Saturday, December 14, 2013

Chicago Eats

This year the Big Guy and I decided to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary with a trip up north to his hometown: the Second City, city of big shoulders, Sweet Home get the picture. It's a city of myriad cultures, monikers, personalities and peoples - a true Midwestern melting pot. When you combine that many people from so many places, you end up with some seriously good eats.

One of my favorite parts of our trip was the mode of travel. This marked my first U.S. passenger rail trip. (I don't count the commuter rail from Princeton, N.J., into NYC. It was like being on a subway car.) And we traveled Business Class...oh yeah. That's how we roll. If you've never traveled Amtrak and you have the opportunity, I encourage you to look into it. We saved a boatload of money by driving 90 minutes over to the closest station and taking the rail, then using public transportation once we arrived in the city. You can get an unlimited seven-day bus and train pass from the Chicago Transit Authority (the actual government agency, not the band) for around $25. In a city where overnight parking can cost you $65/day and just a few hours can cost $10, public transit is the way to go. Add in the savings on gas to drive 600 miles round trip, and it just made sense all the way around.

We chose to take an afternoon train on our way up, which meant we didn't arrive in the city until late. Once we were checked in to the hotel and starving, it was almost 11 p.m. That late in the Gold Coast neighborhood where we stayed meant our dining options were limited. And the poor desk clerk was used to business travelers with bigger budgets than ours, so he directed us to the trendy dining district. Little did we (and he) know, there was an OUTSTANDING dive bar and hot dog takeout joint right around the corner, which we discovered a day or so later. More on that later.

On the plus side, we got in a nice mile or so walk that night - much needed after several hours in the truck and on the train. We ended up at a little Irish bar called Dublin's. It was just what you would expect - loud, dark, hot and jammed full of slightly intoxicated business people. And the food was just meh. A little on the pricey side as well. I had a breaded chicken sandwich with little to no flavor, but the Big Guy said his corned beef was pretty tasty. The portions were way too big for a midnight snack, but hey - beggars can't be choosers. The interior was kind of cool, though, if you don't mind a weird green tinge to everything from the rope lights against the stainless steel ceiling tiles. The place appears to have maybe been a diner at one time, and it retains some of that flair.

The next morning we went on a mission to find the legendary Billy Goat Tavern. If you've ever seen the SNL Cheezborger Cheezborger skit, you know what I'm talking about. We found this gem hidden underneath Michigan Ave. in a basement, serving up the cheapest and best breakfast in the city. What struck me most as we sat in the quiet, near-empty bar, long before most patrons would arrive, was how much it reminded me of our favorite local neighborhood bar - Fred's. I'll have to ask Fred the next time we're there whether he's ever visited the Billy Goat. The similarities are so striking that, in my mind, I imagine Fred modeled his place after this historic underground watering hole.

Our next stop after the Billy Goat didn't have any food for consumption, but what a feast for the eyes it was! When the Big Guy - not usually one for the fine arts - asked me if I wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, my mouth dropped open. Big Guy? Volunteering to go to an art museum?? This is one of those times you just say yes. Don't question it too much lest he change his mind. So off we went to visit the lions and get some culture. Our plan of eating our way through the city actually married well with the featured exhibit - Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine. Sadly, this was the one place in the museum where photos were prohibited. But I'll forever treasure the memory of walking through the doors of the gallery and being greeted by Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want - the iconic Saturday Evening Post cover featuring a family sitting down to their Thanksgiving feast. Like so many infamous paintings, it was much larger than I expected. And the stunning photographic quality was amazing. I could've stared at it all day. But there was much, more more to see and explore.


After digesting all of that rich history and beauty, we were starving again. Our breakfast sandwiches were good, but we'd missed the lunch hour in the museum and needed to refuel. Being in the city and relying on public transit burns calories, yo! So we made our way back to that trendy dining district near our hotel, where we had seen a location of our favorite Chicago-style pizzeria the night before: Lou Malnati's. A former Anthropologie store, this location has more urban flair than the last location we visited, down near the Merchandise Mart. And it being mid-afternoon, the joint was empty. No three-hour wait like at dinner time! A small deep dish is all two people need - leaves room for a fantastic stuffed spinach bread appetizer.

After a little post-pizza nap, we headed down to the Daley Center - you know, the plaza with the Picasso sculpture - for the city's annual Christkindlmarket. Cozy little Bavarian huts are lined up all through the plaza with vendors selling their handmade wares - from painted glass ornaments to beautiful wood carvings. And in between in a throng of people drinking, wandering around lost, and generally getting all up in my personal space. About halfway through, I needed some hot cocoa and a break. Thankfully, I got both. One in a tiny $7 souvenir mug and the other in the form of benches outside the plaza being entertained by a couple of super-talented street musicians. Christmas carols on the tuba, anyone?

Now, remember that dive bar and hot dog joint I mentioned earlier? At some point in this day, we had discovered it while walking between the hotel and the "L" (train) station. It's tiny. It's loud. It's cheap. It's open until 4 a.m. Its menu is from the hot dog joint next door. And it may just be the best little slice of heaven in Streeterville/Gold Coast. It's Pippin's Tavern. Go there, get a drink, get a dog, and just sit back, listen and enjoy the show of locals and regulars.

The next morning, we ventured down to the Merchandise Mart just to see what was there. Much to our delight and surprise, we found a food court location of the Billy Goat! I had the best Monte Cristo that morning. Not exactly what you would expect to eat from a food court version of a tavern known for its greasy cheeseburgers and surly Greeks, but there you go. After wandering around a bit looking at ridiculously gorgeous kitchens and baths we'll probably never have, we decided to head up to the River North area and stroll around the neighborhood near the old Cabrini Greens housing projects. The Big Guy remembers this area well, as his dad was a student at Moody Bible Institute when my guy was a kid. He knew the old projects were gone and the area had come up, but we were both blown away by how decidedly hipster this neighborhood had become. One of the things that drew us to the neighborhood was a chance to sample the Truffle Fries at BIG & little's - a cool little sandwich shop featured on our favorite Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. Foie Gras & Fries might seem like an odd menu item at a place with picnic tables and a walk-up counter, but being located next to Le Cordon Bleu brings it all into perspective. Good eats at this joint. For sure.

