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May 11, 2010 08:58 AM

Going to Chicago (Sorry I Can't Try Ewe)

I'll be in Chicago for a few first visit over twelve hours in twenty years.

So...what's unmissable? Stuff I can't find (or find great) in NY, plus extremely delicious....?

I'll be sticking to public transportation, so I'd prefer to stay within the city. Special interest in potatoes.


Is deep dish pizza pretty ossified as a genre at this point?

Is the ice cream parlor in the museum of science and industry still great?

Any great breakfast near the theater district (where I'm staying)?

Any Yucatan food, especially shark panuchos?

Is Toblapampo/Frontera still worth a try, or is it played out? (hopefully this minor question won't totally take over the thread!)

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  1. Welcome back, Jim! It's about time!

    >> So...what's unmissable? Stuff I can't find (or find great) in NY, plus extremely delicious....?

    Top picks: Alinea, deep-dish pizza, provincial Mexican (two of which you've already mentioned, and I assume you've already heard of Alinea < wink > ). For details, see this discussion: In addition to Grant Achatz, other chefs that are "out there" in molecular gastronomy are Michael Carlson at Schwa, and Homaro Cantu at moto.

    Pork and charcuterie seem to be suddenly very big here (e.g. the Publican and the Purple Pig ). So are encased meats (Hot Doug's and Franks 'n Dawgs ). I don't know whether either of those trends is going on in New York, before or after here.

    We have a lot of other great foods, but they are types that you can find in New York as well - contemporary American, French bistros, Italian bistros, pan-Asian, Latin fusion, tapas, Thai, Chinese, just about any other ethnicity, etc.; let us know if you'd like recommendations for anything in particular.

    And oh yeah, Garrett's Popcorn is great, but they now have a shop at Penn Station NYC in addition to their Chicago-area shops. If you don't get a chance to stop by their places in the Loop, they have shops at O'Hare where you can get some on the way home, unless you're returning via Midway.

    >> Is deep dish pizza pretty ossified as a genre at this point?

    Not at all; it's as good as ever, including single-crust "pizza in the pan" (Uno/Due, Lou Malnati's, Pizano's) and double-crust "stuffed pizza" (Giordano's, Bacino's). As a former East Coaster, I tried these when I moved out here many years ago, and I never looked back; I still love both types of deep-dish just as much as ever! Various types of thin-crust are also available, including authentic Neopolitan (Spacca Napoli). I try them every once in a while, but they don't do anything for me; deep-dish has my heart and soul. Different strokes...

    >> Is the ice cream parlor in the museum of science and industry still great?

    I've never heard anything about it.

    >> Any great breakfast near the theater district (where I'm staying)?

    Theater district? I assume you're referring to the Loop...? For a really great and unique breakfast, go about a mile south to Bongo Room, at Wabash and Roosevelt. They specialize in unique pancakes, such as their pretzel pancakes with white chocolate sauce. Here's a tip: A standard size order consists of three ENORMOUS pancakes, but you can also order a one-third or two-thirds portion size at reduced prices. That lets you try more than one kind.

    >> Any Yucatan food, especially shark panuchos?

    Only in the suburbs; Xni-Pec is in the town of Brookfield. It's only a block from the Brookfield Metra commuter rail station, so you can get there via public transportation from the Loop (Union Station) in 23 minutes.

    And while you're over on the west side of the Loop catching the train, check out our new French Market in the Ogilvie train station a few blocks north of Union Station ( ). It's not fancy and it's not huge, but it's a nice assemblage and includes some of the very best of their kind food places, such as Vanille Patisserie for pastry, Pastoral for cheese, and Canady for artisanal chocolates.

    >> Is Toblapampo/Frontera still worth a try, or is it played out? (hopefully this minor question won't totally take over the thread!)

    They are both still excellent and still the most creative Mexican places in town. He has also opened a third restaurant at the site, called XOCO and offering Mexican street food, but it is less unique than his other two places.

