Tag Archives: Chicago

Lou Mitchell’s & Berghoff

We woke to beautiful, warm, sunny weather on our second day in Chicago. Local Eats and a bit of research has us heading off to Lou Mitchell’s for breakfast. We are finding parking is a bit of an issue here in the windy city and opt for a nearby parking lot. The attendant says we have to leave the keys but Rob doesn’t want to. He tells us to go across the street to another lot, but then changes his mind. We park and the younger thug feels it is necessary to “escort” us around the corner to Lou’s. I try to get some distance from him but we can’t shake him. He holds the door open and Rob hands him a few bucks. I look at him incredulously. He replies ” he knows where our car is.” Yup.

Lou’s an honest, old school diner at the start of old Route 66, opened in 1923. It is pretty much full on a Wednesday morning at 9:45. We are greeted by a hostess who demands we take a fresh donut hole. She shows us to our table and hands us menus and mini sized box of milk duds. The table hosts a variety of condiments including their house blend of maple syrup and home made preserves. Lou’s has it’s own in-house bakery, but I’m not big on pastries or sweets for breakfast. We both opt for one of their fluffy omelettes. I choose gardiniere and cheddar, because the spicy pickle mix on Rob’s hot beef yesterday was so yummy, and Rob orders the salami and swiss. The eggs come with hash-brown potatoes which are sliced thin and fried on the flat top. You can request your omelette “hobo-style” as I did and have the potatoes folded in.

After we ordered and the waitress brings coffee and fresh squeezed OJ, I start thinking about how I’m always enthused by the long list of omelette combos on breakfast menus and how I am always disappointed. Today our omelettes are delivered in skillets. They are a nice size but not huge. I dig in to my fluffy eggs and am very pleasantly surprised. This is probably the best omelette I’ve ever had outside of my own kitchen. The eggs are not overly stretched with water or milk, the good-quality cheddar is plentiful and melty-good, and the gardiniere provides a nice spicy, vinegary, green bite . The potatoes add flavour and texture. A dollop of sour cream lends a bit of creaminess to cut the heat of the peppers. A+.

Rob’s had the same fluffy texture, but good diced salami and cheese provided a richness that rounded it out nicely. The omelettes comes with a side of excellent, egg bread toast which is made fresh on premise daily. It comes slathered in butter. Grape jelly and homemade marmalade are the jam options on the table. The jelly is good but the orange marmalade is fabulous. Lou’s makes it, and we can only assume it is created from the rind and pulp leavings of the juicer machine and a little sugar. It is tart and full of intense flavour. They do sell it and we did purchased some but had to decline it because it comes in a pint sized ice cream container that would not survive the plane trip back in a suitcase.

Lou Mitchell's on UrbanspoonOur afternoon is spent shopping, taking photographs and visiting the Navy Pier. Another parking rip-off is to be had here. The Pier’s parking is unavailable due to construction so we park at a nearby garage. We tool around the tourist trap of chain restaurants and souvenir stands and enjoy beautiful Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Getting back to the car and pay for parking, we’re charged $18 for an hour and a half. Taxis from here on in – they’re way cheaper than parking.

Back at the hotel we have a few seconds to catch our breath before hoping in a taxi for an early dinner at The Berghoff and a night of comedy at The Vic. The Berghoff is a Chicago institution. Opened in 1898, the dining room still carries the ambiance of early twentieth century.

The walls are paneled in golden oak, a twelve foot mirror graces one wall while others are adorned with murals of Chicago and curiously Rome and Venice. Big band music serenades. Stained glass and inlaid wood scenes complete the picture. The ambiance is marred only by the very casual clientele at this early dinner hour. People should be waltzed across the ballroom-esque floor by tuxedoed waiters.

The menu has been updated in recent years we are told by our Korean taxi driver, but the classics remain and are indicated as Berghoff family recipes. We both choose the sauerbraten this evening as well as two house-brewed hefweisens. An assortment of very excellent cheese crisps, rye and molasses breads are delivered to the table while we await our mains.

Our dinner arrives on white Berghoff signature dinnerware, looking deliciously home cooked. We are not disappointed. I have limited experience with German cuisine. This is my first sauerbraten and I declare it excellent. The gravy is tangy and a little sweet and nicely complements the tender, sliced beef. Asparagus and green beans are cooked tender crisp, as are the carrots. The carrots are real, peeled and sweet. One of my pet peeves and for which I will strike a restaurant from my consciousness, is an establishment that cheaps out and serves fake baby carrots that have been “babyized” — cut to size and peeled by an ammonia process in a factory somewhere. I swear this brought the venerable “The Mill” to it’s knees despite Lowell Green’s shilling. Where was I? Ooh! The mashed potatoes — creamy, smooth, buttery, just like my mom makes. Not the lumpy, dirty with skins, lazy “smashed” potatoes I make, but honest to goodness mashed deliciousness that no one takes the time to make anymore. Just as well because there was probably as much butter as potato in these.

Berghoff on UrbanspoonOff the the Vic Theater (American spelling because that’s its name), to see our first performance of the Comedy Festival: Patton Oswalt.



Chicago: Pizano’s & Popcorn!

When we wrapped our monster road trip last summer in Chicago, we knew we’d have to return. We’re here for the Just For Laughs festival, an extension of the iconic Montreal comedy event, and also to check out some of its iconic eateries and famous food.

Arrived in the windy city just before noon on a pleasantly cool summer day. Our flight was at a civilized 9:50 am, and oddly, there was no one behind us or in front of us at check in, security or immigration AND our bags were the first to come off the carousel on the other side. Quickest airline experience ever. After an uneventful flight, the best kind, we arrived in Chicago and checked in at The Wit Hotel. We were eager to hit the bustling streets and enjoy the city. Conan O’Brien is taping his late night talk show ight next door this week and carrying out his antics on the State Street Bridge which we have a view of from our hotel room on the 24th floor.

