RT14: Hot Diggety Dog!

As American as hot dogs and apple pie. That’s what they say, right? For such an iconic American food, there seem to be really only a few places throughout the United States that see hot dogs as elevated cuisine. New York has Coney Island dogs and Gray’s Papaya. Cincinnati has the venerated chili dog, and Chicago has something else, again.

The proper Chicago dog with everything has a very specific make-up. To vary from this can be grounds for arrest and jail time, or at least a slew of bad reviews on Urban Spoon. HotDogChicagoStyle.com lays down the law this way:

A Chicago Style Hot Dog is more than just a Hot Dog; it’s a taste sensation with the perfect blend of toppings. So, what exactly is a Chicago Dog? A Chicago Style Hot Dog is a steamed all beef Hot Dog topped with yellow mustard, bright green relish, onions, tomato wedges, pickle spear or slice, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt served in the all-important steamed poppy seed bun.

The toppings are just as important as the order they are applied to the Hot Dog. Add toppings in the following order:

  1. Yellow Mustard
  2. Bright “Neon” Green Relish
  3. Fresh Chopped Onions
  4. Two Tomato Wedges
  5. A Pickle Spear or Slice
  6. Two Sport Peppers
  7. A Dash of Celery Salt

Remember: When adding toppings, dress the dog and not the bun!

I’ve seen scathing reviews on restaurant sites where the vendor has elected to toast the bun instead of steaming it, or serve chopped tomatoes instead of sliced. An outsider may ask, “does it really matter?”. To the initiated it certainly does. And having now had a Chicago Dog done the right way, all I can say is that it’s a mighty tasty tradition.

The place we wanted to go to to experience the tradition for ourselves (Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium) decided to take a protracted Labour Day holiday and is currently closed. We do hope to swing by there for lunch tomorrow when they re-open, so there’ll be no “I wonder” moments over what it would have been like.

Today we chose to visit another place that makes the top 3 list: Portillo’s Hot Dogs. This business is now an empire, with locations opening in other big cities, but their reputation remains intact.

We pull up at about 12:15pm and there’s a line-up that extends from the back of the restaurant to the front door. That’s just to order. There’s another line just as long to pick up your order. Maureen scoped out a free table and camped there while I worked the lines. This place had an amazing system in place, a staffer took my order while still well back in the first line and gave me a paper bag with the order written on it in code, so when I went to pay, the cashier immediately processed it and gave me an order number on a receipt. Line one took all of about 90 seconds.

In line 2, a counter worker was calling our order numbers fast and furiously. My wait must have been only about 2 minutes. In the time I spent in both lines, at least 60 orders must have been filled. I had ordered two dogs with everything each and a small french fry (krinkle cut – yay!) to split and couple bottles of water.

The hot dogs were a sight to behold. When you look at the list above you wonder how they get all that on a hot dog, and they do and it’s gorgeous, surprisingly easy to pick up and eat, and a perfect combination of flavours and textures.

The “snap” of the all-beef frank, the freshness of the tomato, brightness of the pickle and heat of the sport peppers combine against the more expected backdrop of mustard, relish and onion. The steamed poppy-seed bun was soft and served to provide both architectural support and flavour.

One side note: while it’s customary to forgive those who are under 18 years of age for putting ketchup on their hot dogs, it is simply “not done” by adults here. They have ketchup pumps available for your fries, but I got the impression that an alarm would go off and security would be called if you put it on your dog.

Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon

I feel like pasta and a nice glass of red tonight. I talk Rob out of BBQ. I’m sure Chicago BBQ is awesome and I would love to explore it another time, but I’m a little BBQ’d out right now. We make reservations for Rosebud Trattoria, a pleasant short walk from our hotel.  The ambiance is typical Italian, white table cloths and silverware, warm, friendly, homey.

We start off with a shared app of burata mozzerella, pesto, roasted tomatoes and crostini. It  is beautiful to behold, but we are two diners short. This app could easily feed four. We dig in. The crostini is perfect – crispy, yet chewy in texture, slathered in good quality olive oil.

The pesto is good and the hot roasted tomatoes are salty and slick with oil. The burata itself is less liquidy than we are used to but is delicious. My only comment would be that the burata was cool and it would have benefited further if it was at room temperature.

