Great food in Chicago

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May 27, 2002
Canberra ACT Australia
I'm impressed with this article. Hope you will be...s Chicago, my kinda town By Sean Condon LAST October I celebrated a birthday in the plush Sinatra Booth of Chicago's Pump Room restaurant. Formerly known as Booth No.1, the posthumously renamed Sinatra Booth is at the far end of a long, large dining area and has a curtain which can be drawn for privacy. The Pump Room is old-school dining, formal and elegant, lots of dark wood, crystal and silver; the type of place where you'll find a baby grand with a oversized brandy balloon on top for folding-money-only tips. I was there with my wife, Sally, and our friend Ken, a Chicago native who lives in Amsterdam, and his date, Caroline, a college sweetheart. The Pump Room has been serving the great and the good, gangsters and governors, somebodies and nobodies since 1938. It is a AAA four-diamond-rated, multi-award-winning dining institution, but what really sold me on it was the fact that a key scene in James Ellroy's American Tabloid takes place in it. On the plane Sally and I read about Chicago's close relationship with food, specifically meat. Many US cities have a culinary identity associated with a signature dish: think of Philly Cheese Steaks, muffaletta sandwiches in New Orleans, the undressed macrobiotic salad so popular in Los Angeles. Chicago claims for itself two famous foods: deep-dish pizza, which was apparently invented there; and barbecue which, like blues music, wasn't invented in Chicago but, according to natives was perfected here. Fat pizza I couldn't have cared less about but the barbecue had my mouth in a frenzy, particularly a joint called Hecky's which got raves in every guide book. It was all I could do not to ask the stewardess for a bib. Chicagoans seem surprised and happy that you're there (it's similar to the way the people of Adelaide feel when an overseas tourist comes to town) and consequently they treat visitors with a refreshing warmth and openness. Even the immigration officer who welcomed us stateside with an avuncular chumminess. Chicago has several nicknames – "the Windy City", "that Toddlin' Town", "the Second City" – to name the big three. Thanks to the chilly gusts off Lake Michigan it is windy, and with a vibrant and distinct bar scene it certainly toddles, but in many respects it is not at all second to New York City, as the disparaging, but self-coined, name suggests. The food is better, cheaper and more plentiful; the people are less busy and self-involved; it's not nearly as noisy. Chicago was the world's first skys****er city, and remains in my opinion architecturally superior to Manhattan. The Art Deco masterpiece of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Beaux Arts Union Station are absolutely breathtaking, second only to Tribune Tower, which was the result of a competition held in 1922 by The Chicago Tribune for architects to design "the most beautiful office building in the world". Clearly, the judges chose well because this is a spectacular building. But back to the food: Chicago is justifiably famous for its barbecue and without doubt the city's best barbecue is found at Hecky's, in the border suburb of Evanston. Apart from its retina-burning yellowness, there's absolutely nothing special about the store, located about 20 minutes' drive from downtown on a corner near a train line, a small funeral home and a Baptist church. It's possible to dine in at one of the plastic tables, staring at hearses and Baptists as you eat, but who'd want to do that? Luckily not Sally or me, because Ken insisted that it was "traditional" to eat the spicy barbecued links, rib tips, chicken drumsticks, French fries and biscuits – a steaming bag of meat and starch that Ken called "soul food" – as we took a driving tour of Evanston, where he had grown up. Evanston is very nice, in many ways the quintessence of American middle class: leafy and affluent, with wide, tree-lined streets, large comfortable homes with basketball hoops on garage doors, squirrels and Halloween decorations everywhere. I couldn't help feeling regretful pangs at not having grown up there myself. I like squirrels. After we had our picture taken outside a mutual friend's boyhood home with its basketball hoop, Halloween decorations and several squirrels, and then visited the store where Ken used to buy his after-school candy, next to the barber shop where he used to have his hair cut, Ken took us to his boyhood home to pick up some napkins and meet his mother. Mrs Schaefle was a very sweet lady, welcoming and pleasant and very happy that we were enjoying Chicago and how did we know Kenneth and where were we from because our accents sounded Australian? I tried to remain calm and politely responsive but found it difficult because the food we'd travelled thousands of kilometres to eat had been sitting in the paper sack in the back of Ken's rental car for about 45 minutes by now, and I couldn't think of much else apart from the sack's (probably delicious but how would I know?) contents cooling and congealing. It was killing me. It was all I could do not to ask Mrs Schaefle for a bib. Eventually we were back in the car, heading north along Sheridan Rd, through the ritzier upper middle class suburbs, Wilmette and Winnetka, that flank Lake Michigan. Through mouthfuls of lukewarm, but still sensational barbecue, I asked Ken who lived in these huge homes. "Orthodontists," he told me. "Orthodontists and probably some bankers as well, poor ********." Every one of these enormous and mostly tasteful lakeview spreads was worth at least a million dollars. I asked Ken why he pitied them. "Too far away from Hecky's, man. They probably never even heard of it." Sally and I were staying at the Drake Hotel, in the heart of an elegant area called the Gold Coast, at the edge of Lake Michigan. The hotel, something of a Chicago institution since it opened in 1920, is only a few steps from North Michigan Avenue. Like a hybrid of Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive and the Champs Elysees, it runs on a gentle slope from the Chicago River north to Oak St, and is home to 460 shops, 275 restaurants and two