Epic

[Plus: Logan Square On Tap: The new brewpub and gastropub in Lula-land.]

Ameer Kabob

1050 N. Milwaukee | 773-489-8888

$

MIDDLE EASTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO

Two people can feast for less than $20 at this lemon yellow storefront with a takeout counter and eight tables. Start by sharing the vegetarian plate, which brings together hummus, baba ghannouj, crunchy falafel patties, rice-stuffed grape leaves, and refreshing tabouleh that’s heavy on parsley but light on cracked wheat and onions. Then go for the “combination feast” of three tasty kebabs: big chunks of moist marinated chicken breast, surprisingly tender beef, and well-seasoned ground-beef kifta. They come with plenty of fluffy rice, three little pieces of grilled vegetable, forgettable iceberg lettuce salad, and the kind of pita bread you can sink your teeth into. —Anne Spiselman

Bagel on Damen

1252 N. Damen | 773-772-2243

$

Coffee shop | Breakfast, lunch: seven days

A tiny, sunny storefront at Damen and Potomac, Bagel on Damen trades mainly in carryout, though there are a few small tables and stools that offer seating for about a dozen. The bagels come from New York Bagel & Bialy, the coffee from Stumptown, and the small selection of grocery items from “many independent grocers and producers.” Most of the menu is dedicated to bagel sandwiches, which range from breakfast options with eggs and bacon to vegetarian creations to meat-and-cheese sandwiches. Both the Lox and the Shroom (portobello mushroom, greens, onions, roasted red peppers, and shiitake and rosemary cream cheese) were tasty, if structurally unsound—I managed one bite of the Shroom before it collapsed entirely. Curried butternut squash and Granny Smith apple soup was pleasant but a little bland, the curry flavor almost nonexistent; I hoped I’d fare better with the barley beef short rib soup on a return visit, but it was salty enough to float lead, and all but inedible. —Julia Thiel

Eggsperience

35 W. Ontario | 312-870-6773

$

BREAKFAST, AMERICAN, BURGERS | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: 24 HOURS DAILY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

This large River North diner, the first Chicago location of the suburban chain, is almost frighteningly cheery, decorated in buttercup yellow with touches of sky blue and grass green and enormous displays of colorful fake flowers. Open 24 hours, it focuses (as the name would suggest) on breakfasts that feature eggs, though it also offers lunch-oriented sandwiches, wraps, salads, and burgers. Portions are enormous, and everything we tried was more than decent: the pancakes were fluffy, the hash browns crispy, and the skirt steak in a “super skillet” tender and flavorful. Despite the extensive menu, vegetarian options are severely limited on the lunch side of things, though the breakfast menu has several more choices. Juices are fresh squeezed and smoothies are excellent. —Julia Thiel

Epic

112 W. Hubbard | 312-222-4940

$$$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, monday-friday TILL 2

The name Epic aptly describes the proportions of this industrial-chic restaurant with 14,000 square feet on two floors (plus a 3,000 square foot rooftop deck opening in spring). But epic doesn’t extend to the portions of high-priced food from executive chef Stephen Wambach. Our gnocchi appetizer had seven thumbnail-size pillows of pasta and five coins of salty lamb sausage in creamy fennel beurre blanc—for $15. From the raw bar, the $17 selection of east- and west-coast oysters turned out to be three Wellfleets and three quarter-size kumamotos. Steaks get their own section on the one-page menu, but our ten-ounce seven-pepper-crusted hanger steak ($23, the cheapest) had a streak of tendon running through the chewy beef. Spiced lamb shank with a little preserved lemon in russet lamb jus was hefty but surprisingly bland. Our favorite entree was four smallish seared sea scallops on a fricassee of salsify and black trumpet mushrooms. Executive pastry chef Christine McCabe (Sugar) turns out complicated creations like milk chocolate-hazelnut crunch with chocolate mousse, acai emulsion, and huckleberries, but they had one too many flavors for me. —Anne Spiselman