Our mains arrived with a bottle of full bodied Chianti Ruffino. Rob ordered the Brasato: braised beef short ribs and pork, San Marzano tomatoes, ruota pasta and whipped ricotta. I selected the Penne Diavola which featured lobster, shrimp, Asiago cream, lobster butter, crushed chillies and penne pasta.

The pasta was perfectly cooked. My diavola was creamy and redolent of lobster and roasted garlic. The shellfish was good but the pasta and cream sauce was the star of the show. It could have used a healthy dose more of crushed chillies. It was a diavola but I detected no heat.

Rob’s short rib pasta was inspired, with the rich meaty braising liquid forming a sauce that coated the pasta. The braised beef melted in your mouth, and the ricotta provided a light creamy finish as a contrast to the more robust flavours from the braised short rib. Portions at Rosebud are overly large. This is fine if you are not traveling and can take it home. I would have appreciated smaller portions.

Rosebud Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Our server, despite being a Flyers fan from New Jersey was awesome but even she could not talk us into dessert. We saw the tiramisu get trucked by. It would take me three days to eat it even if I hadn’t just eaten most of that pasta.

Go Sens!

RT13: Into the Windy City!

Up early for an early start. We want to be in Chicago for lunch. Time is short and we want to experience as much of Chicago’s offerings as possible. It is a cool 59 degrees. I do not acclimatize backwards well and am longing for the 106 degrees of last week. The two-hour drive is pleasant enough: cows, cornfields, pale bleached-out skies, tall, yellow wildflowers and on our approach to the city, oil refineries and industrial complexes and then …that famous Chicago skyline.

Lunch is at Lou Malnati’s, famous for it’s authentic deep-dish Chicago pizza. We neglected to eat breakfast on purpose knowing we were headed here. The restaurant is warm and it’s nice to get out of the chill air.

The wood, exposed brick walls and honeyed oak flooring are welcoming. Our section is decorated with White Sox paraphanalia. We order an Antipasto Salad and a 9″ “Malnati Chicago Classic” to share. Sausage, cheese and vine ripened tomato sauce on what Lou Molnati’s calls “buttercrust”. Simple. Chicago-style pizza is upside down by most measures. The cheese is laid down first, then raw sausage meat is pressed into the cheese, the pie is topped with tomato sauce and baked. I decide to try a local wheat Ale from Goose Island called “312”.

The antipasto salad is an excellent chopped vegetable salad of romaine and iceberg lettuces, Volpi salami, roast beef, provolone, black and green olives, pepperoncini peppers, red onion, ripple cut carrots, giadineria, red-wine vinaigrette and fresh-baked croutons. Personally I would leave out the deli roast beef. I find it had that “preserved” taste. I would have loved to have the salami cut in chunks instead of thinly sliced for better flavour and texture, and the homemade croutons were indistingishable from commercial. If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own croutons, make them a little bigger. They get toasty crisp outside and softer but still chewy inside. The tomatoes on the plus side were full of flavour and the slightly sweet vinaigrette dressing complimented everything nicely.

The wait for pizza is fairly long, twenty minutes or so. This is because it is being baked fresh and needs to cook the sausage. It finally arrives at our table, bubbly and red, served up in a deep dish pan that has darkened with age and baked on goodness.

Our server dishes out a piece each, trailing gooey cheese. It’s every bit as good as it looks. The Italian sausage is sweet and mild and the tomatoes are full of fresh, just-crushed flavour. The crust was firm and crispy, but also rich and buttery. It’s a crust we don’t normally associate with pizza, but it’s utterly delicious.

We spend the remainder of the afternoon unpacking, making a few plans for our stay in the windy city and I caught a nap. We plan to head out to Rick BaylessFrontera Grill for dinner. Bayless is a favorite of ours. His approach to Mexican reflects his superstar chef instincts while remaining true to the origins of the cuisine. Frontera does not take reservations and the wait can be upwards of two hours so we decide to go early. There is a wait already at 5:15 just after opening. We sit at the bar.

