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May 30, 2012 08:18 PM

Help Finalizing My Chicago Itinerary

My wife and I will be in Chicago in June and I'm trying to finalize our dining itinerary. I have most of it planned out, but there are still a few holes to fill and I have some questions. I've been to Chicago a couple times before but this will be the first food-centric trip, so please pardon all the touristy stops. Here's what I have so far:

Arrive early evening
Dinner - Publican
Drinks - Aviary

Lunch - Topolobampo
Dinner - Boka (on the waitlist for EL Ideas)
Drinks - Any good places around Boka?

Lunch - XOCO
Dinner - Yusho
Drinks - Longman & Eagle
Depending on the weather, we may go to the White Sox game in the afternoon. Anything noteworthy around the stadium?

Lunch - Takashi for Sunday Noodles (or should we do Slurping Turtle instead?)
Early Dinner - Maybe Purple Pig. We will be going to a concert in Tinley Park that night. Anything worth checking out around there or on the way? We'd be most interested in good "ethnic" spots for food you can't find in the city.
Late night - Barcito or GT Fish & Oyster

Brunch - Longman & Eagle (maybe)
Lunch - Hot Doug's
Pre-flight snack - Tortas Frontera

Standbys for drinks and/or small bite if time and stomach space allows:
Signature Room
Revolution Brewpub
Violet Hour
Publican Quality Meats

For breakfast each day, I figure we'll play it by ear. We'll probably want to try Doughnut Vault, Do-Rite, and maybe Primehouse, since we're staying at the James.

Also, we may try to squeeze Lou Malnati's somewhere in there. Is there any noticeable difference in quality between any of the locations, or is there any one location that is considered the "best"?

Are there any "musts" that I missed? Anything I should reconsider?

Sorry, I know there are a lot of questions here, but any help or feedback would be greatly appreciated!

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  1. Looks like a great itinerary. To answer your questions where I can:

    Drinks around Boka: Really depends what you're looking for. Craft cocktails? Hole-in-wall bars? I live about 100 yards from Boka, so can definitely help with this one if you give me a bit more color. As a starting point, Balena--just down the street--has a great drink program that focuses on italian bitters. Classy atmosphere, but will definitely be crowded. If you're willing to venture north a bit, Barrelhouse Flat serves very good craft cocktails. Worth the trip of you can get a seat in their upstairs lounge.

    Slurping Turtle vs. Takashi: I'd choose Takashi, but mostly because I slightly prefer the vibe and vastly prefer the neighborhood. Same chef, as you probably know...

    As for "musts" that you missed, it really depends again what you're looking for. If you've never had great true Chinese food, for instance, you may try Go 4 Food or Lao Szechuan in Chinatown... Or if you're looking for something particular to Chicago, you may try the terrific italian beef at Mr. Beef or Al's.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Possumlad

      I have to diverge from the comments about "great true chinese food." I just got back from a trip to Hong Kong (been to china a few times) and the Chinese food here in Chicago is average at best. I would not go out of your way to try to find great Chinese here. San Fran is really where it's at. The stuff here is one steip better than American Chinese, and all the Lao places (there are three or four now) are better than average, but would not please most urban chinese nationals.

      1. re: Possumlad


        For drinks around Boka, I think we'd prefer a place with craft cocktails and a good beer selection. Something a little low-key and not too crowded (if possible). Barrelhouse Flat might be just the kind of place we're looking for so I'll definitely keep that in mind.

        To clarify "musts" -- I'd be more interested in things that are unique to Chicago, or cuisines that the city is particularly known for (like regional Mexican). The area I live in has a large Chinese community so there's definitely no shortage of good, authentic Chinese restaurants here (particularly Sichuan). I actually was considering Lao Szechuan to use as a comparison point. Italian beef was something I overlooked, so I'll see if I can work that in somewhere.

        1. re: Guy Incognito

          For beef, there are tons of opinions and entire threads on this board about them. Wherever you go, my favorite is sweet and wet. Sweet peppers, dragged through/dipped in the jus on the way to being wrapped. I also like a combo, italian sausage and beef.

          Some favorites in the River North/Downtown area: Mr. Beef (pretty famous), Portillos (local chain, but really good), and Al's Beef (the one in Little Italy versus River North is purportedly better, but I can't tell).

          One other note, Barcito is seperate from Tavernita and you cannot get the food menu at Barcito. I would suggest stepping into the restaurant bar where you can also sample the full menu. I really like it.

          A final note, Xoco and Tortas Frontera are the same thing. Xoco has more of a menu and the really delicious hot chocolate, but the tortas are the same (albeit $2 more at the airport). What would be an alternative you ask? Hmmm, need to think on that.

