Compared to the outright chaos of the previous two years, 2022 felt bizarrely normal. Instead of rickety outdoor patios with plastic partitions, diners mostly ate in dining rooms. I stopped reflexively pulling out my vaccine card when I walked up to the host stand. While many people still wear masks if they want to, busy restaurants mostly now contain a sea of unadorned faces.
Considering I started my position during the pandemic, this has been an adjustment, but one I’m happy to see. It explains why this year’s list of my favorite dishes contains drastically fewer meals in takeout boxes. (Fingers crossed for a safe winter.)
Some legacies of the pandemic continue to shape the dining scene. My favorite new restaurant is technically a pop-up. Pizza continues its hot streak. And a growing number of places experimented with different ordering systems.
These 12 dishes are just one look at the scene. My fellow critic, Louisa Chu, could just as easily come up with her own complete set of 12 dishes to recommend. But here are the ones I’m still thinking about as we close out 2022.
In my July review of chef Stephen Sandoval’s pop-up in the SoHo House, I declared the Sueños ceviche my favorite dish of the year so far. Now it’s time to anoint it as my favorite of 2022. I’ve never encountered a ceviche as bewildering as this one. Scoop up some of the raw cubed snapper bathed in a leche de tigre (a popular Peruvian marinade) with a crunchy tostada, and marvel at how the flavor is incisive and spicy at first, before a subtle smokiness and nuttiness creep in at the end. There’s plenty else at Sueños to gush about, and I can’t wait to see what happens if Sueños scores a permanent location. But there’s no doubt this is the dish I craved the most in 2022. 113-125 N. Green St., suenoschi.com
Khmai hooked me from the moment I dug into the plear sach koh. At its base, this colorful Cambodian salad features thinly sliced sirloin tossed in a sauce that manages to be funky, fiery, acidic and sweet all at once. But it’s also balanced by a literal cornucopia of crisp vegetables on top, including cucumbers, radishes, bean sprouts and cabbage, along with tender mushrooms, fresh herbs and a sprinkling of crunchy roasted peanuts. I’ll remain forever perplexed and impressed that one bite can lead your taste buds in so many delightful directions at once. 2043 W. Howard St., 312-626-7710, khmai-fine-dining.com
Most of Chicagoland’s Vietnamese restaurants are centered around Argyle Street on the North Side, so it was a bit surprising to find one of the area’s most ambitious Vietnamese newcomers in a random strip mall in suburban Bloomingdale. Considering the restaurant’s name, it makes sense that the pho is spectacular, especially if you pick the short rib bowl. But I can’t imagine visiting without ordering at least one banh mi. Because the bread is baked fresh in house, each sandwich is crackly on the outside, yet miraculously light and fluffy within. Though the dac biet banh mi adds a dozen or so components, the chefs stuff it so precisely, you’ll taste each one in every bite. 369 W Army Trail Road, Ste. 24, Bloomingdale; 630-283-0955; pholiciouskitchen.com
While Chicago has hundreds of ramen shops, it wasn’t until this year that I started seeing gyukotsu-style ramen, which uses beef bones for the broth instead of the more common pork or chicken bones. The master of this style currently is Katie Dong, who runs Monster Ramen in Logan Square. Instead of overly heavy, the broth is remarkably balanced, with a lovely roasted aroma and deeply savory base. A self-proclaimed “noodle nerd,” Dong also makes the noodles from scratch, and they have a remarkably springy texture that pairs beautifully with the beefy broth. 3435 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-770-9049, monsterramenchicago.com
It seemed like everyone got into pizza during the pandemic. That’s definitely true of Brett Nemec, who became particularly obsessed with New York-style pizza. As mentioned in my review, the shop only serves whole pizzas for dinner, but drop by for lunch and you’ll encounter a glass display full of pizza by the slice. While you can’t go wrong, make sure to order at least one slice of the Grandma Pizza. This rectangular offering is a peculiar New York specialty that is thicker than the standard slice, but thinner than a Silician pizza. While topping choices change by the day, each Grandma slice is abundantly topped with a bright tomato sauce, along with hefty splotches of fresh mozzarella. But it’s the crust — crispy but not overly crunchy — that really impresses. 3037 N. Clark St., 773-661-6389, zazas-pizzeria.com
Daniel Sweis is another fine-dining chef who decided during the pandemic that he wanted to switch things up. For inspiration, he looked to his own history of growing up in a Jordanian family in Oklahoma. The result is Ragadan, where he’s able to serve traditional Middle Eastern dishes right next to burgers and shakes in Uptown. While everything on the small menu is worth a try, start with the falafel ka’ak. It’s based on Sweis’s favorite falafel shop in Amman, Jordan, called Al-Quds. Instead of pita, the crunchy and intricately spiced falafel balls are served on fascinating toasted sesame seed loaf. The sandwich also comes with a smear of ultrasmooth hummus, acidic pickles, nutty tahini and fresh-tasting parsley sauce. 4409 N. Broadway, 773-654-1788, ragadan.com
