Every Friday and Saturday night, an insiders-only karaoke jam fills Dharma Garden's pastel-colored walls with music. During a recent visit by Time Out Chicago, the crowd—mostly comprised of staff members from other Thai restaurants—burst into applause as Dharma chef and owner Vilairait Junthong, AKA "Little Aunt," grabbed the mic to sing her favorite tune, Sirintra Niyakorn's "Roo Wa kao lhok," which roughly translates to "You Treat Me Wrong".
In the more than ten years since arriving in Chicago from her hometown of Prajinburi, Little Aunt has done more than just bulk up Dharma's Thai menu. Chicago Thai restaurants Sticky and Spoon Thai have called on Junthong to outfit their menus with Northern Thai specialties such as marinated beef jerky and Chinese-influenced rice soup. She's also stayed true to a no-land-animals pledge––one reason of many why Time Out Chicago has named Dharma Garden a Critics' Pick.
Beneath the dining room's spherical hanging lights, curries and stir-fried noodles stack with veggies such as baby bok choy and chinese broccoli, as well as seafood, shrimp, and imitation meats. Already boasting one of the city's largest vegetarian menus, chefs can also alter most of their other dishes to accommodate vegans and vegetarians upon request. After finishing off a deep-fried red snapper, patrons can peruse the Thai-language menu, or request a translation into other languages such as German, Latin, and Binary.
It's the nuances that make each dish memorable at Lula Cafe, a Logan Square culinary fixture that opened 13 years ago. Chefs carefully layer flavors into their dishes, from hazelnut-oil-poached squash with smoked trout roe to pan-roasted mullet accented with rose-hip yogurt. Servers may present orders of seasonal soup in two parts, first pouring dry components such as matsutake mushrooms or baby turnips into bowls and then drizzling them with fresh, creamy broth. In the morning, guests can pair coffee or bloody marys with gourmet french toast, a frittata, or an omelet filled with heirloom vegetables.
Zoku's sushi chefs roll more than 25 types of maki and rustle up warm bowls of pan-Asian cuisine. Crisp and flavorful components are found in all dishes, including Chinese appetizers, Thai noodles, and Japanese sashimi. Chefs serve up artful plates dripping with sauce, bursting with color, and hoping to be discovered and offered a food-modeling contract.
After visiting relatives in North Carolina, Bo and Arden Fowlers returned home with three things: two full bellies and a dream to open their own barbecue shack. That dream became Fat Willy's Rib Shack and inspired a menu that embraces both the rich culinary traditions of the South and its deeply involved DIY approach in the kitchen. Each day, chefs smoke marinated slabs of beef brisket over wood fires and whip up salad dressings and tangy barbecue sauces by hand, instilling each dish with made-from-scratch flavor. Like a caviar booth at a county fair, the menu adds a cosmopolitan touch to rustic country tradition, with quinoa mushroom burgers served alongside catfish po' boys, spicy pulled chicken sandwiches, and andouille sausage gumbo. Sides of vinegar slaw, green onion corn bread, and collards garnish plates of baby back ribs and cornmeal-crusted catfish, while a litany of cold beers, wines, and craft cocktails pair nicely with the backyard-inspired barbecue feasts.
The staff studies meditation. The décor is a cheerful yellow. And the restaurant’s mission? It’s “to serve you joyfully”. Not your typical breakfast joint, Victory’s Banner has been receiving rave reviews for its all-vegetarian menu and a feel-good spirit that even seeps onto sugar packets in the form of inspirational messages. During the morning hours, chefs crack open Phil’s Free Range Eggs to make a variety of scrambles and omelettes—all accompanied with grilled potatoes and warmed hearth bread. Real whip cream dollops the French toast and pancakes, and sides of Stripples soy bacon or marinated tofu add a protein punch. The restaurant also serves up lunch, with tossed salads, veggie burgers, and wraps.
In the summer, El Cid's outdoor patio bustles as Logan Square regulars share conversation between sips of margaritas and bites of the eatery’s signature fish tacos. During the winter, diners can warm their insides with the burritos that earned El Cid a Best of 2011 mention from CBS Chicago while heating up exteriors in front of the fireplace on the recently renovated upstairs level. The upstairs lounge also features a wood polished bar and hosts local musicians for live music every Wednesday night.