I order a margarita which is a treat because it is a “real” marg made with lime juice and tequila, not a sody-pop marg. Maybe you American readers wonder why I go on about real margs, but in my home city of Ottawa it is damn near impossible to get one. My fellow Ottawans would be appalled to be served this small, light coloured drink where you can taste the tequila bite and the bitter-sweet lime when they order a margarita. They want Margaritaville. But I digress. Rob ordered a Michelada Moderna, which was extremely refreshing yet spicy. It’s a bottle of crisp beer (in this case, Pacifico, a Mexican favourite) poured in a large glass. Lime juice, tomato juice, a little hot sauce and spices are added and then the glass is rimmed with a chipotle salt and a lime slice. Crisp, refreshing and spicy. Each sip makes you want another, and it wakes up the taste buds for an excellent meal to come.

As we await our table we note that the Grill has a hip Mexican vibe. Decorated in warm reds and golds, with bold vibrant art and wall sculpture and tile floor, it is upscale but unpretentious. Staff is friendly and helpful. Our beeper goes off before we finish our drinks and we move to a table.

For apps we decide to share the 1/2 Grand Seafood platter, which consists of 6 oysters and their accompaniments, ceviche and tropical tuna salad, along with with cornchips to scoop the ceviche. The dish is an artfully arranged bed of ice featuring 6 oysters of various sizes, with a tomatillo-habanero mionetta and a smoky chipotle galic salsa, ceviche fronterizo of lime marinated albacore tuna with tomatoes, olives, cilantro and green chile, and a tropical cocktail of sashimi grade yellowfin, avocado-tomatillo guacamole and melon salsa.

I love oysters with traditional cocktail sauce and occasionally a french mignonette and sometimes a dash of scotch. But I generally stick to classic cocktail. The accompaniments at Frontera were a revelation. The fresh tomatillo-habanero sauce livened up the briney oysters and the smokey chipotle salsa really stood up to and complimented one of the oysters specifically that was quite full-bodied in taste. The ceviche was bright with lime and cilantro but had no heat. The tuna cocktail was visually pleasing with jewel like cubes of tuna and fresh with sweet cantaloupe.

For mains, I asked my server to decide between the shrimp and the chicken. Frontera’s menu is a rough one for me. Usually, even at a high-end eatery, one or two choices jump off the page at me. Frontera’s menu was climbing into my lap – too much good stuff going on there. He is also indecisive, but mulls it over for a bit and decides I will have the chicken, Pollo en Mole Amarillo. Rob orders the Carne Asade a la Oaxaquena.

The chicken was an awesome choice. The small, char-grilled boneless breast, sliced, and served with a green mole that is complex, fruity, lightly sweet and with a little mild heat, comes with delicious poblano mashed potatoes. The creamy spuds have a few chunks and a mild poblano chili flavour and heat. They are also excellent with the mole. The dish is presented with some nicely sauteed spinach I assume for additional colour, but I found the strong taste incongruous with the dish. It did however provide a bitterness that can cut the sweet of the mole, I just didn’t find it necessary. Also unnecessary and difficult to eat were the fine shreds of fried onion. They were perfectly cooked, tasty and provided visual appeal and crunch. Not complaining, but they could have been left off in favour of more of the fabulous mash.

Rob’s carne was marinated in spicy red chile which served to add depth and only a little heat. The wood grilling provided a ton of flavour although neither the grilling nor the marinade masked the excellent quality of the beef. The standout side dish was the sweet plantains with sour cream and a slightly salty Mexican cheese crumbled on top. The black refried beans were nicely spiced with great texture.

At this point I have serious happy mouth, that nice satisfying burn. But I plunge onward and order dessert. I joke about whether or not I will get the chocolate lava cake, churros, or deep-fried ice cream which typify Mexican dessert menus. Of course, none of that is on the menu. Fontera’s dessert menu is once again, too much for me. I’m bad that way. Give me one option and I’m good. Anyways, since we are sharing dessert, I give Rob FOUR options off the menu and make him choose. Luckily for him, he chooses right. Donitas. Perfectly deep fried donut balls with zuchini bits in the batter and a delicate cinnamon-sugar crust accompanied by sugared ribbons of zucchini, walnuts, which were hot and softened and without bitterness due to a little roasting, and toasted cinnamon ice cream. Need I say more.

I ordered a Cafe Tacuba, blanco tequila, Kahlua and espresso coffee, shaken over ice table side and served in a martini glass. Iced coffee with a tequila bite.

