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If you are anything like me, you probably watch the food channel more than you would like to admit, have an obsession about opening a restaurant, and exercise a great deal so that you can continue to fit into your pants and still eat the stuff you like. We eat in Philly all the time. We have been to all the best there: from the cheesesteak eggrolls at Davios, to the barbequed pork at Budakan, to the Blood Orange Margarita’s at Lolita, to the Chicken with Greens at Frank and Evelyn’s. We drive over the bridge to go to Honey’s for breakfast, and catch Tony Luke’s before a game.
About six months ago, I was watching a show about hamburgers on the Travel Channel and of course it included a couple of Chicago spots. For the hundredth time I said to my wife, Leslie, “we gotta go to Chicago.” Instead of rolling her eyes at me, she busily sat typing on her laptop and a few minutes later said, “I have flights in October for $139 round trip.” A few minutes later she told me that she could get a reduced priced hotel room at the Marriott downtown. Things have been a little tight this year, as it has been for so many people, hence, a long weekend seemed like a great substitute to an all out vacation. And with discount air and room, we figured it was a good time to visit Chicago. We had never been away without the kids, but decided that they were old enough to spend a weekend with grandmom and grandpop. A few weeks later, our friends Scott and Lisa agreed that they had to be part of this food-travel adventure, and they booked their flights, as well.
Thus, inspired by the food channel, we flew into Chicago with four days of serious eating and walking planned (and early mornings at the hotel gym).
First things first; Chicago is a big town if you did not know. There are so many restaurants and neighborhoods, that you could spend weeks in just one section and never eat your way out of it. So rather than focus on one food, or one area, we decided to see as much as we could and sample as many food varieties as possible in four days. Our parameters for picking places were simple: tripadvisor, local magazine reviews, and any local that would talk to us.
We flew into O’Hare and took a van to our hotel. (In the future, we would stick to the trains and stay off the roads. Chicago has terrible traffic, and an easy, efficient and extensive rail system.) Once we reached the hotel, we were ravenous and we had not had a chance to really figure out where we could easily walk for lunch. We asked the Concierge, which proved to be a dead end. While she was friendly, she told us to go to a chain called POTBELLY. Once she told us that, we knew that she was not the right person to talk to about food. Lisa pulled out an article from a Philadelphia magazine that said that if you go to Chicago, you need to go the Billy Goat Tavern. We figured out that it was nearby, and headed out in the cold rain in our rain coats and across the Michigan Bridge to find the Billy Goat. Most of our conversation on the way focused on the fact that our Hotel was on Wacker Street. How many jokes can you pull out of Wacker? Too many. ..
The Billy Goat Tavern is located underneath one of the many bridges downtown. Upon entering the crusty, dank place, we got a little nervous. It was empty at 1 pm in the afternoon. Maybe there were 10 people in the entire place. But we were really hungry so, we walked up to the old fashioned counter and looked at the very limited menu. Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Double Cheeseburger, and Hot Dog. This happens to be the place that Balushi came up with “Cheeburger Cheeburger”. Elisa went first and asked for a Cheeseburger and fries. The man behind the counter affably responded, “no fries… chips.” Lisa is not at all bashful and she looked over at me and said,” Are you kidding me? No fries! We had a quick huddle and decided that we were too hungry to eat anywhere else, and so we all ordered double cheeseburgers and sodas. The burgers were wafer thin, and the cheese was also sliced thin on a Kaiser roll. There were pickles and onions laid out on a table to add to your burger. No lettuce, no tomato. And no fries. The burgers were not horrible, but the place was like a dirty tiled basement of somebody’s house, and we just could not figure out the allure. The only thing that made sense was that it was open late and that it must be a place to grab a burger at 2 in the morning.
Undaunted by our first experience, we reviewed our articles and top 10 lists and decided that our next stop would be in Greektown that evening. We got acquainted with our maps which seemed to show Greektown being a couple of miles away from our hotel. We later discovered that the maps made everything seem far away, but actually Greektown was an easy mile from Michigan and Wacker. As the weekend progressed, we realized that between the train and our feet, we could get almost anywhere. I won’t spend a lot of time on Greektown. The food was decent at the Greek Islands Restaurant, but it was nothing special and certainly did not match up to Dimitris or Zorbas in Philly. Greektown was not really the ethnic area I expected. It was not like South Philly. It was kind of scrubbed and clean. It just did not have that ethnic authenticity that we expected.
