the hamburgers are seasoned - salt is explicitly listed among the standard toppings for their burgers.
Budackis Drive In (4739 N. Damen Ave., 773-561-1322)
Had a made-when-ordered cheeseburger there, a great place if you like your burgers tasting of lighter fluid and burned to a crisp.
Charlies Ale House (5308 N. Clark St., 773-751-0140)
Predictably terrible, but so close to home we had to give it a shot. Mac and cheese was pasty and grainy with flour, and cold in the middle - they cant even reheat food successfully. Shepherds pie was a soupy, flavorless beef stew, served in a crock with a dried layer of reconstituted mashed potatoes on top - a travesty. Our pints (Fullers ESB) were served flat.
Chicago Philly Steak (5638 N. Broadway Ave., 773-271-5444)
The guy puts green peppers into his cheesesteaks as standard practice and without special notice, so he probably has never been to south Philadelphia. But I thought his very, very greasy, but also quite strongly beef-flavored cheesesteak tasted somewhat better than the rendition offered by Phillys Best (less like a White Castle cheeseburger, in other words), and a lot better than the flavorless cheesesteak I had at Eastern Style Pizza on Touhy. The owner is quite a character, ready to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and all the cars on it.
Damenzos (2324 W. Taylor St., 312-421-1142)
Ordered a slice of sausage pizza here late one night and received an enormous, thick, cheesy slab - more melted mozzarella than Ive seen in one place in a long time, as much cheese as on a typical slice of stuffed pizza. Sweetish, tasty sausage, and a greater amount of tomato sauce than usual, which was also somewhat sweet as well as very garlicky. Best part was the crust, crisp on the very bottom, with a moist, doughy layer above. Toppings were blanketed underneath the cheese in typical Chicago fashion. Very bare-bones ambience.
Dat Donut (north) (1100 W. Thorndale Ave., 773-878-2026)
Still not making doughnuts on site, and with no timetable for starting up baking operations at the north side location. The staff has been uncommunicative and surly on both of our visits. The doughy, substantial doughnuts (much unlike the wispy, slimy nothingness of a Krispy Kreme) show promise, but cannot be enjoyed when theyre stale, and served with disdain. Still havent tried the original south side location.
Don Juan on Halsted (1729 N. Halsted St., 312-981-4000)
The original Don Juan is one of our favorites, and weve had fine meals at this Halsted location several times in the past; but a visit on the Monday before Christmas was disastrous. Every dish was ineptly prepared, and the young woman who attended our table had little acquaintance with our civilizations accepted standards of table service. Even though weve liked it in the past, this one experience was so dismaying that I doubt well ever return to this location.
Eastern Style Pizza (2911 W. Touhy Ave., 773-761-4070; 761-4033)
The cheesesteak was cooked from scratch when I ordered it, but the resulting sandwich tasted like nothing so much as the griddle on which the meat and onions were cooked. One of the least robust flavor-to-fat ratios of any food in my recollection.
Eclectic (117 North Ave., Barrington, 847-277-7300)
A fairly ambitious new restaurant, "American contemporary" with lots of outré twists (hence the name), the kind of ambition I ordinarily fear in a restaurant, but we had a terrific meal there last month. The excellent, varied degustation was offered with the option of a wine flight that featured some first-class wines (not always the case even at reputable establishments). Our young waiter was a tiny bit full of himself, but not without charm nonetheless (so said the ladies in our party). The space, a former private residence, consists of several very small, cozy dining rooms. Very charming, a good bet for an upscale dinner in the northwest suburbs.
Express Cafe (5973 N. Clark St., 773-334-4308)
Really enjoyed the steak sandwich I had here a while back, very flavorful. Cuban sandwich was so-so.
Goose Island Shrimp House (1011 W. Division St., 312-642-3640)
Top-notch fried shrimp, formidably breaded, the jumbos as big as chicken legs. Similar in style and quality to the shrimp at Franks Chicago Shrimp House, which has several locations (including the southwest Loop, sharing space with Burrito Buggy On Van Buren), but rarely gets mentioned on this board.
Herms Palace (3406 Dempster St., Skokie, 847-673-9757)
Enjoyed a first class hot dog here, and, to my great satisfaction, wonderful shoestring-thin, crackle-crisp french fries. Unfortunately, the fries did have a slight savor of over-the-hill cooking oil, which I hope was an anomaly. Unassuming but very friendly service.