Izakaya Hapa

58 E. Ontario | 312-202-0808

$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: THURSDAY-SATURDAY

The latest salvo in owner Jeff Zhang and Sandy Yu’s (Jia’s, Shine, Rise) campaign to support Sushi Taiyo is to turn the second floor into Izakaya Hapa and capitalize on the Japanese tapas trend. (Vancouver’s similarly named Hapa Izakaya is so popular it has expanded to three locations.) But don’t expect the head-and-tail-on fried fish, beef intestine stew, and other exotica Japanese businessmen share while downing sake, shochu, and beer after work. The big menu is geared to Americans, with variations on tempura and teriyaki, accessible stir-fries and noodles, and familiar appetizers and salads. For sushi and such, you can order from the Sushi Taiyo lineup. Instead of beak-to-feet chicken parts, “yakitori” here refers to a wide range of grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables on skewers; our spongy fish balls were tasty, but the short ribs we tried to order were unavailable, as were onigiri yaki, broiled rice balls the menu says are “great to combine with sauce.” They would have come in handy for the bland Japanese curry with puny, chewy shrimp and the spicy, much better green curry hot pot with succulent scallops and vegetables in coconut-milk broth. Desserts are the same as downstairs, among them decent green tea creme brulee and orange mousse cake that only hinted at orange. Pitchers of mojitos and alcoholic lemonade are among the drinks, along with martinis and other cocktails, more than a dozen sakes, wines by the glass or bottle, and a handful of beers. —Anne Spiselman

Klopa Grill & Cafe

4835 N. Western | 774-745-5672

$

EASTERN EUROPEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | open late: every night till 11 | BYO

This Serbian grill in the epicenter of Balkan Chicago distinguishes itself from the many cafes and hangouts in its orbit with an outwardly friendly vibe (no tinted windows, no cold stares from regulars), and though the interior is as bare-bones as it gets, once the crowd fills in you won’t even notice. Apart from the signature sausages of Serbian meats—the unencased cylinders of minced beef known as cevapcici (in both pork and lamb mixes)—there’s a large selection of animal proteins such as pljeskavica, the substantial cevap in burger form; various chicken parts including bacon-wrapped breast and bacon-wrapped livers; snappy paprika-spiked sausages; and pork schnitzel, all culminating in the house specialty, the leskobacki opanak, sort of a Balkan Bacon Explosion, a 500-gram bacon-wrapped cevap with a core of ham and Swiss. Carnivores attempting to convert their vegetarian friends might find their efforts frustrated by starters such as roasted red pepper ajvar, a tangy chile-cheese spread, and a clean vinegar-based slaw, all augmented with baskets of lepinya, a fresh, puffy bread, and a selection of sweet and savory crepes. —Mike Sula

Life on Mars

2910 W. Armitage | 773-489-6277

$

VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY NOON-8 PM | CLOSED MONDAY

No doubt about it, Life on Mars has the city’s all-vegan take-out racket covered. But the unassuming Logan Square spot offers a rotating menu of cafeteria-style, vegan comfort food made to appeal to the masses, herbivores and carnivores alike. The menu of sides on the day I visited read like a vegan-style Thanksgiving buffet (mac ‘n’ cheese, barbecue baked black-eyed peas, garlic mashed potatoes), with an intriguing okra-peanut stew featured as the soup of the day. The exceptional tofu ricotta lasagna particularly stood out; other highlights included the mac ‘n’ cheese, a root vegetable medley, and a rich and hearty helping of coconut greens. The few sandwich options feature seitan, among them a barbecue rib and a well-seasoned sliced seitan sandwich, and there are a variety of soy shakes, smoothies, and fresh-baked cookies and brownies available. With affable service and a chill environment (improv jazz sound track included), Life on Mars will assuredly lure in its fair share of vegans and vegetarians. Hopefully the meat eaters won’t be too bashful to give it a whirl as well. —Kevin Warwick

Lockdown Bar & Grill

1024 N. Western | 773-451-5625

$

BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, burgers | lunch, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

Kitty-corner to the Empty Bottle, this bar-cum-restaurant differentiates itself from other burger zones with an incarcertation theme and Disney-like prison decor. There’s a higher ratio of flat-screens to humans than you’ve probably encountered elsewhere, but despite all the noise, the food shows a sure hand in the kitchen. “Cruelty to Animals” is an absolutely delicious hamburger crowned with chorizo, prosciutto, and bacon and served on a pretzel bun garnished with arugula and red onion. There are even some respectable vegetarian options like the house-made hummus and baba ghanoush appetizers (inexplicably called “White Collar Crime”). The fresh, hand-cut french fries are a worthy mate to fine draft and bottle beers, many reasonably priced around $4 and served in frosty mason jars. To help pass the time while you’re waiting out your dinner sentence, there’s a changing repertoire of concert videos featuring much metal. —David Hammond

