Tapas is the name of the game for Spanish food in Chicago
By Megy Karydes
Chicago Local Expert
We can't help but adore restaurants that specialize in a given cuisine. When we're in the mood for Spanish food in Chicago and are either in or near the Loop, we head to Mercat a la Planxa in downtown Chicago (be sure to order the sangria flight), Emilio’s Tapas Sol U Nieve in Streeterville (which also has an outdoor patio) or Café Iberico in River North (with its own little mini grocery store).
Black Bull Tapas, just north of the Loop in Chicago’s hot Bucktown neighborhood, is a newcomer quickly making a name for itself. Neighborhood favorites Tapas Gitana and Café Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s solid track record and consistently great dishes keep regulars coming back. Just outside the city limits are stellar options as well including Naperville-based Meson Sabika where you’ll be dining in a mansion or Evanston’s Tapas Barcelona with an outdoor seating area that makes you feel like you’re not in a big city.
Bacon-wrapped dates are among reader favorites but one place gives it its own twist: Café Marbella Tapas makes theirs using figs rather than dates (equally delicious). To allow diners to experience a variety of small plates, many places offer buffets so be sure to ask your waiter.
10 Tapas Gitana
Brightly-decorated tiles and vivid murals set the scene at this romantic tapas spot in the suburbs (there is another location in Chicago). Whether you bring a special someone or a group of buddies, Tapas Gitana's selection of hot and cold small plates, paellas, soups and salads offers something for everybody. Whet your appetite with marinated olives and then dig in to warm crepes filled with goat cheese, pine nuts and spinach or maybe into grilled tiger shrimp with lemon-garlic butter. For an unusual dessert, try banana mousse with white chocolate shavings. Daily specials include paellas, tapas, and a unique wine selection imported from Spain. (847-784-9300)
9 Tapas Barcelona
Spain comes to Evanston by way of this cheery tapas restaurant. The prices are reasonable and the menu outstanding. The Pollo Al Curry (roasted chicken with grapes and curry mayo), Salpicon De Mariscos (assorted seafood and octopus salad) and Esparragos Con Tres Salsa (fresh asparagus, avocado, and tomato) are but a few of the small plates to be had here. A lovely outdoor garden dining area is available during pleasant weather. Parking can be a challenge depending on the day and time you come but pay attention to parking rules as the Evanston Police are notorious for being very liberal with their parking tickets. (847-866-9900)
The name says it all, as tapas here come with, well, a twist. Traditional tapas are turned on their heads with interesting innovations and unique combinations. Cold and hot tapas like Jerk chicken drumettes and jalapeno gnocchi make mouths water. There are also plenty of seafood, meat and vegetarian choices which makes it easy to accommodate various palates. Order the sangria as it's almost legendary among locals who love this "twisted" tapas eatery. Service is usually friendly and quick. The interior space is cheery with wide open windows at the front and work by local artists lining the walls. Some outdoor seating is available. (773-388-2727)
7 Cafe Marbella Tapas
Blink as you drive on Milwaukee Avenue and you may miss Café Marbella Tapas. Turn the car around, find plenty of free street parking in front of the place and enter the large wooden doors and wait just a few seconds before you're seated. The unassuming and unpretentious restaurant belies what's in store. Specials are handwritten and complement the menu which includes a wide selection of classic tapas dishes like Gazpacho Andaluz (with a little bit of a kick), Gambas al Ajillo, Piquillos con Atun and Tortilla Espaniola. You may need to restrain yourself from licking the plate to savor each bit of spicy tomato sauce after devouring the Patatas Bravas. Chef Virgilio Trujillo honed his skills at some of Chicago's favorite Spanish-style kitchens, including La Paella and Arco De Cuchilleros. Don't discount the place because of its location. The fact that it's BYOB is yet another plus. (773-853-0128)
6 Mesón Sabika
Like many suburbs, Naperville is victim to plenty of restaurant chains which is why places like Meson Sabika are a welcome relief. Set inside a stunning, wedding photography-worthy mansion, it's one of the few tapas options west of Chicago. In addition to the traditional tapas one would expect at a Spanish tapas restaurant, standouts include the Piprrana de Buey (skirt steak), Empanada de Buey (beef filled pastry), Gambas con Guindillas (shrimp) and Queso de Cabra (goat cheese with garlic bread). Guests have the option between red and white sangria but the red seems to have more fans. Save room for the orange flan which gets high marks or the cream cheese pound cake with berries which is very rich. The outdoor patio welcomes dogs, too, giving it that much more of a European restaurant feel you don't often find in the Chicagland area. ((630) 983-3000)
5 Café Iberico
Café Iberico has both fans and foes but there is a reason this Spanish restaurant continues to be popular: it attracts a young, attractive crowd that enjoys the upbeat festive atmosphere (read: loud) and abundant selection of cold and hot tapas ($2-7 each) like jamon iberico, baked goat cheese, vegetarian Spanish omelets, chicken brochette with caramelized onions or grilled octopus. Deli-Iberico sells deli foods by the pound so you can recreate your favorites at home. Reservations vary by day and time. Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more on all evenings except for Friday and Saturday nights and expect to wait for a table on those evenings, especially if you have a large party. (312-573-1510)
