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Jun 10, 2009 11:54 AM

Eating it all in Chicago...but where?

I'm planning on a long weekend trip to Chicago in August. I'm trying to get as much food in as possible. I definitely want to at least have deep dish/stuffed pizza, Chicago hot dogs, steak, and barbecue. I'm not very keen on tourist traps. I'd rather go somewhere for the best food for the right price. If it's expensive but the best meal you've ever had, tell me about it! If it's a cheap dive but also the best meal you've ever had, let me know! I'll be staying downtown near the magnificent mile but I'm open to all suggestions. We will travel for good food.

Thank you in advance to everyone for their help.

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    1. re: mountsac

      Thanks mountsac! With a little research on this board, this is what I've scheduled into my trip:

      Al's #1 Beef
      Lou Malnatti's

      Wrigleyville Dog's
      Wiener's Circle
      Fat Willy's

      Mr. Beef

      I wish I could have done Alinea but it's out of the budget.

      Anything that I missed that should definitely be on the list?

      1. re: tastyeating

        that's a very "chicago" food itinerary! good for you! when you come back, you should definitely let us know which place is your fav. chicago dog and deep dish pizza!

        the one place on your list i really don't like is gibson's... i know it's a chicago classic, and that's why i gave it three tries before i gave it up (1 lunch and 2 dinner visits). i felt that it's turned into a scene and they stopped caring about their steaks. all three times my steaks were overcooked. and at that one lunch the rib-eye had way too many connective tissues and didn't appear to be prime. i've since converted to rosebud steakhouse in the drake hotel. but if you want a well-known chicago institution, the chicago chop house (or maybe the original morton's) might be better than gibson's.

        1. re: tastyeating

          Chicago isn't a great bbq town.I haven't had much luck at Fat Willy's.I'd skip Fat Willy's rather than gamble.It's hard to find consistently good bbq in the city.It's more of a personal preference.Personally I go to Leon's on Ashland and Fullerton for tips.It seems to be the most consistent to my liking.To get the goods you got to go to the hoods.South side and West side.People tend to stay away from these bbq places because of the neighborhoods. But I find the people are generally nice and it's worth it to get good bbq.My wife and I have taken trips to K.C. and Memphis just to eat bbq.I don't know what's so hard about it and why I've been so disappointed with so many places I've tried. I can't figure it out.I can make killer bbq on my weber.All it takes is some good wood and a little love and patience and your eating good. Low and slow.....

          1. re: tastyeating

            Not a bad list but I don't think you need to hit up two hot dog stands on Friday, and I don't think you need to do both Lou's and Gino's and Al's and Mr. Beefs. Also Joe's (I assume you are going to Joe's Stone's Crab) is a mini chain based from Miami. You don't want to hit the tourisity spots but you are also only focusing on the touristy food groups - i.e the Super Fans Da Bears. Chicago is also known for their Mexican and their Thai. You have none of those in your list.

            I'd keep Al #1 Beef only if you go to the one on Taylor Street in Little italy and follow that up with an Italian Ice from Mario's across the street. That is an authentic Chicago experience. I like Lou over Gino's. I would skip Joe's and replace it with one of Bayless places (Topo or Frontera), Salcipion, or head to Pilsen for other Mexican options. --- search for Nxtasty's comprehensive list of Mexican restauarants.

            Either one of those hot dog places on Friday would suffice and since you'll be in that area I'd go to TAC for Thai (right under the Sheridan Red Line Stop). It is BYOB. Or I'd head up on the Brown line to Western and go to Spoon Thain (also BYOB). Both are in the relative northside area).

            I like Gibson's.

            1. re: tastyeating

              How about Smoque BBQ instead of Fat Willy's?

              1. re: tastyeating

                BBQ - Not sure you're getting very good advice. Fat Willy's: ok . . . nothing more. And whatever you do, don't get sucked into eating what seems to be popular in this neck of the woods . . . fall off the bone, meat-jello-like ribs called bbq. That being said, I disagree completely about being unable to find good bbq in Chicago. Smoque on the near northwest side (Irving/Pulaski) is consistently excellent for ribs, brisket, pulled pork and hot sausages. I also think Honey 1 (very close to Fat Willy's) is excellent for ribs, tips and pulled pork but their product is subject to some quality variation depending upon the time of day. On the near south side, I quite like Honky Tonk BBQ, and if you want to travel into the south side, there's Uncle John's and Barbara Ann's. If you want real wood smoked bbq, this is where to go. My first choice would definitely be Smoque, and it's very close to the Irving Park exit of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90).

