Chicago Eating: In a Nutshell

Ever since going on vacation a couple weeks back, it's been a bit overwhelming to take on the task of relating and sharing all these experiences.  So, rather than continue to wish I'd write a book, I'm instead going to write little abstracts of each place we visited, sharing just the top line information (a couple may be longer because I took more notes).  Not the template of typical Amateur Foodies review, but still helpful and interesting I hope.  So, here you have it, our trip to Chicago in a nutshell...

Giordano's - We got into town on a night when Sarah's parents were also in town, as well as a long time friend of Sarah's.  Adding my Aunt Julie, our humble host, we were in search of Chicago style pizza where we could seat 6 and not wait forever.  After a few calls, Giordano's was chosen for its location - a short walk from Southport & Henderson - as well as for its Chicago-style pizza.  I think Sarah and I agreed that the food was just okay.  It wasn't horrible, and it wasn't fantastic.  The crust was kind of cracker-like on both the deep and thin crust options.  We did get in and out easily on a Friday night, and the service was fine.  Probably won't return, but not bummed out we went.
Giordano's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Smoque - I think it may have been the Time Out Chicago with BBQ on the cover that got us thinking about it, and after the idea was planted, it was hard to let go of.  We were active Yelp users in Chicago because with the number of people who use it, the review system gives you more info than a simple like/don't like on Urbanspoon.  Yelpers seemed high on Smoque, and after our visit there I can see why.  We could smell the place from the car about 50 yards away, and the scent inside is amazing - as you get closer to the register the smokiness increases.  We ordered a 1/2 chicken with slaw, peach cobbler, and mac and cheese, and a 1/2 slab of St. Louis ribs.  Suzanne ordered a 1/2 brisket sandwich and BBQ beans.  We all liked the good vinegary slaw, and their well balanced sauce that is pretty tangy.  The brisket was very good - nicely charred on edges.  Really good mac and cheese - creamy, with bread crumbs to add texture. Very smoky BBQ beans had big chunks of onion.  I really enjoyed the peach cobbler - it had almonds and other sweet carmelized goodness on top - even with the canned peaches.  It really was more of a crisp than a cobbler, and was an excellent finish to a great barbecue lunch.
Smoque BBQ on Urbanspoon

Uncommon Ground - Not much to say here at all.  They were on my list to visit because I read a blog about their rooftop garden a while back.  We just happened to be walking by, and decided to stop in for a drink.  I had a "beermosa" (a Bell's Oberon with fresh squeezed orange juice) and Sarah and Suzanne got classic mimosas.  A chill spot so close to Wrigley Field, and the menu looked good too for future reference.
Uncommon Ground on Urbanspoon

Sun Wah - A photo of sliced duck on a list of the best 100 things Time Out Chicago ate in 2009 caught my eye, and after reading some reviews, I was smitten.  In an area with lots of other Asian restaurants - the smells were quite strong - Sun Wah looks fairly unassuming from the outside.  But, they recently remodeled and have a huge space, they could definitely seat hundreds of people.  We were interested in a number of things on the menu, but all of the reviews raved about the duck, so that's what we went straight for.  They bring out a whole duck, carve it in front of you.  Our carver, Laura, who is a part-owner, was very helpful and answered all of our questions - while effortlessly carving a duck.  She placed succulent slivers of meat, all adorned with perfectly crispy skin, on a platter.  Steamed buns, hoisin, and pickled daikon and carrots came on separate plates.  Adding sriracha for heat, these were extremely similar to Momofuku pork buns.  The duck carcass is taken away and then they bring you duck soup (which was just ok) and finally, an excellent duck fried rice - using all of the parts of the bird.  There were 4 of us for dinner, and at $35, we almost felt like we were stealing from them!  The ducks are farm-raised in Middleburg, Indiana, where they've gotten their ducks for 22 years.  They gave us some mango ice cream to finish and we left as very happy customers. This is both an experience and a meal, definitely worth trying.
Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Lao Sze Chuan - We heard there was a street festival going on in Chinatown, so we decided to make our way in that direction.  Luckily, The Reader had a list of some Chinese places that helped us dig through the mountains of potential spots.  After looking at some other reviews online, we chose Lao Sze Chuan.  After some run around parking on such a busy day - the streets were packed - we arrive.  They have an overwhelmingly large menu, so were a bit intimidated off the bat.  It didn't help that our waiter didn't speak very good English.  After attempting to get some recommendations we settled upon appetizers - string beans with spicy black bean sauce and pork pot stickers, and entrees - ma po tofu, and Tony's chicken.  There are a lot of chiles representing how hot the food is, which I'm always unsure whether I should believe or not.  I should have believed them.  This food was hot!  For instance, the spicy cabbage starter they brought was salty, buttery, and then bam, hot!  Super meaty pot stickers came accompanied by a twosome of sauces in containers similar to the threesome at most Indian places - one was a very vinegary dark sauce/dressing and the other was super red chile oil.  I made a little mix with some soy sauce and found the pot stickers to be very good.  In the string beans app the green chiles look the same as the beans, so the heat sneaks up on you - they had a good texture and flavor though.  The ma po tofu was mentioned in a few reviews, so that's why we ordered it.  Unfortunately, we were disappointed.  It was very spicy, and there wasn't much else going on in terms of flavors or texture (that we could distinguish).  Also, I just don't like silken tofu that much.  The chicken was like popcorn chicken and had some interesting flavors that I could not place - it would have been even better with more of the flavored sauce that made the dish so interesting. I was sweating from very early on in the meal, and kept wondering "can you get used to heat like this?!?"  I'm now about halfway through Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (which is a great read so far), and I really wish I had another stab at that menu.  It'll probably take another trip to a big city, because I'm not aware of any Sichuanese food around.
Lao Sze Chuan on Urbanspoon

