15 October 2007

Chicago, Part I

Chicago takes its name from a French mis-transcription of a Native American word for leeks. In other words, Chicago is named after food. So, when Camille, the lovely girlfriend of Butter Flavored Topping, redeemed a free Southwest ticket to the Windy City, it's only natural that we immediately started to salivate in anticipation.

Our primary planning tool for exploring the city was, of course, movies. Sadly, two out of three movie-inspired tours fell through. The High Fidelity tour of hipster hood Wicker Park was doomed from the start due to a lack of big tourist attractions. Sorry, Rob Gordon, but when it's your first time in a city, you've got to stick to the big draws, don't ya? Camille's intended My Best Friend's Wedding tour of Chicago was rendered incomplete, with only photo stops outside the Drake Hotel and inside Union Station accomplished. It's a shame as I really wanted to do the Chicago River tour. I privately considered Union Station to be a part of The Untouchables tour, anyway, so a Julia Roberts-inspired excursion will have to wait until next time.

Which leaves us with the Ferris Bueller's Day Off tour, which was a success. We hit the Art Institute of Chicago (where Ferris kisses Sloan and Cameron is hypnotized by a girl in Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte"); Wrigley Field to watch my lowly Giants lose ("Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Suh-WING batta!"); Sear's Tower ("I think I see my dad."); and Chez Quis, where I proclaimed myself the Sausage King of Chicago. Actually, Chez Quis isn't real, but we had some good eatin'. Speaking of which...
The first thing we ate was pizza. People speak of Chicago's deep dish pizza as if it were the little baby Jesus holding his own Holy Grail. After weighing various opinions about which restaurant makes the best pie, we decided to hit up Giordano's Pizza. We pre-ordered and put our names in line for the requisite hour-plus wait, cruised up and down Michigan Ave to kill some time, cursed the fact that we opted for a rental car with our travel package (parking is expensive, pay by the hour hell in this city of fine public transportation), and finally got our table.

We quenched our thirst with some pretty solid mid-west beer, Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss. I actually didn't have much beer here, sadly, so who knows how this compares, but we were thirsty, it went down easy, and it's called Leinenkugel's. Seriously, with a name like Leinenkugel's in the capital of the mid-west, how can you go wrong? They get bonus points for spelling it "bier."

We ordered zucchini fritters as an appetizer. Crispy but not oily, kinda burns your mouth like good, freshly deep fried food should, the mild sweetness of zucchini with the bread crumbs... I'm not sure I can fully encapsulate how good these were except to say that the little baby Jesus drinking Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss from his Holy Grail would be pleased.

We ordered the special stuffed pizza, which has sausage, mushrooms, peppers, and onions, plus
we added pepperoni because, hey, why not? It's very good, although I didn't have the religious orgasm that most people do. The pizza is stuffed mostly with mozzarella. A lot of mozzarella. It's pretty much like eating a wheel of mozzarella cheese that's been breaded, then covered with a thin layer of sauce. It's good mozzarella, but I was hoping for a little more tomato sauce. The sausage is good stuff, though. Cheese and sausage just might do it for me next time.

We ended up with leftovers that we took back to the hotel. Oddly, our reasonably-priced fancy dancy hotel didn't have a microwave. Ideal location, complimentary breakfast, free happy hour, no microwave. When we wanted to finish off our pizza a couple of nights later, we tried vainly to heat it with a hair dryer. Yeah, not so much. But it did taste mighty good cold. In fact, almost as good as when it was hot, which is a testament to the quality of the ingredients Giordano's uses.
The one time in five days I was happy to have a car was our trip out to see Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio. Along the way (in a roundabout, let's-use-our-car-damnit kinda way) is Hot Doug's, a popular joint that cheerfully refers to itself as "The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium." It's the kind of place that has a table for local bands to dump flyers about upcoming gigs or to sell used instruments. There was a line wrapped around the building, but not the same tourist line mobbed around Giordano's. No, with my eavesdropping skills, I knew I was among locals (or, at least, other tourists who chose the cooler, more discriminating Lonely Planet over Let's Go! when buying their travel guides).

Other than pizza, the most talked about Chi Town food is the hot dog, which has a strict recipe of toppings: onions, tomatoes, sometimes cucumbers, sometimes lettuce, sometimes bell
pepper, pepperoncini, relish, mustard, and celery salt. Considering the semi-gourmet treatment Hot Doug's has with their various dogs, it can be a little intimidating, but thankfully Hot Doug's loses all pretense of snobbery with kitschy decor and hot dogs wryly named after celebrities. The Keira Knightley is a "fire dog" described as "formerly the Jennifer Garner and Britney Spears." They have fries cooked in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays. You get the feeling the owner -- I'm gonna go out on a limb and call him Doug -- went to culinary school, got exposed to high end ingredients, then realized, "Wait, I like hot dogs," and created this place.
Camille had The Dog with all the proper fixings while I went for The Elvis, a polish sausage with all the fixings, plus sauerkraut. The duck fat fries were a bizarre creation. Camille said she could taste the duck in them. Me, not so much, but the texture of the fries was definitely different. Duck fat is richer, and the fries reflect that. Still crispy, but rich and somehow thick, even though it's a standard cut. If McDonald's fries are a light beer, these duck fat fries are Guinness. Take from that what you will.

The Elvis was juicy, good stuff. The Chicago mix of toppings is all well and good, but the real clincher? The celery salt. Seriously, this is what sets everything apart. It's the icing on a sweet and salty mess of slop. Kinda tangy and sweet, the celery salt really jumps out from the assault of other condiments.

For dinner, we hit up Navy Pier, where there's a cool and, more importantly, free stained glass museum beneath the carnival setting. There's also a free fireworks show. A lot of the food choices were kinda generic (nothing says Chicago like Bubba Gump Shrimp!), but thankfully there was the southern-style Joe's Be Bop Cafe, which enticed me with jambalaya and a live band. Our plans to hit up a genuine Chicago jazz club were pretty low on the list, so we settled in. The Jambalaya was nice with a good amount of spice and great sausage, though everyone around us was having ribs, so I was having buyer's remorse. Camille had the crawfish etouffee, a creamy, buttery, and spicy cousin of gumbo that was very, very good. Now I was downright jealous. Considering the tourist-centric locale, I was afraid the place was going to be flavorless and plain, but the food was good and, surprisingly, so was the jazz. No elevator music here, the place was rockin'.

If you're not keeping score, the standout ingredient after a day and a half of eating is sausage.

I like Chicago.

Click here for Part II.

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