We have just returned from a whirlwind visit to Chicago to spend time with my sister and her fiance and have a number of exciting items to report on. First of all, who knew that Chicago is quite the foodie haven? There are food trucks, farm-to-tables, and many other exciting gastronomic delights. Secondly, early November in the windy city is remarkably bearable. Third, when the great suppliers of the MTA ticketing stations also manufacture for the Chicago Transit Authority, you’re bound to see some familiar infrastructure. Go public transportation!
But back to point number one… We spent the weekend gorging ourselves on some of Chicago’s finest and have lived to tell the tale. Below are a few key recommendations from our visit. Keep in mind that all reviews are based on one visit only.
Giordano’s — fairly standard deep-dish pizza with a long wait and cheeky decor. This is a Chicago staple, but we were hoping for better.
Big Bowl — the biggest surprise hit of our trip. This restaurant was equal parts Chinese and Thai and remarkably good at both and with a strong emphasis on fresh vegetables. We ordered a hot and sour soup with freshy made tofu (I haven’t had hot and sour soup as good as this outside of the Pacific Rim), a green curry with a plethora of vegetables, and Kung Pow chicken with baby spinach and chard. There was also a stir fry bar where one could select from an extensive assortment of vegetables and sauces. Further, there was a table of an older Chinese family at the restaurant, so we knew it was legit!
Cafe Iberico — among the best seafood either of us have had. It was a pretty no-frills tapas place with extensive seating upstairs. (A key difference between Chicago and New York is the enormity of space available and the frequency of midwesterners!) We went as a party of six and ordered one paella, 8 tapas, and a pitcher of sangria. The most adventurous item in our order was noodles with scallops and snails. The snails were perfect.
Al’s Beef – another Chicago staple. We ordered a Polish sausage that came in a poppy seed bun with relish, onions, and mustard, and an Italian beef sandwich on a soggy baguette. Though the soggy baguette was supposed to be part of the charm, and even considered desirable, as bread snobs, we were a bit underwhelmed. These were some of the best fries we have had though, and I am sure Upton would roll in his grave if we came to Chicago and did not have encased meat.
Signature Room — Having done these high end cocktails from the top floor of very tall buildings only twice, I will say our experience in Shanghai was heads and shoulders above what the Hancock Tower had to offer. The drinks were fine, we paid what we expected, but the lines were out of control. Yes, a line to enter the elevator, a line to enter the bar from the elevator, and a line to return down in the elevator. They didn’t rush us once we got there (part of the reason why the lines were so long, perhaps) and the view was incredible, but I don’t think I would recommend this as a must-do for a first-time visit to Chicago. But like many people have mentioned to me, should you decide to do this, the view from the ladies’ room is the best.
Cumin — This was one of the best Indian restaurants we have been to (and Michelen rated). They market themselves as being Nepalese and Indian, which may be a bit disingenuous as the only item on the lunch buffet that was new to us was a Nepalese style goat stew. Everything else looked fairly standard Indian (though very good). The restaurant was in the neighborhood that we stayed in, Wicker Park, which is sort of a Chicago version of Brooklyn. It was very hip and cool with some high end retailers, some graffiti, and a good amount of attitude.
Buzz — This was among the snootier (read: better) coffee shops I have been to which has pour over coffee and tasting notes on a dozen varieties of beans. We ordered a cappuccino which was fantastic and a pour-over yirgacheffe.
If we had more time, there were a number of other restaurants we were hoping to try — Purple Pig (wine, swine, and cheese), Mindy’s Hot Chocolate (James Beard outstanding pastry chef award winning), The Peasantry (elevated street food), Saigon Sisters (home of a fabulous banh mi), and others. If you have a chance to visit Chicago, do pass along other recommendations. Overall, we had a fabulous time and will look forward to the next visit!