Avec - This was a place that came highly recommended from a well-connected foodie we recently chatted with at a wedding.  It's definitely the hippest place we went to in Chicago, and has an interesting menu.  They have a James Beard award winning chef, and several nominations also adorn the wall in the back of the space.  All the reviews raved about the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, so those were an easy menu choice.  We tried to order the sardines - I was excited because I can't recall ever having them and keep reading about them - but they were out.  We also chose a rigatoni pasta and a focaccia bread with cheese and herbs.  The dates were very good - sweet and spicy and smoky, with varied textures as well.  Sarah hit it on the head when she said that our pasta was as summery as you can get for a hot pasta.  It had mandolined pieces of garlic, was aromatic from fennel, crusty from breadcrumbs, sweet from the balsamic reduction, had big oyster mushrooms, and the marscapone added a nice creaminess. We could smell the cheese in the focaccia from 2 seats away.  It was a unique blend of cheeses, and combined with the buttery bread (the closest texture I can think of is batura at an Indian place crossed with the browning flour tortilla of a quesadilla), the cross between mozzarella and the plasticyness of American (which Sarah and I both love, so that's a compliment) was quite tasty.  Overall, Avec was not pretentious when it certainly could be.  Our server (at the bar) was very nice.  Oh, and we couldn't help ourselves - we got dessert too - a blueberry-passionfruit tart with lemon-verbana ice cream.  It was a very herby ice cream, and they definitely don't skimp on the berries.  We left at midnight on a Monday and there was a steady crowd up until we left.
Avec on Urbanspoon

Ann Sather's - This is a quick shout out to my Aunt Julie's downstairs neighbor, Clara, who runs the Ann Sather's on Belmont.  She was generous enough to stop by with some of their famous cinnamon rolls, which we absolutely did not pick at and eat for 3 days until we had finished them off.  She also brought by sangria and apple-cinnamon bread - an excellent neighbor!
Ann Sather Cafe on Urbanspoon

Intelligentsia - Les from the Espresso Guild raved to us about Intelligentsia's coffee when we discussed direct trade, baristas, and more in a post earlier this year.  Sarah had an ice coffee and I had an iced mocha.  They were indeed very, very good.  We also picked up a small bag of coffee to bring home.
Intelligentsia Coffee on Urbanspoon

George's Ice Cream - Interestingly, finding great ice cream in both Chicago and San Francisco seemed to be a challenge.  There wasn't a clear favorite or special place that everyone and anyone would rave about (as it is here with Graeter's, and more recently Jeni's).  The folks at Intelligentsia suggested George's so we gave it a shot.  In sum, we thought the pint of mint chocolate chip we got was good, but not amazing.  The notable fact was that they use a boatload of cream, and it tastes the part.
George's Ice Cream and Sweets on Urbanspoon