    There are a lot of other places offering creative provincial Mexican cuisine, which isn't very common in NYC. My top two picks after Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen ( ) and Mixteco Grill on the North Side ( ). Another worthy place is Mexique in West Town ( ), which serves Mexican food with a French influence.

    Enjoy your trip, and feel free to ask more questions!

    20 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I'll think of follow-up questions once I manage to snap out of the reverie inspired by the phrase "unique pancakes". I'm just sort of staggering around the room right now.

      Thanks so much!

      1. re: Jim Leff

        Don't act like you've never been to Shopsin's, now! The Bongo Room menu doesn't seem nearly as crazy as the Slutty Cakes (peanut butter, pumpkin, spices), bacon and egg pancakes (scrambled eggs and bacon pressed into the batter), or mac and cheese pancakes with raspberry jame.

      2. re: nsxtasy

        What do you like at Xoco? I'm thinking a late lunch around 2pm on a Wednesday shouldn't be too bad. Eying the Ahodaga torta, jamon torta with fried egg, pepito torta, fresh churros, "barcelona" hot chocolate (mostly interested in thick chocolate for dipping).

        I'm in a very similar boat as Jim Leff: sticking to public transit, staying near the Loop (River North at the Hotel Sax to be exact), looking for things you can't find in NYC, and we're only in town for 48 hours:

        Rough itinerary:

        Late lunch at Xoco (it's close to our hotel and husband LOVES churros)
        Dinner at Publican (have reservations already, and don't mind the loud/cramped/wooden seat nature)
        After dinner cocktails at Sable (which is close to our hotel and we are big fans of Violet Hour as well as PDT/Death & Co/Pegu Club/Flatiron/Milk & Honey/etc in NYC)

        Lunch/brunch at either the Bongo Room or Giordano's (did Malfati's last time we were in town, aiming to try stuffed pie this time)
        Pre-dinner cocktails at Violet Hour (6pm or so)
        Dinner at Alinea (already have reservations, this will be our 2nd time there)

        Lunch with friends at Hot Doug's (aiming to get in line early, around 10:30am?)
        Catching a train out of town shortly thereafter

        Thoughts? (Sorry to hijack your thread, Jeff.)

        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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

        Bongo Room
        1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

        Violet Hour
        1247 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

        1. re: kathryn

          Sounds good! Here are a few more tips.

          If you have a seating preference at the Publican, specify it in your reservation. About half the room consists of two long communal tables, and the rest of it is private tables - two-tops and four-tops (they can move three two-tops together for parties of six). If you have a preference either for the communal seating or for your own table, you can mention it in your reservation and they will try to accommodate it if they can (no guarantees though).

          Follow the guidelines on the menu for number of servings when ordering stuffed pizza at Giordano's. A large stuffed pizza really does fill four people. And you don't want to overstuff yourself when you're going to Alinea that same evening!

          I've only had lighter fare at XOCO (empanadas, churros). I was not all that thrilled with the Barcelona hot chocolate, at least not for drinking. I like Mexican hot chocolate and I make it myself. Their Barcelona version seemed like the regular store-bought product but made with less milk to dilute it, and as a result, it seemed overly sweet to me. But maybe you'll like it for dunking.

          As previously noted for Jim, you can hit the French Market in the Ogilvie train station before you take a train out of town (presumably from Union Station). Inside the Ogilvie station, but NOT in the French Market, you'll also find a Garrett's Popcorn shop.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Just added that note to my reservation at Publican, thanks for the suggestion!

            I think there's a Garrett's in Manhattan, actually, near Penn Station, so not sure I'll be hitting that up.

            Penn Station
            1620 US Highway 41, Schererville, IN 46375

          2. re: kathryn

            "Sorry to hijack your thread, Jeff"

            No prob, that's the nature of threads, after all!

            ----- Jeff

              1. re: nsxtasy

                more likely: Jim Leff (not Jeff)

                that actually used to be Jim's screen name on the CompuServe wine forum many, MANY years ago...

