4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Midwest”

Chicago Living (by Carmen)

Lake Michigan Coast

Lake Michigan Coast

Obligatory Cloudgate (or The Bean) shot

Obligatory Cloudgate (or The Bean) shot

We just couldn’t stay away. Our last visit to Chicago was during a July heat wave. We managed not to melt by visiting the beach and ducking into air conditioned restaurants for our fave regional eats – namely deep dish, hot dogs and anything by Rick Bayless. But it wasn’t enough. So this May, Nathan and I set down our backpacks for a whole month.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me recording

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me recording

Wait, wait – why were we spending a whole month in the Windy City? Was this an extension of our travels? There was in fact a very specific reason to plop ourselves in this beautiful city by Lake Michigan. Our wedding was to take place at the end of May and we had a lot of planning to do! It was exciting but tiring times. To take a break from all the planning we fit in a few special meals, good beers, and fun shows. Like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the excellent NPR Saturday morning show recorded in downtown each week.

Spent a lot of time on our L platform

Spent a lot of time on our L platform

Revolution Brewing

Revolution Brewing

During our month in Chicago we were fortunate enough to stay with a family friend in the excellent Logan Square neighborhood. I thought it fitting that we were next to the California stop on the L (the name for the local train system). It was also fortunate to be very near one of the best breweries in the city – Revolution Brewing. The space has a huge wooden bar in the center of the lively restaurant. My personal favorite was the Rosa beer, which was a beautiful red color thanks to being brewed with hibiscus. It was a truly refreshing beer as the weather began warming up.

Longman & Eagle breakfast

Longman & Eagle breakfast

Lula Cafe cinnamon pasta

Lula Cafe cinnamon pasta

Logan Square has a lot to offer but two of my favorites are Longman & Eagle and Lula Cafe. The former is quite the multi-faceted business with a hotel, full bar and a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner all on one site. The owners are able to pull it off it with style and as well as delicious food. I find the breakfast menu to be a particularly good deal so Nathan and I walked over one morning to enjoy chicken and waffles as well as a duck hash. Every time I eat there I wonder how they make their food so tasty.

Just across the square (actually more like a large roundabout) is Lula Cafe. The food was also of very high quality but in a comforting way. Like my pasta mixed with feta, cinnamon, garlic and brown butter. Simple, a little unusual, but ultimately delicious.

Kurowski Sausage Shop

Kurowski Sausage Shop

Polish goodies

Polish goodies

Speaking of comforting, Polish food ranks high for me in terms of homey goodness that just makes me happy. We found gold at Kurowski Sausage Shop, a grocery store full of delectable items like sauerkraut, kielbasa, borscht, dill pickle soup, hunter’s stew and, of course, lots and lots of pierogies. We happily stocked up and wondered if we could move in next door.

Urban Belly rice cake soup

Urban Belly rice cake soup

Belly Shack bulgogi

Belly Shack bulgogi

While I love Polish food, my heart will always belong to the cuisines of Asia. So I couldn’t wait to try Urban Belly. I went with a group and we each ordered a different soup. Through the variety of noodles (udon, rice, ramen and round rice discs), broth bases (chicken, pork), and spiciness levels one theme emerged – each bowl was incredibly scrumptious. We had such a good experience that Nathan and I took a group of family to Belly Shack, a sandwich shop from the same chef. I was a little worried that the group might prefer burgers and fries to the eclectic menu offerings at the shack (example: meatball and noodle sandwich) but everyone came away happy. I particularly enjoyed my bulgogi with flatbread and kimchee.