Tio Luis - I've been writing these roughly in the order of when we went to them on our trip.  If I were writing in the order of the best food to the worst, Tio Luis would probably be at the very top.  This was a solid experience from start to finish.  Searching for the best taco, Tio Luis was named over and over again, and they have earned their reputation.  Friendly service and warm chips with a good spicy salsa (everything seemed tame compared to the heat at Lao Sze Chuan) greeted us.  We got straight to it and ordered - ceviche tostada, and al pastor and carne asada tacos.  When it all came, I couldn't help but just try a bit of each piece of meat - it was super flavorful!  Juicy limes and a couple of hot sauce options added to the flavors as well.  The delicious ceviche led Sarah to say it "might be the best one I've had in the states, wow!"  It had big hunks of fish - they were not skimping on tilapia - and fresh veggies too.  The sweet taste in al pastor caught me off guard at first - it was chunks of pineapple (a bit too sweet for Sarah, but she added a little salt and it balanced it well) to go with carmelized onions.  I asked after the meal and they told me that was normal for al pastor (typically on a spit like a gyros with a pineapple dripping down) - it's not something I've had here in Cincinnati, but I did then see that in other spots in both Chicago and California.  The carne asada was top notch as well.  And the focus was clearly on the meat, with not much cilantro and not much onion, and simple yellow corn tortillas.  I was feeling so bad for the people at McDonald's across the street - this is way better for equally cheap.  It was the best thing we'd eaten so far on the trip, and the bar has now been set for tacos.  They were all very flavorful, moist, and I'm not sure how they could be improved.  I'm not sure if there was anything better anywhere we went, and I don't think we spent more than $25.  Don't miss this place if you go!
Tio Luis on Urbanspoon

Art of Pizza - Several years back I got caught by the "best pizza in the city" on the awning at Art of Pizza.  I know, I know, a lot of places make such a claim.  Well, from what I can tell, AoP backs it up.  The Tribune did an extensive story that they prominently place on their counter stating that this is the best stuff in town.  We just had to stop by, even though it was only for a single slice each.  Great cheese, and a flaky, buttery crust that is 1/2 way to quiche crust from pizza crust.  If they had a nicer dining room, this is where we would have come earlier in the trip with our group.  I haven't had better pie yet in Chicago, and since it is so good I'd have to hear a very strong case to make a change.
Art of Pizza on Urbanspoon

Hot Doug's -  On our last visit, we went to Superdawg's, and drove by the line at Hot Doug's and decided against it because of the wait.  This time, we arrived in line at 10:35 AM on a Tuesday, 5 minutes after they open.  The line just kept getting longer, but after a 35 minute wait we were standing in front of Doug, placing our order.  He was a super nice guy, making you feel like you had barely waited when you got to the head of the line.  There were three of us, and we ordered a corn dog, a couple Chicago dogs, and I also had a ribeye steak dog.  My Aunt Julie had had the corn dog before, and she said it was better this time than it was last.  I liked the bun (Rosen's), which was not too thick, and kinda squishy in that way that you like processed white bread to be so you can turn the flour into sugar very quickly.  For as popular as this place is, it is super cheap - 1.75 for "the dog," a classic Chicago dog with all the fixings.  They give you tons of fresh cut fries, which were much better than Superdawg's.  And of course, they have great dogs themselves - a nice snap, very meaty - mmmm.  The Chicago dogs were well balanced, had lots of celery salt, and you could fit them in your mouth without dislocating your jaw, which was nice.  My ribeye dog came with brie cheese and a garlic aioli and it was more expensive ($7 I think), but very satisfying.  If you're wondering how they cut off the line, we asked.  They serve everyone in line at 4pm.  So, I imagine they're still taking orders until about 5pm most days.  Is it worth it to wait that long for a hot dog?  At least once, yes.
Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

So, there are our food travels in Chicago!  I should say that we (obviously) did not get in to Alinea.  So, we're thinking of planning a special trip in the coming month.  Now, for more pics if you're interested...


intuitive eggplant said...

I finally got caught up reading your blog, and really enjoyed this post! Wowza, you did some serious eating at a terrific variety of places. Will have to keep this post - and you - in mind for recs the next time I'm Chicago-bound.

Tickled to see you hit Hot Doug's. I got there shortly after they opened on a Saturday and had a long wait in line, but it sounds like you experienced a similar wait on a weekday. Still, you're right that owner Doug Sohn does make you feel most welcome and when you eat his food, you understand why the lines are so long. Not just hype, food worth waiting for.

I really appreciate your sharing your photos and observations about this trip. IMHO, no need to worry about not adhering to your usual AF template, especially under circumstances like this. How long were you in Chicago? A week? Lots of info to share after a trip like that. After a 36-hour trip to Louisville, I had enough material I wanted to blog about to break it up into three posts.

So when are you going to San Francisco?

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

i.e. - somehow this comment slipped through the cracks of my email. If you go to Chicago, feel free to get in touch for recommendations - we got more than we listed for sure. Hot Doug's was great, indeed. We were in Chicago from Friday night through Tuesday lunch, so I guess 4.5 days. We went to SF just after we went to Chicago, and I literally just posted that info about an hour ago, so check it out :). Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always!