              2. re: Jim Leff

                Sorry to hijack your thread, JIM. :)

                1. re: kathryn

                  If you'd like something amazing that you won't be getting in NYC, I would highly recommend a trip to Birreria Zaragoza at 4825 S. Pulaski. It's not difficult to get to by public transportation (take the Orange line to the Pulaski station). The birria is amazing. I'd even be willing to drive you there for lunch or a late afternoon "snack" today. E-mail me at if you'd like some help with transportation.

                  1. re: deesher

                    thanks, deesher, I'm staying right near a loop station, so I should be able to get there. Birria means different things in different places; can you tell me where these guys are from? And is it lamb birria?

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      I thought birria is most commonly made with goat. Which has never really impressed me, but hey, different strokes...

                      1. re: Jim Leff


                        It's still kind of a trek even if you're near a downtown station. The birria at Zaragoza is made from goat. It is steamed for about six hours, rubbed with spices and roasted for a half hour in a style called tatemada. The plate is finished with a tomato consomme. The just made tortillas are outstanding. I'm going to have to go for lunch tomorrow just because I talked about it.

                        They close around 7 on weekdays and 4 on weekends. If you have time to go, you'll thank me.

                        1. re: deesher

                          >> It's still kind of a trek even if you're near a downtown station.

                          Yup. It's about 1/4 mile north of the Pulaski station on the Orange Line. The train ride itself between there and the stations in the Loop is about half an hour. Plus the time to wait for the train each way. The Orange Line circles the Loop clockwise on the elevated tracks.

                          If you're leaving town from Midway, you could hit it on the way; the Pulaski station is the last one before the airport stop. (Although then you'd be lugging your bag(s) with you.) Personally, if I were flying out of Midway, I'd instead go to the Giordano's on Cicero Ave. a half mile south of the terminal.

                      2. re: deesher

                        Discovered tonight: "Birrieria Ocotlan", 3011 W Cermak, 773-277-0189.

                        This may not be better than your birreria, but I doubt it's worse, as I'm not sure birria can get better than this. And it's not too far.

                        All they do is birria plus a few tacos of alterno-meats (tongue, brains, that sort of thing). The birria's slamming. Never bumped into anything Ocotlan before.

                        Also surprisingly good horchata.

                        Nearby (a bit east on W Cermak, and on the other side of the street), there's a pan dulce place with ordinary offerings but really good cinnamon cookies at the counter. I think it was called "Central Bakery", but am not sure. Not worth a special trip, but it hits the spot post-birria....

                        1. re: Jim Leff


                          Glad you got to try some birria and enjoyed it. Zaragoza is in a whole different league. My offer of a ride to birria nirvana still stands. If you'd like to try another not so well known Mexican specialty done well locally, I suggest a bowl of carne en su jugo at El Taco Veloz at 1745 W. Chicago Avenue. Beef broth with tomatillos, steak, beans, avocado, bacon and a few other vegetables served with chile arbol, limes and a stack of tortillas.

                          El Taco Veloz
                          1745 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

                          1. re: deesher

                            Thanks again for the kind offer! The problem is I'm booked real tightly.

                            I've had various types of birria all over Mexico, so this wasn't my first time, fwiw.

                            And should I understand from this that you've previously tried Birrieria Ocotlan? (those who don't know should note that Ocotlan is a city in Jalisco, and lots of Chicago immigrants are from there, so there are several places with "Ocotlan" in their name....but they're unrelated to each other)

                  2. re: kathryn

                    The Ahogada torta is amazing. I haven't tried the Wednesday pork belly special torta, but it's been on my list. The Barcelona is definitely the best of the chocolates for dipping (don't bother with the homemade dulce de leche add-on). For drinking, I'd recommend something thinner (the almendrado was nice, and the almond milk provided good complementary flavor).

                    1. re: pamiam

                      Is Xoco the sort of place you can just drop in on?

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        Yes, definitely. The setup (with its "cafeteria" type line for ordering, they then bring you your stuff) reminds me of Starbuck's or Culver's.

