Chicago is one of those towns etched in foodie lore, indeed, it is hard to say five words about Chicago without saying the word restaurants. If you’re not a sports fan, three words might be difficult.
If you go by the legends you will immediately conjure images of deep dish pizzas, brats, steak houses and other monstrosities that clog the arteries enough to need a plumber.
Places like Pizano’s, a favorite hang out of Oprah Winfrey. Sitting smack middle in the Loop, Pizano’s is a lesson in hearty Chicago fare with a crust so dense I bent my spoon trying to break it. In fact, it was hard to remember anything else other than that intimidating crust. It had the texture of stale bread when I ground it with my teeth but the actual taste was granny pie fresh. Buttery but not greasy, it’s a marvel of technique but I can’t say I’d order it again, thin crust really is an evolution for the better! The cheese was gooey awesomeness though I would have liked more of that lively sausage and a little less of the cheese, ratio wise, on our Rudy’s Special. The other image you might have is of the ethnic variety. Strombolis next to gyros next to Thai and Mexican, all melting into one super cuisine better than any of its’ origins. If you thought that you would be correct. Chicago is home to authentic cuisine on steroids.
Strolling through the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen you can’t help tripping over restaurants better than anything you can scour for in Distrito Federal. I visited two in my stay, El Nuevo León and El Milagro. El Nuevo León is almost a historical landmark, with fifty plus years of continuous operation. El Milagro belongs to the El Milagro Tortilla Factory which operates right next door. Suffice to say you can’t eat Mexican like this in Puerto Rico, no matter how much you are willing to pay. The patience on dishes like the mole and refritos is palpable, the tortillas put artisanal breads to shame and the peppers kick you in the balls. At Nuevo Leon we BYOB’d an amber ale called Fat Tire that had me moaning audibly with pleasure. Yup, when it comes to a great pairing, I’m a screamer.
Veering east to Chinatown, we settled on The Pheonix, one of the most acclaimed dim sums in Chi-Town. We were encouraged since it was a couple blocks off instead of “the first restaurant to the left in Chinatown” and a good 90% of the customers were actually Chinese. For those unfamiliar with Dim Sum, it’s an assault of textures ranging from crispy to slimy, often simultaneously. How was it? I’d have a hard time telling you it was that much better than the China Club @ the Sheraton, but maybe I’m just an idiot @ Dim Sum!
Of course Chicago doesn’t get to be a culinary capital without some good ‘ol global-modern-food network style restaurants, which brings us to; Nightwood. We’ll call it Contemporary American, since we didn’t ask and I don’t know what else you can call brunch with butterscotch-bacon donuts (sinisterly good) or cured salmon-scrambled eggs with dill and cream cheese. It’s a cozy restaurant with an open kitchen tucked away in the back and a friendly outdoor wooden porch that dissipates any overt smugness you may have felt on your way in (they are the best meal in the neighborhood and they know it).
I had fig and bacon with aged cheddar & runny egg on toast and it was brunch incarnate. Mysterious dark sweetness, a medley of chewiness and a salty bite at the finish line to satisfy your actual hunger. My friend ordered an omelette with Italian eggplant and these pecorino “bread crumbs” that were perfect salty/crunchy bites. They must have been designed for salads but played the foiler role on this dish with delightful delicacy. His wifey had the orzo with lamb & aforementioned runny egg special which was skillfully proficient but seemed a bit thrown together in comparison to the well-laid plans evident in the other dishes. Extra credit goes for lovely service and not being modest with my drink. I ordered a Bloody Maria that burnt my nose hairs and would have felled lesser mammals…Good Show! Hope to go for dinner when I go back next year…
…and go back next year I will. Chicago’s cuisine could be a master’s degree it’s so rich. The utter depth of the field is mind boggling. I could have taken a whole month of tasting and it still would have been just that, a taste. Directions for some of the mentioned are below for any foodiespr.com fans going to Chicago!