Pho and I

2932 N. Broadway | 773-549-5700

$

ASIAN, VIETNAMESE, THAI | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO

The name may be an allusion to The King and I, because half the menu at this bright, simply decorated storefront consists of Thai standards. In fact, variations on Vietnamese pho are limited to three: beef, chicken, and vegetarian. Unfortunately, our pho bo—with brisket and medium-rare round steak—suffered from wan beef broth and clumpy rice noodles, and the add-ins (bean sprouts, basil, lime) didn’t include the usual green chiles to perk it up. Coconut-milk curries fared better: the red curry with avocado, vegetables, and basil was nicely spicy, though the tail-on shrimp (you also can opt for chicken, beef, or tofu in any curry) were small and overcooked; piquant green curry had lots of tender sliced beef but alas none of the customary Thai baby eggplant. Bun, room-temperature Vietnamese rice noodles with salady vegetables, might be a tasty summer meal, as long as you don’t choose spongy fried tofu and dull vegetable rolls as your topping. I’d also say skip the appetizers, judging by rubbery rice-paper rolls (goi cuon) packed mostly with iceberg lettuce, shrimp in blankets that tasted of old frying oil, and bland shrimp on sugarcane. —Anne Spiselman

Rockin’ Taco

1467 W. Irving Park | 773-975-8226

$

MEXICAN | LUNCH, dinner: SEVEN DAYS | open late: friday & saturday till 3 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The food at this lively-looking storefront decorated with jazzy graffiti murals is somewhat perplexingly billed as “nontraditional yet very authentic,” but we started strong with flautas, “flutes” of good-quality fried tortillas filled with chipotle chicken or potato and cheese. The al pastor and fajita veggie tacos were tasty if not mind-blowing, but the al pastor-style spices and pineapple slivers on the tofu taco slipped toward the unpleasantly sweet. Tacos are obviously menu mainstays; there are also several hot dogs, though the generic wieners and buns lack personality. You’ve got to admire the ambition of the owners—trying to improve upon Chicago’s Mexican food and hot dogs takes brass cojones. Still, Rockin’ Taco is a fun place: the horchata is fresh-tasting, BYOB is a nice touch, and on Friday nights at 7 PM you can sit down to a flight of “10 Tacos from Hell,” five pounds of food, smothered with tongue-blistering house-made salsa; finish all this and a drink in under an hour with one napkin and you’ll be reimbursed for your dinner (which is $16.66). —David Hammond

Xni-Pec

3755 Grand, Brookfield | 708-290-0082

$$

MEXICAN | monday-thursday 4-9 PM, friday-saturday 2-11 PM | closed sunday

Recently relocated from a desolate stretch in Cicero to a busy corner in Brookfield, Xni-Pec aims to enlighten patrons about Yucatecan cuisine while avoiding, in the words of owner Antonio Contreras, becoming “more a museum than a restaurant.” That’s a concern because Xni-Pec studiously avoids offering many Mexican standards, instead aiming to open eyes to the Mayan-influenced culinary canon. You can get a bowl of guac, sure, but servers go out of their way to explain the ancestry behind their more distinctive dishes, and the focus is on authentic fare. Cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork, is a prerequisite for those new to the cuisine; tikin xic is a beautifully prepared fish seaoned with achiote and sour orange, then steamed with vegetables in a banana leaf, which lends it distinctive notes of fruit and grass. Papadzules, tortillas soaked in pumpkin seed sauce, filled with chopped egg, and draped with tomato salsa, are a lightweight dish with lots of flavor. Other plates you won’t find at most other Chicago Mexican spots include pan de cazon, a stack of tacos filled with black beans and baby shark, and Mama Contreras’s mole rojo with a proprietary paste of chiles, almonds, and a wisp of cocoa. When you visit, be sure to ask if they’re serving any off-menu specials; we inquired and were rewarded with capirotada, a traditional Lenten bread pudding, full of raisins and memorably delicious. —David Hammond