                2. After much research, I think I'm going to do Malnati's rather than Uno's or Giordano's. Problem is that consensus is that the Lincolnwood location of Malnati's seems to be considered the best one (yeah, they're a chain, but they're independently owned/operated, I understand), and Lincolnwood is a horrendous mass transit trip from loop.

                  Is there a closer Malnati's that people also favor?

                  20 Replies
                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    The one at Lincoln & Wrightwood should be good. Still a ride on the el, but much closer.

                    Another good restaurant: Tru

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      I've found that the quality of the various Lou Malnati's locations I've visited is consistently excellent. I haven't had a bad experience yet.

                      There are two within a mile of the Loop (no need to go all the way to Lincoln Park!). As you can guess from the way the neighborhoods are named, the one in River North is north of the Loop, and the one in the South Loop is south of the Loop. If the weather is nice, you can easily walk to either one; which one is closer depends on where you're coming from. You'll find address and phone info on their website at

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        More opinions on this would be appreciated, I know everyone in Chicago has different pizza opinions!

                      2. re: Jim Leff

                        Malnoti's is very good and pretty consistent as far as I can tell among its various locations. That being said, IMO it is an excellent copy of Unos/Dues -- which is much more convenient for your location. "The original is still the greatest..."

                        1. re: chicgail

                          I've read that all Uno locations but the original are identical to the franchised Unos nationwide. Is that not your experience?

                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            It is my experience. You heard correctly. The franchised locations are no comparison to the original Unos. It's nothing short of criminal that they use the same name.

                            Go to Unos (Ohio and Wabash) or Dues located kitty-corner. The best.

                            Any other locations (I don't know of any in this area) are not worth the time, the calories or the money.

                            Pizzeria Due
                            619 N Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                            1. re: chicgail

                              According to the Wikipedia entry about Uno, when the chain was sold by the founder's widow, the CEO of the acquiring corporation promised not to change the pizza at the original locations.

                              It is not a coincidence that the pizza at Lou Malnati's and Pizano's is similar to the original Uno and Due. From Uno's opening in 1943, one of the principal employees (described in various places as the manager, bartender, and other roles) was Rudy Malnati, Sr. He worked there along with his sons for decades. His son Lou founded his namesake chain beginning with its original location in Lincolnwood in 1971, and his son Rudy Jr., Lou's brother, founded Pizano's in 1991.

                              The original Uno and Due are as good as ever. Lou Malnati's is also excellent. Neither is a bad choice. But if you've never been, Uno and Due are still the originals from 1943 and 1955, so they give historical context as well.

                              They still have three of those dreadful "Uno's Chicago Grill" locations in the suburbs of Chicago (Gurnee, Schaumburg, Merrillville). Unfortunately.

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                Thanks, guys. Are all the Malnatis the same, as well? Or do I need to hit the original (which is a pain to get to)?

                                1. re: Jim Leff

                                  Lou Malnati's does a great job of maintaining consistent quality from one location to another. I've tried numerous locations and haven't noticed any substantial differences. Feel free to go to whichever one is closest.

                                  1. re: nsxtasy

                                    So you said! :) And I certainly have no reason to disbelieve you, but one thing that's become highly apparent as I've been researching is that everyone in Chicago has a different opinion on everything - there really isn't any consensus view on stuff. So I was hoping to hear other perspectives....

                                    1. re: Jim Leff

                                      >> one thing that's become highly apparent as I've been researching is that everyone in Chicago has a different opinion on everything

                                      Actually, while we do have a wide diversity of opinions on certain topics - with pizza and barbecue topping the list - there are others on which there is, if not a consensus, something darn close to it, whether it's the best high-end restaurant in town (Alinea), or the best Szechuan (Lao Sze Chuan and Double Li), or the best Thai (TAC Quick), or the best tapas (Mercat a la Planxa), or the best moderately priced Italian (Cafe Spiaggia). Not everyone will agree with every single choice - I'm not a fan of TAC Quick, for example - but most locals who have tried a variety of places in those categories will put these places at or near the top of the list.

