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Chicago Food Trip-Do I Have It Right?

Hey Gang,

A crew of us are going to be in Chicago for a long weekend in early June. Now, I have been trying to plan the trip food-wise to the best of my ability while seeking out certain spots that I think will resonate with myself (a chef) and my food compadres. Just looking for some advice from the locals if my plan will be met with success or failure.

Here are the deets...

For deep dish I have decided on Burt's. Good choice? Just looking for the best possible. This will most likely be a drop in, smash some pizza and few beers and be out but leave satisfied and content that we got the best your city has to offer.

I love mexican food so obviously Rick Bayless was no question. I have decided on Frontera over Topolo. Right move? Topolo's price points seem pretty steep for authentic mex, no? Maybe i'm wrong or is there something I don't know about Frontera. It just seems like better value and options. What's the vibe like between the two? Does the vibe at Topolo warrant seats. If so, I'll book it.

For the more culinary experience I am opting for Avec. Just want this to be the right choice for a fun, long dinner with great food, wine and ambience. I am a fan of boisterous and bustling restaurants with chatter, laughter and easy attitudes. Good choice?

Also during the day I plan on hitting Hot Doug's. How far away from the core is it? I don't mind trekking out with my boy while the gals are out shopping at all. Just want to know from ya'll if its worth the drive to Acton( Toronto expression ;).

So? Many thanks in advance.

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  1. Burt's is an excellent choice, though I think you'll need to (or want to) phone ahead to reserve oven space for a specific time. Mexican? Not one of the Bayless places. Bayless' staff (he doesn't cook in the restaurants, not for about 15-years now) prepares meals which are, mostly, non-traditional Mexican, but do oftentimes include ingredients associated with Mexico. Bayless also charges more than the meals warrant, from what I experience there. If you visit Hot Dougs, don't do it just for a typical Chicago-style dog. Doing so isn't worth the trouble of waiting in line. If you'd like to try one of the odd dogs, made from unusual sausages - then it's your kind of place. Have a great visit!

    1. We do have a lot of good regional Mexican in Chicago besides Bayless so it's not your only choice, but it is conveniently located and it is excellent. I know gomexico knows good Mexican food and has strong opinions about it but I have to disagree with him about this.

      I had dinner at Topo just a few months ago and was blown away by the food. Definately worth the price, but at a lower price point Fontera is also very good.

      I just spent a month in Mexico where I was taught to cook Mexican food with someone Bayless tried to hire. Good food is not static or unchanging. The recipes in Topo and Fronera are authentic, albeit often innovative.

      I do want to second his suggestion to skip Hot Dougs if all you want is a Chicago style dog (just go to Portillos). It is worth both the trek and the wait if you want to try really innovative sausage sandwiches. Check out the website for the menu (it changes regularly)
      http://www.hotdougs.com/

      1. I think Burt's is a dreadful choice for deep-dish. Quite aside from the inconvenient location for those staying downtown, I could put up with the dingy surroundings and the horror stories about turning away those who had not pre-ordered in advance, but I think the pizza is bland and not a good representation of Chicago deep-dish. I think the hype is just that, hype. For a better pizza, go to any Lou Malnati's, or to the original Uno or Due downtown. If you go to Burt's anyway, you will need to bring your own beers, and make sure you call in advance with your pizza order if you don't want to experience similar abuse by the staff. Burt's is NOT the best deep-dish around. It's only about fourth best in tiny Morton Grove.

        As for the choice between Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, each has its pluses and minuses. Topolobampo accepts reservations for the entire room (on Opentable.com as well as over the phone). Frontera Grill only takes a handful of reservations and holds the rest of the place for walk-in traffic. Waits to be seated might not be bad on a weeknight; there was virtually none there a few Thursdays ago when I ate at Topo, but on a weekend, it could be quite lengthy. Yes, prices are higher at Topo, but they are surprisingly similar at lunchtime, if that's an option for you. The vibe is similar at both restaurants, rather loud and festive, and somewhat cramped. (Topo is actually just one room in the interior space which is shared between the two restaurants, with a common entrance, hoststand, coat check, etc, and then you walk through Frontera to get to the far room which is Topo.) I've tried many of our restaurants serving creative provincial Mexican food, and while most of the others are excellent too, what they are doing is not as unusual as Frontera/Topo - not surprising considering that Bayless takes his staff to Mexico for two weeks every winter to check out the most creative restaurants down there. For a chef, I'd definitely try the Bayless places. One other note - at my recent Topo dinner, everything was very tasty, but some of the portion sizes were skimpy - which I found even more objectionable for a place that's as expensive as it is. You might also check out XOCO, Bayless's take on Mexican street food, around the corner from Topo/Frontera; it's a good choice for a light breakfast or lunch. You can see all the menus at www.rickbayless.com/restaurants Going back to the choice between the two, you can see the difference in the menus (and associated prices) on the website, and now you understand the difference in reservations/convenience. I strongly recommend making a reservation at Topolobampo RIGHT NOW, because this is about how far ahead you'll need to do so; once you make your decision, you can always cancel the reservation if you decide to go to Frontera (or elsewhere) instead.

