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The Basque cake at The Bristol

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by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | July 10, 2012

We love a seasonal menu as much as the next guy, but there’s something to be said for eating—again and again—a terrific signature dish. Here, eight of our Chicago favorites.

Basque Cake
The Bristol, 2152 N. Damen Ave., 773.862.5555
Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman admits her Basque cake, on the Bucktown restaurant’s menu for the last two years, isn’t the prettiest of desserts. And at $12, it’s not the cheapest either (it’s meant to be shared, although its many fans opt not to). But there’s something about the traditional cake from Northern Spain that diners can’t get enough of. Perhaps it’s the layer of vanilla cream inside. Or maybe it’s because Rockman’s not afraid to add plenty of salt to the batter. Whatever the reason, the restaurant sells some 45 of them on the weekends, says Rockman, who wishes she had ordered more of the molds needed to make them. Its popularity has her considering selling them retail in the future. Sweet, indeed.

Chorizo-Stuffed Dates
Avec, 615 W. Randolph St., 312.377.2002
If you’ve been to this trendsetting wine bar over the nine years it’s been open, odds are you’ve had the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates wrapped in bacon. But chef Koren Grieveson, who’s been there from the get-go, won’t take credit for the über-popular dish (they sold 1,200 orders in May alone). Partner Paul Kahan’s father-in-law came up with the idea originally, she says, and it’s one of her sous chefs—“He’s the Zen date master!”—who gets the praise for creating them on a regular basis. We think it doesn’t hurt that the restaurant makes its own chorizo and spices, too. Grieveson credits the dish’s ability to be smoky, salty, sweet and spicy all in one bite for making it a “win-win” on all levels.

Lobster Roll
Shaw’s Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard St., 312.527.2722
When it comes to a classic dish, the best approach is “not to mess with it too much,” says Executive Chef Steve Lahaie, referring to his top-selling sandwich. Over the six years it’s been on the menu, he’s tweaked it only slightly. Switching to meat from live lobsters steamed at the restaurant, as well as using buns made in-house, have gone over big with its fans. Replacing Hellmann’s mayonnaise with housemade? Not so much. Says Lahaie, “We’ve learned you don’t want to make it more than what it is.”

Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder
The Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan Ave., 312.464.1744
Initially, when this spot opened in the winter of ’09, chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. figured the hearty milk-braised pork shoulder served with smashed potatoes would come off the menu in the summer. Not so. The Mag Mile wine bar sells 100 of them a day, going through 700 pounds of pork shoulder a week. Bannos thinks its popularity is due to its “comfort zone” status. We think it’s that the meat is so tender, you can eat it with a spoon.

Farm Chicken
The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, 312.733.9555
While this Fulton Market restaurant has a terrific beer list, and chef Brian Huston’s a wiz when it comes to pig parts, it’s his simple sounding grilled farm chicken that we—and a lot of other diners—order on a regular basis. The secret to the dish’s deliciousness includes one day of seasoning followed by a day in a marinade. Buying their chickens unfrozen and directly from local farms is a big factor, too, says Huston. We also love that the skin is always crispy and the fries sitting underneath the bird soak up all the wonderful flavor and juices.

Tortilla Soup
Province, 161 N. Jefferson St., 312.669.9900
You’d think that in the middle of a steamy Chicago summer, hot soup wouldn’t be a big seller. Au contraire! Or, at least that’s the case at this West Loop restaurant where chef/owner Randy Zweiban’s tortilla soup is a hit no matter the temperature. For his take on the classic, Zweiban cold-smokes tomatillos before adding them to a red pepper base. Fried tortillas give the soup a creamy texture. It’s served tableside with some shredded rotisserie-cooked chicken and avocado purée. Any plans to change it? “I’m not that stupid!” says Zweiban.

Mango and Foie Gras Pancakes
Zealous, 419 W. Superior St., 312.475.9112
During the 17 years he’s been making this appetizer, chef/owner Michael Taus estimates he’s served more than 6,000 servings of mango and foie gras pancakes. Not bad for a dish that got its start at Taus’ house one morning when, after realizing he didn’t have any bacon for his traditional pancake and egg breakfast, he threw in some leftover foie from the previous night’s dinner party on a whim. Since then Taus has gussied up the dish a bit, adding a sunny-side quail egg and a savory caramel sauce—his version of maple syrup—to the short stack. How popular is the dish? One customer opted to supersize it with a full-size pancake and four large pieces of foie. We think he’s onto something.

Fried Chicken
West Town Tavern, 1329 W. Chicago Ave., 312.666.6175
What began as a staff meal to utilize leftover chicken legs and thighs has turned into West Town Tavern’s top-selling entrée, says chef/partner Susan Goss. Though it’s not an easy dish to do on a large scale, Goss finally gave in to her employees’ repeated requests and put her great-grandmother’s finger-lickin’-good fried chicken on the menu. (It’s the buttermilk brine that makes it so good, says Goss.) The Monday-night-only special comes with sautéed greens, a buttermilk biscuit and some garlicky mashed potatoes topped with mushroom gravy. “The whole block smells like fried chicken,” says Goss. Sounds like our kind of neighborhood.