Monday, February 9, 2015

The Road Trip, Part 3: The Windy City

*Just a quick note - as the formatting on this blog keeps some of the photographs pretty small. You can click on any of the pictures to enter a slide show, which will allow you to see larger format photographs*

Center Point, IN to Chicago, IL. 204 miles, 3 hours 34 minutes.

We got into Chicago a little late after a marathon drive through endless cornfields in Indiana. I went to school in Chicago and have a very strong connection to this city. If you spend any amount of time with me you will inevitably hear me mention something about Chicago - something I experienced there, someone I met, and so on.  Living there changed me forever, and I miss it every day.  

On our first day in the kitchens at school, we were assigned partners. Being the introverted curmudgeon I am/was, I was dreading this. And of course I was partnered with Julia - someone who was very clearly the most extroverted, excited and vibrant person in the class. In this industry (and probably others) you occasionally come across someone who you mesh so well with. Who you can anticipate their moves, and they yours. You seem to feed off of each others energy. Much to my surprise, Julia was one of those people. Working with her and getting to know her was a great pleasure, and to this day she remains one of my closest friends. You may remember J & I stayed with her parents in Pittsburgh earlier on this trip.

Julias wonderfully moody cat, Pearl
So naturally, we were spending the week with Julia and her sister in their beautiful apartment in the near north side/old town area. We arrived with just enough time to dump the contents of the car and quickly catch the train for a late dinner at TAC Quick. 

Im pretty sure Ive written about TAC Quick on here before. It is a wonderful Thai restaurant a few blocks north of my old apartment in Wrigleyville - just under the Sheridan stop on the Red Line. This is a restaurant that completely changed my understanding of Thai cuisine, and introduced me to things that I have very rarely seen since. TAC Quick is at least as good as Pok Pok (Ive only been to the one in Portland, OR) and is exponentially more affordable and theres no need to wait in line for an hour to get a seat. And its BYOB AND next door to a liquor store! Julia and I would regularly come here and try as many things as we possibly could - systematically crossing everything off of the menu. So it was a great way to start our stay. 

To go over every detail of our stay in Chicago would turn this into the never ending post - so from here out were going to switch to the Cliffs Notes version.

Walking through the Maxwell Street Market
We started our first day with a trip to the Maxwell Street Market for some great Mexican food. We strolled around in the brutally hot sun, looking at the wares being sold at the market and trying to figure out where to stop to eat. Coincidentally, our first stop where we got some huitlacoche tacos and a kind of mind blowing quesadilla - we ran into someone from Albany, who I knew from many years ago. He, apparently, moved to Chicago a few years back. Funny how no matter where you are, you can find a bit of home. He told us to head over to the tamale stand across the way to get some awesome Yucatan Tamales. 

Beautiful dried chiles at the Maxwell Street Market
From here we went to the most depressing free zoo in America, the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was super hot, extremely overcrowded, and a lot of the animals were curiously missing. It wasnt long before we were feeling burnt out (from the heat) and we headed back to the apartment to re-coop. When Julia and her sister were out of work we all headed to DMK to get what are my favorite burgers in Chicago and to meet up with Ashley (another dear friend) and her boyfriend. 

Tickets at the Taste of Polonia
The following day was Labor everything seemed to be closed. We farted around all day and went way further on the blue line than we thought was possible to check out the Polish Festival, Taste of Polonia. We ate a ton of pirogies, sausage, latkes, ice cream and cheap pilsner and watched some really god awful bands play a mix of contemporary pop covers and shitty euro hard rock. Good times were had.

Navy Pier

The next day J & I decided to head down to Navy Pier. I had only gone once when I lived in Chicago and we wanted to see the Smith Museum of Stained Glass that they have tucked away in there. The weather was much more agreeable this day and it was nice to be by the water. The museum was actually pretty cool - and free - so if you're around...check it out. There were some interesting examples of stained glass that were pretty far from what I had seen previously.

We left Navy Pier and went to Joong Boo Market to have some Korean Dumplings that were....mediocre, but still fun. The dumpling stand is in the parking lot of a Korean grocery store and the dumplings were the size of softballs.
National Museum of Mexican Art

After lunch we headed to the National Museum of Mexican Art. We weren't really sure what to expect here but we both wound up loving it. 

Only two galleries were open but...well, it may have had the 
highest percentage of pieces of art I actually liked out of any museum Ive ever been to. Some very fascinating, moody stuff.

Our our way from the train to the museum we stopped to have some elotes - which was incredibly good. All of the corn we had in Illinois was great - the best we had this summer/fall. 

Elotes, off the cob.
For dinner we went to my favorite place to get Chicago style pizza - Pequods. Ashley, who grew up in Chicago, turned me onto it and as far as Im concerned its the only place worth having it. 

