Wicker Park began as a workingman's neighborhood of brick Victorians and tree-lined avenues, anchored by Division Street, the Polish Broadway. Its decaying landscape was the setting for the hapless exploits of John Cusack in High Fidelity. But the movie only showed the grunge; Wicker Park has recently taken a steep climb upscale.
Adventurous diners have been packing the colorful dining room at RAMBUTAN since July to share inexpensive, tapas-size Filipino dishes: duck adobo à la monja, at once sweet (from pineapple) and rich (from duck confit and coconut milk); and ukoy, fried shrimp with shreds of sweet potato and cassava. For dessert there's a clever dish called "mahjong tiles," tiny slices of tart lemon and lime curd with sugar-cube "dice" and a mango coulis. It's a perfect example of chef Jennifer Aranas's modus operandi: She stays true to the authentic flavors of the Philippines but presents them in lovely and original packaging (2049 W. Division St.; 773-772-2727).
A visit to MAIZ is a lesson in the culinary history of Mexico before the conquistadors. Every dish contains corn masa, a staple of the Mayas and Aztecs, from simple handmade sopes to gargantuan tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Don't miss the pastor, grilled pork with pineapple atop a huarache, a shoe-shaped tortilla (1942 W. Division St.; 773-862-1801).
Wicker Parkers who are startled to see valet parking on West Division peer into MIRAI to watch black-clad crowds eating Chicago's best sushi. Diners at nearly every table lap up orders of kani nigiri (spicy king crab) and sakana carpaccio moriwase--raw tuna, sal-mon and whitefish with sesame oil, cilantro and capers (2020 W. Division St.; 773-862-8500).
The slick synthetic interior at MOD belies chef Kelly Courtney's approachable farmers' market cuisine. After helpings of seared foie gras with rum-flambéed pineapple or a juicy double-cut pork chop with mascarpone mac and cheese, you may need to loosen the buttons on your vinyl pants. Don't skip the sweet stuff, however; the doll-size chocolate-cherry ice cream soda may be the cutest dessert in town (1520 N. Damen St.; 773-252-1500).
Once PIECE lights its brick ovens later this fall, Chicago will get its first taste of charred and blistered pizza inspired by the legendary Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut. Manager Bill Jacobs hopes that the pairing of beer brewed on site and thin-crust pies will cause Chicago to reconsider its devotion to deep-dish (1927 W. North Ave; 773-772-4422).
Los Feliz and Silver Lake
In the side-by-side bohemian meccas of Silver Lake and Los Feliz, women with Betty Page haircuts ride around in yellow Dodge Coronets, entire dinner parties unfold without one mention of Tom Cruise, and almost no one has had their features surgically enhanced. Even the stars are cool: Beck and Catherine Keener both live in the area. But perhaps the best consolation for living east of La Brea, far from the ocean breeze, is eating out. Restaurants here are not meant to be showplaces for the vanity of celebrity chefs, celebrity owners or celebrity clients.
The forerunner of the current boom was Vida, opened in 1994 by Fred Eric. The playful, whimsical menu (Ty Cobb Salad) virtually shouts "We're not in Santa Monica, people!" The recent crop of restaurants, though, studiously avoids Vida's ostentatious brand of quirkiness. In the heart of Los Feliz, FIGARO CAFE is an archetypal Parisian bistro, complete with zinc bar, mirrors and tile floors that look far more worn-down than one would normally expect in a year-old restaurant. The menu, divided into Soupe, Froid, Chaud, Viandes and Poissons, also aims for archetype. Perhaps the best dish is the mussels steamed with sweet cream and leeks--heaven at the end of a long day (1802 N. Vermont Ave.; 323-662-1587).
Just south of Figaro, on a block of clothing stores meant only for people under 22, is VERMONT, an airy, civilized oasis with upholstered banquettes and potted palms. The kitchen knows how to braise a lamb shank large enough to feed a caveman and sets it off with a lovely fusion of cumin, white beans, lentils, arugula, pearl onions, tomatoes and mint (1714 N. Vermont Ave.; 323-661-6163).
Even the baby of the bunch is quite promising. CHAMEAU, just a few months old, has a flag emblazoned with a green camel flying outside and bold French-Moroccan cooking indoors. What to serve with halibut? Baby clams, merguez sausage and harissa, of course. On warm nights, the doors open to reveal a view of the traffic on unlovely Hyperion Avenue. If this is a problem, you can always go to Beverly Hills, sit on a satin banquette and pay three figures to shut out the world (2520 Hyperion Ave.; 323-953-1973).
