(This is the second in a series of articles tracking a three-week summertime journey from Los Angeles California to Toronto, Ontario, Canada and back.)
REPORTING FROM CHICAGO – I never really thought of Chicago in terms of food until we started to plan this current trip and friends, who either once lived here or had spent considerable time here, began to weigh in.
“Must have a Chicago dog,” they implored. “Bet you can’t eat just one Italian beef sandwich,” they dared. “Have to try the deep dish pizza,” they advised.
They threw around names of restaurants at which I “must” sample the above: Al’s, Pizza Uno, Pizza Due, Gene and Georgetti’s, Giordano’s, Super Dawg … There wasn’t a fine-dining, upscale place in the bunch.
Before this trip my knowledge of Chicago consisted of Wrigley Field and the Cubs, some old abandoned stock yards and a great song sung by Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra … “On State Street, that great street, they do things they don’t do on Broadway.”
Then, in five days this summer, my appreciation the Windy City soared, due in no small part to the advice of the aforementioned friends. I doubt we would have taken the architectural cruise on the Chicago River, or visited the Art Institute had Lenn Grabiner not all but ordered us to do so. Museums and architecture are the sightseeing stars of this city.
Lenn, along with Larry Sheingold and Larry Dietz were our chief sources of advice when it came to food. You can find each of them at the restaurant recommendation web site atLarrys.com. You can read their biographies and learn what restaurants they recommend in California and around the world.
ACT I – CHICAGO DOGS & WRIGLEY FIELD
Before leaving L.A. we were warned to not have our Chicago Dogs at Wrigley Field because there was a time when they were serving Oscar Meyer hot dogs and the ball park. As we walked to our seats I noticed the Chicago Dog vendors were touting Vienna all-beef sausages and they were grilling them, not steaming them. We watched batting practice for a while. Then I made the first food run. For Jennifer it was just some fries and a bottle of water. I was up for a Chicago Dog, fries and a beer.
Lenn knows I’m a New Yorker and a fan of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs. He said I might not like the Chicago Dog because of the condiments that get piled on. How wrong he was. An all-beef Vienna frank on a wonderful poppy seed bun, topped with grilled onions, a line of yellow mustard and a sprinkling of celery salt before finishing it off with neon green relish – what could go wrong with that? I skipped the available tomatoes and the hot peppers. One bite and I knew I had come upon something special. When I went back for a second, Jennifer asked me to bring her one – ketchup instead of mustard and skip the relish. Her take: Chicago Dogs are special.
ACT II – NEON GREEN RELISH
Chicagoans are fanatics when it comes to that relish. It’s the damnedest color I’ve ever seen. I’ve searched the web and asked dozens of people and I still haven’t learned how they achieve that color. “Food coloring” is one local tease of an answer. Several people told me they nuke it so it will glow in the dark. It’s a game they play with visitors. However they do it, it’s distinctive and delicious.
ACT III – BASEBALL THE WAY IT WAS MEANT TO BE
As for Wrigley Field itself, what a treat. Real baseball. No Diamond Vision or Jumbo-tron, no kiss cam or dance cam, no beach balls or waves, no artificial noise piped in and no rock music blaring from the speakers. Just a stadium filled with baseball fans gathered to watch a bad team play a meaningless game against the Florida Marlins. Cubs fans are serious about the game and know its ins and outs. This is the way baseball was intended to be experienced.
ACT IV – A DINNER WORTH THE TRIP
Girl & the Goat in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood belongs on any food lover’s list of musts. Reservations were running about six weeks ahead this summer, but we scored two seats thanks to a tip from the concierge at our hotel: it’s first-come, first-seated at the bar and lounge. The doors open at 4:30 every night, much earlier than we like to eat. We walked in at 6 p.m. on a Sunday night and were sitting at the bar by 6:10. Five minutes later I was drinking a Perfect Manhattan made with rye whiskey, which is experiencing a revival in Chicago. I’m not sure you could do this on a Friday or Saturday night. (Click on Essays in the menu section of this web site to find an earlier article we published about A Comeback of the Perfect Manhattan.)
