The US Midwest is possibly the place to sample the best of that catch-all phrase, “American Cuisine”. A mishmash of various immigrant traditions has resulted in a smorgasbord of opportunity, padded with the best-quality produce, and Chicago is its drool-worthy capital. While the names are the usual suspects on any American fast-food menu—sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and pizzas—the consensus is largely that whatever’s done on the East Coast, particularly in New York, is done bigger and better in Chicago.
Every plan has a glitch, and I encounter mine early on when I’m feeling mealtime-jet lag peckish at the History Museum, and order a sandwich. I discover countless strips of crispy bacon and tomato slices resting on a thick bed of lettuce between huge slices of white bread, and I am done for, dinner and beyond. While my appetite is healthier than most of my Indian female counterparts, I am the apparent equivalent of half an American (I even get out-ordered by a six-year-old at Purdue University’s legendary Triple XXX diner. My husband’s vegetarianism makes the “sharing” option a bit of an issue. I adjust my game plan, and fork out $50 (approx. Rs 2,500) a head to Tastebud Tours, who promise a walk through Chicago and regular stops to ensure a wholesome (yet not overstuffed) experience, with vegetarian options to boot.
El Dorado: The legendary Uno pizzeria, a Chicago favorite since 1943. Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons.
The Tastebud Tours is a 3-hour affair, and takes us to Pizano’s, The Palmer House (no food here, though), Heaven on Seven, Sugar Bliss, Gold Coast Dogs and The Berghoff.
The tour gets straight to business—namely, the Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, probably the culinary icon of the city. Pizzeria Uno (now Uno Chicago Grill) claims to be the “birthplace” of the deep dish, created by chef Rudy Malnati. When Pizzeria Uno went the franchise way, the Malnati clan decided to cash in, each member setting up their own establishment and claiming to be closest to the original. Pizano’s, run by Rudy Malnati Jr, gives us a sample of their deep dish, which is more like a quiche on a cornmeal base. A few days later, we decide to visit Giordano’s, which let the Malnati clan fight over the title of “best deep dish” while it perfected the “stuffed crust”.
Deep dish pizza. Photo: L. W. Yang/Wikimedia Commons.
Gold Coast Dogs gives us a taste of the Chicago hot dog. A bit of a popular culture shock, it comes topped with mustard, chopped onions, a neon green relish, long slice of pickle, slice of tomato, chillies and celery salt. But don’t even think of asking for ketchup on your dog, for that’s sacrilege. While the “best” is at Hot Doug’s, there isn’t a single hot dog in the city that will disappoint.
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We pop in for some gumbo at Heaven on Seven. The Cajun like their food hot, as the bottles of various kinds of chilli sauce, not unlike the tabasco, on the wall will testify. The Heaven on Seven gumbo, stewed with chicken and sausage, and a lot thicker and darker, isn’t the conventional Creole variety. Even though the “sample” size is tiny, I can tell that Cajun food will be a great option for my spice fix and I return a few days later for the po-boy shrimp salad and gumbo on the side. I’m not the biggest fan of creamy dressing, but chef Jimmy Bannos’ “angel dust”—a Cajun seasoning, a combination of paprika and herbs—makes everything better.
I try not to roll my eyes when we’re taken to Sugar Bliss for the Chicago edition of the international cupcake fad. The cupcakes are great, but honestly, I’m waiting for them to go out of style so we can revert to sugar fixes that aren’t quite so high-maintenance. A few avenues later, we hit Chicago’s oldest restaurant, The Berghoff, for a cold mug of root beer (which is how they got by in the prohibition era, apparently), and a serving of bratwurst with sauerkraut and Düsseldorf mustard, along with German potato salad. The vegetarians have it pretty good with Potato Pierogies with chive sour cream and sweet potato salad.
Greek gyros. Photo: Amba Salelkar.
As a city tour, it’s fun. As a food tour, it’s disappointing, though—ironically, the portions are too small for our liking. We decide to take it on our own from there and I pledge to “just walk away” when I’m done stuffing myself.
We decide to stake out “cultural neighbourhoods”—our first stop is Greektown. We pop into Greektown Gyros (pronounced “yeeros”) for the obvious, and when I look at my serving I can’t quite see the bread. The man behind the counter thoughtfully hands me a fork. There’s something to be said about rolls that cannot be wrapped.
I can only get through about half of the gyro, and it isn’t for lack of trying. The meat is ridiculously moist for something that has been on a rack for most of the day, and the tzatziki sauce is a winner. The accompanying fries, which I could swear had been fried in clarified butter, make my attempt to finish the gyro a lost cause.
Ethipoian injera flatbread. Photo: Amba Salelkar
We spend an evening at the Ethiopian area of Edgewater, at Ras Dashen. Waitresses explain the system in soft voices—you order your main course and some side dishes, and you are served on the injera, a spongy, yeasty flatbread (not unlike an appam)— the sides are arranged around the bread and the mains are poured on it. The mains we order include melt-in-your-mouth lamb and “vegetarian fish” on injeras surrounded by pickled beet, curd cheese and stewed spinach.
We also learn that it isn’t always necessary to head all the way downtown for foodie fixes. The suburbs of Chicago are equally well suited to indulgence—my brother-in-law takes us to the suburb of Mount Prospect (35km from Chicago) for “America’s best ice cream” (according to Good Morning America). Capannari’s is open only in summer, and is full of locals waiting to sample their creamy delights. I can’t quite make up my mind between their rocky road, peach melba, black raspberry, 10 years aged vanilla or cookie dough, so I make the most of “The Flight”: four small scoops of whatever you please. From my old friend—and now Chicago veteran—Gaurang, we learn Chicago’s worst-kept secret: The best view of the Chicago skyline is from the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center (it’s actually from the ladies room of the Signature Lounge!). We save ourselves from the long queue to go up the Sears Tower and the $20 entry. Instead, we have a couple of $8 bottles of Goose Island 312 and enjoy the view. The food is notoriously disappointing and overpriced, so we were warned against bothering with the restaurant on the 95th floor. The Lounge does a pleasant cheese platter (don’t miss the raspberry coulis) and a chunky guacamole with nacho chips.
The final frontier for me was the “Italian Beef”. I was running low on Digene strips, so I couldn’t possibly do both Portillo’s and Al’s Beef. I decided to crowd-source suggestions from people I met randomly on the Metra, at airports and in museum queues. This actually worked better than a food tour—everyone has strong opinions about food in Chicago, and more importantly, they are more than eager to set you on the right path. Al’s won the poll, and how—they serve up a bulging sandwich with prime cuts of meat topped with sweet peppers and gravy and yet, miraculously, the sandwich doesn’t fall apart because the bread is almost made for the weight it has to carry and the liquid it has to soak. No surprises there, though—this is a city known for its design and architecture, after all.
Even after a week of indulgence, there are things left undone—Chinatown, an epic Chicago-style Sunday brunch, eating supersized burritos out of a truck, and of course, the Holy Grail of the Chicago food skyline, Alinea. To be honest, I did try for a reservation, two weeks in advance. The woman on the reservation line laughed for a good 2 minutes before politely saying “Sorry, ve aar booked owt.” Luckily, I have a visa that’s valid for 10 years.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan
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