        I am not fond of Avec's food, although obviously that is a matter of personal taste and not everyone agrees with me. Regardless of the food, you need to be aware of all the other factors to consider. The seats are the most uncomfortable in town and consist of a hard backless barstool at the bar, a wooden bench along the wall, or what are basically backless wooden boxes at the rest of the table seats. The seating is communal; you're either at the bar or sharing an eight-top with others. There are no reservations taken and you may wait up to 90 minutes or more on weekends. And it is REALLY REALLY LOUD. If you don't mind all those considerations, then by all means go for it. However, there are plenty of other excellent "boisterous and bustling restaurants" as you describe, but without all the downsides of Avec. For just a few examples, I would suggest Mercat a la Planxa, the new tapas restaurant from Jose Garces; Carnivale or Nacional 27, for Latin fusion; or Sunda or Red Light, for pan-Asian.

        Going to Hot Doug's from downtown and assuming it's not prime commuting hours, allow 35 minutes by car/taxi, or twice that long by public transportation. And you may be waiting 30-45 minutes in line once you get there.

        15 Replies
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Nxtasy, I have to seriously disagree about Burt's, for a number of reasons:
          - First, I'm not sure what you're referring to regarding bringing your own beers; they have a fairly nice selection of beers available, including Steigl on tap and Great Lakes Brewing Company in bottles, which I get every time I am there.
          - Second, the surroundings are hardly dingy. It's a dark restaurant, sure, but so are half the steakhouses I eat at. It's an old building, and Burt has a large collection of stuff filling the restaurant, but personally, I love looking at the weird collection of ham radios. (and that odd display of barbecue sauce...not sure where that cross-promotion came from...)
          - Third, the staff is perfectly nice. People like to slam Burt's when they get turned away for not pre-ordering, or because they don't take credit cards, and they call that being "rude." Last time I was there, I was waiting a while for a friend to join me, and Sharon (co-owner) took some of her free time to talk with me about the restaurant and to repeatedly thank me for my business. I think Burt & Sharon are entirely pleasant people, they just have a specific way they like the restaurant to operate, and I don't think their way is unreasonable for such a small place. Most people know to call ahead and book a slot in the oven, it's really not that big a deal. Plus, an added benefit to me is that most people get the pizza as take-out, so the restaurant is never enormously loud or crowded, unlike the larger deep-dish pizza joints.
          - Finally, I can't believe you would put Malnati's or Uno's over Burt's. Burt's is buying fresh market ingredients every morning, while those other places are cranking out pizzas factory-style. I don't think there's any comparison in terms of taste or quality. Sometimes I swear that Burt puts heroin in his sauce, it's that good. And then there's the carmelized crust...

          The only pizza that I think even comes close to Burt's is Pequod's, and as we all know, Pequod's pizza is the recipe that Burt used when he founded the place. I'll agree with you that the location isn't as convenient as the other places you mention, but I'll happily do a 40 mile drive to Burt's over the Malnati's that is 15 minutes from my house.

          Insideman, stick with Anthony Bourdain on this one, and go with Burt's.

          1. re: bourj

            I didn't realize that Burt's had a liquor license, my error (and apologies) on that point.

            As for the pizza, you are welcome to your opinion. I don't like the burnt crust pizza at Burt's. And even if you're a fan of burnt crust pizza, the sauce on the Pequod's pizza is far more flavorful than Burt's. I don't care what some overhyped media celebrity says; I care what my taste buds say. I've tried them all, and I'll take Malnati's or Uno or Giordano's or Pizano's or Edwardo's or Bacino's over Burt's, any day, any time.