4 Café Ba-Ba-Reeba!
Café Ba Ba Reeba! may be Chicago's first tapas bar but that alone isn't what keeps people coming back. It's one of the best places to find authentic tapas and sangria (it's a bit on the sweeter side). Patatas bravas come with generous sized potato chunks and the bacon-wrapped dates arrive with apple chunks and vinegar to cut the sweetness. The dates literally melt in your mouth. If you're game to learn how to make paella at home, the executive chef invites you to his Paella Cooking Demo class once a month where you'll not only perfect your paella but enjoy a tapas lunch complete with wine. Expect to wait for a table, reservations are encouraged although not accepted for outdoor patio seating. Gluten-free and vegetarian-friendly, too. (773-935-5000)
3 Emilio's Tapas Sol y Nieve
Like many city downtown areas, finding an indie restaurant that's good, relatively inexpensive and accessible isn't easy. Nestled on bustling Ohio Street, Emilio's (as everyone here calls it) has a colorful interior (murals line the walls) and plenty of tables large enough for families and groups or small enough for an intimate dinner date. An outdoor patio is especially attractive during warmer days and since the sidewalk is wide enough, you won't feel as if you might get run over by drivers. Enjoy traditional tapas including baked goat cheese served with crispy garlic bread, cannelloni stuffed with tuna, asparagus, and olives, and the tomato bread topped with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese. (312-467-7177)
2 Black Bull
Walk into the dimly lit, narrow and long restaurant and smells from the open kitchen is the first sign that you're in for a treat. Marinated Spanish olives are promptly brought to your table. Order a pitcher of sangria and then make the hard decision of what to order. Dine on a Tuesday or Sunday night and for $25 you can enjoy unlimited tapas. Otherwise, if you need to make some decisions, the datiles con tocino (bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese) and champinones rellenos (stuffed mushrooms) are excellent. Patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette), huevos rotos con patatas y chorizo (eggs, potatoes and chorizo), calamares al ajillo (sauteed squid rings) and ensalada de manzanas de la huerta (apple salad) are wonderful. Parking along always-hopping Division Street isn't easy, but possible. Just remember to feed the parking meter. ((773) 227-8600)
1 Mercat a la Planxa
The light streaming through the massive, arched windows enhance the vibrant colors of this Catalan restaurant located in the Blackstone Hotel. The tables and chairs carry off sleek, modern lines that are contrasted with bright greens and oranges and rich purples. It seems more like a Spanish market than a restaurant. The festive ambiance is further enhanced by the selection of small dishes. Traditional tapas like octopus with smoked paprika can be found alongside flatbreads served with beef shortribs, horseradish, and bacon. There's even the option for ordering a whole roasted suckling pig, which the chef will gladly carve himself. (312-765-0524)
About Megy Karydes
Megy Karydes has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and most of her life in Chicago. While she’s traveled extensively internationally, visiting each of the 50 states is on her bucket list. An adventure seeker, she’s game for anything from mixed martial arts training to competing in obstacle course races. A self-proclaimed coffee snob and “greenie” who loves farmer-grown food and locally-grown craft beers & wine. She’s yet to find an outdoor beer garden she doesn’t like. Mixing writing and food/drink is her specialty, especially when it involves travel. Visit her musings on her insatiable appetite for life at www.WanderingTastes.com or www.KarydesConsulting.com.
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