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Looking for the Soul of Chicago

Hey everyone, I do this in a lot of cities I travel to --- I'm looking for the soul, the grit of Chicago - via food. It's basically food that comes about organically in neighborhoods that need it - away from all the commercialism and the PR guides. I love street food, not because it has wheels, but because it's the simplest way for someone to get what they do in their kitchen out to the public.

So, where should I go in Chicago???

Here's some writeups I've done in other cities:

and I'd like do to one about Chicago too - Finding awesome food, especially coming from a NYer's perspective ( I know that's annoying, but I'm really looking for what makes Chicago Chicago, not just good food).

I'm working on my map

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  1. My 2 cents:

    Your map's light on Mexican, Asian and Polish, for starters.

    Places like this one come to mind:


    1. Here are places and foods I suggest, unique to Chicago and very much a part of what makes Chicago such a great food city.

      Deep-dish pizza - The various locations of Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, and the original Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due are all still excellent. Phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes for your pizza to bake. www.loumalnatis.com www.pizanoschicago.com www.unos.com

      Fine dining - We have a restaurant that if often ranked one of the ten best restaurants in the WORLD. It's called Alinea, from Chef Grant Achatz, and it will blow your mind. To get an idea what it's like, check out the comic strip at http://lucylou.livejournal.com/555828... Yes, it's expensive (figure $300+ per person including moderate wine, tax, tip), and dressy (jackets for gentlemen), but it's unique and it's here. It's in Lincoln Park. www.alinearestaurant.com

      Rick Bayless's restaurants (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, XOCO) - Chicago has a collection of wonderful restaurants specializing in creative provincial Mexican cuisine, which is difficult to find almost anywhere else this side of the border. Rick Bayless is widely recognized for bringing this trend here, and his restaurants are still excellent and providing the most creative Mexican food in town. Topolobampo is the most expensive, although it's surprisingly affordable at lunchtime, and accepts reservations in advance but books up long in advance for dinners, not as much for lunch. Frontera Grill is not as expensive, but accepts only a handful of reservations and keeps most of the dining room available for walk-in traffic. Waits for a table can be lengthy on weekends and at lunchtime. www.rickbayless.com/restaurants Also excellent for contemporary Mexican cuisine is Mexique, in West Town. www.mexiquechicago.com

      North Pond uniquely represents Chicago for its setting, located in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, not 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 the warming shelter for skaters on the frozen pond in the winter. The food is contemporary American featuring local and seasonal ingredients from James Beard Award winner Chef Bruce Sherman. It's about three miles north of River North. www.northpondrestaurant.com

      Our French Market, located just west of the Loop in one of the train stations, is worth a visit. It has several dozen food booths and these include some of the very best that Chicago has to offer. Highlights include the croissants, entremets, and French macaroons at Vanille Patisserie; the cheeses and sandwiches at Pastoral; Montreal smoked meat at Fumare; and banh mi at Saigon Sisters. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

      Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches - In River North on Ontario Street, there are two places, a block away from each other, and you can get both of these local specialties at either of them: Portillo's ( www.portillos.com ), and Al's Beef ( www.alsbeef.com ).

      And make sure you 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! You can also pick some up in O'Hare on your way home. www.garrettpopcorn.com

      Beyond all of these local specialties, there are so many great restaurants in just about any category, including newly-opened trendy places as well as long-time favorites, high-end fine-dining as well as cheap eats, ethnic food of every type, some of the best breakfast/brunch specialty places anywhere, etc. You name it, we've got it. Anyone knowledgeable about Chicago restaurants can come up with a list of 50-100 essential places (such as Eater's, at http://chicago.eater.com/archives/201... ). Your current map needs a lot of work, as it's missing many entire categories in our vibrant restaurant scene!

      3 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        If you're going to send someone to Al's for an Italian beef sandwich, wouldn't you rather send them to the Taylor Street locale? That outlet is a rather poor imitation of the original on Taylor. Plus you can also get a shaved ice after your meal over in Little Italy if the weather is nice. I realize the original Al's isn't as convenient, but it's worth the trip because that place on Ontario is really god awful.

        If River North is the neighborhood and you don't want to leave that area, I'd say Mr. Beef or Portillo's are your best bets. Portillo's is much more "corporate" though so be advised. Mr Beef is more your classic Chicago Beef shop. Mr. Beef is on Orleans, only a couple of blocks from Portillo's and Al's.