                                      1. re: Jim Leff

                                        The Malnati's are pretty consistent in the downtown area. Same with the Pizano's. You should try some of the thin crust to compare and contrast. Personally Chicago thin crust pizza is my favorite and a lot of people's on the board. I really enjoy the thin crust at Pizano's but as with a lot of more "homey" food, it is better represented in neighborhood spots. It isn't NY Style thin but unique to Chicago. Look at Vito and Nicks, Candlelite, Calo's for examples. But if you don't get a chance, you really can't go wrong at Uno/Due's (original), the Malnati's or Pizano's. I personally don't like stuffed pizza and feel that is what people complain about when they say Chicago has pizza casserole but deep dish is very good and very Chicago along with the square cut Chicago thin crust.

                                        1. re: lbs

                                          The thin crust pizza at those longtime Chicago places wins my personal award for "Best Imitation of Cardboard by an Alleged Food Product". :) THAT is what people complain about when they say Chicago has lousy thin-crust pizza. Different strokes...

                                          Feel free to try them all and decide for yourself!

                              2. re: Jim Leff

                                "Is deep dish pizza pretty ossified as a genre at this point?"

                                The answer to this is probably no. But you should be aware that in the past couple of years a good number of pizza places with coal/wood-burning ovens have opened in the Chicago area, all with a personal twist or with an attempt to get back to the roots of pizza.

                                The best Neapolitan version, IMO, is Spaccanapoli which makes a strong and successful effort to produce a vera pizza Napolitana:


                                Another is Coalfire, which is a thicker version and, I'm told, is close to the best of the NYC coal-fired versions.

                                A third--which I've never been to due to the long waiting times--is Great Lakes in Andersonville, which is more of the individual artisanal kind, and was recently named by Esquire as the best pizza in America: ergo the long lines for a limited number of daily pizzas.

                                There are many others of all the above kinds, which have led IMO to a veritable "Rinascimento" of pizza-making in Chicago, and is certainly an area worth exploring.

                                1321 W Grand Ave Ste 2, Chicago, IL 60642

                                Great Lake
                                1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640

                                1. re: jbw

                                  Although for a New York visitor, I'm not sure that Naples-style is the kind to spend stomach space on, since there are tons of options for that in NYC.

                                  1. re: kathryn

                                    I agree. The roughly 40 restaurants in the U.S. certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Naples can be found all over the country, including two in New York City and a third in Jersey, as well as Spacca Napoli and Parker's here. You can see the complete list at

                                    1. re: nsxtasy

                                      1. I am sure that NYC has excellent versions of Neapolitan pizza, altho the phenomenon seems to be as recent to them as it is to us:

                                      2. The VPN is a voluntary association, and any pizzeria can register for membership as long as it agrees to follow a certain protocol. Membership says nothing about the quality of the final product. (FWIW Spaccanapoli was the first pizzeria in the US to be awarded membership in the Associazione Pizzaluoli Napoletani


                                      3. Neither Coalfire nor Great Lakes concentrates on Neapolitan pizza but many pizzalovers seem to consider them worthy of a special trip.

                                      4. My purpose in the post was not to send the OP (who seems to be seeking information as much as recommendations) running off to SN (altho I still don't think that would be such a bad idea), but rather to indicate that the pizza scene in Chicago has become far more complex and interesting than a simple conflict between two kinds of "Chicago" pizzas: an "ossified" deep-dish and a "cardboard" thin crust.

                                      1321 W Grand Ave Ste 2, Chicago, IL 60642

                                      Great Lake
                                      1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640

                                      1. re: jbw

                                        >> The VPN is a voluntary association, and any pizzeria can register for membership as long as it agrees to follow a certain protocol. Membership says nothing about the quality of the final product.

                                        There are strict requirements for membership, covering the equipment used, ingredients, cooking techniques, etc., requiring documentation as well. The rules are documented on the VPN Americas website at as well as on the international organization's website at It isn't just "pay your dues and you're in", as you imply.