Rob had a chocolate cappuccino, which was strong and lightly sweet and over which you could smell the roasted toastiness of both the coffee and the Mexican chocolate.

An excellent meal by any standards.

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

He was watching us very intently as we were drinking our cocktails.

 

 

 

RT12: St. Louis to Normal

We are up early so we can explore St. Louis a little before hitting the road to Bloomington/Normal, IL. We really liked what we saw last evening and regret that our time is short in the city. Originally we planned to stay two days but time constraints on getting back to real life forced us to cut a day. We considered, staying over anyways when we saw the city but then we would have to drive straight through to Chicago, an 8 hour drive, and we really wanted sometime to explore Route 66. This turns out to not be the best choice, but that’s life.

Wow, it got cold! We were in 106 degree heat 2 days ago. It is about 60 degrees, windy and chilly. Brrr… We have no time to explore the funky west side where we are staying and head downtown. We want to see the famous arch up close and explore City Park, a beautiful place featuring water, sculpture and plantings. St. Louis appears to be a city with great vision and commitment to civic pride. We will include it in another road trip sometime and really do it justice.

It’s time to hit the road. Our first stop will be Ted Drewes on Route 66. We first learned about Drewes on “Feasting on Asphalt” with Alton Brown. It’s a frozen custard stand that has been here since 1929.

The menu boasts many exciting and exotic flavor combos that are served sundae or “concrete” style. I get a “Cardinal Sin” concrete – tart cherries and fudge, Rob orders a “Dutchman” concrete – pecans, chocolate and butterscotch.

The custard is very creamy and smooth. To quote WiseGEEK: “Frozen custard is to regular ice cream what cream is to milk. Frozen custard is richer and creamier that standard ice cream because of a higher butterfat content, slower production time and less air blended into the mix.”

Back onto Route 66. We pass the “Invaders” Motorcycle club members from Indiana, cornfield after cornfield and more cornfields, cornfields, cornfields, small one-horse one-street towns, metal silos and a very occasional sign from bygone days, and then some cornfields. All the way to Springfield. Nothing to see of note, with the exception of the spot on the Mississippi River where Lewis and Clark began their journey.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition started here. Really. There’s a plaque.

Nothing to eat except fast food. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there were many Route 66s in the area throughout its lifetime. There were many forks in the road and paths to take based on which era you were interested in driving. Unlike the Northern Arizona route we took in a previous trip, where there was only ever one route so all artifacts and landmarks were concentrated along one roadway, multiple paths provided too little “bang for the buck”. It wasn’t a very interesting drive. We’ll look carefully at the Route 66 map from Normal to Chicago to see if it’s worth traveling tomorrow.

When we pull in to Springfield, we hope to have a “Horseshoe” sandwich, a specialty, unique to Springfield. We head to the joint that Triple D featured. Closed. We backtrack to Jungle Jim’s noted as THE place for a horseshoe: closed.

We make an executive decision to take the interstate the rest of the way to Bloomington/Normal. This drive is surprisingly more interesting and varied, with nicer vistas.

RT11: Corn, Camels & Snoots

We pulled out of blustery, chilly Evansville, Indiana just after 10 am on our way to St. Louis, Missouri. The drive was an uneventful pleasant trip along a two-laner through small towns. We crossed the state line into Illinois, the Land of Lincoln where the skies turned azure blue and highlighted the golden green late cornfields. Incredible colour.

We journeyed on through Amish country past horse and buggies and eventually past some vineyards and a camel or two. Yes camels.

This guy and another camel were chilling with a small group of horses and ponies in a field off the highway. There were llamas in the distance. It was a little surreal in corn country.

After a 3 and a 1/2 hour road trip we could see the famous St. Louis arch in the distance. We enter through East St. Louis which is a very sketchy neighbourhood that I would not want to blow a tire in after dark. We cross over the Big Muddy for a third time this trip and enter Missouri and downtown St. Louis. It is immediately big-city impressive. Our hotel, The Moonrise is in the trendy west end so we travel through the core, past a beautiful park and inadvertently a Labour Day Weekend Greek Festival. Wow, does the grilled meat smell fantastic!