        1. re: Db Cooper

          Hey I had to stay local so I went to portillos last night. Totally cool. So many locals so I knew it was legit. Reminded me of Nathan's.

          I just found out Chicago has a huge bike share so this greatly expands my area. Time to explore

          1. re: Db Cooper

            Portillo's is fine. But if a respectable lady goes to Al's, she can place her order by saying she wants "Big Al, hot and wet" or "Big Al, wet and sweet" which may be her only chance to talk dirty in public.

        2. You say you love street food. Here are some places to look for it:
          Argyle St. for Vietnamese
          Devon Ave. for Indian/Pakistani
          Chinatown Square mall in Chinatown
          W. 18th St. for Mexican
          N. Western Ave. near Lawrence for Thai
          Maxwell St. Market (Sundays only) for Mexican

          1 Reply
          1. re: Polski

            Are these restaurants serving street style?

          2. I like your list, and it's cool you're looking for the real neighborhood places instead of all the shiny downtown spots. I'd make a few suggestions:

            1) Strike M Burger (the M is for mediocre am I right?) If you want a really good crispy thin-patty diner-style burger, head for Edzo's in Evanston or Lincoln Park.

            2) Add Jim's Original on Union St. Get drunk and go after 2AM to eat a greasy Polish sausage sandwich while standing on the sidewalk, while watching some entertaining street theater, with a great view of the skyline and the expressway roaring by just below.

            3) Italian beef sandwiches: very important subject. I think Portillo's in River North makes the best beef sandwich around but that location is in the middle of shiny downtown and won't give you the neighborhood experience you're looking for (there's a rock and roll mcdonalds across the street for gods sake). Instead, head to the ORIGINAL Al's on Taylor St. or Johnnie's on North Ave. Going to either of these two beef stands is my favorite way to spend a Chicago summer night.

            4) Street food: unfortunately Chicago has ridiculous laws about street vending so there's not much true sidewalk eating. This is the only area where I'd say Chicago loses out big time to NYC. If you have time, take the North Ave bus out to Humboldt Park and spend some time strolling around. It's a big beautiful park in the middle of the city with pleasant walking paths along a lagoon, a skyline view, and Puerto Rican food trucks scattered around. The food is frankly not amazing but the ambiance is great. This is a little bit rougher of a neighborhood but use your street smarts and you'll be OK.

            5) I don't see any China town on that map, which is a big mistake. Go 4 Food at Wentworth and 23rd serves up great Cantonese and seafood dishes. They do sautéed pea shoots better than any other place I've tried.

            6) Awesome looking stands: Chicago has a wealth of great looking old school hot dog, gyro, beef and Polish stands. I'm not saying you necessarily need to eat at these places, but it may be worth your while to just drive by and look at em. Check out Suzie's Drive Thru (the champ), Johnnie O's, Fabulous Freddie's, Superdawg, Byron's, and Scatchell's to get started.

            1 Reply
            1. re: RealMenJulienne

              >> 1) Strike M Burger (the M is for mediocre am I right?) If you want a really good crispy thin-patty diner-style burger, head for Edzo's in Evanston or Lincoln Park.

              I agree with the advice. Also note, Edzo's offers a choice between thin, smashed-onto-the-griddle burgers, and thick, flame-broiled burgers. Both are excellent and it's a matter of preference. Edzo's also offers ranch-fed beef upgrades (although the standard beef is just fine), ten varieties of fries (all excellent), and the best milk shakes on the planet. www.edzos.com

            2. I note that your map includes both Gene & Judes and Brown Elephant Resale Shop, so I presume you will have a car. If so, in the same general area, you should check out Johnny's in Elmwood Park, one of the signature purveyors of Italian Beef in the Chicago area.

              1. Well, you did say "grit"---the Maxwell Street Market (Sundays) has ladies who make their own tortillas. Check location online as it's no longer on Maxwell Street.

                Devon Avenue in the blocks just west of Western Avenue is all Indian/Pakistani.

                There's a genre called "Polish smorgasbord" that offers about fifty Polish dishes, buffet style---try Red Apple, 3121 N Milwaukee, best on weekends (more food).

                The El Milagro tortilla factory has a small restaurant (Taqueria El Milagro) with very authentic Mexican food, all the opposite of elegant (3050 W 26th).