The dirt-cheap can also be found here. YUCAS, an open-air stand, sells the world's most delicious pork taco for less than $2 (2056 Hillhurst Ave.; 323-662-1214). MAKO serves flavorful bowls of rice and grilled chicken for $1.95 (1820 N. Vermont Ave.; 323-660-1211). ELECTRIC LOTUS brings a light touch to Indian dishes like lamb in coconut curry (4656 Franklin Ave.; 323-953-0040).
And then there is PICHOLINE, a luxury-food shop where every sleek bottle of Moroccan olive oil is a work of art. Customers stream in at lunch for $7 sandwiches. While there, they might also pick up first-rate French and Italian cheeses, ethereal sorbets, meaty green olives stuffed with garlic or apricots, or tiny jars of currants in sugar syrup made by the peasant women of Bar-le-Duc in Lorraine, who are said to remove each tiny currant seed with a goose quill (3360 W. First St.; 213-252-8722).
New York City
For most of the past decade, Chinese-food groupies sought their thrills in the outer boroughs, especially in the latter-day Chinatowns of Flushing and Elmhurst. Culinary commuters spent hours on the Queens-bound 7 train--like Mets fans heading to Shea Stadium, but hungrier. The subway ride was as much a part of the experience as intractable waiters and untranslated specials. Recently, though, a new wave has found its way to the narrow streets of Manhattan's Chinatown. This international style is challenging enough to excite the avant-garde, yet sufficiently user-friendly for the simply curious. The old-school dim-sum emporia and fluorescent-lit barbecue joints are still there, but they've been joined by zany snack shops, slick juice bars and design-conscious restaurants with boldly experimental menus.
At AJI ICHIBAN, a Chinese candy shop with a Japanese name, cheerful uniformed attendants offer free samples from the Lucite bins, then heat-seal your selections in neat logoed bags. Among the treats on display are honeyed almonds, lemony preserved ginger, dozens of varieties of Yummy Candy and small, russet-colored cubes called Tuna Cute. These are grainy, sweet, and most definitely tuna- flavored. In fact, "tuna cute" might be the perfect symbol for Chinatown's current giddy, mix-and-match eclecticism: a perplexing taste that wins you over through sheer charm (167 Hester St.; 212-925-1133).
With a name like a forgotten dance from the Fifties, FUNKY BROOME is probably the most striking example of the new aesthetic. Located on the northern edge of the neighborhood, where it blurs into SoHo, this corner restaurant signals its individuality with hot-pink neon and Ikea-inflected furnishings. The neo-Cantonese food makes as much of a statement as the decor: crispy squab served with lemon wedges and a dish of coarse salt; bubbling mini-woks filled with meatballs or stuffed lotus roots; prawns and scallops stir-fried with lychees. The multi-ethnic crowd also blurs into SoHo, but here at least people actually pay more attention to the food than to their cell phones (176 Mott St.; 212-941-8628).
A few blocks away, the always-crowded XO KITCHEN is even more of an oddball: a Midwestern diner that seems to have been translated into Chinese by imperfect software. There are milk shakes, steaks and plates of spaghetti, as well as Japanese dumplings and Taiwanese breakfasts. Some of the cross-cultural offerings, like baked razor clams with cheese (served straight-faced with a mound of coleslaw and a curly parsley garnish), have value only as novelty items. Much better are the delicate rice dishes steamed in lotus leaves and filled with things like sweet Chinese sausage, starchy taro or wee frog limbs. The familiar round tables hosting multigenerational family dinners are nowhere to be seen; this is a date place, where Chinese teenagers with baggy pants and cool haircuts nurse tall glasses of iced milk tea filled with black tapioca pearls (148 Hester St.; 212-965-8645).
Of all the new places, PING'S, the latest venture by Hong Kong-via- Queens chef Chuen Ping Hui, is clearly the top of the line. There's a stripped-down anonymity in the ambience; this restaurant could be in a bank lobby, in an airplane, in outer space. But while the atmosphere may be impersonal, the food is definitely Ping's. Oysters on the half shell covered with an intricate dried-scallop sauce, fresh seafood snatched from a multilevel aquarium by the front door and jicama with flowering chives, crispy baby fish, jellyfish and shredded squid are among the choices for those who decide against the abalone, which goes for $20 an ounce. The colorfully illustrated menus inspire bravery even among the squeamish. When a waiter helpfully offers advice on choosing between two pork-stomach dishes, you know for sure that you're not in the old Chinatown anymore (22 Mott St.; 212-602-9988).
Time will tell whether the current influx of cosmopolitan cool is anything more than a ripple on the surface of this very old neighborhood. For now, though, a walk around Chinatown can make you feel like a kid in a tuna candy store.