Bucket listing in Chicago

Bucket listing in Chicago

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.

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.

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.

Also See |Trip Planner/Chicago

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.

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.

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.

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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