museums. If, like my wife, your idea of magnificence is high-end retail such as Neiman Marcus and Saks, as well as prestige boutiques such as Cartier, Hermes and Tiffany & Co, then it more than lives up to its nickname as 'The Magic Mile'. Sally was pleased with our location. And since it was my birthday and I am married to a generous, thoughtful shopper, I wasn't exactly sorry we were staying so near, either. I silently prayed for a massage chair from Hammacher Schlemmer. While Sally shopped, Ken took me on a two-stop cultural tour. Our first destination was the Field Museum, a large and excellent museum much of which is devoted to the native American history of Chicago and Illinois. Next was the nearby football stadium which Ken, like almost every other local, calls 'Soldiers Field', despite the fact it is quite clearly called Soldier Field. I would have liked to have seen inside but it was the wrong season and gridiron is a terribly boring game, so I was kind of relieved. "OK Sean," Ken said as we got back in the car. "You gotta try these legendary hot dogs at Maxwell St. You up for it? And you know why Chicago's called the Windy City?" I said something about how the place was pretty windy and maybe that had something to do with it. "Well, some people believe that's it, and there may be some truth in it but there are other theories. The most popular is because in 1893 New York and Chicago were competing with each other to hold the World's Fair – part of which was held right there." "And the editor of The New York Sun wrote an editorial warning people not to believe the shameless boosterism and boasting coming out of 'that windy city'." As we neared the 'legendary' South Loop hotdog joint I spied a White Castle hamburger outlet. It had long been a dream of mine to sample some White Castle. They are small burgers, about the size of the palm of your hand and come in a refreshing lack of variety – basically with onion, but I digress ... I won't sugar-coat it, the South Loop is a pretty rundown neighbourhood: bleak and flat with the decrepit air of abandoned industry hanging over it like a pall. It's the sort of area where if there were gangs in Chicago (and there are) they'd hang out (and they do). So was the hotdog worthy of its legendary status and worth venturing into this potentially treacherous wasteland? The answer is a qualified yes: the bun was crisp, the sausage spicy, firm and juicy – but not oily. Service was sullen yet efficient and the price ($US2.27) more than acceptable. Back at the hotel, Sally presented me with a birthday watch and we got ready for dinner. We knew we had to make an effort: The Pump Room once refused entry to Phil Collins for being under-dressed and the incident inspired him to name his album No Jacket Required. The entrance to the Pump Room is covered in framed black-and-white pictures of just about every notable person who has ever dined there, including Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and, of course, Frank Sinatra. After pre-dinner drinks at the bar, the four of us filed down to a booth and studied the extensive wine list and our menus. Faced with choices such as Colorado lamb tart, crab cakes with English pea ravioli or fire-roasted lobster consomme, the legendary dogs of Maxwell Street and the White Castle burgers quickly became a distant memory. Image 4 of 4 The Windy City ... cyclists ride beside Chicago's Lake Michigan / AP Sky's the limit ... Chicago was the world's first skys****er city and remains architecturally dazzling Got the blues ... an oompahpah man, or busker, plays on the streets of Chicago / Mark Montgomery Succulent ... Chicago is famous for its barbecue and the some of the most succulent ribs are to found at Hentys
I never knew that Chicago was famous for its barbeque...Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, North/South Carolina, but not Chicago. Also, I think to say that the food in Chicago is better than in NYC is a huge generalization and highly debatable at that. [ August 30, 2006, 12:38 PM: Message edited by: harrydog ]
Eh, I live in Chicago and I have never heard anything about famous barbeque. We do have killer hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and beef sandwiches though. As far as the east coast goes, **** NYC. Never cared for it anyway.
But what about good food not junk? Hot dogs, pizza, beef sandwiches, you are taking the p1ss. Tell me about Chicago's real good food places like Charlie Trotters, Le Lan, mk the restaurant, Shanghai Terrace, Mas, Avenues, Stetsons Chop House and Bar, Le Titi de Paris and so many more. Tell me what you think of these?
Originally posted by AcuraTech: Eh, I live in Chicago and I have never heard anything about famous barbeque. We do have killer hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and beef sandwiches though. As far as the east coast goes, **** NYC. Never cared for it anyway.
You need to get that chip off your shoulder regarding NYC. Sounds distinctly like sour grapes to me. [Wink]
The son easily talked his mother into Charlie Trotter's every time we were in Chicago it seemed (he was in college). Personally, I could eat breakfast at either Lou Mitchell's downtown (where Route 66 begins) or, at Walker Brother's Pancake House in Evanston. Man, do I like Walker Brother's . . . [Burnout]
That's an interesting article. I have lived in the Chicago area my entire life and this is the first I have heard about it being famous for its BARBQ. I have always thought it was known for its pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches. I have heard of Hecky's restaurant, but only because it was said to have great fried chicken. There are plenty of great BBQ spots in Chicago, I would recommend the Twin Anchors or Gale Street Inn for ribs though.
After moving from Chicago to Nashville I can assure you than Nashville has far more BBQ places (Judge Beans, Jack's, etc) where brisket is served in melt-in-your mouth fashion. I never heard of brisket in Chicago. Chicago = pizza, steak, great hot dogs/Polish, and wonderful 'ma & pa' ethnic food from Italian to Polish to Mexican. Dang, I miss pizza the most --> Gino's East, Aurelio's, and Pizza Pete. Yummmmm.
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