            I also don't like to make statements such as "I can't believe you would put Burt's over blah blah blah" because these are all matters of opinion, and I think it is sheer arrogance to deride the opinions of others in that way. I get it, you like Burt's pizza; I don't, and think that the other pizza places around Chicagoland are much better. I would excuse all the horror stories and inconveniences of Burt's if the pizza were really better, but in my opinion, it's not.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Ah! The old pizza controversy again.You can't go wrong with either of these spots.The pizza is going to be good.You'll go home happy and full.Probably too full! We need to post where not to go instead of where to go.I travel for months at a time to different place for work.One of the first things I do is get a pizza when I get home.No place does it like Chicago.Enough said.Let's argue about bbq now! lol

              1. re: paulhollyus2

                Wow. Thanks for the feedback gang. I knew that the search for the best pizza would draw some fire from you lot :)

                I am not married to the idea of Burt's but Bourdain's knod to it is definitely a reason I would make the trip but it's not a deal-breaker by any means. If this place, Pequod's is at the level of Burt's and is relatively in the core of downtown I may decide on that. We don't plan on renting a car and certainly don't want to burn upwards of 1.5 hours on travel time to eat some pizza if we can get a product just as good closer to where we will be staying.

                As for Bayless, I think Frontera might be the best bet all in all. I really appreciate mexican cuisine but I think some of the price points at Topolo might be hard to swallow.

                As for Avec. Well, from what I have read about Kahan and his cooking philosophies it seems like he has a lot of similar ideals that are in line with many chefs and restaurateurs here in Toronto. I just really want to see how it translates and hopefully draw inspiration and ideas from a chef who shares a very similar style to my own. after seeing pictures of the restaurant I can see ho it may be uncomfortable. What about his other places Publican and Blackbird?
                Are there other chefs in Chicago that are doing similar contemporary cooking styles? I am not looking for specific cuisines but more a more encompassing representation of honest cooking that draws inspiration from a melting pot metropolis such as yours.

                As for Hot Doug's, well I would like to make the trip just to say I've been. Again, it's most likely a trip me and my mate would make while he gals are shopping so the travel time is not important. What is important is that it's worth it.

                What other little gems hide in your city? What little hole in the walls that are serving up destination bites? Places that we could pop in while we stroll around. Where is a great place to grab a cold one and people watch during the day?

                I am uber-excited for this trip and all of your suggestions are truly appreciated so, please keep them coming. Many thanks in advance!

                1. re: insideman

                  >> If this place, Pequod's is at the level of Burt's and is relatively in the core of downtown I may decide on that.

                  Pequod's has two locations - one in north suburban Morton Grove, and another in Lincoln Park, on the near north side of the city. Their pizza is similar to Burt's - as mentioned above, Burt's started it - but I think Lou Malnati's and Uno/Due are better than either one. Then again, I decide based on trying foods, and I don't feel any need to go to a place because a media celebrity says so. If you feel you MUST go to a particular place for that reason, then do so.

                  >> As for Avec. Well, from what I have read about Kahan and his cooking philosophies it seems like he has a lot of similar ideals that are in line with many chefs and restaurateurs here in Toronto. I just really want to see how it translates and hopefully draw inspiration and ideas from a chef who shares a very similar style to my own. after seeing pictures of the restaurant I can see ho it may be uncomfortable. What about his other places Publican and Blackbird?

                  I haven't been to the Publican yet, but it has received a lot of praise and it's on my "need to try it" list. Blackbird is a bit different from Avec. They accept reservations, so you don't have the waiting madhouse aspect to it. Unlike Avec, I like the food at Blackbird A LOT. (I suspect Kahan has more of a role in the menu etc at Blackbird than at Avec.) Blackbird has its own downsides, though. It's noisy (although not as bad as at Avec). The seating is very cramped; much of it consists of banquette seating where you'll feel like you're sharing your conversation with the tables on either side of you. What I really hate about Blackbird is that the portion sizes are very skimpy; last time I ate there, I was still hungry when I left. It's too bad, because I love contemporary American cuisine when it's done well, but I've found other places (especially Cafe des Architectes, under Chef Martial Noguier) with food that's just as delicious without all the downsides of Blackbird.

                  >> Are there other chefs in Chicago that are doing similar contemporary cooking styles? I am not looking for specific cuisines but more a more encompassing representation of honest cooking that draws inspiration from a melting pot metropolis such as yours.