Fat Rice, a new fave

Fat Rice, a new fave

I thought Urban Belly was an unusual name, but then Fat Rice came and blew it out of the water. Turns out the name is a translation from the more elegant sounding arroz gordo, a specialty of Macau. The whole restaurant is dedicated to Macau cuisine which has a mix of influences – mostly Portuguese and Chinese but also a little bit of everywhere else the Portuguese went. I absolutely love when east meets west so this was right up my alley! While I really wanted to order the arroz gordo (a rice dish with a variety of meats and seafoods, chinese sausage, tea eggs, linguiça and sofrito) it is meant to serve 6. We still considered it though :) Instead we settled for Piri Piri Chicken with peanuts and potatoes in tomato sauce, Crazy Squid and large spears of stir-fried asparagus. Tangy, spicy, tingly, nutty, sour – everything melded together perfectly. From the concept to the food to the decor, this has become one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.

Newlyweds

Newlyweds

Hot Doug’s hot dogs as celebration

Hot Doug’s hot dogs as celebration

And then we got married! Or at least it felt like it happened that fast. All the efforts of not only me and Nathan but our families culminated in what will forever be one of the best days of my life. A smile creeps onto my face anytime I think back to that wonderful weekend full of family, friend and love. And what better way to cement our union than to eat gloriously delicious hot dogs at Hot Doug’s?

Soaking in the modern “Flamingo” sculpture in Chicago downtown with friends

Soaking in the modern “Flamingo” sculpture in Chicago downtown with friends

Filafill

Filafill

Having so many of our family and friends in Chicago at the same time was somewhat surreal. We tried to spend as much time as we could with everyone over the wedding weekend. Most people wanted to check out downtown so we wandered around, admiring architecture together. When we needed refueling we visited Filafill, an excellent falafel and sandwich bar where you fill up your pita with as many sauces, pickles and veggies as you like.

Chicago’s sweet side (clockwise from top left: olive oil cake at Floriole; decadent doughnuts at Glazed & Infused; cookies and hot chocolate at Hot Chocolate, sundae at Margie’s Candies)

Chicago’s sweet side (clockwise from top left: olive oil cake at Floriole; decadent doughnuts at Glazed & Infused; cookies and hot chocolate at Hot Chocolate, sundae at Margie’s Candies)

I will leave this food heavy post off with a sweet ending – dessert! Nathan and I have sweet tooths to be sure. While we revisited Floriole for a moist olive oil cake we were happy to discover Glazed & Infused this time around. They offer some seriously decadent doughnuts in unique flavors like maple bacon. Based on a recommendation from my dad, we also made a trip to Hot Chocolate for (what else) hot chocolate. It was smooth and had perfectly balanced sweetness and richness. Finally, my favorite is Margie’s Candies, an institution since 1921. You walk in and you are transported back in time before artisanal gelato and fancy toppings. There is no salted caramel here. Just simple (but huge) sundaes with lots of hot fudge to drip over it. And you can’t forget the neon maraschino cherry on top!

Thank you, Chicago, for being a sweet setting for us to start a new chapter in our lives.

Nebraska Corn, Family and More Corn (by Nathan)

The rolling hills of corn

One of the best opportunities of taking a year off to travel is that we have the chance to visit so many places, and sometimes off the beaten track places that are part of few vacation plans. We wanted to go to the rural Midwest; we wanted to see some of the big agriculture that feeds the world, and most of all we wanted to see family.

The three of us enjoying a laugh

I last visited my Great Aunt Bea when I was sixteen years old; it had been too many years since I had seen her. My Aunt Bea is the most wonderful and inspirational woman. At ninety-two years old she is witty, funny and entertaining. She delighted us with conversation and guided us through the Nebraska countryside. She is an unstoppable woman, and very easily kept up with the two of us in the humid heat and all the activities we could fit into four short days.

Grand Island Women’s Club

So, we found ourselves in Grand Island Nebraska, the third largest city in the state with a population of 50,000 people. As expected with a town this size people tend to know one another; and everyone knows Aunt Bea. Bea taught elementary school for forty years. She devoted herself to the children, their families and the communities around Grand Island.

Everywhere we went, the people wanted to talk to Bea. My favorite was a woman walking with a cane through the local farmers market. She pauses, recognizes Bea, and then lights up with joy. They recount the story of the fourth grade class that they shared together with Bea as the teacher and then the woman informs us that she just had her eightieth birthday. Bea was teaching fourth grade in 1941!

