My Kind Of (Restaurant) Town

One of the best parts about spend­ing most of a week in Chica­go for Choco­late Boot Camp was that Chica­go has always been a town that I’ve enjoyed eat­ing in. It’s nev­er real­ly been a ‘fan­cy restau­rant’ town, even though it has two restau­rants that have earned the elu­sive three-star rat­ing from Miche­lin. Chicago’s more of a ‘good food’ town, whether that’s piz­za, steak, ribs, eth­nic food or the epony­mous (but not low­ly) Chica­go Hot Dog.

Liv­ing in Lin­coln, Nebras­ka, home of Valenti­no’s Piz­za, Chica­go-style piz­za is still my kind of piz­za, deep-dish, stuffed or the old north­side thin crust piz­za (that appears to have large­ly dis­ap­peared from the scene.) When Peter Rein­hart did his world­wide piz­za tour (result­ing in the book Amer­i­can Pie), he admit­ted that it took him a while to ‘get’ Chica­go piz­za. (And I was­n’t entire­ly con­vinced he had, in fact, ‘got­ten’ it.)

I used to eat a Chica­go-style hot dog or an Ital­ian Beef sand­wich for lunch near­ly every day when I was work­ing in Chica­go. (That prob­a­bly explains my waistline.)

The hotel I was stay­ing at in the Riv­er North dis­trict was about two blocks away from a Por­tillo’s Hot Dogs. Por­tillo’s, for those who aren’t into the Chica­go food scene, is a restau­rant phe­nom­e­non. Start­ing from one tiny hot dog stand in 1963, Dick Por­tillo built a Chica­go food empire. Accord­ing to Crane’s Chica­go Busi­ness, the aver­age Por­tillo’s loca­tion does well over $6 mil­lion dol­lars a year. (By com­par­i­son, a good McDon­ald’s loca­tion does about $2.5 mil­lion in annu­al sales.)

Dick sold the chain a cou­ple of years ago to some east coast investors for near­ly $1 bil­lion. He wise­ly kept all the real estate, though, so he still owns the buildings.

So far, it does­n’t appear that the new own­ers have devi­at­ed from the for­mu­la that Dick per­fect­ed. Always busy, but nev­er a huge wait. (Dri­ve-through is anoth­er sto­ry, though, I’ve seen traf­fic jams caused by peo­ple wait­ing in line to go through a Por­tillo’s drive-through.)

Rick Bay­less’s cen­ter­piece restau­rant, the Fron­tera Grill, was also only a cou­ple of blocks away, and I was able to check it out one night. For­get get­ting a reser­va­tion, though, but you can usu­al­ly get seat­ed in the bar quick­ly, and we were.

You can’t eat at the Fron­tera Grill with­out hav­ing some kind of a mar­gari­ta, and I had the Oax­a­can Gold, with chipo­tle salt on the rim. A spicy way to start a meal.

I had the tor­tilla soup for an appe­tiz­er. It was a lot milder than I expect­ed, and that was a very pleas­ant sur­prise. (Far too often tor­tilla soup is so pep­pery that you can hard­ly taste it, this was not the case.)

I only need­ed one glance at the menu to decide on my entrée, duck with mole sauce. (Had my wife been along on this trip, she would has guessed my entrée choice with just a glance at the menu, too, she knows I’ll order duck any time I can.) Rick Bay­less has said that it took him 20 years to per­fect his mole recipe, and it was worth the time invest­ment. And the duck was flawless.

Duck with Mole Sauce

For dessert I had Duo de Flanes, two flans, includ­ing one with prosciutto.

I also got to Lou Mal­nati’s. (Take­out, since it was a 45 minute wait for a table and a 50 minute wait for take­out.) The Stuffed Spinach Bread was the big win­ner here, the per­son­al sized deep dish piz­za was good, though I’ve had (and made) better.

Fri­day, on the way out of town, I head­ed up to my old neigh­bor­hood of Evanston, the view along Lake Shore Dri­ve alone was worth the side trip. The Hoosier Mama Pie Com­pa­ny was my first stop, I was a lit­tle too ear­ly for the lunch menu but a cou­ple of hand pies (mush­room and sausage) were deli­cious. Then I head­ed up to Ben­nison’s Bak­ery. Jory Down­er has kept up the tra­di­tion here, and was on the USA’s 2005 Coupe du Monde de la Boulan­gerie gold medal team, so he is tru­ly one of the best pas­try chefs in the world, and there’s a tro­phy in the Ben­nison’s win­dow to give silent tes­ti­mo­ny to it. Sad­ly, though, they’ve dis­con­tin­ued mak­ing Pecan Loaf, some­thing we used to have every Sun­day and would load up on when we made occa­sion­al trips to Evanston after we moved to Nebras­ka. So, I got a banana loaf (more of a dessert cake than a banana bread), and I bought a dozen mac­arons, and these last­ed me most of a week.

