Chitown, the Food Saturday, Sep 18 2010 

When Boyfriend and I vacation, we tend to do a lot of walking.  We’ll tell you that it’s the best way to see the city, or that it’s silly to spend money on cab fare when it’s seventy perfect degrees outside, or that this is the reason we chose a hotel right smack in the center of everywhere we wanted to be.  But the real reason?  The real reason is that we really like to eat, and on vacation, we eat a lot. 
Chicago was, of course, no exception to this rule.  I spent a solid two months perusing the boards over here to get the rundown on what Chicago had to offer.  I ogled the crazy menu at Alinea (and, of course, ultimately deemed it too rich for our twenty-something wallets), and had a days-long inner battle about which deep dish pizza we should try (since we’re both insufferable snobs when it comes to our pizza).  I even had a list of brewpubs and bars with extensive beer lists that I was forced to narrow down quite a bit for lack of time.  With all this hemming and hawing between our various culinary choices, there was one stop that was simply a no-brainer the instant I looked at the menu.  It fairly shouted Boyfriend’s name to me, through the computer screen, and, despite its distance from the hotel and relative obscurity with respect to anything else we wanted to see or do, I knew we had to go. 

So onto my carefully-planned itinerary it went – after the brewery tour, and before a stop at Hopleaf to keep our buzz going, I decided that we’d go to Hot Doug’s so Boyfriend would experience the glory of the “encased meats” I knew he’d love, and the duck fries we’d never heard of (but now simply had to have).  And that was that…until we went to The Second City Comedy Club the night before.  I’d overestimated both how long it would take us to walk from The Loop to Old Town, and how long dinner at Adobo Grill would take, and we had a little time on our hands.  I insisted we go to the Spice Merchants, which instantly assaulted every one of our senses in the best possible way, and to get some fudge (because there is always room for dessert on vacation), before we wandered into a specialty store selling olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  Since we walked in only a few minutes before closing, I fully expected to be hustled along and back out the door, especially since we didn’t really want to buy anything that would necessitate checking our bags on the flight back to Jersey.  But, on the contrary, the clerk struck up a conversation about what we were planning to do while we were in Chicago.  When we casually mentioned Hot Doug’s as part of our plans for the next day, he was instantly apologetic.  “I’m really sorry,” he told us, “but I’m pretty sure that they’re closed this week…” After a few frantic minutes peering into Boyfriend’s (incredibly slow) BlackBerry, our fears were confirmed – there would be no Hot Doug’s trip on this vacation. 
Of course, we were disappointed.  And I have no doubt that Hot Doug’s would’ve fulfilled every one of our salivating expectations.  But the rest of Chicago’s food more than made up for the travesty of missing out on one of our highly anticipated destinations.  
Most notably, Boyfriend and I both returned from Chicago completely devoted to the genius that is Rick Bayless.  Not only were the churros and hot chocolate at XOCO mouth-watering and flawlessly executed, but the menu was so original, so eclectic.  In a world of taco-enchilada-fajita Mexican restaurants, Rick Bayless challenged everything Boyfriend and I thought we knew about Mexican food.  We were hooked from the first bite. And the Wednesday-only pork belly torta?  Words cannot describe.  Having never eaten pork belly in our lives, I wasn’t honestly sure we would enjoy it.  Or, more accurately, I wasn’t sure I would like it, since Boyfriend likes virtually everything he eats.  And no amount of glowing reviews on every website I read could make me order that sandwich without knowing what pork belly tasted like.  But when Boyfriend shared a bite with me, I instantly regretted that decision.  Because my torta was really good, but Boyfriend’s was outstanding.  The salsa, in particular, was stellar – hot enough to satisfy our spice-loving palates, but not so harsh that it overwhelmed the rest of the sandwich.  And this magical sandwich…did I mention that it was our very first meal in Chicago?  I think we knew right then and there that we’d be enjoying our time in this city.

