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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...