Jin Ju (5203 N. Clark St., 773-334-6377)
Sorry, Check, Please, this place was lousy. We are not mavens of Korean food; but simply as food, this was oily and drab. Nor was the "hip" black-on-black atmosphere much to our taste.
Johnnies Beef (7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park, 708-452-6000)
A very pleasant surprise. I finally tried one of their Italian beef sandwiches (wet, hot oil only) and it was really terrific, the first Italian beef sandwich that has given me outright pleasure over the course of 24 years of living in the Chicago area. The beef was tender and luscious, with a deep beefiness that was not heavy or coarse in the least. The gardiniera oil was a perfect complement, spicy but not monotonously hot. Im glad I got the oil only, as the gardiniera itself might have detracted texturally from the thin, delicate, intricately layered beef. I certainly did not experience any of the antagonistic service for which this place seems to be infamous; despite my not-especially-direct manner of ordering, they simply told me the price, took my money, gave me my change and gave me my food briskly but courteously.
La Donna (5146 N. Clark St., 773-561-9400)
Ive praised this place once or twice on this board, but over the past few months they have renovated their space and their approach. Formerly purveyors of Italian-style Italian, featuring lightly sauced al dente pastas, they are now drenching soggy pastas with boatloads of thick, pasty sauces. Theyve also changed their entire floor staff - for the worse, Im afraid. La Donna used to be the best kind of laid-back, pleasant, charming neighborhood spot; now theyve renovated/expanded and are playing to the masses. Too bad.
Merlo (2638 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-529-0747)
Maybe its authentic, but I thought the ragu bolognese tasted like beef stroganoff sans the sour cream. I had some sort of savory tart to begin with, which still had the chill of the refrigerator. That would not be so notable if the owner, who seated us, hadnt made such a big deal by announcing grandly that every dish served in the restaurant was made from scratch beginning from the moment the order was placed. Overall I thought the ambience was stilted, self-consciously "chic" in an unappealing way; the service was disorganized and poorly drilled; and the food, though not without its pleasures, quite a bit overpriced. In theory I would be willing to go back to try the celebrated rabbit ragu; but in all likelihood, we wont bother.
Original Kababish of London (2437 W. Devon Ave., 773-973-0225)
Ordered a doner kebap a la Jeff B, and enjoyed it every bit as much as he did. Service was undemonstrative but quite gentlemanly. This is not fast food, so phone your order ahead.
Svea (5236 N. Clark St., 773-275-7738)
Although some people like this Swedish-style cafe and its always packed on weekend mornings, we dislike this place a lot. The breakfasts are very greasy, and cost quite a bit more than they should. Its a down-home kind of place with pleasant service, but thats about all I can say for it. Tre Kronor does this kind of thing so much better.
Taqueria el Pueblo (2212 W. Devon Ave., 773-973-1300)
The window advertises handmade tortillas, but the tortillas on the two tacos I ordered were store-bought. Both the carne asada and pork al pastor meats were chopped so finely as to be pebbly, almost like sand in texture. I didnt like anything about the place.
Taqueria la Oaxaquena (3382 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-545-8585)
We enjoyed our dinner here (which thankfully occurred before the Tribune review was published), but not with unalloyed pleasure. The Torta Oaxaquena generously featured two large slices of skirt steak, one of which was delicious, but the other was so tough I couldnt chew it. I also could not taste the other ingredients beyond the steak, melted cheese and bread. This is not a big problem, I guess, as meat, cheese and bread can form a fine sandwich; but on this occasion the design of the sandwich did not seem particularly inspired - the other ingredients were lost in the melted cheese. Also, we didnt think the salsas were anything special. On the other hand, we were quite impressed with TLOs handling of seafood, especially shrimp and octopus. Both of those fishes are almost always left in the sauté pan too long, yet at TLO there were beautifully cooked as well as delicious, in several guises.
Tufanos (1073 W. Vernon Park Pl., 312-733-3393)
We liked it quite a bit and will go back. Of note: excellent, tender calamari, a hair underseasoned; good-tasting lemon chicken, garlicky and herbaceous (but some pieces were overcooked and dry); very poor marinara sauce, tasting strongly of canned tomato paste; short, simple, but adequate wine selection, modestly priced; assured and efficient service.