                Steak - Don't get me wrong, I don't think you've made bad choices . . . it's just that they're somewhat similar in terms of the steaks they serve: wet aged beef. I'd go to one of those two, and then try David Burke's Primehouse (located between Gibson's and Joe's). In my opinion, no one in Chicago serves better beef than David Burke's and it's dry aged on the premises. They have plenty of options for the non-steak eater, but the food is great. At the very least, it will allow you to try something aside from the wet aged beef at one of the other two places. Of course, if you're just going to Joe's for seafood, then Gibson's is fine, but I still much prefer David Burke's.
                Wrigleyville Dogs - huh? Don't get this one. Any reason you're not going to Hot Doug's? Even if you have to take the El and a bus to get there, it's worth it. I like Weiner's Circle . . . .good charred dogs and burgers, although as I've aged a bit, I no longer do my late night visits there.

                Mexican and Thai are two cuisines found in Chicago that are better than just about anywhere else you will travel in the US. For Mexican, it all depends upon the regional tastes and type of meal you seek out. Sunday at the Maxwell St. Market is a revelation in Mexican street food with an endless variety of tacos, tamales, etc. There are a number of mid level and finer dining and very authentic Mexican spots in town, several of which have seen their chefs start off with Rick Bayless of Topolobampo/Frontera Grill and move on to start their own restaurants. A couple I'd heavily recommend if you're willing to drive is Sol de Mexico for wonderful moles, and Mixteco Grill a little over a mile away from Wrigley. My personal favorite south side Mexican is La Casa de Samuel, a good sized casual Mexican place where they make their own wonderful tortillas in the front of the restaurant. And if you like sandwiches, you absolutely have to head to Humboldt Park for Cemitas Puebla and try one of their cemitas.

                As for Thai, we're not talking pad thai or noodles here. We're talking about authentic Thai food here (have you been to Sripraphai in NY?). My personal favorite is Spoon Thai and when you sit down they will bring you the regular menu and two menus with specials and items from their translated Thai language menu: recommendations: Thai Isaan-style sausage; one bite salad; banana blossom salad; catfish curry custard; pork with Chinese broccoli; curries; shrimp paste rice with pork, apple and egg; pork neck larb; duck larb; Thai fried chicken; beef jerky; deep fried rice with pressed ham, omelette with shrimp and coconut, wild boar stir fry and mango with stick rice . . . I could go on and on, but this place is great, byo and easily accessible by the El or by car.

                Pizza - fine choices, but I much prefer Lou Malnati's (and Pizano's) to Gino's, but that may be personal preference. I highly recommend ordering your Malnati's (and Pizano's if you go) pizza with the butter crust.

                Al's - fine . . . as long as you go to the Taylor St. location. The franchised locations throughout the city and suburbs don't compare.

                1. re: tastyeating

                  Between Mr Beef and Al's - which would you say has the better Beef sandwich? I will be in your wonderful city in 2 weeks and am bringing my brother who has been working his mouth getting ready for all the food we are going to be eating (he has never been there). I just today realized that Rick Bayless's restaurants are all closed on Sundays and Mondays (the two days we will be there!) so I will have to reminisce from the 3 times I have already eaten there - I really wanted to treat my brother... We will be going to Wiener's Circle, SuperDawg, probably Gino's East since we are staying at the Westin Michigan Avenue and it is close - or should we go to Lou Malnatti's (who wins??). My brother has placed his order for Chicago dogs and deep-dish pizza. Which of the pizza places has the best atmosphere? I have been to Gino's and it is pretty crazy. HELP! TIA!!!

              2. Thanks everyone for the advice!

                @ mountsac: We are definitely doing a steakhouse. And the choices were actually between the Chophouse and Gibson's. Ultimately, Gibsons was voted as the winner.