                  As I mentioned, I think Martial Noguier is the best contemporary American chef in town, aside from the chefs at the big-buck temples of haute cuisine like Alinea. There's only a slight French influence and he assimilates influences from other places as well. His pastry chef, Suzanne Imaz, is equally talented. www.cafedesarchitectes.com

                  James Beard Award finalist Bruce Sherman at North Pond is also doing wonderful things with local and seasonal cuisine. North Pond also has its exquisite setting going for it. It's in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, not just the adjacent neighborhood of the same name), facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. The renovated building formerly served as a warming shelter for ice skaters on the frozen pond. I think the entire experience at North Pond is more memorable and unique to Chicago than Kahan's restaurants or Cafe des Architectes, so it's worth considering too. www.northpondrestaurant.com

                  >> What other little gems hide in your city? What little hole in the walls that are serving up destination bites? Places that we could pop in while we stroll around.

                  Go to Garrett's Popcorn. There are several locations in the Loop and one on Michigan Avenue. They have caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, or a mix of caramel/cheese. Yum! www.garrettpopcorn.com

                  Go to Fox & Obel, our upscale gourmet grocery store northeast of the Loop. They have the finest meats, cheeses, and other basics, as well as the finest baked goods and other prepared foods. Don't miss the yummy cinnamon swirl rolls at the bakery counter! There's a cafe in the rear if you want to eat anything on the premises, from a cup of coffee to an entire meal prepared to order. www.fox-obel.com

                  Go to our new French Market, just west of the Loop in one of the commuter train stations. It just opened. It's not fancy but it has several dozen booths, including some of the very best that Chicago has to offer. Highlights include the croissants, entremets, and French macaroons at Vanille Patisserie; the artisan chocolates at Canady Le Chocolatier (whose main shop is in the South Loop, also not far away); the cheeses at Pastoral; and the rainbow cookies at Delightful Pastries. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    ^^^ Thanks for the tips nsxtasy.

                    Had a peek at North Pond. Menu looks good but are these price points common in Chicago? It seems like most of the price points for mid to top tier restaurants are really high. Are there any outstanding places whose mains aren't riding in the 30-37 dollar range?

                    1. re: insideman

                      >> are these price points common in Chicago?

                      Yes and no.

                      Keep in mind that the restaurant market is constantly changing. A couple of years ago, entrees in the low to mid thirties - places where you'll have a complete dinner for around $90-100 a person including some wine and tax/tip - were very common at most of our best "casual fine dining" restaurants. So at that time, those price points were VERY common.

                      Then the current economic recession hit. Restaurants have had various reactions to the recession. Some (including North Pond and Blackbird) have not changed their dinner prices at all, and still charge as much as ever. Some have lowered their prices dramatically - in some cases on their a la carte menu, but more often with a prix fixe menu. There seems to be a huge attraction to three-course menus for around $30. Some places participate in various "restaurant week" promotions at this level, such as the one recently concluded and the Chicago Chef Week later this month. Some places have these menus on certain nights of the week, and some (such as Sweets and Savories) have them all the time.

                      I briefly mentioned Cafe des Architectes above, and one of the reasons I keep going back there is that it's such a great value, in addition to their fantastic food. Here's what they do. Every night of the week, they have an a la carte menu, along with a prix fixe menu with 3 courses for $42, which is an excellent deal to begin with. Even better, on Sunday through Tuesday evenings, they have a special "neighborhood friends" menu, with 3 courses for $29, with 3-4 choices for each of the 3 courses. This started out as a Sunday night special and they expanded it to Mondays and Tuesdays. Their 3-course $29 deal was featured on the cover of Chicago magazine when they did a recent story called "30 under $30", about 30 restaurants offering these $30 dinners. You can see the photo and read the article at www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/N... Maybe some of the other recommendations there will appeal as well.

                      In addition to those under-$30 specials, here are some other tips on getting excellent food without spending a fortune. Some very nice restaurants are open for lunch, with prices less than at dinnertime; for example, Blackbird is open for lunch during the week, with lower a la carte prices as well as a special 3-course lunch menu for $22. Many ethnic foods are less expensive than contemporary American cuisine; Chicago has excellent restaurants of all ethnicities - Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Polish, Jewish, Greek, Italian, etc.; you name it, we've got it. There are also less expensive types of food, some of which are Chicago specialties such as deep-dish pizza, Chicago hot dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches.

                      Lots of restaurants offer special deals of various sorts; the most comprehensive listing of these is on the Metromix website at http://chicago.metromix.com/restaurants On the right of the page, they have a calendar of events and deals. You can click the date you're interested in, and then click on "deals" (which at this moment is not working), and then click on "View All This Day's Restaurant Deals", and you can typically view over 100 deals.