At this point, we had decided that while we loved the people in the city, we had not found the food all that compelling. While watching the Phillies in the playoffs that night, we struck up a conversation with the Beverage Manager at our hotel bar. Toni, an Absecon, NJ native who had moved to Chicago a few years back, gave us his opinions. “Stay away from the deep dish, go for the hot dogs, steaks, breakfasts and Italian roast beef.”
The next day, we took a train up to Lincoln Park. Our destination was based on a picture in a Chicago magazine of a Hamburger. The place was called Counter. (Lots of one name, one syllable restaurants in Chicago:Yolk, Cream, Bone, Top, etc.) Counter was located in a hip neighborhood of Chicago. The restaurant was squeaky clean and very modern. Painted concrete floors, metal tables and chairs, and very sleek pictures in the well lit, sunny space. The menu was really cool. Build your own burger on a clipboard. Beef, Turkey, Vegee, or Chicken. About 50 toppings, and sauces, and regular or sweet potato fries. We probably ordered a few too many fries, but after our experience at Billy Goat, we had to make up for lost time and the girls were not taking any chances. The burgers were perfect. Not greasy, with great multigrain or plain rolls, and the toppings just made it fun. We had a great waitress and we were just really impressed. It had a kind of Marathon Grille feel if you have ever been to one of the many Marathon’s in Philly, but not so crowded and rushed.. A very good hamburger place. When I asked the bartender where to walk to next, he told me that we could walk back to the city on Clark St., but that we would see mostly bars and optical places. We walked about 3 miles back to town and saw at least a dozen optical places and 100 bars. Lincoln Park would be an easy place to live: great housing stock, a great City Park that puts Fairmount Park to shame, and lots of places to eat and drink.
We were feeling in the groove, but then, we mis-stepped again. After our long walk we decided to stay near the hotel for dinner. Somehow we got steered from Italian food to Deep Dish Pizza. Tony had warned us to stay away, but somehow it just did not seem right to not give it a try. There were three mainstays for deep dish in Chicago: Giordanos, Ginos East, and Lou Malnatis. We polled 6 people and while everybody had strong opinions, the majority vociferously argued for Giordanos. So off we went to wait 45 minutes for a special with sausage, onions, peppers and mushrooms. As you might have guessed, we were totally blown away… we could not understand why people liked it? Pizzeria Uno at home was better, and that was never very good, except for the Vinaigrette dressing they served in the Groshe bottles. This pizza made no sense. The top was raw dough, and under it were lots of cheese, and raw veggies and very little sausage. We dissected one piece and found that it lacked any real thought. The veggies should have been pre-roasted. There should have been far more sausage, and where was the sauce? Very little was the answer. This place could never compare to Tacconellis, or Gianfrancos, or Lorenzos. It was clear to us that the Midwest had no idea about good pizza. Leave that to New York, New Jersey, and Philly.
The next day we slept in a little and decided to go Southside to a breakfast place called the Bongo Room. Now I must admit that breakfast is my least favorite meal, but not so for my compatriots. They love it. The Bongo Room had gotten great reviews, along with Yolk. Both were within a block of each other, so we decided to take a look at each. Because we were going down to a breakfast place at 11 am on a Saturday, we expected a wait and we got one. After walking about a half an hour to get to Bongo, we were told the wait was another 30 minutes. Not a problem for my wife who found a choclateer nearby. Scott and I found a third place called 11. 11 was a Jewish deli that looked damned good. Scott and I just can’t sit still. We left our names at Bongo and 11 and then went over to Yolk. Yolk looked damn good but the wait was an hour. We walked back to 11 and we still had a few groups in front of us, and then we walked back to Bongo and they were ready for us. We dialed the girls and sat down for breakfast. Although I am not a breakfast man, I have to say that my friends loved Bongo. The omelets and potatoes were great, but Bongo is clearly in every top 10 because of the French toast. How about malted chocolate french toast bananas foster ? Sounds like dessert you say? Absolutely! So rich that we only ordered one slice and shared it. Other tables had a full order that just laid in the middle of the table half eaten. I have never had a richer, better piece of dessert French toast. And the pancakes were incredible, as well. It is clear that Chicagoan’s love breakfast.
