21 October 2007

Chicago, Part II

Click here to read Part I.

Even though it's a pretty widespread chain, Lonely Planet recommended we eat at The Original Pancake House for breakfast. And whatever Lonely Planet wants, Lonely Planet gets, so Camille and I went in our Sunday Best and trekked to the closest one.

If the name Pancake House doesn't give it away, they're known for breakfast, specifically pancakes. They have all the standards (buttermilk, silver dollar, short stacks, etc.), but their specialties caught our attention. Camille ordered the Apple Pancake, which is a dense pancake
with granny smith apples piled high and smothered with a cinnamon glaze. It looks like a deflated football steaming with apple-cinnamon goodness. I went for the Dutch Baby, a pancake that's baked until the edges shrivel and reach toward the sky, effectively making a huge bowl that gets slathered with butter, lemon juice, and powdered sugar. These might be the two tallest pancakes in existence.
It's good. It's heavy. It's like a genuine, long-term relationship in that they demand attention and hard work on your part. Dear God Almighty, it's an assload of pancake. Despite the heaviness, the Dutch Baby has a relatively light flavor thanks to the lemon juice. It's as simple as you can get, and if this is how they eat in... um... Dutchland, then I'm definitely hitting them up at some point in my life. (Wikipedia claims the country of the Dutch is called the Netherlands. It should be noted that Wikipedia isn't always accurate.)

We ended up skipping lunch due to The Original Pancake House's cargo now in our stomachs. We took a long, slow walk down Michigan Avenue towards the Theatre District to catch a show, along the way crossing paths with a long line awaiting the opening of local franchise Garrett's Popcorn, apparently the popcorn of choice for Chicago local Oprah. As luck would have it, there's a Garrett's right next to the theatre where we watched Wicked (I'm not a musical guy, but good stuff). After the show, we ended up with a combo bag of caramel and cheddar popcorn. We also stopped by local coffee chain Intelligentsia, where they have a fine collection of organic coffees, and headed east to Millennium Park to snack away. I didn't think caramel and cheddar popcorn would go together, but the combination of the salty and the sweet was insanely addicting. I've never tried any form of crack, but I think this is the culinary equivalent. It's like the only way to counter the salty cheese is to swamp your mouth with the sugar. And when that's too sweet, more salt! It's a vicious cycle.

After walking west to Sears Tower (which was deceivingly far. Stupid big building looked so stupidly close...), we decided to head back toward our hotel. Over the course of the day, we'd walked pretty much the length of central Chicago and didn't want to go too far for dinner. Since Garrett's pretty much refilled us to post-Pancake House levels, we wanted something easy.

Portillo's Hot Dogs is across from the biggest McDonald's I've ever seen, a two-story, two-drive-thru-lane monstrosity that was calling to us with it's slick convenience. But we were in Chicago and it'd been over twenty-four hours since we'd had encased meat of some kind. While the sign outside the building proclaims Portillo's, the space is actually a food court with a number of fast food options to peruse. Not that we did much perusing. We had hot dogs on the brain and complete and utter trust in our Lonely Planet guide. Has it steered us wrong yet?

Not really. Portillo's is pretty straightforward.
Chicago-style hot dog with all the fixings, crinkle cut fries with a cheese dipping sauce. Not spectacular, but it's fast and it hit the spot. The hot dog itself is pretty nondescript. I guess that's where the avalanche of toppings comes in. Hey, not everything can be fabulous. Fed, bed, next.

The next day we enjoyed our hotel's continental breakfast. Someone please tell me what makes these things "continental." Does every continent serve a variety of pastries for breakfast? Is that the tie that binds humani
ty across the face of the earth? There's got to be at least a sub-continent somewhere that goes carb free in the morning. Wikipedia's breakfast article lists continental breakfasts under the European region, but what have we learned about Wikipedia?

