Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chicago: Where in the World Wednesday!

It is amazing that after all this time, I STILL haven't been to the wonderful food city of Chicago (although slightly ironically, on this day I'm actually three hours west of Chicago).  Luckily, we have not one, but FOUR Chicago tour guides today to offer us some insight into what the city has to give us!  Thanks so much to Silvia, Neena, Becca, and Jason!

Silvia and I lived in neighboring "houses" in the freshman dorms and have been friends ever since!  I've been sad ever since Silvia moved away from DC, but can't wait to visit her in Chicago!  She currently lives in downtown Chicago in a neighborhood called Old Town.

Neena is the fabulous sister of one of my best friends, Anjali (check out Anjali's WWW of NOLA!).  Neena is a senior at Northwestern living in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago. Before moving here, she grew up in Union City, a small town in northwest Tennessee.  Her top three food cities are New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago.  Her favorite dessert is key lime pie (yum!) and if comfort food is where it is at, then Neena goes for mashed potatoes and cornbread.

Jason and Becca are showing us around jointly around Chicago!  Becca and I went to grad school together, but actually met when we worked at the same office one summer and have been friends (and coworkers!) ever since.  I met Jason through Becca and have heard about their Chicago eating adventures since Jason started school at Northwestern. 

(1)  How would you describe the food in Chicago in 10 words or less?
Silvia: There's truly something for everyone's taste!

Neena: All over the place - in the best way possible!

Becca: Either huge and hearty or trendy and innovative; Jason: Filling, diverse. Consistently exceeds my expectations.

(2) If you were bringing back a food gift basket representative of Chicago for a friend, what would you include in it?  (Feel free to include perishable items!)

Silvia: A pizza pot pie (the kind with the meat sauce and mushrooms) and the Mediterranean bread from The Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder; a Chicago-style hot dog; Garrett Popcorn (CaramelCrisp); Portillo's Italian Beef; Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale; Bobtail's Signature Sunset ice cream (it's Merlot ice cream with chocolate chunks); and Vosges Haut Chocolat's Exotic Chocolate Bars (e.g. Sweet Indian curry + coconut; milk chocolate + bacon; Mexican ancho & chipotle chillies + Ceylon cinnamon dark chocolate)

Neena: Deep Dish Pizza- preferably original cheese from Giordano’s

Chicago Hot Dog- no ketchup, poppy seed bun, mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, celery salt…from Hot Doug’s

Italian Beef Sandwich- wonderfully seasoned roast beef on an Italian roll that is often dipped in the meat juices and topped with giardiniera or sweet peppers…you can’t really make this badly, so I would say from anywhere

Metropolis Coffee- best coffee, no discussion

Vosges Chocolate- based out of Chicago, this chocolatier has some of the most exotic truffles and candy bars including bacon chocolate and Indian curry chocolate…sounds scary, tastes amazing

Becca: Steak, Roasted nuts, sausages. Jason: Agreed - maybe also throw in a hot dog.

(3) Do you find that food in Chicago has been greatly influenced by certain ethnicities/religions?  If so, which ones?

Silvia: Each neighborhood is uniquely influenced.  There are the traditional ethnic neighborhoods like Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy, but then there are the more unique neighborhoods like Boystown (think The Hardy Boys), Wrigleyville (for the Cubs fans), and Andersonville (Swedish influence), all with their own unique tastes and flavors.

Neena Absolutely. Polish, Greek, Ukrainian, and Italian influences are the first that pop into my mind.

Becca: I think there is good ethnic food in Chicago if you seek it out, we've had good indian there. There is good italian, and Rick Bayless has his line of mexican restaurants that are very popular. I think there is some polish influence too. Otherwise I would say Chicago is a meat and potatoes American midwestern town.

Jason: Chicago is a city where different neighborhoods are still dominated by the ethnic groups that have historically inhabited the neighborhoods (i.e., not very well integrated). As a result, while I don't think that one ethnicity has so much influenced the cuisine of the entire city, I do think that Polish, Ukranian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican-centric influences dominate certain Chicago neighborhoods.

(4) If I were to visit you, where would we go for breakfast?  For late-night eats?

Silvia: For breakfast, I'd definitely take you to Yolk or Orange.  For late-night eats, we could not miss The Wiener Circle!!!  YouTube it and you'll know what I mean (just don't watch it in your office!) =P

Neena Breakfast at Toast- Their pesto scramble is perfection. A close second is their Mexican chocolate stuffed French Toast…seems like a sin so early in the morning.

Late-Night Eats at Ian’s Pizza- A toss up between a slice of chili cheese fritos pizza or a slice of steak & french fries pizza…both sound a bit disturbing/overwhelming but believe me when I say it’s not a good night out in Wrigleyville unless you snag a slice of Ian’s.

Becca:  For breakfast, either West Egg Cafe or that huge place on Michigan Avenue whose name I forgot. Jason: Agreed. Good brunch place called Orange in Lakeview too.  For late night eats, Tempo Cafe. Place is a scene late at night, good food though.

(5) If I were to visit you, what is one food-related destination or outing that we would visit/do?

Silvia: If you were here during the summer, we would definitely visit at least one of the many food festivals that take place here from May-September! There's Taste of Chicago (a definite must), the Guinness Oyster Fest, and all the neighborhood tasting festivals.  My favorite is Ribfest :)   

I would also take you to Table Fifty-Two, whose chef and owner is Art Smith, the former personal chef to Oprah.  Art personally came to greet our table and the tables around us when we dined there.  I felt like I was only 1 degree separated from Oprah, and I'd want you to have the same experience too ;)

Neena: Chicago Hot Dog from Hot Doug’s- It is absolutely an outing with the line streaming out the door daily.

