Courtesy Melissa Elsmo

No doubt about it, 2021 was a year of resilience and perseverance for our collection of local eateries. Despite rising food costs, significant labor shortages and customer hesitancy, restaurants in our Eats communities have proven to be adaptive and nimble in the face of extended challenges. Thanks to passionate community members, resourceful owners, and collaborative efforts we have rallied around our restaurants. In response they have kept thing things downright delicious in our little food-focused alcove. 

We know the struggles are not over for our independent eateries, but showing our support is the best way to help them through the long winter. Let’s look ahead with anticipation as we enjoy this look back at 15 of our favorite bites this year.

1) Butternut Squash Soup and Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano Fiore 2019 from Carnivore and Anfora, Oak Park: Brad Knaub, co-owner of Carnivore, 1042 Pleasant St., knows his way around a winter squash. This sinful soup, served at the collaborative “mostly monthly” pop-up dinners hosted by Anfora Wine Merchants, came garnished with heirloom tomato chip and corn nuts paired perfectly with the subtlety tropical wine selected by Adrian Weisell, owner of the wine shop, 128 S. Marion St. 

2) Any item in the Unity Fridge, Oak Park: The community fridge located outside Carnival Grocery, 824 S. Oak Park Ave., provides 24/7 access to free food including perishables and canned goods. Oak Park’s first Community fridge arrived in Oak Park last May and is stocked with delicious and healthy foods by individuals and groups across the community. 

3) Chengdu Dumplings from Katy’s Dumpling House, Oak Park: The slick and spicy Chengdu dumplings served at Katy’s Dumpling House, 1113 Lake St., are comfort food personified. Making a meal of assorted dumplings at this downtown Oak Park restaurant is always a good idea — these pork filled parcels are an excellent selection to warm you up on a cold afternoon.

4) Chiang Mai Curry Noodles from Thai Neighbor, Oak Park: Chef Champ Akkarapol, owner of Thai Neighbor, 250 Chicago Ave., takes an average of three minutes and 18 seconds to get a dish from the wok to the plate — yes, he times himself.  Curries are his specialty, and this creative northern style dish is well balanced and full of flavor.

5) A soft pretzel from The Daly Bagel, Oak Park: Folks line up for the array of east coast bagels with a Midwest twist offered at The Daly Bagel, 130 Chicago Ave., but once in a while house-made soft pretzels are on the menu. Slightly chewy on the outside and soft on the inside these dark twists are not to be missed.

6) Duck Confit from Babygold Barbecue, Berwyn: Popular pork belly, smoked turkey and brisket are always on the menu at Babygold Barbecue, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd., but plated specials are only available in the dining room. The smoked duck confit over dirty couscous we savored during the restaurant’s soft opening brought a refined energy to the regular offerings and was easily a top three dish of 2021.

7) The Foghorn Leghorn from Chubby’s Char House, Chicago: Fried chicken lovers look no further than Chubby’s Char House, 5963 W. Madison St., to make your sandwich dreams come true. Perfectly fried Nashville style hot chicken tenders are served on a bun with cucumber jalapeno slaw, dill pickles and famous “sauce sauce.” 

8) Goddess Salmon served at an FLW Ultimate Plus Dinner: In May 2021 the Wright Plus house walk returned after a pandemic pause. With strict COVID protocols in place, special guests participated in a trio of chef curated dinners in Oak Park and River Forest. It was a delight to see strangers gathered around a common table again and this colorful salmon with green gazpacho, preserved lemon and tobiko was one of my favorite creations of the year.

9) Pork Chop Calabrese from Victory Italian, Oak Park: When dining at Victory Italian our server, Jamie, told us not to miss the pork chop Calabrese. She was right; this dish will make you a Victory regular. Pounded thin and lightly breaded, the uncomplicated entrée is enhanced by the addition of whole Calabrese peppers, pepperoncini, white wine, sage and lemon.

10) Micro Greens from Old Gaffers Garden, Berwyn: Berwyn resident, Holden Wilson, helms a garden collective and microgreen farm designed to increase greenspaces in populous areas and making fresh produce more readily available within urban communities. Old Gaffers Garden delivers locally and their flavorful greens were available at the Oak Park and Riverside Farmers markets in 2021.

11) Babycakes from Angie’s Pantry: Angie Montroy sticks to an 80/20 philosophy — 80% of Angie’s Pantry offerings are prepared with health and wellness in mind while 20% are designed to be a true indulgence. The shop, 809 South Blvd., offers indulgent “baby cakes” that pack big flavor in a small package. The three-layer cakes are just six inches in diameter and come in festive flavors like mint, Oreo, and peanut butter.

12) Crispy Tofu made from Cate Readling’s recipe: During election season we offered up a “debate on a plate” featuring candidates’ favorite recipes. Cate Readling, then a candidate for Oak Park village president, offered up her husband’s crispy tofu recipe—it delivers bold flavor and excellent texture.

13) Things We Don’t Say IPA, Oak Park: In spring 2021, Kinslahger Brewing Company, One Lake Brewing and the since shuttered Oak Park Brewing Company collaboratively brewed and released a “juicy IPA” with 100% of profits going to Hope for the Day, a Chicago based non-profit focused on suicide prevention.

14) The last banh mi from Saigon Pho, Oak Park: The Vietnamese restaurant was known for serving up steaming bowls of pho, comforting banh mi sandwiches, and fresh spring rolls. The restaurant closed this year with enough warning to allow us to savor one last Saigon sandwich. 

15) Chive Dumplings from Habraé’, Forest Park: Habraé’ has a rotating arsenal of more than 50 Thai sweets that keep adventurous dessert lovers happy, but dabbling on the savory side of the menu has big rewards.  HabGuichai Tod are garlic chive dumplings prized for their chewy interior and crunch exterior.

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