After visiting the fantastically free Lincoln Park Zoo, which I should stress is a free zoo, we hit up the Pasta Bowl for lunch. Normally, I stay away from pasta at restaurants since pasta is the simplest, easiest cuisine to throw together at home. Some people think bottled water is a con. Me? Pasta Roni, total scam. If I do ever order pasta, the ingredients should shine together, and they had better be good ingredients. Grilled chicken linguine alfredo? Please, I can smother Ralph's-brand alfredo over some noodles and frozen tenders at home, thank you. But I digress.
The Pasta Bowl is the kind of place I sometimes idly dream of having if lack of money, middling work ethic, limited skill set, and other, more pressing dreams were not an issue. The space is really cool, one of those long, thin dining rooms dominated by a counter, kitchen in full view behind it, and the manager doing double duty as our waiter. It's the kind of chill restaurant you see in mobster movies where the local don holds court in the back booth... except there wasn't a local don holding court. And the neighborhood is really nice. Again, I digress.

Camille and I are both suckers for seafood, and she especially for frutti di mare. The Pasta Bowl cooks shrimp, scallops, and mussels in white wine before serving with marinara and spaghetti. I went for clams capellini, the shellfish also cooked in white wine before being tossed in some angel hair with red pepper flakes. Now, having said all I've just said about how easy pasta is, there is some skill in making really good pasta, and this is really good pasta that's also really fast and really cheap. My clams were perfect, soft but not rubbery, and the red pepper really pops in the white wine. It's a nice, smooth spiciness. It did built as I ate, getting spicier and spicier, but nothing a fork full of angel hair couldn't handle. Camille's was equally good. I might sprinkle red pepper flakes over every pasta meal I do from now on. It's a nice, ass-kicking compliment to what is otherwise sublime food.


We had some time to kill before heading up to Wrigley, so we went west to Sweet Mandy B's, a bakery with some terrific cupcakes. I had the peanut butter and jelly, which is yellow cake filled with strawberry jelly and a peanut butter cream frosting. If ever the phrase "sweet Jesus!" was apropos, it is here. The frosting is decadent, creamy without diluting the peanut butter taste, the cake is moist, and the jelly brings it all home. I actually wish there was more jelly, as it was really just a drop, but oh well. I resisted the urge to order another since there was more encased meat to devour.


Wrigley Field was everything I hoped it would be. As intimate as ballparks can get, sunk right into an old Chicago neighborhood. You literally leave the rail station, turn a corner, and you're there. And the fans in the bleachers were the best, well deserving of their fevered reputation. Probably the funniest thing I've ever seen at a sporting event took place during Giants batting practice. Every fly ball into the deep outfield elicited a cry from the crowd for Giants players to throw up a souvenir. Most of the players turned a deaf ear, but one eventually gave in and lobbed the ball up into the center field bleachers. Though they had pleaded shamelessly for the ball, these were Cubs fans and this was a baseball from the Giants, and so, they threw it right back onto the field and cheered mightily.

Stadium food is always a risky proposition, but Wrigley had foot-long brats with grilled onions, plus all the toppings one could want off to the side. It was the eighth inning by the time I got to them, so the brats were nice and seared and wrinkly. Fantastic stuff. The sweet relish, the tomatoes, the grilled onions, the fact that it was 12 inches long, plus the friendly confines of Wrigley all make for some good eating. I love you Hot Doug's, but this is some sausage right here. My hands were sticky with mustard/relish/brat juice all the way back to the hotel. If there's one true test of a hot dog, it's got to be hand stink. Wrigley brats just set the high water mark for sticky stankiness.

The next day brought us to The Billy Goat Tavern, a restaurant bar most famous for inspiring an old Saturday Night Live sketch with John Belushi telling customers the only available item on the menu is the "cheezborger." The place is a true dive, in an area around the Chicago River where there are two street levels, the lower perpetually in the orange glow of artificial lighting. It's grimy, it's dark. And the guy taking orders is a true character. I don't know if he's The Guy that inspired the sketch or if he's just keeping up the reputation, but he's a goof. Despite the decent number of items on the menu, every transaction with customers, including us, goes like this...

"Cheeseburger."
"Double cheeseburger's the best."
"Okay, double cheeseburger."
"Double cheeseburger!"

A bit later, the following was overheard...

"Double cheeseburger's the best."
"Double cheeseburger."
"Triple cheeseburger's better."