Becca: We would probably go to Ginos/Giordanos for deep dish. Jason: Agreed.

(6) Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the food in Chicago?

Silvia: I was definitely surprised by how much good food and how much variety there is here in Chicago!  When I first moved to Chicago, I made a long list of restaurants that I would try during my first year living in the city.  After 4.5 years in Chicago and having tried hundreds of restaurants, that list has turned into a BOOK and still continues to grow!

Neena The concept of comfort food in the Midwest is not far from that of the South’s concept. This is a good thing.

Becca: Maybe not the food, but Chicago has a serious foodie scene, and it's hard to get reservations at a lot of places, we've called for a res at places that wouldn't necessarily be considered special occasion only and been told there was a 6 month wait list. Jason: I agree with Becca. I think because it is so cold people take their restaurant excursions very seriously, and as a result the Chicago dining scene is really taken seriously. I've met more foodies in Chicago than anywhere else. I've also been surprised by how diverse a selection of restaurants Chicago has to offer. You can get any type of food in Chicago.

(7)   What is your favorite “local” restaurant and why?

Silvia: I have so many restaurants on my favorite list--it's hard to pick just one!  I would vote for Chilam Balam as my favorite "local" restaurant.  Their chef (who was the Sous Chef for Rick Bayless) practices a farm-to-table mantra and as such sources local produce and ingredients for all the tasty food.  Plus it's BYOB!

Neena: Bistro Zinc. Simple French food. Never a disappointment.

Becca: Red Rooster Cafe in Lincoln Park. It's a really cute little French restaurant that's dimly lit and quiet with great food and great prices. We tell everyone to go there. Jason: Agreed.

(8)   I admit, I’m a junk food junkie… where is your go-to place for deep dish pizza?  For a hot dog?

Silvia: I love Edwardo's deep-dish pizza, Hawaiian style (ham with pineapple). 

I usually reserve my hot dog eating for game day at Wrigley Field.  But if I had a bad craving, I would hop down the street to Five Faces in my neighborhood for a Chicago-style hot dog.  I've heard great things about Hot Doug's hot dogs and duck fat fries, but I haven't tried it--I would love to try it with you, Jackie!

Neena Deep Dish from Giordano's without a doubt. I have learned that deep dish pizza and regular crust pizza are completely different cravings in my mind. When you are craving one of them, you will never settle for the other.  Hot dog from Hot Doug's is always a safe bet.

Becca: Deep dish: Ginos to sit in and Giordanos for take out (spinach and pepperoni).  I have to confess I haven't had a hot dog in chicago, but I've heard there's a little place way up north that is hands down the best, but requires waiting in line for sometimes hours.  Jason: I like Giordano's deep dish. Portillo's or Wrigley Field for a hot dog.
(9) Given the current economic times, where would you go for a meal and a drink for $15 and less?

Silvia: I would go to Matisse in Lakeview for their daily specials.  My favorite is the $3 burger + $4 beer night on Mondays.  Wednesdays are great with their $4 chocolate martini special!  Matisse is a cute little tavern--it's very cozy in the winter because they have a fireplace inside that people can sit next to and cuddle up.  In the summer they have a great outdoor patio that's awesome for people watching.

Neena: Xoco- Make sure you budget for the churros and dipping Mexican chocolate!

Becca: We'd probably share a pizza at Dan's restaurant Osteria Via Stato but we'd be cheating because he'd probably give us free antipasti to go with it. Chicago is full of great pubs though, pretty much any random spot in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville is going to have a great burger. Jason: Agree w/Becca. You can get a good meal and drink for under $15 (maybe $20) all over Chicago.

(10) What is your most memorable food experience in Chicago?

Silvia: I have so many memorable food experiences in Chicago; I don't think I can pick just one!

I think the most recent memorable food experience was Chicago Restaurant Week 2010 in February.  Luke and I had a ton of fun going around the city and trying out a bunch of new restaurants we had never been to before.  We tasted and enjoyed so many wonderful dishes!  Some of my favorites included the Truffled Mac 'n' Cheese and Duck Duo from Blue 13, the Mushroom Risotto and Hot Apple Crisp from Gemini Bistro, the Alaskan King Crab from Joe's Seafood, and the cheesecake from Il Mulino.  It was really fun to compare notes with our fellow foodie friends as Restaurant Week progressed!

My overall most memorable food experiences in Chicago would involve the following restaurants: Sunda, The Publican, Hot Chocolate, the Hopleaf, and Japonais.  Jackie--you'll just have to come visit so I can take you to those places.  Then you'll know why they're memorable :)

Neena Too many to list! First one that comes to mind is getting a slice of Bacci’s pizza after a Cubs game. But, let me tell you. This is not your average slice of pizza. For $5 you can get a slice of pizza the size of Russia and a drink.

Becca: Hard to say, we've had a lot. After Jason I associate Chicago with food. Our first breakfast in Chicago (I don't know where) I had this amazing french toast with bananas on it. Jason's friend Dan works at an italian restaurant/pizzeria and we went there one night for an awesome 4 course meal (that ended up being several more courses because Dan's friends just kept bringing things). And of course all our dinners at Red Rooster have been great -- particularly the time we went there during the week and our food was half price (crazy because the food there is already half the price of many other places). We've had great meals all over Chicago though.

Jason: I'd say our first time at Red Rooster. It is just a nice, quaint spot that was wonderful that night and continues to impress us. Also, as was mentioned earlier, people in Chicago take their food seriously so it is hard to "find" a new place. I like being able to say, or think, that we found Red Rooster on our own.

Thank you so much  for your tours of Chicago's eats!  Ok, now I'm starving.  When is the next flight out to Chicago?

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