A couple of days in Chicago....

Post
quijote
Double Cheeseburger
2010/11/09 00:35:45
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!   
post edited by quijote - 2010/11/09 00:37:58
BuddyRoadhouse
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 00:42:25
quijote, as always you make a native Chicagoan both proud and jealous at the same time.  You somehow squeeze into one weekend all the places we locals know are what make our culinary scene one of the best in the world, yet we don't get to visit them ourselves nearly enough.
 
Great report, glad you had a fine time exploring our town!
 
Buddy
X1
Double Cheeseburger
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 07:11:38
Awesome report. 
Crisp was just as good this time 'round, eh? I need to go back there. 
 
ChiTownDiner
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 07:33:34
quijote -
 
What a great cross-section of Chicago dining.  I've benn addicted to Hoosier Mama for some time now, enjoying the Friday night (only) sampler plate of three small slices for $7, with a cup of coffee, $8!  My personal favorite is the Ginger Custard!
 
Your stellar descriptions have also provided me with a few new options to try on my next visit!
 
Thanks for sharing....how's that gym thing going?
 
Greymo
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 08:21:53
What a nice report....................I would love some pf those fried oysters right now, followed by the empanada!
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 08:45:36
quijote

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.

 
There's a "Lawrence fish burn" pun in here somewhere but I'll be darned if I can find it.
 
Brad
billyboy
Double Chili Cheeseburger
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 10:07:13
quijote, I love this report.  Very informative and descriptive.  When I think of reports that don't need pictures, this is what I think of.  Your descriptions really made the food come alive!  Thanks!
ann peeples
Sirloin
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/09 13:05:42
Ditto billyboy..very descriptive and fun.
Nancypalooza
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/10 17:15:07
Excellent description, and it sounds like you had quite a few tasties tucked into your week.  Now I want some crispy fried chicken and some pie.  :)
quijote
Double Cheeseburger
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/10 23:45:21
Well, I did get to the gym eventually, but over the past few days, various muffins and other sweets have made their way into my life. I'm wishing I had done the $7 sampler at Hoosier Mama--I was having a tough time deciding between the Coconut Cream, Ginger Custard, and Pear pies, but thought a sampler might be too much. However, I'm realizing that one cannot have too much pie. I'm also still jonesing for more of that fried chicken, but that's another story. I'm trying to be good now and return to grilled chicken breast, whole grains, etc.  But with a trip to Puerto Rico coming up in a week, I may as well just throw caution to the wind!
mr chips
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/11 00:23:57
Great report.
buffetbuster
Porterhouse
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2010/11/11 08:28:18
quijote
However, I'm realizing that one cannot have too much pie. 
  quijote, you are obviously a man after my own heart!  Outstanding trip report and you have a real knack for food descriptions.  I was fortunate enough to be taken to Hoosier Mama by ChiTownDiner and sampled several of their pies.  All were good, but the ginger custard was fantastic!  Hope to get there again real soon. 

big666dog
Hamburger
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2011/07/02 09:41:22
Thanks so much for the reviews and tips. Chicago is the last stop on our next annual road trip... Now to plan which places we visit there!
BuddyRoadhouse
Filet Mignon
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2011/07/02 14:20:00
big666dog,
 
Let me politely suggest you start here:
http://www.lthforum.com/b...c.php?f=28&t=28382
 
This is the LTHForum's Great Neighborhood Restaurant Award list.  The LTH is probably the most reliable and authoritative Chicago foodie chat site.  Members include food professionals on all sides of the business--chefs, wait staff, critics, writers, etc.  The concept of the GNRs was to honor the little guys; those who don't get the same (inter)national recognition as Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter, and Grant Achatz, to name a few.  There's even a printable pocket guide you can carry around with you when you visit Our Town:http://www.lthforum.com/b...c.php?f=28&t=26353
 
You can also search this site for any of The Contingent's Chicago/Milwaukee get togethers.  We hit some pretty off-the-beaten path spots that should make you happy.
 
Have a great trip!
 
Buddy
 
quijote
Double Cheeseburger
Re:A couple of days in Chicago.... 2011/10/09 21:16:08
On Friday and Saturday (October 7 and 8) I did another brief whirl through Chicago--so brief, I figured I'd just put the report here rather than create a whole new thread. (And like last time, no photos!)
 
After arriving in Chicago around mid-morning on Friday, I headed for Harold's Chicken Shack at 636 South Wabash Avenue, in the Loop (not the Roadfood-reviewed location on E. 53rd Street). The chicken (thigh and leg) was very hot, a tad greasy, and very crisp, but the medium-thin breading was rather bland. The Tabasco-style pepper sauce served on the side went well with the chicken, and also worked well with the french fries (soft interior, very crisp exterior). The white bread and cole slaw served were not too interesting. From what I understand, quality varies by location, and the E. 53rd and E. 47th locations seem to get the most praise. Apparently, there is also a Harold's in Milwaukee at 4138 N. 56th St. (Midtown Center), but haven't been to it.
 
Next was a trip to West Town so I could have dessert at Hoosier Mama Pie Company (1618½ Chicago Ave.), one of my favorite places in the city. Though I was tempted by the "Pie Flight" (3 samples for $7), I went with the "slice and coffee" for $5. The pie I had was the Hoosier Sugar Cream, a very respectable version of the Indiana classic. Hoosier Mama's version is thicker and kind of custardy (perhaps there's even some egg in it); though I favor lighter versions, this was delicious and a great way to end lunch.
 
In the afternoon I did some work and heard a talk at the Newberry Library in the River North neighborhood, then chatted with some friends later in the day. Fortunately, I didn't load up on appetizers while dining with my friends, so afterward I headed to Crisp (2940 N. Broadway), a great place in Lakeview that specializes in Korean Fried Chicken. This chicken is delectable: cut into small pieces, quick fried until crisp, then tossed in one of the restaurant's sauces (I chose two: a spicy BBQ-style sauce and a ginger-soy-sesame sauce).  To end dinner properly I had coffee and a passionfruit macaron at Intelligentsia Coffee nearby.
 
On Saturday, after a quick Continental breakfast at the hotel, I headed for Uncle Johnny's in Bridgeport (500 W. 32nd St.) to see what all of the fuss is about. And I'm glad I went: the place is tiny but cute, and the Breaded Steak Sandwich (loaded with cheese, peppers, and red sauce) was delicious. This place is a real neighborhood hangout, but if you don't have a house nearby, dining is pretty much à la trunk. I didn't have a car, so walked a few blocks away to eat at a park in the shadow of New Comiskey Park (or US Cellular Field, if you prefer).
 
On my walk back to the bus stop, I stumbled upon Ed's Potsticker House (3139 S. Halsted), a favorite of The Contingent.  I didn't have time (or stomach space) to stay around to eat, so I ordered some smoked pork belly pancakes to go. My last stop before catching the train back to Milwaukee was Greektown, and specifically the Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop at 322 S. Halsted.  The coffee (one Greek coffee and one regular) was the best I've had in a while, and the pasteli (sesame honey candy) and loukoumades (deep fried honey-soaked balls) were delicious. I took a few other pastries back to Milwaukee with me.
 
And that's it!  I rarely have a chance to visit Chicago for more than two days at a time, so little by little I'm checking out some places in sporadic visits.
post edited by quijote - 2011/10/09 21:44:18