Aside from our new crush on Rick Bayless, we also developed a really strange love for Portillo’s hot dogs.  I don’t mean that it was unusual because of the place we got so attached to – with the sports memorabilia, highly amusing staff, speedy service, and delicious chocolate milkshakes, it was no wonder we enjoyed it. But hot dogs?  We don’t even eat hot dogs at barbeques if there are other options – we’re really cheeseburger and sausage kind of people.  But these hot dogs.  I don’t really know what it was; I got very attached to the chili dog, while Boyfriend raved about the Chicago dog and it’s tiny, lime green peppers.  I would tell you the exact tally of hot dogs eaten in five days, but it’s embarrassing, and quite frankly I’d rather not face the potential judgment. 
And then there was the thing we didn’t think we were going to like.  We’re Jersey kids and we like our pizza the way we like our pizza, so neither of us thought that deep dish was going to do it for us.  We actually walked into Lou Malnati’s expecting to be underwhelmed (I know, I know…blasphemy!), and were pleasantly surprised to find that we more than enjoyed our little upside-down pizza (I’m sorry, the toppings go on the top.  This is why they’re called toppings).  While it will never replace the pizza I’ve grown up with, the pizza I desperately miss whenever I leave the tri-state area, Boyfriend and I were glad to have tried, and liked, it, if for no other reason than to avoid the wrath of Chicagoans everywhere. 
And!  And!  Garrett’s Popcorn.  What is that about?  Though fully warned by a friend from the Chicago area, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wandered passed our first Garrett’s and found an actual line of people waiting for the doors to open in the morning.  Not that we didn’t eat it and love it (I mean, it’s popcorn drenched in caramel, after all), but lining up outside the door?  At breakfast time?  I don’t know…maybe I just didn’t eat enough to get hooked.
Now, I’ve long held the belief that calories don’t count on your birthday, but after a trip like this, I may need to revise my theory a little – perhaps to include one’s significant other, vacation, and several days of eating as if it were your birthday.  And at the end of it, only hours after we landed in Newark, I’m sure you can guess what we were doing. 
Eating birthday cake, of course.


Chicago Thursday, Sep 9 2010 

I take birthdays pretty seriously.  I like to bake big cakes, make big plans, do big things.  I like to remember birthdays as unique and special experiences that can’t be had every day – not just having dinner with some friends at a local restaurant, but doing something truly special.  Because there’s really only one day a year that’s all about you, and why wouldn’t you want to celebrate it in a big way?  For me, birthdays are less about the age, and more about the occasion.  And for Boyfriend’s 25th last week, we certainly did celebrate. 

Conveniently, Boyfriend had some time off available right around his birthday, and he had a specific vacation in mind – a vacation that would finally get him to Wrigley Field.  Needless to say, I had no complaints about Chicago; I’ve never been there, and had been itching to go myself.  So off we went to the Windy City, where we spent five days eating hot dogs and wandering around a new city.   

We spent some time on The Ledge at the top of the Sears Willis Tower, where Boyfriend looked specifically for every sports arena in the greater Chicago area, pointing out Soldier Field and the United Center like an excited kid on Christmas.  And while we couldn’t see Wrigley from the top, we got to see it right up close the next day, the way Boyfriend felt it should be seen.  We took the Red Line out to Wrigleyville, stood in the general admission line for close to an hour, and (literally) ran to the left field bleachers, where I spent a tense two hours trying to avoid home run balls hit our way during batting practice.  While the Cubs would go on to lose the game, Boyfriend was in heaven – it was a beautiful day, he was watching baseball, and we’d nabbed a stray ball during batting practice.  And after the game, we fell in love with Murphy’s Bleachers and the Goose Island Brew Pub, where we finished celebrating Boyfriend’s birthday (a few days early) with some delicious beers and snacks.  Another El ride, a chocolate milkshake, and several hot dogs later, we spent the rest of the evening relaxing…which is something we rarely do much of on vacation. 

Antsy and looking to burn off some milkshake calories, we spent the next day biking around the lake, near Chicago’s version of the beach, and riding through Navy Pier before the crowds got to it.  We stumbled upon a giant hot air balloon of sorts, as well as the set of the movie Transformers 3, and tried to keep my sun-burned self in the shade.   At night, we saw live blues at a club where the bouncer told me I looked too young to be there (ouch?), and the bartender informed Boyfriend that there was no Coors Light to be had.  We took photos of ourselves reflected in the Chicago bean, admired Buckingham Fountain, and sat at an impossibly small table at The Second City, where we laughed hysterically for two full hours.   

But our favorite thing about Chicago (besides, of course, the food, which we’ll get to later), was definitely the people.  Everyone we met, from our airport shuttle driver to the women sitting behind us at the Cubs game, was so genuinely excited for our first trip to Chicago and so eager to help us decide how to spend our time.  Strangers commented on Boyfriend’s “CANADA IS HOCKEY” t-shirt, reminding us that while Canada may be hockey, for this year at least, the Cup was Chicago.  We also had an oddly endearing conversation about Trenton, NJ and its pork roll with the Brewers at Half Acre, and very hot-dog-specific chat with a store clerk (moments before the store was scheduled to close, which, incidentally, is precisely when most clerks are the least chatty) that centered around our deep sadness at Hot Doug’s summer closure. 

And after days of eating, drinking, and watching sports, was it any wonder that, upon our return to windy, rainy New Jersey, Boyfriend stepped one foot off the plane, turned to me, and asked (in his best it’s-my-birthday-and-you-have-to-do-what-I-say voice) “um, can we go back to Chicago now?”