Because breakfast was so late, we stretched out the day with no lunch and walked to Millennium Park, and several sites in that area. It was all very clean and very impressive. Chicago city planners should be very proud. The public spaces in the city could teach us Philly locals a thing or two. We were amazed by how manicured and clean the city appeared. The city had flowers and planters on every sidewalk. It was truly amazing.
That night we went to a restaurant that really got a lot of press and local support. Rosebud. Breakfast was still hanging on even at dinner time, and the two Bloody Marys at Jake Melvins (next store to Rosebud) did not help to improve my appetite. By the way, the Bloody Mary’s were the best I have ever had. No wonder they advertise that they are famous for them. Rosebud was a happening, high end Italian eatery. We started with a Garbage salad that was really fresh and tasty. It had a little of everything including artichokes, chick peas, corn and lots of lettuce and cucumbers. My partners ordered cutlets with greens, and my wife went with Chicken Marsala. The cutlets were the hit of the night, as was the Pinot Noir. Certainly, this was one of the best Italian restaurants I have experienced. Everything was perfectly done, the service was superb, and the crowd was fun. We come from a city of Italian restaurants, and this one was special, like the Saloon is special
We left Rosebud and returned to our hotel bar for a drink and the end of the Yankees game. It looked like a Phillies-Yankees series after all.
The last day started with an architectural tour along the Chicago River by Barge. From the water, the views of the City are amazing. The tour was given by a volunteer from the Chicago Architectural Society, and it was well worth the expense. It was educational, and the city looked different and beautiful from boat side. Chicago has a great history told in its buildings. The city even changed the course of the river at one point to clean up Lake Michigan and dump everything into the Mississippi.
After the tour, we had to complete some unfinished business. Hot Dogs and Italian Roast Beef. The reviews pointed to about 10 different places, but we decided on Portilos because Toni loved it, and it had hot dogs and roast beef. Hot Dougs would have been another choice, but we heard that the line is an hour long. We decided Portilos would be our choice.
What can I say? I now understand why they love hot dogs so much in Chicago. Going to Portillos is like somebody from Chicago going to Delasandros for a cheesesteak. What is there not to love? The hot dogs are topped with tomato slices, a pickle spear, a hot pepper and celery salt. It needed no mustard. The combination of flavors is stunning. It is a party in your mouth. What a hot dog! As for the roast beef, it was good. Kind of like Tony Lukes but the roll is not as good. The beef was good though, but I like my beef thick, like Shanks, and I would not waste my time on it when I make a second visit. Hot dogs and cheese fries would do the trick. That is all you need at Portillos.
After Portillos, I worried that I would not really do a steakhouse any justice. My stomach was full for the rest of the afternoon, and even with all the walking that we did in Bucktown that afternoon, I could not seem to find any appetite. I think my body had just started to shut down. Too much food in one weekend. But since it was our last night, I had to find a way to eat steak at Gibsons.
As with most cities these days, Chicago has every chain steakhouse; from Mortons, and Smith and Wilensky, to Capital Grille. Gibsons is a Chicago native and I don’t think it expanded to anywhere else. To be honest, I did not expect Gibsons to be better than Capital Grille in Philadelphia, and it really was not markedly different. But it was damn good. My wife’s fillet was one of the best I have tasted ever, and all the food was top notch, including the mammoth twice baked potato that all four of us shared and could not finish. Even my tossed salad was memorable because they understand good strong red wine vinegar. I think what made that meal great was our tremendous waiter, Michael. While he looked a little like Steve Erkel, he was as cool and friendly as could be. He made dinner a near perfect 10.
So what have four foodies from South Jersey learned about Chicago? Well, first, it is a great city with more beauty and variety than any other city we have visited. My wife would argue for New York, but Chicago is friendlier, cleaner, easier to navigate and more beautiful. Lake Michigan and the Chicago River really add to the city’s charm. And the people. They are just plain charming.
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