The next morning we headed to the City Greenmarket so J could get an idea of how that was. We are blessed in the Capital District of New York by having several incredible markets that few others rival. We did find a BIG beet though. 
Look at that thing! Its bigger than her head!
Walkway through the Conservatory 
It was another unbearably hot day so of course we decided to goto the Lincoln Park Conservatory. If youre not familiar with what that is....well...its a giant greenhouse. Needless to say we were both sweating through our clothing by the end. But it was a really neat place.

Sausage Tree at the Conservatory
We were starting to get hungry and J wanted to try El Burrito Mexicano. This was my go-to taqueria when I lived in Chicago. Mostly because it was between my stop on the train and my apartment. Its not the best Mexican in Chicago - by a long shot - but I love it. Their Chorizo Taco is one of my favorite things ever. We tried their Torta and it wound up being one of the better ones we had on the trip. After El Burrito we needed some rest so we headed back to the apartment and hung around until dark when we went to Lincoln Park to see a screening of Ghost Busters while drinking wine and eating cheese on the back patio of the Chicago History Museum. 

The next day we spent some time downtown. On our way to our first destination, Lurie Gardens, we stumbled on a small farmers market. Its nice having them on several days in several locations throughout the city. But still, they seem puny compared to what we have in this area. I do love the juxtaposition of a farmers market surrounded by sky scrapers. 

As I said, we headed to Lurie Gardens - a free urban botanical garden in Millennium Park. We skipped the tour and just walked around. It was a slightly damp morning so we didn't see that many other people. It was great being so close to the city while being in such a tranquil space.

Panoramic of Lurie Gardens
Because we were in the area, I showed J the Pritzker Pavilion - designed by Frank Gehry - whose buildings we would come to see all over the country and J would recognize from various places in Europe. We then headed over the bean - something I never actually did while I lived in Chicago. It was fun, and pretty much what you would expect.
Reflections on the underside of the bean.
We crossed the street and snuck into the Chicago Cultural Center, which was originally the Central Library. Something Ashley once told me is to always look up in Chicago and you will often find really cool architectural detail. The art installations at the CCC weren't for us, but the building was beautiful.   

Look at these ceilings! 
We were starting to get hungry and, naturally, wanted Mexican. We decided to head out to Cemitas Puebla, which I had never actually made the effort to check out. It took a couple transfers and maybe the longest bus ride ever, but we eventually made it there and had some tacos and a Cemita. Cemitas are, essentially, a regional variation of a Torta that is from Puebla (hence the name Cemitas Puebla). Its a pretty standard torta with the addition of a sesame seed bun, some queso panela, papalo, and salsa roja. They knocked it out of the park here - the Al Pastor was some of the best we have ever had, and the Cemita is probably the second best torta we have ever had (the best, was in Portland OR of all places...stay tuned for that..)
Action shot of the Cemita
Incredible Al Pastor Taco.
Im not exactly sure what we did between meals for the rest of the day - so bare with me. We made a stop at 5411 Empanada, a place not far from Julias old apartment, that we had ordered from a few times when I was visiting the summer before. We really enjoyed the ginger & lime auga fresca and their alfajores - though my favorite in the city are still at El Mercado Meat Market on N Southport & W Grace.
Each empanada has its own shape, so you know what the filling is.

Later in the evening we went to the Argyle Night Market. It was mostly (asian) food vendors and some live music. I love night markets. The vibe is so unique and festive. We got some snacks (roasted corn, duck bun, and a coconut) and hung around, watching people dance.
This corn was GOOD.
Enjoying the fresh coconut water.
After the night market was winding down, we kicked around for a bit at the apartment before heading out to dinner. We decided to go somewhere I had wanted to try for a couple years..

Au Cheval! 
Crazy delicious ham & cheese fondue with a fried egg. We still talk about this one regularly. 
Burger lives up to its hype. Great example of how just doing something really well is SO much better than loading it down with trendy toppings.
Fries with mornay, aioli and a fried egg. This will sound ridiculous, but the aioli was so good. Strong garlic flavor without being too sharp or pungent. 
A perfectly executed Mille-Feuille
This was one of those meals that you cant help but talk about it for the entire trip back home. One of those rare instances where a place actually lives up to the hype. And its all relatively simple, diner style food that is just done REALLY well. 

We were getting pretty close to the end of our stay in Chicago, so the next day we went to the Lincoln Park Whole Foods to get some groceries for the car. This place is one of the craziest markets I have ever been to - There are several bars, wine bars, restaurants, etc and an enormous selection of groceries. Last I knew, it was the second largest Whole Foods in existence. Its a fun place to waste an afternoon.

Look at that cheese counter! Holy shit!
A picture we love taking. 
Even the potatoes are happy here. 

 We grabbed a bottle of wine from their wine shop and brought it to the wine bar, along with some pieces of cheese from the cheese counter. They told us that, while they have a menu of cheese selections and bottles of wine, you can grab anything from the store and they will open it for you there. 

