Chicago Food Tour

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May 8th 2018
Published: May 8th 2018
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River North/Streeterville Neighborhoods, Chicago, IL

Today’s rebellion item was food and, once again, Joan had to twist my arm to join her.

Specifically, we did a ‘food tour’ offered by Chicago Food Planet, one of several companies that provide these things. The first time we did one of these was last year in Savannah, Georgia, and I have to say that this is a great way to see parts of a city. The basic idea is that you gather a group of tourists, usually on-line, and match them with a young, energetic resident of the city who is proud of her town and has studied quite a bit about history and architecture. Then you gather at a particular restaurant and begin the tour. You move between restaurants sampling different signature foods that are either specialties of the restaurants or examples of local dishes. Over the course of four or five stops, you get enough food to make up a whole meal, and in-between restaurants the guide stops to show you local buildings and landmarks and retell some of the history of the place. After about three hours of walking and eating, you are both fed and educated! It is a great way to experience a place.

As Joan was planning the Chicago part of our trip, she ran across food tours and decided to do that this time. Brad and Aimee gave us a gift certificate for Christmas to finance the excursion which isn’t exactly cheap, but is, I think, a very good value given everything you get. Thanks to Brad and Aimee for their gift!

Yesterday’s tour, called ‘Best In Chow’, was guided by a local young woman named Rachael who was terrific - had lots of excitement and was very interested in her town, the food, and her tourers. The tour was to make five stops in restaurants ‘north of the river’ that included food specialties that were typically ‘Chicago’. They have other tours available that offer different options, but this was a very good introduction to the city.

Our group was very cosmopolitan, much more so than our tour in Savannah. There were couples from Beijing, China, Finland, Poland, United Kingdom, Canada, San Francisco, and, of course, Taos. And Rachael came from a strong German background, so quite a mix of folks. You don’t get a huge amount of time to talk to each other, but there is some sharing and that adds to the interest of the tour.

Our first stop, and meeting place, was Lou Malnati’s and our first serving was a slice of Chicago-style deep dish cheese pizza. Rachael explained the origin of deep dish pizza and although it didn’t start at Malnati’s, he was one of the original developers of the recipe and then spun off his own restaurant in an act of spirited competition. Appears that one of the original financiers of the restaurants was a deep-pocketed Texan who was disappointed with the thinness of a Neapolitan pizza and wanted to make something more ‘Texas size’. I like the idea behind deep dish pizza - getting a bit more of all the goodies - but find that it ends up with too much crust. Joan and I usually buy the thin-crust pizzas in order to save on calories, so a deep dish pizza makes no pretense on that count and loads it up. I was very pleasantly surprised though, by the fresh tangy taste of the tomato sauce - just superb.

Next stop was at Al’s Beef for a portion of an Italian beef sandwich. Must admit, this is a Chicago food I hadn’t known about, but apparently, back in the depression, someone tried to create a sandwich of spiced beef, very thinly sliced, and slathered up with either, or both, of sweet and spicy peppers. The beef is cooked twice and more or less stewed in a ‘secret recipe’ for hours every day before slicing into thin shreds that are piled on a soft bun. The bun soaks up some of the juices. It was good, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to make it.

Third stop was an entire hot-dog, Chicago style, from Portillo’s, a local landmark. The restaurant interior is definitely unique housing a collection of signs and artifacts from Chicago history in a kind of carnival atmosphere. The hot dog was a tasty beef treat, but what makes it Chicago is its combination of toppings. There must be exactly these seven items to define a ‘Chicago style hot dog’ - mustard, onions, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, a couple of hot peppers, tomato slices, and celery salt. It is a unique combination with a wonderful mouth taste and feel. And seems like a fully balanced

Originally the Shriner’s Building

Done with the main dishes, we proceeded to our last stop for dessert. Dessert consisted of two dishes from two different food places. First we ate some ‘Chicago Mix’ caramel corn from a placed called Garrett Popcorn. Although I don’t think they invented the combination, they have made it popular locally. Chicago mix is a combination of caramel covered popcorn and cheese covered popcorn. Now, while that may sound kind of strange, the sweet and salty combination actually works. That was followed by a Nutella brownie from a gastropub called the Copper Fox, probably the highest price place we went to. I really loved the brownie, though as it had a gooey center surrounded by a delicious brownie cake.

During the walking stops, Rachael pointed out several of the landmark buildings in Chicago. Unfortunately, that included the Trump tower, but also the John Hancock building (which apparently can’t be called the John Hancock building anymore due to some lawyer shenanigans), and examples of smaller buildings erected after the great Chicago Fire of 1871. While the fire was a huge tragedy, burning thousands of buildings and leaving more than 100,000 homeless, it also gave the city a chance to rebuild from the ground up and, with the help of several very talented architects, the result is a structural variety and richness that isn’t seen in very many cities. It has been decades since I left New York, but Chicago was very impressive to me from an architectural point of view.

Besides the fire of 1871, other major events in Chicago history includes its origin stories (pretty much as a transportation hub linking the Atlantic and the central river systems), and the World’s Fair (I’ve forgotten the date now). I’m looking for a good book that summarizes the history of the town - if anyone has any recommendations, let me know.

The food tour was a terrific way to experience the city and I highly recommend it to Chicago visitors.

We could have taken the train in for this tour, but the problem with trains is that they have their own schedules, not yours. In order to have been there in time for the tour, we would have had to leave on the 7:08 train, and, well, that just wasn’t attractive to us.

So we ended up driving into the heart of Chicago. Without the trailer, I’m only moderately intimidated by city driving, so I decided to take up the challenge. It really went well, although it took an hour. I programmed Gladys to avoid toll roads, and she did that nicely, only adding a couple of minutes to the trip.

What Gladys couldn’t solve well for us though was finding cheap parking. Maybe there is some trick that Chicagoans use to park their car, but, if so, I don’t know what it is. After being dumped off the freeway onto the clogged streets of Chicago’s north side, we drove around a couple of blocks looking for parking spots. Anything that looked like a spot, ended up not being one and so we started looking for parking garages and lots. Joan saw a lot on a vacant spot that seemed reasonably priced, but it wasn’t clear that the car would be there when we returned so I passed on that option. Finally, we turned into one of those multi-storied parking garages, gasped at the price, but took our ticket and found a spot. There was solace in knowing the car was likely very safe, but when I plugged the ticket back into the machine at the end of the day, I grimaced at the $47 parking fare. Of course, you don’t have any choice at that point so you put in your credit card and swear cuss words at the city.

On the way home I debated the pros and cons of driving versus the train. Yes, we would have had to leave at 7:00 AM. But the round trip train fare was only $36. Driving, though, cost not only the $47 parking fee, but also the gas to get there and back. (Fifty-five miles each way, at the current price of gas around here - at least $3/gallon - and the mileage of the Landcruiser - about 16 mpg, without the trailer- comes to about $21 for gas.). So driving into town costs roughly double the cost of the commuter train. Just what is keeping your own schedule worth, anyway?

But hey - we’re on vacation, right? Despite the cost, it was a fun day!

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