Every once in a while I get the chance to head down to Chicago for a conference: an opportunity that allows me to reconnect with colleagues and, depending on circumstances, to reconnect a bit with the city itself. This past weekend allowed me such an ideal mix of business and leisure, so I figured I’d share the culinary highlights. No photos, though—Sorry!
Early Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee, before boarding my train to Chicago, I stopped by the Tigerbite Truck
(parked near Wisconsin Ave. and 16th
that day) and had a Pho taco (pork flavored with lemongrass, cilantro, and other pho seasonings) and a Korean BBQ taco (bulgogi-style beef). Both were delicious, though I particularly loved the Korean BBQ taco.
That was a good way to start the day, and in a couple of hours, I was in Chicago. After checking into the hotel and registering for the conference, I took a quick trip to Chinatown so I could try Lawrence Fisheries
(2120 S. Canal St.), a place recommended by ChuckL50. This place has a bare-bones seafood-shack-meets-diner atmosphere and is perched along the south branch of the Chicago River. My goal here was to try the fried oysters, and they did not disappoint: I loved the juicy, briny, pungent little oysters encased in breading, and I also rather liked the hot-and-spicy dipping sauce provided with the order. The oysters (around 15 in a pound) were extremely hot, so I had to bite into them carefully to avoid burns. The menu lists other tempting items such as boiled shrimp and frog legs, but that’ll have to wait until next time.
After attending a conference kick-off in the early evening, a few of us wound up at Mercat
(638 S. Michigan Ave.), a sleek and pricey Spanish restaurant with an emphasis on Catalonian cuisine. I had a glass of delicious Spanish white wine (a Chardonnay/Macabeo/Somontano blend), and we nibbled on various tapas, such as the pulpo con papas: octopus pan-cooked with potato chunks and Spanish paprika.
After a while, my tapas companions were tired and wanted to get some sleep, but I was ready for dinner, so I headed to the Billy Goat Tavern
several blocks up the road (430 N. Michigan Ave.). This place was a bit tough to find—from Michigan Ave. one has to take a flight of stairs down to a lower street level in order to enter this joint. This place was the perfect roadfoody counterpoint to the postmodern angles and lines of Mercat’s décor: the Billy Goat is stubbornly divey and old-fashioned. I enjoyed a glass of Billy Goat Dark and a double cheeseburger: not the best cheeseburger ever, but tasty nonetheless. The day eventually caught up with me, and I returned to the hotel before too long.
Most of the next day, Friday, unfolded at the conference hotel, so breakfast was a standard-issue muffin and coffee, and lunch (really an early dinner) was a mediocre and expensive “turkey reuben.” I made plans to meet friends later on in the evening for a drink near the hotel, but when the day’s sessions ended, I headed over to the area west of the Loop for a drink and appetizer at the West Town Tavern
(1329 W. Chicago). This is one of my favorite spots in the city—it isn’t quite roadfood, but it’s good, well-tended food in an upscale yet unpretentious, neighborhood environment. I had a glass of white wine (a very aromatic New Zealand sauvignon blanc) and enjoyed a bowl of roasted mussels with hot peppers and roasted garlics in a bay-infused white wine sauce. After that managed to squeeze in a trip down the street to Hoosier Mama Pie Company
(1618½ W. Chicago) where I enjoyed one the better coconut cream pies I’ve tasted. The coconut was not as abundant and toothsome as I like, but it was flavorful. The cream filling was unusually rich but not overly sweet; it contained hints of vanilla and coconut extract, and seemed to contain another layer of flavor and texture (some egg yolk?) besides. The pie crust was reasonably flaky—not “melt on the fork” flaky, but a bit sturdier than that. The pie flavors at Hoosier Mama change daily: some of the other choices I had were pear, apple, pear-apple-cranberry, cranberry chess pie, ginger custard, pumpkin pie, and Hoosier sugar pie (!). I wanted to return for some pear pie, but—darn it!—never did.
After some sessions on Saturday morning, some friends and I went to Artist’s Café
(412 S. Michigan), not too far from the conference site. I got a “Taylor Street Breakfast”—scrambled egg, mozz cheese, and marinara served between two focaccia slices. It sounds good, but the focaccia tasted like standard mass-produced bread, and the other ingredients didn’t have any synergy. Fortunately, later on in the day, I went back to West Town (the neighborhood) and enjoyed ¼ roasted chicken and an order of banana pudding at Feed
(2803 W. Chicago). The chicken (thigh) was perfectly juicy, though it could have benefited from more seasoning. It was served with two flour tortillas (good vehicles for shredded thigh meat), but I didn’t care much for the blackish, lumpy chile sauce; other condiment options would have been appreciated. The banana pudding was tasty—really, a blend of banana pudding, cream, crushed vanilla wafers, and banana slices—but was a bit sweet for me, and the cream in the blend diluted the intensity of the banana flavor. But hey, the meal was still good, leagues beyond hotel food!
Later in the day, after concluding remarks at the conference, and after my friends scurried off to spend time with their families and do tourist things, I headed to the Lincoln Park neighborhood for a beef empanada at Lito’s
(2566 N. Clark), a tiny gem of a place hidden among pasta parlors and sushi bars. I’ve had several different kinds of empanadas there over the years, but the beef (a picadillo with olives, raisins, potatoes, and other savories) is still my favorite. Seating is limited to a small counter by the window, but the empanadas have big flavor.
I limited myself to one empanada, as my plans involved a walk up to the Lakeview neighborhood so I could continue my food tour at Crisp
(2940 N. Broadway). This restaurant is relatively new to the Chicago food scene: they specialize in Korean fried chicken. Korean fried chicken is basically a style of twice-fried chicken—fried once to cook the meat, and fried again to crisp up the exterior. Portion sizes vary (half or whole chicken), but the pieces of chicken themselves are uniform in size (wing, two thigh halves, two quarter breast pieces, etc.). This helps attain the perfect proportion of crisp coating to tender meat. Though one can order the chicken as is without sauce, part of the experience is to enjoy the crisp-moist interplay of the chicken with the flavors of sauce: buffalo sauce, sweet teriyaki-style sauce, and spicy-sesame-tangy sauce. My favorite is the latter, and that’s what I got on this go-round. This chicken is thoroughly addictive, but so delicious: I sauced up my pants a bit, but it was worth it. There is counter seating along the wall and street window, but there is also mess-hall-style seating at three large tables. This place does a brisk take-out business, too. Besides chicken, Crisp sells other items such as “Buddha Bowls” (variations of Korean bibimbap), various salads, kim chee, etc.
After this meal I took a brisk walk and eventually made it back to the hotel. Earlier in the day I had bought a peach-cardamom tart at La Farine Bakery
(1461 W. Chicago), so that and a cup of institutional coffee brewed in my hotel room made for a tasty dessert. On Sunday morning, after a banana muffin and coffee at a nearby Corner Bakery
, I made my way back to Milwaukee. Now, I need to make my way to the gym!
<message edited by quijote on Tue, 11/9/10 12:37 AM>