                @ paulhollyus2: I love barbecue especially ribs. I heard and read that Fat Willy's had decent ribs. Was that advice wrong? I would love to go to more down to earth places. I do that here in NYC. But I won't have a car in Chicago. I think that might be a problem traveling further out for 'cue.

                @ lbs: Mexican and Thai? Hmm, sounds good. Although, after my trip to California, I haven't found anything remotely as good and authentic. It's quite sad actually. But Thai sounds good. I eat that occasionally here on the east coast. I wonder if it's going to be any different. I might just have to change my food itinerary. Also, I was thinking about Shaw's instead of Joe's. Seafood was obviously the idea. Is Shaw's better?

                8 Replies
                1. re: tastyeating

                  There is so much discussion and disagreement about good BBQ in Chicago. It'll make your head spin.

                  That said, I like Fat Willy's. I also like Smoke Daddy...and it might be more accessible and closer to other food destinations:

                  1. re: rubinow

                    I agree with rubinow on Smoke Daddy at least you'll be entertained.They have live blues playing most nights.Haven't been there since they have changed management.That might be a good thing.You'll have to let us know what you think about the food.It's a short walk from our house and in a hopping neighborhood.Take the blue line to Division and head west a couple blocks to Wood St. it's on the north side of Division you can't miss it.When you get done eating walk it off.Head west to Damen ave. then head north to Milwaukee.North and Damen. There is a blue line train stop there or take Milwaukee back to division.There are tons of shops, restaurants,bars and clubs along the way and lots of people watching too.If your up for walking head north on Damen and hit Miko's Italian ice for desert.It's maybe 4 of 5 blocks up from North avenue. Even better is Margie's Ice Cream take Milwaukee northwest to Western ave. turn right to Armitage ave. 1/2 block. Have a big old school sundae you won't be disappointed. There is a blue line stop at Western also. Have fun and eat well.

                  2. re: tastyeating

                    We have one of the better collection of different Mexican places that run from your typical taqueria to specialized provincial food. Please see attached link. You will be amazed by the wealth of options.


                    The Thai food from TAC or Spoon are different from the run of the mill pad thai places. They have translated Thai menus that will provide you with an out of the world experience. I crave the duck curry and Issan sausages on nearly a daily basis from Spoon Thai.


                    Shaws is ok in my book. Been for business dinners. Not really a Chicago place at all and again, a chain.

                    1. re: tastyeating

                      The true Chicago Steakhouse is Gene & Georgetti's. Gibson's is AA ball compared to the big leagues.

                      1. re: Saguaro

                        Gee & Georgetti's is lovely if you happen to like rude service, long waits and only ok food. Is that a true Chicago steakhouse? Not in my book. I would consider Custom House or David Burke's Primehouse over either of your suggestions.

                        1. re: chicgail

                          Gee, I always get treated well there. A nice table in the center of the first floor. Part of the charm of the place is that they know Chicago. As for being a "true" Chicago steakhouse, come 'on, a frame building behind the Merchandise Mart, that is under the el, that has been in business since the '40s, how much more Chicago can you get. Gail, you must be from the northern suburbs.

                          1. re: Saguaro

                            G&G definitely has their legacy going on for them. I've read somewhere that it is Lucy and Desi's favorite place in Chicago. Would love to have been a fly in the wall during those days.

                            Steakhouses, along with deep-dish pizza and hot dogs, is such a contentious discussion on these boards. Besides, one's dining out experience is truly highly subjective and personal. Is eating ok steak and sitting next to Tony Soprano, Silvio, and Bobby my idea of a fun night out? Not so much.

                            1. re: Saguaro

                              I'm a city girl, actually.

                              Your post suggests that you are a "regular" ("I always get treated well there"). There seems to be a big difference between how regulars get treated and newbies. Maybe that explains the difference in our experiences.

                      2. You guys are really great! There's been a shake up in my itinerary thanks to you guys!

                        Lou Malnati's
                        Joe's Stone Crab (for seafood)

                        Wiener Circle
                        Al's Beef
                        Smoque BBQ

                        Frontera Grill
                        Gibson's Steakhouse

                        So Fat Willy's is out and Smoque BBQ is in. I want to have really good slow smoked ribs. And if this is what people say is better, then that's what I'll take.