                16 Replies
                1. re: Querencia

                  Im down in the river north(thats the main tourist area,right?) for my first four days, then will have a car for the next four days.
                  M burger was on there bc its a local chain and i like to see how local chains do it. -- also i have some redundancies so i can have options when planning. Am in chicago now, still planning....
                  These are all great suggestions. I went to publican quality meats earlier and i loved all the local stuff they had. I always get honey, syrup, or cider or other regional things like that when i travel and they had a lot. Might have to go back if i dont find others elsewhere( is the saturday farmers market worth going to?? I have to stretch to make it just when they open then leave quickly if im going to do it.)
                  Any other provisions places i should head to?

                  1. re: Jeffsayyes

                    Eataly. Mario Batali and Lydia Bastianich's Italian market is a cornucopia of gorgeous standard and luxury Italian food products. Eataly is not "unique" to Chicago, but it is worth a visit.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      I was just there! It was on my way to where im staying. We have one in NYC and heres what i think: it is awesome but if everything is imported, then this could exist anywhere. (Found some but not many local products) Im really looking for things that could only exist in chicago.

                      Comparing it to the nyc one, this one is so much calmer and easier to digest bc of it. I was surprised it had almost the same exact products at the same prices. It is a good attraction but it isnt what chicago is, am i right? So what IS Chicago?

                      1. re: Jeffsayyes

                        If one looks around Eataly closely, you will notice there is a huge emphasis on supporting local purveyors. This won't be true in the dried pasta or olive oil section, but definitely in the cheese, salumi, beer (I have seen six packs of Zombie Dust, a beloved and hard-to-find pale ale from Three Floyds brewery in Indiana), and dairy departments. From an interview with Joe Bastianich at the opening:
                        "I think there's a perception that, at the end of the day, we're an emporium of imported food, which is not true at all. Seventy percent of the food that we sell here is food that we make. So we're sourcing local chickens, we're sourcing local eggs, grains, lake fish. So I think the thing about Eataly is that it adapts itself to each market. And seeing Eataly come to Chicago and really have the whole bounty of the midwest to work with is an amazing thing."

                        At Eataly, I like to pick up West Loop Salumi meats, although if you have a chance (check their website for weekend hours open to the public), I'd add this little shop to your list to visit for soul. In the same West Loop neighborhood, which used to be our meatpacking district, and in some ways still is, I also like grazing at Publican Quality Meats, JP Graziano's (my favorite is the "Mr G Sub" sandwich), Little Goat Bread, and Glazed & Infused donuts.

                        Some of our best restaurants for sit-down meals are also in this area, including Publican, Maude's Liquor Bar, Au Cheval, Girl and the Goat, Avec, Vera, La Sirena Clandestina, Embeya, Ing, and at the very high end, Next, Moto, Blackbird, and Grace.

                        West Loop Salumi
                        1111 W Randolph St

                        JP Graziano
                        901 W Randolph St

                        Publican Quality Meats
                        825 W Fulton Market

                        Little Goat Bread
                        820 W Randolph St

                        Glazed & Infused
                        813 W Fulton Market

                    2. re: Jeffsayyes

                      Spice House, 1512 N. Wells. Also one in Evanston.
                      Not necessarily an "only in Chicago" place, but if you're nearby it's worth a stop.

                      1. re: Jeffsayyes

                        >> Any other provisions places i should head to?

                        The French Market is worth a stop. There are booths selling ingredients for home cooking as well as prepared and ready-to-eat foods from restaurants. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

                        With few exceptions, most of our farmers markets are only open in season, May-November. Perhaps our best is Green City Market, which is open Saturdays in fall and every other Saturday in winter. www.greencitymarket.org

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          Real time reporting! Went to French market and went to Green Grocer. Loved Green Grocer because the French Market could exist anywhere and taste mostly the same. Green Grocer is only Here. That's how I see it, anyway

                          Also Mr Beef is awesome

                          1. re: Jeffsayyes

                            You made it to Mr. Beef! That's great to hear. My favorites are Mr. Beef and Johnnie's though that isn't as convenient to your location. I'm glad you got the chance to try it. While I think Portillo's is very good, there is a lack of soul (maybe there is a better term, character perhaps?) that you find at the more traditional beef shops.

                            Welcome to the great Chicago Italian Beef debate. There will never be an answer, only more arguing. Glad you are having fun.

                            1. re: Db Cooper

                              Hit up Johnnies b/c it was near Frank Lloyd Wright's house. I love Italian Beef.