The cook, of course, has a line of burgers going on the grill. They put the burgers on kaiser rolls instead of standard buns, which is a nice touch. Service is pretty straightforward. You order at one end of the counter and slide down to the other. There's a pile of butcher paper on the counter where he assembles your burger and nudges it over to you. Toppings to the side. The walls are adorned with news articles detailing the billy goat curse that supposedly haunts the Cubs. During our meal the guy turned to two customers sitting at a table without food.

"Can I help you guys?"
"We're just waiting for someone."
"Well, I get off in a couple of hours."

It's that kind of the place. Not the best burger ever. In fact, it's not too far above cafeteria food. But that'd make this the coolest cafeteria ever.

After visiting the Art Institute and the Married... With Children fountain a.k.a. Buckingham Fountain, where I paid a homeless guy five bucks for a free newspaper after he took our picture (he was a salesman, what can I say), we went to a place right down the street from The Billy Goat, Shaw's Crab House.
Up to this point, all of our food had been, for lack of a better term, peasant food. Pizza, hot dogs, pastas, burgers -- I feel like we got a fairly representative take of how locals eat on a semi-regular basis. Shaw's Crab House is in that same vein, except people here are wearing suits. Seafood tends to demand a higher price, but again, Camille and I are suckers. And Shaw's had an oyster bar with a happy hour. When in Rome...
It's overwhelming how many different types of oysters Shaw's has. And if that wasn't enough of a drain on the wallet, we had a terrific waitress who was friendly and quick with suggestions. I couldn't begin to tell you what was what, but they tended to be smaller oysters, all delicate, sweet, briny, but not too gritty. We downed two dozen of them before even so much as perusing the rest of the menu. If the thought of oysters scares you as it did me once, then suck it up. Literally. Use the little tinny fork, drink the juices in and suck up the meat. It's easy. Sure, it's a little slimy and cold and mushy. It's kinda like sweetened seawater. Suck it up!

We followed up the oysters with a creamy, savory lobster bisque before getting to our separate entrees. Camille had a combo plate of grilled shrimp, scallops, and a crab cake. I had a less inspired soft shell crab sandwich, which continues my love-hate of soft shell crab. The bread was a little charred and the soft shell was way too overcooked. I will forever be wary of soft shell in the future. It's an almost exotic food with the pricetag to match since farming them is so delicate, but even when it's cooked correctly, there isn't a lot of meat and there's a whole lot of edible but bland shell to chew on. No matter. I was on an oyster high. And we had a really good key lime pie for dessert.

The next day was our last, and between Shaw's and The Parthenon, we finished our food adventure on a real high note. The Parthenon is a Greektown requirement. Not that we visited any other Greek restaurants, but the place was so good I was truly blown away. The meal starts with the pizzaz of saganaki, which is a platter of kasseri cheese that gets doused with brandy and set aflame right at your table. It's warm and gooey and, like any flame-cooked food, a tad crispy on the outside. The burned parts are, naturally, the best. We also started with pan-fried baby eggplant, which probably takes the cake over Giordano's zucchini fritters for battered and fried appetizers. Crispy, that peculiar sweetness of eggplant, juicy, not excessively oily. It also came with some kind of mashed something. We think cauliflower. Whatever, I'm eating it. When in Athens...

The menu is absolutely loaded with lots of tempting food that was completely foreign to me. We thought we'd go with the ever-popular gyros, savory roasted slices of lamb and beef with onions to be eaten with pitas. In my mind, The Parthenon can do no wrong after those appetizers, but this was right on. We stuffed ourselves silly, all the better to fly home.

Thank you, Chicago. Rich, flavorful food. As many encased meats as one could dream of. And, oh yeah, a beautiful city to boot. We left heavier than we came.

FYI: we brought two half-cooked Giordano's pizzas onto the plane for consumption at home. So, when packing for a trip, keep in mind that you cannot hand carry more than three ounces of hair gel or toothpaste, but you can bring almost five pounds worth of deep dish pizza. Because if we can't bring pizza onto planes, then the terrorists have won.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Giants players are some of the kindest around. They're all about giving a souvenir to a little kid at the park or just trying to make someone smile. It's too bad they threw it back.