It is always good to get home after being on the road, but I do miss Chica­go food, so this was a nice side-ben­e­fit to my trip.

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Published:October 18, 2016


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    Mike Nolan

      One of the best parts about spending most of a week in Chicago for Chocolate Boot Camp was that Chicago has always been a town that I've enjoyed eating in. It's never really been a 'fancy restaurant'
      [See the full post at: My Kind Of (Restaurant) Town]

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        It's wonderful that you enjoyed all aspects of your trip to Chicago, Mike. I miss that city, but am glad not to be a taxpayer there. We lived in the suburbs, but I enjoyed taking the train into the Loop. I loved the hustle and bustle.


          Reading this post made me smile. I've been to three conventions in Chicago, and the meals eaten out with friends are great memories.


            The only nit I have to pick is Mike characterizing the Chicago style of thin crust as being "North side". As a fourth generation South Sider there was and is plenty of the distinctive, ultra-thin pizza on that side of town too. In fact, the legend of Ike Sewell ( aside the first place in Chicago to server pizza was a tavern in Hyde Park called Ken and Jacques's. In the late 50s Urban Renewal razed the entire block and Ken and Jacques's became a group of row houses one of which became my family's home.

            Mike Nolan

              I do know the legend/story of Ike Sewell. There are at least two pizza places in New York that claim to have been the first to have made pizza in the USA, I think there was even a lawsuit over advertisements.

              There was a lot of crossover in styles, as most pizza places made several types. And as I recall, the Chicago Magazine article in the mid 70's was criticized for having left out several types of pizza, so an argument could be made that there were several distinct styles of deep dish, of thin crust, etc. I also recall the war between Uno's and Due's, though some of us thought it was an advertising stunt. (Philly still has its cheese steak wars and there used to be a lot of discussion in Chicago over who made the best Italian Beef, too.)

              But at least in the 70's (when we lived in Chicago), thin crust was more of a north side style and deep dish a south side style, though Gulliver's (on Howard) made a really good deep dish pizza back then.

              As some of the chains, notably Giordano's, became dominant in the 80's, the geographic distribution largely went away. Old north-side thin crust seems to have vanished, Rick's and Pizza Oven closed, My Pie moved and (I'm told), changed styles.

              There are a lot of competing claims as to who invented deep dish and who invented stuffed. Thin crust is closer to the style of pizza we found in Italy when we were there, but we were in Turin, and there's probably a lot of regional differences in Italian pizza (like there were in Chicago 40-50 years ago), and it would take a serious pizza crawl to document them. If someone wants to crowd-fund me on such a trip, I'm game!

              • This reply was modified 7 years, 7 months ago by Mike Nolan.
              Mike Nolan

                There's a lot of crossover content between this thread and the Jim Leahy thread. I don't think there's a way to merge threads in WordPres/BBpress, though.


                  I have lived in and around Chicago my whole life. I am solidly in the thin crust pizza camp. Growing up homemade pizza was always thin crust and the rare times we it it from the local pizza place it was thin crust too.

                  We also had what us kids referred to as Grampa pizza. Turned out Grampa pizza was actually Sicilian pizza - something my grandfather had in Sicily growing up. We didn't know that until much later on.

                  My office host meetings from all over the country and all everybody wants for lunch when they come here is Portillo's or Lou Malnati's. We have many great restaurant choices but these two are the most requested.


                    I grew up on the South Side and we always had thin crust. Pizza was the one food we would bring in on a semi-regular basis. In the 70s we had two new places come to our neighborhood. One served deep dish and the other was Giordano's.

                    I haven't been back to the old neighborhood since my mother died but there were many different pizza places even a Pizza Hut (ugh).

                    I am raising my kids as if they are South Siders when it comes to sports teams and we have a tradition that I will ship in pizza when a team wins a championship. The Blackhawks have cost me a fair bit of money.

                    The place I was craving the most now is the Home Run Inn. It has it's own distinct pizza but seems to never have had the big publicity places like Malnati's and Giordano's enjoyed.

                    And no, we will not be ordering pizza if the Cubs win tonight. I am from the South Side.

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