Girl & the Goat was opened by Stephanie Izard in July 2010. She won Bravo’s Top Chef Competition in season four in somewhat of an upset. The night we were at the restaurant, the staff was looking forward to an after-hours first anniversary party. I tried to wheedle an invitation but couldn’t pull it off.
The menu at Girl & the Goat is strictly small plates packed with big flavor and tons of creativity. No surprise: we over-ordered. And then the waiter tossed in an extra dish for us to try. Our feast consisted of roasted cauliflower with pickled peppers and pine nuts; roasted beets with green beans and white anchovy in an avocado crème fraiche, chickpea fritters, fried squash blossoms stuffed with crab in a chive yogurt sauce, goat liver mousse with pickled white asparagus and crumpets, skewered lamb heart and sweet bread crisp, and wood oven roasted pig face. No, that last dish was not looking back at us from over a snout. It was more like a sausage patty. For dessert we had two gelato scoops – one vanilla bean and one shitake. There were innumerable other items we would liked to have tried. But even two eaters like Jennifer and me have to draw the line somewhere. To see some of the delights we had to pass up to get to this, take a peek at the Girl & the Goat web site, linked above.
ACT V – A SIGNATURE SANDWICH
The shaved Italian Beef Sandwich is Chicago’s signature sandwich and it deserves the honor. I had mine at Al’s Beef, just a short walk from the Art Institute. It’s really very simple: shaved beef on a roll. Options are dipping the bread in jus, a choice of cheeses, and a choice of sweet peppers, hot peppers or no pepper. I went for the sweet. I’m going to try it with the hot peppers next time for a little more pop. The beef sandwiches come in three sizes – Big Al, 8 inches; Regular Al, 6 inches, and Little Al, 4 inches.
Jennifer had a very good Italian sausage on a roll with sautéed onions. The menu also offers a double Italian sausage sandwich and a combination sandwich with beef and sausage. Polish sausage sandwiches also are available.
We hit the door at Al’s at 12:15 on a Friday afternoon, just in time to mix with the lunch crowd. Most of the rush was for takeout. By the time we left at 1 p.m., the crowd had thinned.
Al’s makes no claim to being the first restaurant to dip its rolls in jus. That distinction goes to Philippe in Los Angeles. (There’s an article about Philippe under Los Angeles in the Restaurants category on the home page menu of this online food magazine and a recommendation of Philippe at atLarrys.com.) For comparison purposes: the beef at Philippe is sliced while the beef is shaved at Al’s; I prefer the bread at Philippe; the jus is good at each place; the meat is more moist at Phiippe; the peppers are an excellent addition at Al’s.
ACT VI – THE BIG SURPRISE
The surprise meal of the Chicago leg of this journey was at a place no one recommended. It was in an unlikely location – on the Navy Pier, which had been described regularly by locals as a tourist trap. But there are fireworks over Lake Michigan on Wednesday and Saturday nights during the summer and Jennifer wanted to see them. A little online research revealed Riva as a restaurant we might enjoy.
I had oysters on the half shell (3 kumamoto and 3 blue point), a 2-pound steamed Maine lobster and crème brulee. All were excellent. Jennifer had four appetizers: a beet and goat cheese tower, a shrimp cocktail, steamed mussels from Maryland and a California (sushi) roll. She finished it off with a chocolate dish that included a dense mousse, a light mousse and ice cream. All right on the mark.
We’ll be back in Chicago for one night near the end of this trip. The plan: head for the Art Institute, where Jennifer wants more time in the gift shop and I want to walk around the corner to Al’s Beef to try one with hot peppers instead of sweet.
(NEXT UP: Ann Arbor Michigan to see what’s up at Zingerman’s Delicatessen.)