                        Also, I added Mexican due to lots of persuasion (thanks lbs!). I went with one of Rick Bayless's places.

                        As for Thai, I'm skipping it mostly because I grew up in a predominantly Asian area. So authenticity was never a problem for me. I don't doubt the amazing Thai food in Chicago but I want to try things that I'm not familiar with.

                        Lastly, I kept Gibson's for steak because it's wet aged. I've never had wet aged steak before. Everything here in NYC is dry aged. It'll be nice to finally taste the difference.

                        My trip isn't until the end of August so I'm definitely up for more recommendations. Keep them coming. Thanks again everyone!

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: tastyeating

                          Enjoy. And let us know what you thought.

                          1. re: tastyeating

                            I'm heading to Chicago and have a similar itinerary (i.e. all food) as you, but I'm going at the beginning of August - I will report back as to a tourist's opinion of some of these places.

                            1. re: tastyeating

                              It looks like you've finalized your itinerary, but I'd like to suggest Carson's if you like slow smoked BBQ ribs. It's a very 'Chicago' place, close to the mag mile, and the ribs are fabulous.

                              1. re: Chriskoo

                                I just returned from my trip and wanted to give my food update/review.

                                Started off with a lunch at Portillo's. Had the Chicago-style hot dogs. I know these aren't necessarily the best but they were close to where we were walking. I liked that the hot dog wasn't a gigantic portion. It was delicious and for those of us that haven't had sport peppers on a hot dog - divine! The atmosphere was fun too.

                                For dinner we went to Lou Malnati's for deep dish pizza. We enjoyed ourselves but I will give a warning that you should not arrive hungry. We put our names on the list at 8 p.m. (River North location) and even pre-ordered (you can order while you are waiting for your table) and we still didn't get served until 10:45! That being said, we got to sit on the tiny patio, and it was really nice outside and you could see the Metra passing by in the sky. We had one buttercrust with sausage, extra tomatoes, and spinach; the other one we had the hot giardiniera (I didn't know what that was but it was very spicy and delicious!), black olives and mushrooms. It was very good (I am not a huge fan but it was good). My companions enjoyed it much more than I did.

                                The next day we went to the Art Insitute, so we went to Cafecito nearby to have Cubano sandwiches. We split a Cubano and also ordered another one of their sandwiches (the "jerk"), even though you could tell the woman behind the counter only wanted us to order the Cubano. She was right, though, the Cubano was really delicious, the other one was meh (not at all spicy even though it said it would be and she warned us it was spicy). The coffee and soft drinks were stellar.

                                For dinner on Saturday we went to LaSalle Power Co, because we were just randomly walking by and hungry. We got the sliders basket (6 sliders with fries and tater tots) and fried pickles. Even though it wasn't really on our foodie list, it was pretty good, the fried pickles were delicious and they came with a bloody mary ketchup.

                                (I should mention here we also went to Vosges Haut-Chocolate and had the bacon chocolate bar which was delicious!)

                                The next day for lunch we went to Twin Anchors, which wasn't too far from the Lincoln Park Zoo. This was the best meal of the trip. I had the burger with onion rings. The best onion rings of my life. The burger was delicious with their famous zesty BBQ sauce; they give you a saucer of it on the side to glop on. My partner had the ribs and also agreed it was amazing. Service was great; patio is shaded.

                                Later that day, we stopped by More Cupcakes and picked up their BLT cupcake, red velvet cupake and their flavour of the day (which had melted caramel inside). They are known for their savoury cupcakes (usually bacon maple, but they were out that day so we settled for the BLT). The BLT had a bacon cake (which was great) and then a ranch dressing (tasted like herb cream cheese) with tomatoes on top. A fun experience. The other cupcakes were also really good; I don't know if they were worth the price if you have a good cupcake shop in your hometown.