          1. re: Guy Incognito

            Other areas have beef (e.g., Baltimore's PIt Beef) and I could take it or leave it. But I really miss the flaky crust of a Chicago style deep dish pizza. It is one of a kind.

            1. re: GraydonCarter

              Ha, funny you mention Batlimore Pit Beef. When I was doing some work there, drove 20 minutes for it and well, not really worth it. For what it's worth, a chicago Italian Beef sandwich is not like the baltimore bbq put beef.

              1. re: jbontario

                I've only had Baltimore pit beef once and it didn't really do much for me. The Chicago Italian beef sounds like it might be more to my liking.

                Thanks for the heads up on Barcito/Tavernita. On Tavernita's site, it says "Barcito's food menu will be served until half hour before closing time." So are you saying that you can get Barcito's food at Tavernita, but not vice versa?

                As for Xoco and Tortas Frontera, someone else had pointed out the similarities between the two. So I think Xoco is definitely out for lunch. We'll go there instead for breakfast or just for churros and hot chocolate.

                1. re: Guy Incognito

                  Not sure the exact combnations, but we could not get the full menu sitting in the Barcito corner (its' really separated from the main restaurant) and treated more as the outdoor corner bar.

                  1. re: Guy Incognito

                    If you are seated at the bar in Frontera, you can order off of the Frontera or Topolobompo menu. Just ask the bartender for the menu.

                    I'm not sure how you are getting in and out of town but there are Tortas Frontera located in terminals 1 and 3 at O'Hare (gates B11 and K4 respectively). The sandwiches are amazing. I could definitely have lunch at Frontera and still crave a cochinita pibil or milenesa or pepita torta.

                    1. re: deesher

                      I did see somewhere else on this board that you can order off either menu at the Frontera bar, but I decided on Topolo simply because I was able to get a reservation. Didn't want to run the risk of a long wait as a walk-in.

                      I'm flying in and out of O'Hare, so definitely planning on stopping by Tortas Frontera before our flight home. I've actually been once before, during a layover last year. Needless to say, I loved it and it was definitely the best meal I've ever had at an airport. Though I guess that doesn't say much since in my experience, there really isn't any competition...

          2. For your Tinley Park day, consider going to Vie in the suburb of Western Springs, one of our very best restaurants. Western Springs is close to I-294. Go south on 294 after dinner at Vie and you will quickly be within shouting distance of Tinley Park.

            1 Reply
            1. re: camusman

              Vie does look great, but we will probably need something more casual. The concert is outdoors so we will not be dressed up for fine dining...

              Thanks though -- this will be something to keep in mind for our next trip!

            2. I agree with the other comments already -- it looks like you've got a lot of great options already!

              Having said that, of course, a few points:
              - You're really loading up on the Bayless restaurants (lunches at Topolo and Xoco, then planning on Tortas Frontera, too). Atmosphere aside (which is certainly an important consideration), the food at Xoco and Tortas Frontera is not that different. It might be a nice change of pace to try something else for lunch instead of Xoco. Maybe Malnati's? And no, I don't think any of the locations are noticeably different. If you're staying downtown, the River North location would probably be most convenient. I think Xoco would be great for breakfast, incidentally.

              - Another option for brunch on Monday would be Lula's, also just off the Logan Square El stop. The menu may not be as adventurous as L&E but the food is executed well with bright, clean flavors. They also have gorgeous bar and might be a good alternative to L&E on Saturday night in case L&E is too crowded. Or maybe even Big Star -- which will still be crowded but maybe less so (and provided you like whiskey or tequila, the drinks are amazing). Or Revolution - though their cocktails are weak and you may not have much room for beer after eating at Yusho. I would also consider The Whistler, though they're tiny and may likely be pretty full on a Saturday evening.

              - Near Cellular Field, there's a great Chinese restaurant, Han 202 (just under a mile from the stadium). To the West, about another 1/2 mile, is Pleasant House Bakery, home to the absolute best savory pies in the city. They are located next to Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Bar, a lovely craft beer/cocktail bar with a liquor store out front. PHB is BYO so feel free to go next door and pick up something fun -- or Maria's will happily let you bring in food from PHB (and PHB will walk the food over to you, too).

              7 Replies
              1. re: danimalarkey

                There really aren't any great Mexican places around where I live and I feel like I know very little about the cuisine, which is why I loaded up on the Bayless spots. XOCO for breakfast and Malnati's for lunch on Saturday sounds like a good idea. Any good hole-in-the wall or mom & pop places for Mexican in the city? Or should I stick to Bayless?