We walked snapping pics until we got hungry. We decided on Pizano’s simply because it was in front of us at the moment of need. It was well after 1 pm and the place was hopping inside and out. We opt for a seat inside. It is rather cool outside and street traffic is heavy. Turns out to be a good choice and we have a great view of the street from our table.

The restaurant is decorated in “amateur Italian mural” and the walls are adorned from the bottom up with framed sports figure photos and local celebs. Baseball and football have a huge presence.  The Blackhawks have disturbingly little love from what I can see on this my second visit to the city. They won a cup in very recent memory. What have the Cubs done? I digress.

Our friendly waitress starts to rhyme off what she has on tap. We stop her at Blue Moon. Two refreshing glasses of this delicious wheat beer that is unavailable north of the border. Our beers come and she answers our menu questions. I order the Italian sausage sandwich which is her personal favorite and a big seller. Rob is determined apparently to find out what all the fuss is about Italian beef, a Chicago special. We had it on our last visit and declared it to be ….well….awful. He believes we had a bad one and are missing out on something. Our waitress agrees with him and says their Italian beef is excellent. Turns out they were both right.

We have time to finish our beers before our food arrives. This is a good sign. They are making stuff fresh in the kitchen. Our plates come heaping with excellent fries, crispy, skin on, perfect. A very good vinegar coleslaw and a decent dill accompany both sandwiches. Mine comes with a small cup of very good meat sauce and Rob’s comes with au jus dip and and a sport- and cherry-pepper-laced gardinere.

My Italian sausage is juicy but a tad salty. The bun is perfectly toasty, warm and chewy but not tough. A little cheese and an excellent tomato sauce makes this a great choice. Rob gives me a bite of his Italian beef and I have to admit…he was right. We just had a bad one on our first try. This is beefy, tasty and spicy hot with piles juicy beef, sweet peppers and a generous application of hot Italian gardienere. The bun is as mine was, toasty and nicely chewy. The sandwich was not pre-dipped and therefore not a soggy mess, which some Chicago native’s find a plus. It comes down to personal taste and this was more to our taste.

On our walk back to our hotel we stopped in at Garrett Popcorn to buy some of their famous Chicago Mix popcorn. Lucky for us there were no lineups today. Sometimes they go down the street. Garrets famous blend is completely addictive and made fresh without preservatives every day.

Pizano's Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon


The Chicago Blend is a delicious blend of cheesy and caramel popcorn. The caramel coating the kernels tastes lightly of burnt sugar and the heavily cheesy corn of cheetos. OMG delicious. BEST. POPCORN. EVER. I cannot stop eating it and my fingers are permanently stained orange.

Garrett Popcorn Shops on Urbanspoon

RT15: Tepid Italian Beef

We don’t get it. We’re prepared to admit it. It sounded good. We liked the IDEA of it. We never stopped to really think about it, though. We know people will say, “You didn’t have it at (INSERT FAVOURITE PLACE HERE)” and maybe that’s true, but we went for the top of the list and one that places highly in most “best of” lists. Remember though, we are prepared to admit that this one is beyond us.

High on this list of iconic Chicago foods is the Hot Italian Beef, a sandwich featured on most surveys of Chicago favourites. Debates rage about who makes the best and the best way to enjoy the sandwich. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explaining:

“An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930s.[1] The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called “hot”) or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called “sweet”).”

We selected Al’s Italian Beef as our place to visit for this sandwich. It places highly on “best of” lists, and seems to be the largest. There are some out of the way joints that probably have raised it to an art form, but they are across town.

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

There is an expectation raised by the idea of the Hot Italian Beef: A rich, beefy filling, accentuated by peppers, and heightened by the dip in the au jus.

What you get is another thing entirely. This may be the point at which we differ from the Chicago natives. What you get is EXACTLY what the hot Italian beef is: Roast beef, sitting in a “au jus gravy ” for who knows how long and then served on bread that’s soaked in said au jus.

Maybe that’s the point at which we part ways with fans of the sandwich. The beef is soggy, the bread is soggy, the peppers are overdone leaving a soft soggy mess unto themselves. There seems to be a point of pride about how incredibly messy this sandwich is, but what’s missing is real, unique flavour. There is absolutely no reason the crave this sandwich and to NEED one the future. Truly GREAT sandwiches demand a repeat performance. This one left us scratching our heads as to why anyone would want one in the first place.

Is our experience sullied by bad execution? Who knows, but the difference would have to be huge to make us order a Hot Italian Beef in the future. It’s all subjective, we know, and this blog entry won’t change the iconic status of this Chicago favourite. We don’t get it, and we’re prepared to admit that it’s our lack of…something, that prevents us from understanding the allure.

After an afternoon of major purchases, a couple of pairs of cowboy boots for Maureen and a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster for Rob, and then some serious reflection in the hotel bar, we ventured out to Harry Caray’s for steaks – not so much for the Chicago food tradition, but for the Chicago sports tradition. As Canadians who are somewhat removed from the authentic Harry Caray phenomenon, it’s hard for us to separate the real Harry Caray from the outrageous portrayal of him by Will Farrel, given that it’s the only exposure we have.

We arrive at Harry Caray’s and get the traditional steak house experience – decent steaks and sides, albeit some broccoli that’s underdone (better than overdone, though), and good, friendly service.

Harry Caray's on Urbanspoon

But, we are ready to go home. It’s been an eventful two weeks. We’ve covered a lot of ground and New Orleans seems like MONTHS ago. Now to start planning the next one!




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.