I still can’t decide if I prefer the brisket or spare ribs from Station One Smokehouse, so I’m throwing in both. Each is rubbed with a fetching assortment of spices before being slowly coaxed to tenderness by pitmaster Brad Hudetz in the restaurant’s massive Oyler smoker from J&R Manufacturing. Though the restaurant opened in 2018, it wasn’t until I went on the hunt for the best barbecue joints in the suburbs that I got my first taste. While it has strong competition, Station One Smokehouse currently leads the suburban barbecue pack. 15025 S. Des Plaines St., Ste. 1A, Plainfield; 815-271-6328; stationonesmokehouse.com
The most acclaimed restaurant in Chicago history received a rare mixed review from Chicago Magazine this year. Having recently dined there, I had to acknowledge some of the criticisms rang true. But I can’t dismiss the fact that the most transportive bite I had all year happened toward the end of the meal. That’s when the server set down the restaurant’s play on creamed chipped beef, a cheap and comforting dish I ate hundreds of times as a kid, sometimes known as hanky-panky or another expletive-laced nickname involving shingles. While the salty processed meat of the original had been replaced with expensive wagyu and air-dried bresaola, I’d never felt more like the evil cartoon critic, Anton Ego in “Ratatouille,” where a bite instantly swept him back in time to his family’s dining table as a child. Of course, instead of France, I was in small-town Indiana, but that didn’t make the memory any less meaningful. 1723 N. Halsted St., alinearestaurant.com
Is it OK to proclaim one of my favorite bites of the year was a side dish? I’m still stunned by the asparagus served at Obelix, which was topped not with a traditional hollandaise, but one that incorporates the bright flavors of al pastor. To make the dish, the kitchen uses the fat collected from cooking al pastor at chef Oliver Poilevey’s other restaurant, Taqueria Chingon. This lends the sauce an orange hue, along with a wild porky flavor, which for some reason works exceptionally well with sweet in-season asparagus. There are plenty of other great dishes at Obelix, but when asparagus season is back, make sure to get an order of this on the side. 700 N. Sedgwick St., 312-877-5348, obelixchicago.com
Thanks to the popularity of quesabirria tacos, Chicago now has more restaurants serving birria than ever before. But where most of the new places make their version with beef, my favorite places use goat, which adds a slight gaminess to each bite. That’s what you’ll find at Barca, which serves a beloved family recipe that was developed in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Each order comes with a huge plate of the tender goat bathed in a dark-red chile marinade. On the side, you’ll find up to three different salsas, onion and cilantro, a bowl of consommé for sipping, plus a stack of fantastic freshly made corn tortillas. 4754 W. Belmont Ave., 708-320-2247
When I interviewed Holu’s owner, Jason Song, it didn’t take long for him to declare that he’s a “steak maniac.” While that might be true, his restaurant also proudly ignores most of the ingrained Chicago steakhouse traditions. So instead of ordering one massive slab of beef, the meat paradise platter allows you to sample eight different kinds of steak in 1-ounce portions. This way you can admire the minerality of the 45-day dry-aged rib-eye, before getting lost in the astonishingly savory wagyu skirt steak. It was by far the best steak experience I had all year. 2101 S. Jefferson St., 312-291-8472, holuchicago.com
When I asked Sochi co-owner Chinh Pham how she developed her recipes, she had an easy answer: “We do it exactly how we eat at home. When I eat a dish, it has to follow my taste preference. I have to make it exactly.” While numerous dishes on the menu showcase her startling preciseness, if I had to pick one, I’d go with the original egg rolls. Shrimp and ground pork get wrapped up in rice paper and then fried until browned and crackly. Instead of eating them as is, wrap them up in the bright green lettuce, along with some fresh basil, pickled daikon and carrot, before dipping each in a sweet and sour fish sauce. There’s so much going on that I felt the need to describe the dish using 12 descriptive words in alphabetical order: “aromatic, crackly, crunchy, funky, juicy, meaty, plump, salty, spicy, sour, sweet and supple.” 1358 W. Belmont Ave., 773-904-8511, sochikitchen.com
Big screen or home stream, takeout or dine-in, Tribune writers are here to steer you toward your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Eat. Watch. Do. newsletter here.