                      So as you can see, there are a lot of different ways to go out without spending $30-37 on an entree.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        I can respond to Publican. I loved it. Reservations are not always easy to get (check out opentable.com). It's common seating at big tables, not unlike Avec, but somehow we had a table to ourselves. The place was fun. The beer selection excellent -- and way over my head, but the wait staff was great and helping me choose. And the food was exquisite. My reaction was that I wanted to schedule another reservation before I left (like at the dentist).

                        There are plenty of less expensive, but still excellent options, including nsxtasy's suggestion of CdA. I also love Perennial, across the street from Lincoln Park on Lincoln Ave., Sola, further north on Lincoln Ave, and Sweets and Savories on Fullerton. And these are not unique. There are many others and, as has been mentioned, our ethic options offer wonderful food at a much lower price point.

                        1. re: chicgail

                          Thanks gang.

                          I don't necessarily have a problem paying upwards of $30 for a main, it's just if I do I want it to be worth it and memorable instead of just good.

                          I have been told of a late-night take-out spot in the city where the staff berate customers with foul language while they order and where it is encouraged that customers do the same. Can't remember the name of the place though. What's the deal? Worth checking out post-bar for a laugh and bite?

                          Again, thanks. You guys are really helping me in making this trip memorable. Since the food hinges on my decisions I really appreciate all your input.

                          1. re: insideman

                            I'm not positive, but the place you mention sounds sort of like Ed Debevic's. There, the waitstaff is known for wisecracking as a throwback to an earlier era - not exactly the same as foul language, but close. There's one in the city and another in the suburbs. If you'd like to check it out, you can find more information at www.eddebevics.com

                            Perhaps there's some other place with actual foul language; if so, hopefully someone else here can fill you in.

                            1. re: insideman

                              The Hot Dog berating is Weiner Circle.

                              You have to get Italian Beef while in town. Chickies (if you want to get hardcore) or Al's on Taylor street.

                              Publican is one of the best spots in the city. That or Blackbird for Paul's food. Avec is great, but shouldn't be your "main" dinner in the city.

                              Best deep dish hands down is Art of Pizza.

                              Honestly, the best place to sample Bayless's food is his newest "Xoco," it is fast casual, can get an awesome bowl of soup or braised meat sandwich for under $10. (Soups only served after 3, and well worth it...)

                              Other suggestions of must see places:

                              Sun Wah BBQ for Peking Duck, Shaws Oyster Bar for...Oysters.

                              Let me know if you have any questions. I'm pretty much a one stop shop. Won't steer you wrong. I am a former chef now in the wine importing game.

                              1. re: insideman

                                The hot dog place you've heard about the Weiner's Circle (2622 N. Clark). It even has a Wikipoedia entry. Know that the interactions can be playful, downright hostile or even racist. Some folks love it; some hate it.

                                1. re: chicgail

                                  Count me as one who dislikes the place. Aside from frequent racist overtones I've witnessed (black against white, expressed by employees), the overall quality of the food and environment is substandard, compared to similar (hot dog) places I've visited around town. There's a fool born every minute, and many of them can be found at Weiner's Circle, IMO.

                                  1. re: chicgail

                                    You can check out Weiner Circle here to see if it's to your liking:

                                    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vo1LPf...

                                    By the way, this kind of stuff usually only occurs during the late night hours. During the daytime it's a good representative of a Chicago hotdog stand with some pretty good char dogs and fries.

                              2. re: nsxtasy

                                >> Some very nice restaurants are open for lunch, with prices less than at dinnertime

                                Incidentally, if you're eager to check out North Pond without paying the full price at dinner, they are also open for Sunday brunch year round, and for lunch on weekdays during the summer.

                2. Hello insideman:

                  I cannot advise you about pizza or hot dogs, but I've been to Frontera Grill several times and it's been great every time. I also went to Avec last year and had a great meal. You can see my reviews of my most recent trip to Frontera and Avec here:

                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/640297

                  1. My votes would be for Topolo (incredible food if you can afford it-so much better than Frontera), XOCO for a relatively quick lunch, Sepia for another nice dinner (superb food, cocktails and atmosphere). For an "Avec" type of experience, I prefer Publican. The mussels and pork belly are incredible. As for your pizza debate, Burt's can't be accessed from the city without a car. Hot Doug's would be a long trek, as well, depending on where you are staying. The lines wrap around the building, so you really need to set aside a big chunk of time if you are set on doing it. Enjoy!

                    -----
                    Hot Doug's
                    3324 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618