Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Fat Kid's Guide to Chicago

I'll be the first to admit that my time in New York has perhaps instilled in me a slightly obnoxious city snobbery when it comes to other U.S. cities. "Oh yeah, [insert U.S. city name] is nice...for a huge, sprawling suburban town" or "It's great - reminds me of Jersey." Plus I haven't really explored cities that don't fit neatly into my bi-coastal domestic travel patterns.

But Chicago has remained one big unknown. Everyone I know loves it (in the summer) but it only brings to my mind unsettling images from The Jungle or Native Son. To settle this cognitive dissonance once and for all, I decided it was time to venture into the Great Unknown (aka the MidWest) and see for myself. In the spirit of communal happiness, I offer the guide below for those of you who have also never been:

Step 1: Get on an aeroplane (or, a train, car, bicycle - whatever) and go, meng!
There are tons of cheap flights to Chicago out of New York, especially for the weekends. While you're booking that, find a nice 'lil airbnb to stay in in a cute neighborhood like Wicker Park or Ukranian Village.

Step 2: Find a local to drive you around and take you to their favorite places to eat.
I was extremely fortunate in this category, as I was visiting my good friend Josh Brau. In addition trying to make McDonalds more sustainable, Josh has spent his summer in Chicago getting to know every good place to eat. I knew I could trust this bonafide fat kid to take good care of my taste buds.

As soon as I landed, Josh brought me to Urban Belly , where creative Asian fusion is served on communal picnic tables, fast-food cafeteria style. Efficient yet delicious - I love!

Seasonal kimchi with some BYOB rosé in the background. Chicago is a BYOB type of city.

Lamb brandy dumplings. A fait accompli for Asian fusion, I still dream about the intensely divine flavor/texture combination. Definitely the star of the show.

Spot-on ramen with pork belly in pho broth

Step 3: Wash it down with dessert and drinks.
We went to Josh's favorite watering hole Big Star with the intention of having some tacos for dessert, but sadly we had to settle for drinks only since the kitchen had some kind of debacle and closed early. Not to fear! We had unintentionally thought ahead by first eating some insanely good gelato from Black Dog, with flavors like salty peanut and goat cheese.

Step 4: Wake up early and treat yourself to a sweet, fluffy breakfast.

Forget your hangover. Saturday mornings at 9:30 is when the Donut Vault opens and remains open until all their freshly made donuts have run out. Astoundingly, by the time we got there around 10:00 on a hot 90+ degree day, there was already a line (of the excruciatingly slow-moving variety) that extended a full city block.

Vanilla, chestnut, pistachio, and chocolate glazed, buttermilk old-fashioned, and ginger stack.

Luckily, it was worth the one-hour wait.

Step 5: Keep a balanced diet.
For example, why not add some protein to your diet with these fresh pork sesame buns from Butcher and Larder? They're only $1.50 each, and they taste like Taiwan!

Step 6: Decide for yourself if there is any reason to consider the Chicago pizza debate.
Okay, I have to confess that I didn't actually try Chicago-styled deep dish pizza. But that's really only because the pizza house of the moment, Great Lake, is decidedly not Chicago-styled. It was, however, remarkable. Never again will I scoff at the notion of wait-worthy pizza in Chicago.

We got ours with sausage and spring onions. I can't even look at this picture without getting hungry. It's a blessing and a curse, I tell you.

Accompanied by some farm fresh tomato salad with Dante cheese. So fresh and so good.

Step 7: Send yourself off with a hearty brunch.
Longman & Eagle may be the coolest place in all of Chicago. Not only do they have a cute hipstery staff, they also have a cute hipstery B&B right above the restaurant.

What's brunch without some brunchy cocktails? Like a good brunch cocktail, mine was floral and strong.

Watermelon salad. Every summer there is one thing that I can't get enough of, and this year it's watermelon salad. Gimme!

I loved this version of shrimp and grits because 1) the heads are still on the shrimp, and 2) the addition of the one hour egg. Hallelujah.

Housemade biscuits and gravy. What's not to love about this?

Step 8 (optional): Feed your mind!
Like the true great city that it is, Chicago has a ton to offer in the cultural enrichment category.

You can get your history on via an architectural boat tour of city. There's even booze on the cruise!

The Chicago Institute of Art is stupendous and world-class. Just as importantly, it's not crowded.

Millenium Park is a kick-ass public space, complete with it's own Frank Gehry bandshell and behemoth work of public art.


So there you have it. Now you have no reason not to go and see for yourself what all that relaxed, friendly, reasonably-priced fuss is all about.