                                For dinner, we went to Hot Wok/Cool Sushi, across from Millenium Park. Although this is not a foodie place, I was dying for something semi-healthy, and sushi seemed a good fit. It was also 9:30 on a Sunday and I had no idea what was open; much of the places we walked by were closed. It ended up being pretty good, I had the "Obama-nami", which came with little American flags in it. Service was very nice and the walk back to your hotel (if you are staying downtown) is pleasant.

                                The next day we went to Garrett's Popcorn for a pre-lunch. I recommend going to the one in Merchandise Mart. The others always had long, long line-ups. There was no at the Merch Mart location, and he said to us, "You picked the right location; never a line-up here!" We got the Chicago mix (cheese popcorn mixed with caramel popcorn). A delight; I recommend it highly. We had a coupon so we just got a little bag for free, which was nice. Ask at your hotel for any booklets or guidebooks that might have coupons in the ad section. The reason we had popcorn for lunch was to tide us over until we got to The Publican, which only opens at 3:30. It is in the middle of nowhere, still walkable in our opinions but if you are going to take a cab back, there will be no cabs to catch so get them to call you one, I suppose. The atmosphere in the Publican was awesome, and the service was really delightful. We had the spicy pork rinds and the Charcuterie plate (scrapple, duck and foie gras terrine, pork pie and chorizo served with pickles and mustards). The beer selection is amazing, check out their website for the full list. We loved the food, it was unbelievable and if you go around 3:30, sit at the bar because you can watch the entire kitchen set up for dinner service, it was like dinner theatre and a real treat for a foodie.

                                Later that evening we went to The Melting Pot.....don't judge!!! we don't have fondue places in Toronto!! :) No comment on my experience there....

                                1. re: canadianbeaver

                                  Thanks Canadianbeaver! I'll be going in a couple weeks and will report back my results.

                                  1. re: tastyeating

                                    Tastyeating -- sounds like you have a decent lineup. I know you've been rec'd to death, and I haven't read all of them so this post is undoubtedly duplicative, but a few suggestions from a native.

                                    Ditch Weiner's Circle and go to Portillo's (100 W. Chicago). Portillo's is closer to downtown, so convenience level is more attractive, and frankly, I find nothing at all spectacular about Weiner's Circle food at all. It's very popular at 3:00a with the drunks, when the staff yells at you and is rude as all get out. (Why that's appealing is beyond me.)

                                    I'd also switch up Al's Beef for Mr. Beef (666 No. Orleans). Al's is decent but overpriced. Mr. Beef is a Chicago institution, and really delicious. The decor is nothing to look at, but Al's is tiny too, and just as bland interior-wise.

                                    Lastly, I would suggest a change-up in your dinner menu: Friday Smoque for Saturday's Gibson's. Both Gibson's and Frontera are high-end dinner dining, places where you will want to take your time to enjoy each one. Doing both in one night would not be optimal, imo. To do Weiner's Circle (or Portillo's), Al's Beef (or Mr. Beef), and Smoque in one day means eating at three dives. You want a nice place to end your day's romp, right?

                                    And remember, Frontera takes limited reservations, so if you don't snag one, it's first come, first serve, and you'll be standing in line for a while. But Bayless is a god.

                                    Just my two cents. Good luck, and don't forget to report back.

                                    1. re: sis2catbat

                                      And frankly, Portillo's Italian beef is pretty decent and in the same area as Al's and Mr. Beef.

                                      If you're not going to travel to a neighborhood for outrageous Italian beef (e.g. Johnnie's in Elmwood Park) you may as well do both the hot dog and the Italian beef at Portillos. Oh, and on the Italian beef, be sure to order it wet (dipped in juice) as a combo (with an Italian sausage) and with sweet and hot peppers.

                                      And Portillos is 100 W. Ontario, not Chicago.

                                      1. re: chicgail

                                        Thanks for the correction. Don't know where I got Chicago Ave.

                                        Decent call on Portillo's for Italian beef. Not the best, but they're no slouch either. Plus it'll free up some time.

                            2. Hi All and thanks for your many recommendations. Although my trip was planned to occur last week, a sudden and unfortunate family emergency came about and I had to cancel my trip. However, I will take all this advice and apply it when I get a chance to go to Chicago again.

                              Thanks again everybody!