Late that afternoon we went to Xoco for some tortas and churros....and hot chocolate. Yes, it was great. 
Churro & Hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was thick and bitter and acidic (all good things!). I staged at Topolobampo & Frontera when I lived in Chicago - and the prep kitchens for all three restaurants are shared. I remember seeing large sacks of cocoa beans there - they roast and mill their own chocolate just for this drink.
 The next day was our last day in Chicago. We wanted to goto the Turkish Festival to try some dondurma - a Turkish ice cream made with mastic and salep. These ingredients give the ice cream a very unique quality - it stretches like gum, yet melts in your mouth like ice cream. It is VERY difficult to find in the US, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it. Unfortunately, quite a few  other people had the same idea. We waited in line for over an hour for two scoops of ice cream..

Action shot, to show its stretchy quality.
The Dondurma vendor, scooping the ice cream out of the traditional barrel. 
Heres a great video (not mine) of dondurma being served - do yourself a favor and watch it:

After having the ice cream, which tasted great too, by the way - we headed over to the Boarding House to say goodbye to Julia. 
In the beautiful basement at the Boarding House
Here are a few more pictures, I couldn't really remember exactly where they fit in..

 Our friend Brett is doing graphic design for Koval Distillery - so he invited us to come take a look at their operation and do a tasting of their entire line of products. 

Barrel at Koval
The ludicrous amount of alcohol we tried. 
And lastly, having a tarte flambee and Uncle Hansi Cake at La Fournette Bakerey, owned by Pierre Zimmermann who was one of our chef instructors at school.  

Up next: A quick stop in Bolingbrook and then on to Madison, WI.

 From our book:

  • DMK Burger Bar – 7 days 11:30-Midnight.
  • TAC Quick – Wed-Sat 11-10, Sun 11-9:30, Mon 11-10.
  • El Burrito Mexicano – 10-2, cash only.
  • Pastoral/Bar Pastoral
  • Dumpling stand @ Joong Boo 3333 N Kimbal. $2 softball size korean steamed
    buns (wang mandoo)
  • Steves Place – Greasy spoon, very cheap, Mon-Fri 6-4pm, Sat 7-3 pm.
  • Cemitas Puebla – Puebla specialties, cemitas & chalupas. 11-9
  • Maxwell St Market – Sundays 7-3, street food vendors. Recommended Rubis,
    Manolos, Green House.
  • Publican?
  • REGIONAL SPECIALTY: Pequods – Chicago Pan Pizza
  • REGIONAL SPECIALTY: Superdawg - Chicago Hot Dogs
  • REGIONAL SPECIALTY: Portillos – Italian Beef
Free to do:
  • Ghostbusters – Wednesday 9/3, 8pm-9:47 – Lincoln Park 2045 N Lincoln
    Park West. On the back patio of Chicago History Museum at 1601 N Clark
  • Lincoln Park Zoo – 7 days, 10-5.
  • Millennium Park
  • Navy Pier – Fireworks & parade of boats on Sat 9/6. Smith Museum of
    Stained Glass (Sun-Thu 10-8, Fri-Sat 10-10)
  • Chicago Cultural Center (the building itself Is cool)
  • Greenfield Park Conservatory – 7 days, 9-5 (8 on wed) Half dozen
    greenhouses, 2 exhibition halls, one of the nations premier displays of rare
    plant species. Chihuly piece on display. Has free parking
  • Lincoln Park Conservatory – 7 days 9-5. ‘Some of most stunning flowers and
    rare plant life. Four display houses.’
  • Museum of Contemporary Photography - Mon-Sat 10-5 (8 on Thu), Sun 12-5
  • National Museum of Mexican Art – Tue-Sun 10-5
  • Oriental Institute Museum – Tues-Sun 10-5 (8 on Wed). $10 suggested
  • Smart Museum – Tues-Sun 10-5 (8 on Thu)
  • Argyle Night Market – THURSDAY 9/4, 5-9. On argyle from Sheridan to
  • Lurie Garden Tour – Thu-Fri 11-1:30, Sun 10-1:30. Last 20 mins, run every
    20 mins or so. Meet at south end of Lurie Garden Boardwalk (alternatively
    open 6-11 every day for self guided)
  • Chicago Green City Market – Wed & Sat 7-1 in Lincoln Park between Clark &
  • Chicago Botanic Gardens – 8-dusk. 26 gardens, 385 acres, nine islands, six
    miles shoreline. Bonsai collection. * North of Evanston! – Nearby: Nickel City,
    nickel arcade, retro games.
  • American Science & Surplus – Cool store, random cheap crap. Fun to browse.
  • $1 tofu dog & fries @ big chicks Mondays
  • $1 tacos (3pp min) @ Fiesta Mexicana Tuesdays
  • $1 Burger & chips @ toons bar & grill Wednesdays
  • $5 ‘old school (tequila,3sec,ss,grapefruit,sprite) @ Fish Bar
  • $5 margarita @ D’Noche Wednesdays 

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