St. Louis is famous for BBQ so of course it is on the list for dinner as we regret that we only have one night in St. Louis. Rob chose C & K BBQ because a) it is iconic and b) it is open on the holiday. C & K is takeout only so we intend to bring it back to the hotel. The tiny store was established in the 1960’s just off the road. There is a lineup.

We arrive at C&K just as they are running out of food. Rib tips, “snoots” and potato salad are all that remain, which is fine because that’s what we were there for. Snouts are new for us and so we want to try them.

The rib tips are tender and juicy but very fatty. C&K’s sauce is tomato based, sweet and has a nice black pepper finish. Each order comes with white, squishy bread on top and on the bottom, which becomes completely absorbed by the sauce, not the other way around, leaving a yummy treat at the end. The potato salad doesn’t look like much but it is really good. The salad is whipped with a few chunks remaining and has a mild vinegar taste. Quite addictive especially with the sauce. OK I know you are waiting on the “snoots” as the locals call them. They are deep fried pig snout (the locals pronounce them “SNOOTS” but spell it correctly. They are crispy and a lot like pork rinds soaked in C&K’s awesome BBQ sauce. Crunchy, porky deliciousness. We can now say we are snoot-initiated.

SNOOTS!
Snooty cross-section!

C & K Barbecue on Urbanspoon

RT10: Rob and Maureen Go to White Castle

We pull out of Nashville at 10:30. It’s still 90 degrees despite pouring buckets last night. Our second stop after gassing up is White Castle at Rob’s insistence. CAUTION, FOODIES: CHAIN RESTAURANT ALERT.  I agree to this stop only because Rob says we can eat in the car, a peculiar quirk of mine. We are breaking the rule for a number of reasons.

1. We have never eaten at White Castle.
2. They don’t operate in Canada.
3. It is a part of food history – It’s the very first hamburger chain.
4. Rob says they never would have made a movie called Harold and Kumar go to McDonald’s.

We get a combo that consists of  a small order of well made krinkle cut fries which could use some salt, a diet coke and 4 sliders with cheese. The sliders are actually quite tasty. Something about that marriage of pickle, processed cheese and onion. The quality of the meat? Not sure I want to investigate further. It was less a part of the taste than the whole of the bun and the limited dressings. One of the four was dried out significantly. I wasn’t keen on the idea of steamed buns as I don’t care for wet bread, but this was good and soft and went well with the sandwich. These burgers are small; four of them makes a typical order, and you can even buy them in packs of 30. They are cooked on an onion covered flat top with steam holes providing much of the heat. Cheese and pickle are added and then the top bun is placed on the burger and the whole assembly is “slid” onto the bottom bun (hence the name “slider”). It is this cooking technique and their oniony taste which makes them quite unique.

We hit the road as the temp drops to 81 degrees outside the city. It starts to rain lightly, the first time on this trip. We have really had excellent weather. Our drive today takes us out of Tennessee, past fields of corn stubble, rows of maturing corn, mansions and cute, well maintained bungalows typical of the area, neat trailers with mowed lawns. It is Sunday and the South is closed for church.

We enter Kentucky with no formal notice, past Springfield on highway 431 which did not mark the state line. The small towns and back roads of rural Kentucky are picturesque.

American flags wave on dwellings, corn fields and hay bales glow gold, horses and cows dot hills and fenced paddocks, pale, lime-green tobacco plants stand tall and an earlier crop hangs to dry in rustic sheds, and black livestock shelters particular to this area, stand in stunning contrast to the grey skies and rich green hills and farmland. Small towns notify of their particular claim to fame: Home of the Everly Brothers (Central City, KY), and Purple Martin Capital of the World (Lewisburg, KY).

After a time, a large bridge span looms ahead of us. We cross the Ohio river and enter Indiana., where we turn around so we can capture the elusive Welcome to Kentucky sign, turn back around and head into Evansville, Indiana, our stop over for tonight.

Alton Brown came this way on “Feasting on Asphalt” season one. He tried a regional specialty, a fried pig brain sandwich, a favorite here and still sold in a few mom and pop places. Even Alton wasn’t all that keen on it and we think we will pass. Thanks for taking one for the road food team, Alton!

We are tired tonight and think we are just going to order in a pizza and chill. See y’all in St. Louis!