                Good to know there are a lot of options around L&E if it's too crowded. I'm guessing we would get there around 10:30pm on Saturday. Any idea how crowded it might be at that time?

                And I like the sound of the PHB/Maria's combo if we go to the game. That's definitely going on the list.

                Thanks for all the suggestions!

                1. re: Guy Incognito

                  Mexique, in West Town, is Mexican with a healthy dose of French mixed in. Not in a gimmicky way, mind you -- flavors are well integrated and the food is very good. If you take a trip down to Pilsen, I'd consider Nuevo Leon (very 'mom & pop'-ish -- they make their own flour tortillas so be sure to order some of those with whatever else you get, in case they don't come with) or undial Cocina Mestiza (more upscale than NL, both in decor, price and plating, but still largely traditional ingredients and flavors). Both places are easily accessible via the Pink line.

                  1. re: Guy Incognito

                    +1 for Mundial Cocina Mestiza
                    But a place I like even more is La Chaparrita Taqueria #1, 2500 S. Whipple. This hole in the wall type place has the best tacos in Chicago.

                    1. re: camusman

                      Big thumbs up to Mexique & Nuevo Leon (very different feels, but two of my favorite mexican spots in the city after Topolobompo), but I'll dissent on Mundial Cucina Mestiza. The food is above average, but service is perhaps the worst I've experienced in the city. I'm not one who typically notices service, even when it's below average, so take that for what it's worth. I went with a friend late last week -- the restaurant was ~1/2 full, and they literally had one server and one cook (it's an open kitchen) in the entire restaurant. Many people were waiting upwards of an hour for their entree, and we waited ~30 minutes (without a single stop from the waitress) between finishing our meal and getting the bill. Multiple people complained to the waitress during our visit, but she was completely helpless given the circumstances.

                      1. re: Possumlad

                        MCM still remains my favorite upscale (relative to Nuevo Leon anyway) nonBayless Mexican restaurant, and I've never had the severe service problem mentioned above. (The last time I was there was about a month ago, a Friday evening). Admittedly, lunch can sometimes be slow, and the food is generally prepared to order, so sometimes the kitchen can get socked, but hopefully the service problem mentioned above is a temporary thing.

                      2. re: camusman

                        I agree that the tacos at La Chaparrita are worth a trip. The crispy tripe is probably my favorite taco in the city. The suadero and longaniza are also first rate, as are the huaraches.

                        I would also highly recommend a trip to Birrieria Zaragoza for a spectacular plate of birria and perfect housemade tortillas. It's one of the best meals in the city.

                        Around Sox park, the royal pies at Pleasant House Bakery, the salads, and the chips with steak and gravy are well worth the slight detour. If you like beer, the list at Maria's next door is very strong.

                        Finally, I might seek out a Thai meal here, as we have a number of outstanding Thai restaurants. My two current favorites are Aroy Thai and TAC Quick. If you have any interest in going to one of these restaurants, I would be happy to recommend a few dishes.

                        All these establishments are BYOB.

                        4852 South Pulaski Road
                        Chicago, IL 60632
                        (773) 523-3700

                        Pleasant House Bakery
                        964 West 31st Street
                        Chicago, IL 60608
                        (773) 523-7437

                        Aroy Thai
                        4654 North Damen Avenue
                        Chicago, IL 60625
                        (773) 275-8360

                        Tac Quick
                        3930 North Sheridan Road
                        Chicago, IL 60613
                        (773) 327-5253

                        1. re: deesher

                          Wow, these all sound great, but I think I'm leaning towards La Chaparrita. The crispy tripe taco sounds awesome.

                          I do love Thai food, but I think we have some pretty good spots here in the DC area. I'll definitely keep these places in mind, in case we get a craving for Thai during our trip.

                          Thanks everyone!

                  2. The one I always hit in Chicago is a 20 second walk from the James. Lawry's Prime Rib. It's a classic.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: crobb

                      I don't know any Chicagoans who have eaten at Lawry's in 20 years. Been around forever is not the same as classic.

                    2. These are all good choices. Publican is good, but I wouldnt consider it a MUST for Chicago. Honestly, my favorite restaurants lately have been MK, which has been a classic for years but still one of the best, Blackbird, and Avec. All of them are unique and worthwhile in their own way. Bongo Room in Wicker Park is also a must for brunch on Saturday/ Sunday. Go early.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: jasoncrh

                        Well, I was thinking Aviary is a must and I definitely want to try one of Chef Kahan's places so Publican seemed like the logical choice since it's right by Aviary and they take reservations, unlike Avec.

                        I considered MK for our only "fancy" dinner during the trip, but the Boka menu looked a little more appealing to me.

                        I'll look into Bongo Room, thanks!