                                        >> FWIW Spaccanapoli was the first pizzeria in the US to be awarded membership in the Associazione Pizzaluoli Napoletani

                                        But not in the VPN. Unlike its young APN competitor, the VPN (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana), which was founded in 1984, is widely regarded as THE professional and certification association for neopolitan pizza, which is why some 40 U.S. restaurants and over 300 worldwide have gone to the trouble of achieving certification. The first U.S. member of the VPN was Antica Pizzeria in Marina Del Rey; it originally opened in 1992 and opened at its current location near LAX Airport in 1997. The owner of Antica Pizzeria, Peppe Miele, is the founder of VPN Americas. Spacca Napoli was certified by VPN Americas in 2006, the year the restaurant opened, and at least a dozen other current U.S. members preceded it in membership, including both members in New York City (La Pizza Fresca Ristorante and Naples 45). In the Chicago area, it was followed last year by Parker's Restaurant & Bar (formerly Parker's Ocean Grill) in Downers Grove.

                                        1. re: nsxtasy

                                          "It isn't just "pay your dues and you're in", as you imply."

                                          I've implied nothing of the sort.

                            2. re: Jim Leff

                              I grew up near the Lincolnwood Malnati's and I've never noticed much of a difference between when I get pizza with Dad up there or when I go to the Lincoln Park location with friends. Each time, it's a delicious and I rarely leave Chicago without bringing back a Lou Malnati's pie in my luggage.

                            3. Re the Yucatan request. This from a recent Chicago mag e-mail blast from the chef of La Fonda del Gusto (1408 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-278-6100): “Right now, I’m in the creating a new menu. Using more of the food from Yucatán and Michoacán.”

                              1. Just a question to satisfy my curiosity, Jim. I'm sure I missed something. What's the "Sorry I can't try ewe" reference. I do get the ewe/you thing (if that's what you meant), but what's it got to do with eating in Chicago?

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: chicgail

                                  Famous blues tune: "Going to Chicago, Sorry I Can't Bring You"

                                  1. re: Jim Leff

                                    Basie with Jimmy Rushing, right?

                                    1. re: Polecat

                                      Among countless others. This is probably the best-known and most oft-recorded blues tune of all time. I'm astounded people don't know it. Maybe I'm old.

                                        1. re: chicgail

                                          You're dense. :) (Hey, you asked!) But then so am I; it didn't register with me, either. But I'm not much for blues.

                                          1. re: chicgail

                                            chicgail, don't feel bad. I am following this thread in preparation for a work trip to Chicago next week, and until I saw Jim's reply to your question, I was about to google "Chicago" and "Ewe" to see what gem I was potentially missing...

                                            and I AM old... :-)

                                  2. Is deep dish pizza pretty ossified as a genre at this point? --Well, with the explosion of Neapolitan style places, you wouldn't say it's where the action. Burt's up in suburban Morton Grove is the one place that's excited people in this genre lately, not new, just discovered preserved in amber. (See Bourdain episode on Chicago, for instance.)

                                    Is the ice cream parlor in the museum of science and industry still great? --Uh, it's pretty much what it ever was, I think.

                                    Any great breakfast near the theater district (where I'm staying)? --No, but you're not far at all from Xoco. Go eat Bayless' churros for breakfast.

                                    Any Yucatan food, especially shark panuchos? --Not really, since Chicago's Mexican immigration is largely from Guadalajara, the DF, etc. Maybe go try Cemitas Puebla or something.

                                    Is Toblapampo/Frontera still worth a try, or is it played out? (hopefully this minor question won't totally take over the thread!) --I think they're better than they were a couple of years ago. There are also lots of Bayless proteges by now with their own very good places around town.

                                    Frankly, the shortest list of exceptional places is the, if I may dare to say it, LTHForum list of great neighborhood restaurants. There are some decidedly not great places on there, but probably fewer than in any published guidebook, which tend to praise what seemed good 25 years ago (no, do not go to Lou Mitchell's for breakfast), and it will help you skim through and decide what you can find just as good of in New York, and what really is different here.

                                    Cemitas Puebla
                                    3619 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

                                    Lou Mitchell's Restaurant
                                    565 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60661