                              1. re: Jeffsayyes

                                So of them all, which one did you prefer? I'm a Mr. Beef guy. I think because of them all, it tastes most like beef. The extras don't overpower the beef, simply compliment them.

                                Glad to hear your trip was a success based on your posts here and good on you for reporting back. So many don't so thanks for taking the time.

                                1. re: Db Cooper

                                  Well, they were different. I loved Johnnies! Mr Beef is great too, but Pontillos just has it all. You guys got a great thing going.

                                  1. re: Jeffsayyes

                                    Jeff, did you catch this recent piece by the Trib's food critic, Kevin Pang, rating Italian beefs from 16 different purveyors?http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section...

                                    1. re: masha

                                      This is wonderful. I'm surprised the writer hadnt been into Italian beef before. Italian beef has got to be the crown jewel of Chi-food. How could there be anything better than beef, hot peppers, and good bread, juicy?

                        2. re: Jeffsayyes


                          like these ? german, polish, swedish:

                          Polish/German meat markets:
                          paulinamarket.com North Lincoln Ave and Cornelia,
                          bobak.com on Archer

                          I pick Paulina cause its been in biz for 65+ years.

                          Then walk south on Lincoln to Dinkels German Bakery.,
                          3329 Lincoln Ave.,
                          or try Lutz bakery 2458 Montrose
                          or Rudy's bakery 2038 Roscoe in Roscoe Village.

                          Paulina Market, Dinkel's and Rudy's are all near each other (relatively) in Roscoe Village.

                          Go to the Swedish Bakery 5348 N. Clark and
                          Erickson's Delicatessen 5250 N. Clark, both in Andersonville n'hood. Erickson's is... old and looks it from the outside but inside it's old Chicago for scandinavians. Ann Marie is old school.

                          German beer- food - Resi's Bierstube 2034 Irving Pk.

                          all these places are old Chicago. you won't find anything like them outside of Chicago. there's lots of great new stuff and cultures in CHicago, but the corner bar and brats is worth the time.

                          Eat some plain donuts at Dinkel's for me.

                          1. re: kariin

                            Dinkel's is the kind of ordinary bakery you'll find in any American city, nothing special, and Lutz is not all that great either (although at least it's European in style). Swedish Bakery is excellent, though.

                            For the very best bakeries in Chicago, go to:

                            Bad Wolf Coffee - www.badwolfcoffee.com
                            Floriole - www.floriole.com
                            Vanille - www.vanillepatisserie.com

                            And in the suburbs:

                            Gourmet Frog (Highwood) - www.froggysbakery.com
                            Three Tarts (Northfield) - www.threetartsbakery.com

                            After those, I'd put Swedish Bakery, along with:

                            Alliance Bakery - www.alliance-bakery.com
                            Toni - www.tonipatisserie.com

                        3. re: Querencia

                          Red apple looks great but i cant do it bc it will take me out of eating for probably 18 hours. But yeah this is the type of thing.

                          Im actually moving to a foursquare list now bc the google maps on mobile suuuucks and im only on mobile for now on. Heres that link http://4sq.com/1kocY4h

                        4. Jeff -- Unfortunately, until recently Chicago food trucks were prohibited from cooking "on board" so the food truck culture isn't as diverse/rich as other cities. That law has been relaxed but now they can't park within 200 ft of a restaurant and on many streets located in the Loop, just so you understand why.

                          You need to grab some doughnuts while you're in Chicago. Way better than what you find in NYC. Love Do-Rite doughnuts.

                          Definitely grab some Mexican. Bayless or not. Maybe this spot?

                          What about Southern? I've had an amazing meal at Big Jones. Just thinking about what NYC is weaker in....

                          See also the list of Great Neighbor Restaurants on LTHForum:

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: kathryn

                            Next time you come to NYC, check out Peter Pan or Dough for donuts.... I went to do rite on Friday actually, I'm pretty sure those places can humbly compete

                            1. re: Jeffsayyes

                              I live in NYC. I dislike Dough, but I do like Peter Pan a lot. Everybody in NYC seems to freak out over Doughnut Plant, whose yeast doughnuts I find only so-so.

                              I found Do-Rite to be excellent.

                              Did you try Doughnut Vault in Chicago?

                              1. re: kathryn

                                Also had glazed and confused yesterday. Long live Dough forever!