I'm not sure how many miles we walked this day, or how many calories we burned, but I promise you it was a lot. We decided to check out the store windows and beautiful Christmas decorations at Macy's - the former Marshall Field department store. The giant tree in the storied Walnut Room did not disappoint. And neither did the stroll through the candy shop in the basement or the touchy-feely turn we took through the Fur Vault. Mmmmm...furrrrrrr. (Animal lovers, don't hate.)

That evening brought the opportunity for a night out with friends and some delicious burgers, fries, and fried green beans up in the Andersonville neighborhood. We met up with one of my old college friends and his partner to catch up and chow down. Hamburger Mary's was the destination - a little bit gay sports bar, a little bit restaurant, a little bit drag show venue and a whole lotta good eats. We hung out in Mary's Rec Room - the sports bar side - so Steve could catch the Blackhawks game at the same time. Priorities, you know. Andersonville was a long bus ride up from the hotel - nearly an hour - but worth it. We had planned to meet up again a couple days later with my college buddy to check out the Swedish festival, the Swedish bakery, and explore the neighborhood a bit more, but the weather report back home was looking bad and we decided we needed to cut our trip a little short. We'll definitely be checking this area out more on a future trip. In addition to the cultural draw (the Big Guy has Scandinavian roots), two of the most historic cemeteries in the area are along the same bus route and are on our list of sites to visit during warmer months.

Slightly hungover, we started our next (and sadly, final) day in Chicago with an incredibly decadent breakfast at Toast, near DePaul University. This tiny breakfast and lunch spot with way-cool signage is just across from Oz Park - a nice green space featuring statues of characters from the Wizard of Oz. The coffee was strong, and my stuffed French toast was out of this world. The guy who decided to fill a piece of bread with mascarpone cheese, dunk it in egg and fry it is a frickin' genius. Another piece was loaded with Mexican chocolate, and the third featured pureed strawberries. The strawberry one was ok, but the other two blew my mind. Definitely going to visit this place again. I'm glad I ordered the ridiculously overpriced side of Applewood bacon to go with it, though. The salt and smoke kept the sweetness from becoming too overpowering.

We spent the rest of our final day - not yet knowing it was to be our last - wandering around neighborhoods and checking out more local food establishments. One of these some might even call an institution. Dinkel's Bakery opened in 1922 in the Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. And though they've moved a few times (all along the same street), the store looks much the same now as it did 80 years ago. Glass case after glass case displaying mouth-watering delectable desserts and pastries. The shelves behind the counter are home to dozens of loaves of freshly baked bread, and a little dining room off to the side is a haven for breakfast or lunch on a cold winter's day. Walking through the doors, my nose was filled with the scent of memories. My mind was flooded with thoughts of being seven years old, walking with my mom to our now-extinct neighborhood supermarket, Great Scot, and smelling the fresh bread and donuts. Until that moment, I had forgotten Great Scot even had a donut counter! Scent memory is a wonderful, amazing thing. The Big Guy and I ordered a pastry each and cups of their house recipe hot cocoa to try to warm up, while my mind was still spinning with nostalgia. We sampled bits of Christmas cookies they left on a tray near the register, and I have to say - not to brag or anything - but my cookies are way better. No contest. I'll give them credit where credit is due on the hot cocoa and pastries, though. Delicious! And I can honestly say I've never made a cake as beautiful as theirs. But they've been at it a lot longer than I have.

After another nap to sleep off the sugar coma and rest our weary legs, we took another look at the weather. A nasty winter storm was moving in to our home area, and I was beginning to dread that 100-mile drive back home from the train station more and more with each ice warning. So the Big Guy and I decided it was time to call Amtrak and see what could be done. We changed to a much earlier train, leaving just after daybreak the following morning, and started packing. We still had a few places to explore that evening, so it was time to kick it into high gear. The first stop was dinner at Wow Bao in Water Tower Place. My first bao experience was a bit disappointing, but the side of Thai curry noodle salad wasn't half bad. The Christmas lights in the mall were pretty, though.

We bundled up tight and headed back out into the cold to catch the bus to our next destination - Christmas lights at Lincoln Park Zoo! I gladly paid for another overpriced cup of hot cocoa to keep my gloves warm as we shivered our way along the brightly lit paths. So thankful I bought one of those little headband/earwarmer thingies before we left town! We were icicles when we got back on the bus and headed for Michigan Ave. But the light display was worth it. Best part? Free.

Back down in Gold Coast, we were on a mission for Garrett's Popcorn. The line was out the door, but we made lots of folks back home happy with giant bags of the best cheese and caramel corn I've ever put in my mouth. By this time I was starving and needed to warm up. Those hot Asian buns didn't stick with me long. (I guess because I didn't eat more than a couple of bites.) So we ventured back around the corner to our new favorite tavern and dog shop for our last meal in the city. The bar was just too packed, so we ducked in next door at Downtown Dogs and pulled up a barstool at the counter to people watch and dig in to our insanely delicious Polish sausages and RC Colas (which I was totally shocked to find in Chicago, by the way).

We were sad to have to leave so quickly, but the trip was everything we had hoped and more. New places discovered and more to-dos added to our list for future adventures. Can't wait for our next trip in March for the St. Paddy's Day parade! I'll have another post for you then for sure. 

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