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Mar 10, 2014 05:09 PM

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.

      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 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.

      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. Also excellent for contemporary Mexican cuisine is Mexique, in West Town.

      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.

      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.

      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 ( ), and Al's Beef ( ).

      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.

      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 ). 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.

            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.