Huge stalks of corn

Bea, Carmen and I explored the local farmlands with our informal historian as our guide. The little Fiat we rented stood out, but we had fun zipping around and between corn farms. Corn is king in Nebraska. The fields of corn extend for miles and to the horizon in all directions. The corn can get very tall too; at seven feet tall the irrigated farms already had what, to me, looked like an amazing crop. The farmers that were not irrigating, well, their three foot stalks were dwarfed by comparison. We meandered through the Grand Island county fair petting the sheep and calves. Bea took us for a walk in Cairo, a kolache in Dannebrog and a drive through St. Libory and Wood River. In each place we learned about the history of the town, the people she knew and the memories she had growing up and teaching in these areas.

Pizza at the Danish Baker in Dannebrog

My favorite of the small towns was Dannebrog. At three hundred people they have been named the Danish capital of Nebraska. The town is small and picturesque with hundred year old ranch homes, a mill and silos that tower on the town’s edge and people that are friendly and welcoming. We liked it so much that we came back for a second trip. One restaurant is named the Danish Baker. On Thursdays they put together a one-of-a-kind pizza. The pizza here is more of a pie, but not like a Chicago pizza, but a pie stuffed with inches of meat and veggies and encased in thick cheese as an attempt to hold it all together. On slower nights the owner will come out to the main dining room to play his guitar and sing folk and rock songs.

My great great grandparents and my great grandfather Lou on the left

One of the most exciting reasons for returning to Dannebrog was the chance to see another one of my Grandma’s sisters. Merna and Paul welcomed us into their home, enticed us with heaps of cookies and engaged us with family history that I never knew. It turns out my great great grandparents arrived from Scotland to start their family and farming in the fertile lands of Nebraska. My family tree is complicated, too complicated for me to even understand. A succession of divorces and re-marriages separated my grandmother from her roots in Nebraska. Decades went by without contact, but over the years we have reconnected and rejoined the relatives that have lived in Nebraska for five generations.

My ancestors

Our time with Bea passed by quickly. From early into the morning to late into the night we were locked into conversation. There was so much to learn from her and she continued to surround us with perfect life lessons:

  • Give back and help others, because no one got where they are at without receiving a helping hand.
  • I can handle it, I’m tough. I’m a country girl.
  • Oh, I could have stayed out later, but I saw that you were getting tired so I thought we better head back.
  • Find your passion and do what you love.

Camping at Hall County Park

At night we camped at a regional park on the edge of Grand Island. We were surrounded by swaying green trees and soft grass to place our tent. In the morning we were woken up by flocks of wild turkeys that weaved in out of the brush gobbling and pecking at one another for territory.

Fighting wild turkeys

The drive back to Omaha was sad. We found this beautiful church on the side of the road, but the architecture was less exciting because we missed Bea. We missed all of her stories and the cheeky, prudent and generous personality that we love so much. Who knows when we will be back in Nebraska. It is an emotional feeling to see family that we so deeply love. The memories here were different from other trips, but most of of I learned a little bit more about myself through the stories and experiences of my relatives.

Holy Family Shrine

Bringing the Heat to Chicago (by Carmen)

Me and Cloudsrest aka The Bean (2011)

Nathan in the Windy City (2011)

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.

Beach off Oak Street

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.

In front of the Monadnock Building

Model city at Chicago Architecture Foundation

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!

Carbide and Carbon Building – my favorite

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.

View from the Chicago River

The Tribune Building

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.

Frontera Grill

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.

Xoco

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.

Deep dish Chicago pizza

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.

Pierogies at Staropolska

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.

Smoked pork butt at Laschet’s

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.

Bread pudding at Floriole

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!

Goose Island Brewery flight

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.

The best hot dog

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.

Nathan, Lucy and Albert

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!

Chicago sign at hip salvage store

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