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 entree, duck with mole sauce. (Had my wife been along on this trip, she would has guessed my entree 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.

Spread the word
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •  
  •  
Date
Categories
Tags
Permalink
Status

Published:October 18, 2016

Restaurants

Bookmark the permalink

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment


Spread the word
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •  
  •  
Spread the word
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •  
  •  
Viewing 8 posts - 1 through 8 (of 8 total)
  • Author
    Posts
  • #5161
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    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]

    Spread the word
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •   
    •  
    •  
    •  
    #5168
    Italiancook
    Participant

    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.

    #5194
    BakerAunt
    Participant

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

    #5196
    aaronatthedoublef
    Participant

    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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

    #5198
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    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 3 years, 8 months ago by Mike Nolan.
    #5200
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    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.

    #5345
    rottiedogs
    Participant

    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.

    #5350
    aaronatthedoublef
    Participant

    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.

Viewing 8 posts - 1 through 8 (of 8 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.
Spread the word
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •  
  •  
Spread the word
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •  
  •