This past weekend I had the good fortune of spending a couple of days in Chicago: not particularly exotic, perhaps, but a nice break from my Milwaukee routine nonetheless. Most of my Friday was spent in meetings, but I managed to slip away during part of the lunch break in order to visit a couple of River North institutions. Sorry: No photos!
My first stop was Mr. Beef (666 N. Orleans St.), one of the legendary purveyors of Italian Beef sandwiches. I ordered a “Wet Hot”—an Italian Beef sandwich dipped in garlicky gravy with hot giardiniera on top. The beef was tasty and thinly shaved, and I enjoyed the chewy, sturdy, and gravy-friendly roll, but I wasn’t knocked over by the sandwich as a whole. I found the gravy to be watery and bland (the garlic was barely noticeable), and the giardiniera was disappointing: not very spicy, a very small portion, and pretty much just celery with an occasional carrot fleck. Perhaps my expectations were too high; I’ll have to try Johnny’s in Elmwood Park (recommended by several posters here) and Al’s on Taylor in order to see if this kind of sandwich can have more life in it.
My second lunch stop was Portillo’s (100 W. Ontario). When I got there, the line was pretty darned long, but another register opened up and sped things up a bit. The place was packed with out-of-towners—lots of high school athletes yelling over at each other, quite a few couples and families on weekend trips…. But when I got my Chicago Dog, I went to the upstairs dining area and enjoyed a peaceful meal. The hot dog was excellent: a poppy seed bun, a “snappy” frankfurter, neon relish, chopped onion, sport peppers, celery salt, tomato, a pickle wedge—truly delightful. The crinkle-cut fries were tasty, and yes, I put catsup on them.
I made my way back to my colleagues near the meeting site, had some coffee, and continued on with the day. Dinner was with colleagues at Bistro 110 (110 E. Pearson St.) near the Water Tower. My meal was just okay, nothing special: overcooked and overpriced oven-roasted chicken.
On Saturday morning I headed to Tempo Café (6 E. Chestnut St.) in the River North neighborhood for breakfast. I had seen this place many times before, but never got around to trying it out. After reading various reports about it here on Roadfood, however, I felt I needed to see what the place is about. When I arrived, there was a rather long line for tables, but I got a counter seat (one of three) right away. The various skillet breakfasts looked really good, but I opted for the classic ham and three (!) eggs:
The runny yolks from the poached eggs went perfectly with the ham’s robust and slightly salty flavor. The potatoes under the ham were fine, but I would have preferred crispy hash browns. The toast (thick-slice white with sesame seeds on crust) was okay, but significantly improved with the addition of Tempo’s made-from-scratch orange marmalade:
After some book shopping in the neighborhood, I hopped a bus and began my journey to Smoque (3800 N. Pulaski Rd.), a BBQ restaurant in the Irving Park neighborhood that has received quite a bit of praise here on the board:
There was a fairly long line when I entered, so I had some time to read the menu and figure out what I wanted:
I was tempted to get a full entrée with sides, but decided to get a half brisket sandwich with slaw and peach cobbler:
Everything I ordered was thoroughly enjoyable. The brisket had a lot of flavor—good quality meat gently infused with hardwood smoke. The vinegary-tomatoey barbeque sauce also stood out—a nice balance of tang, sweet, and heat. The vinegary slaw provided a refreshing counterpoint to meat and sauce, and the cobbler—when I at long last got to it—was “peachy”: not too sweet, not too doughy, and slightly caramelized on top and along the sides. A very dynamic flavor and texture sensation that I rarely get from desserts.
Once I finished, I asked one of the workers if all of the smoking was done on-site. She directed me to Chris, one of the owners, who enthusiastically gave me a tour of the kitchen. All of the smoking is indeed done on-site, and here are some tasty works to behold:
This restaurant is a real gem, and I hope to go back soon and try the pulled pork, the ribs, and other items.
I walked down Pulaski a bit, then caught a couple of buses to the Bucktown neighborhood. My destination was Margie’s Candie’s (1960 N. Western Ave.):
I had gone by this place several times over the past few years, but never quite got around to stopping. But I’m glad I finally did. The candies looked tasty, but I was swayed by the ice cream. I wasn’t quite up for a full-blast sundae or a similarly sized dish, so I got a modest scoop of delicious coconut ice cream:
According to one of the servers, the ice cream is made fresh by a local creamery specifically for Margie’s. And seriously, the ice cream tasted ultra-fresh: it was rather milky and not too sweet, and it was packed with fresh coconut shreds. Some people might prefer something more sugary or more loaded with butterfat, but this version was perfect for me.
I ended my trip with a walk down Milwaukee Avenue, a stop at Myopic Books (a great used bookstore near W. North Ave), a bus ride to Union Station, and then a train ride back to Wisconsin.