Tapas are generally associated with Spain – small portions of food that are often served with wine or beer and are meant to be shared. Tapas, however, make a nearly perfect single dining experience. The small plates allow the intrepid solo diner to sample many things in one sitting. I have long been a fan of tapas restaurants and have sampled nearly all of the available options in Chicago. I still love many of those spots, but why limit the joy of tapas to Spain? In Chicago, now, you don’t have to! There’s a new concept in town and it takes tapas to a totally different zone.
Bites Asian Tapas, located at 3313 North Clark Street, combines the concept of tapas with the vast array of fascinating tastes and flavors of Asian cuisine. If you are a fan of small plates and/or Asian food, then this should be one of your next stops in Chicago.
Bites Asian Tapas is the brainchild of Asana Nakornchai, a native of Thailand and Marita Tantivirasut, also from Thailand. Asana is an entrepreneur with various backgrounds including Criminal Justice, Economics and Business, but her greatest passion has always been for great food. Marita is a self-taught chef with passion for cooking. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen and learned from her mother how to cook delicious food since she was very young.
The eclectic menu has been crafted with cultural influence from China, Thailand, India, Japan, and Korea but (like the melting pot of Chicago) there are many bits and pieces from other cuisines and cultures mixed in here and there. Overall, this is one of the most unique and interesting tapas restaurants I have ever visited.
Recently, I was invited to attend a media tasting at Bites and was able to sample a staggering array of different options from the menu. Honestly, there wasn’t a false note anywhere but I did have a few favorites:
- Butternut Soup (curry paste, paprika, peanut, butternut squash) – This is one of my favorite comfort foods in cooler weather, but is equally wonderful when it’s warm outside. Their version is only slightly spicy, but tremendously flavorful and worth a try.
- Pig in the Garden (lettuce-wrapped pork, tomatoes, cilantro, crispy noodles) – If you don’t mind getting just a little messy, definitely order these. Essentially, you’re rolling up your own lettuce wrap and adding ingredients as you like. The pork, however, is absolutely fantastic. It is ground and served in some kind of secret but densely flavorful sauce. If you have to choose just one, this might be the choice.
- Drunk Chicks (fried boneless chicken served with Asian whiskey sauce or hot sauce) – Who doesn’t love a new take on the concept of “wings”? In this case, the chicken is lightly fried and then tossed in one of two sauces. The Asian whiskey sauce is slightly sweet but tangy, definitely a different approach than most of the sweeter sauces I have tried. The hot sauce is only medium hot (luckily) but brings in more of the Asian-inspired chiles. Again, slightly messy but worth the effort.
- Gau Bao (buns with pork belly or avocado tempura) – Bao is a standard offering in many Asian restaurants and Bites certainly doesn’t disappoint. Both the pork and the vegetarian options were perfectly-prepared and (frankly) I wish I could have taken some home with me. Excellent!
- Pretty in Pink (rice noodles in Bites’ signature sauce, tofu, omelet, scallion, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds) – I am not sure what is in this secret sauce, but you must give it a try. The pink noodles were a huge visual surprise and the layers of flavor were all separate but blended together to create a lovely synthesis. Who doesn’t love that moment when you taste many different things and then, suddenly, they merge into something more?
- Spicy Miso Ramen (pork belly – or tofu – egg noodles, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, boiled egg, sesame chili oil) – What can I say? How can you have an Asian tapas restaurant without ramen on the menu? Theirs is some of the best I’ve tasted in the city. We have to fight over the egg (and I lost) but by all accounts it added a perfect extra to the already wonderful ramen.
Bites also has a unique beverage menu, crafted to blend “traditional” cocktail concepts with Asian flavors. All of the signature cocktails lean towards the sweeter side, so if you’re more of a fan of dry/bitter/savory you might want to sample the small but interesting wine list. For those who enjoy a slightly sweeter cocktail, though, don’t miss out on at least one of them. For a spicy surprise check out the Wassup Wasabi (vodka, ginger syrup, lychee juice, wasabi). For a slightly more traditional feeling go for the Gentlemen’s Wood (bourbon, simple syrup, cherry, mango, orange & cherry bitters). They also make a fairly awesome sangria, both white and red.
Bites Asian Tapas is located at 3313 North Clark Street, between Buckingham Place and School Street. They are open Sunday – Thursday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. and Friday – Saturday, 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Contact them at (773) 270-5972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join their social media conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Yelp
All photos courtesy of Cindy Kurman.