Bringing the Heat to Chicago (by Carmen)
Chicago is a place of extremes, at least when it comes to weather. Nathan and I last ventured to the Windy City in March 2011. It was cold. Freezing cold. The kind that turns your nose bright red, makes your fingers ache despite the gloves, creeps up through your shoes to numb all your toes. This summer our 4th of July trip to Chicago coincided with a heat wave. It was hot. Sweltering hot. But I much prefer heat to ice so I was happy.
I have a ton of family in and around Chicago so most of my visits center around winter holidays. It was a treat to come during the warmer months and we tried to take advantage as much as possible. For example we went to the beach right in downtown. Lake Michigan might not have waves but it is refreshingly cool on a day that is over 100 degrees.
Even without the beach downtown Chicago is one of my favorite places to be. I love the high rise buildings, which I appreciate even more after taking numerous walking tours over the years from the Architecture Foundation. On their skyscraper tour I learned that the elegant Monadnock Building, completed in 1891, was built using tried and true brick instead of new at the time steel construction methods. In order to reach 16 stories, the walls at the base are 6 feet thick!
On another tour I found my absolute favorite high rise – the art deco Carbide and Carbon. It is simple and classy but stands out due to its unique colors. Grey granite, slate green, copper, gold, silver all come together beautifully.
This time we took the Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise up the Chicago River. We learned about the huge mix of styles along the water; from early 20th century beaux arts to modern Greek revival; from the Sears Tower (once the world’s tallest) to the new Trump Tower.
But let’s be honest. The real reason we are in downtown is to kill time between meals. Particularly meals at Frontera Grill. This is Nathan’s all-time favorite Mexican restaurant. Owned by the Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayliss it serves up some scrumptious Mexican fare. This time we ate sopes, queso fundido, grilled spring onions, and stuffed jalapeños. As usual, it was all delicious.
Bayliss’ food is so popular he has three restaurants on the same block! For a more casual experience than Frontera we head to Xoco. It offers sopas y tortas (soups and sandwiches) that are to die for. Nathan and I shared a cochinita pibil (slow cooked pork) sandwich and pickled pork knuckle sopes. Another specialty of Xoco is thick hot chocolate – you can watch them grind the cocoa beans right in the front of the shop.
Another regular stop for Nathan and me is Pizzeria Due. Deep dish pizza is a very personal choice for any Chicagoan. Everyone has their favorite. Pizzeria Due wins points in my book for the crumbly cornmeal crust. But while their sauce is good, I think certain San Francisco pizzerias have them beat.
Moving out of downtown gets you to some of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. The city has the largest Polish population outside Poland. This means some damn good pierogies (potato, cheese, meat and/or cabbage dumplings) are to be had.
Over in the German neighborhood, my cousin introduced us to Laschet’s. This is what you think of as a homey Midwest beer hall – fake wood paneling on the walls, old fashioned stained glass dome lights, thick dark carpeting. We had a feast of traditional German foods such as schnitzel, spatzle, potatoes, sauerkraut, etc. We washed all this down with some smooth pilsners. Fortunately, none of us came down with what the restaurant name indicated. Even when Nathan ordered the smoked pork butt.
Chicago has more than just heavy meals. Over in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we found a sweet little cafe serving light sandwiches and salads. We treated ourselves to a tasty bread pudding. It tasted very familiar to us. Turns out that the owners used to work at our favorite San Francisco bakery, Tartine!
Another treat was a brewery tour of Goose Island. This company makes some delicious custom brews for Frontera Grill so we knew we were in for some good stuff. Their actual facility is rather small, so after the 15 minute explanation of the brewing process, I was wondering why the tour cost me $10. Then we walked into the banquet room. Two long tables were lined with 5 tasting glasses at each seat. It was great to taste a range of their beers, from pilsner to IPA. The most interesting was a gluten-free beer that was made from quinoa, resulting in a pinkish color. It tasted something like a cross between beer and sparkling wine.
I made you wait for this last food picture. That’s because we always have to wait for it. The line for Hot Doug’s seems to always be minimum 1 hour. We’ve done the wait twice, once in 20 degree weather! So is it worth it? The answer is yes. Their version of the classic Chicago hot dog is sublime. The dog, poppyseed bun, mustard, relish, spear pickle, onions, sport peppers and celery salt all come together in a beautiful medley. Feeling adventurous, like we always are, then try a foie gras hot dog or one from alligator meat! Add duck fat fries and a variety of sausage alternatives to choose from and you understand why it’s worth the wait.
This trip to Chicago is made possible through generosity of my cousin, Tracy, in hosting us in her home. Also, special thanks to Lucy and Albert for making room on the couch for us. Until next time, Chicago!