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Showing Off Chicago


Over the last couple days, I've been showing a vistor around town. Naturally, this involved a lot of food -- but we did some other important Chicago activities like the architecture tour on the river.

Day One

To start things off, we attempted to have a Chicago dog at Flub a Dub Chub's, which looked like a respectable beef shack. I was embarassed to discover they served something ... slightly off. The Chicago-style hot dog has a very particular set of requirements: natural-casing dog that has been boiled or steamed served in a poppy-seed bun, with chopped white onion, neon-green relish, yellow mustard, tomato slices1, three sport peppers2, a dill pickle spear, and celery salt. In that order. A grilled dog can be acceptable, if it's indicated on the menu.

What we actually got was a grilled, skinless dog in a regular bun. And, for whatever reason, it had a bit of cucumebr on top in addition to everything else. The cucumebr is almost forgivable, but substituting the natural-casing hotdog for skinless is a criminal offense. The experience of biting into a natural-casing dog is completely different from skinless -- there's a notable toothsomeness that is missing without the casing -- and it's an important part of the Chicago hot dog.

So that was a big fail.

After futzing around at the zoo, we ended at the Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder Company for the famed pizza pot pie. Which I'd never had, because getting in there requires planning ahead -- they opened at 4 PM, we got there at maybe 4:03, and the place was already packed. People without reservations had a 3h wait by 4:30. It's a happenin' spot.

The pizza itself was unique. It's inspired by deep dish, but it's not deep dish. The crust is completely different: normally deep dish had a pretty thick, heavy, buttery crust, and some of them are a bit meal-y. Supporting the casserole while it bakes without sogging out requires all of that heartiness to stand up to liquids from the tomatos and other fillings.

But the pot pie pizza is cooked inverted in a bowl, with the crust stuck on top. It gets some of the steam, but it's not sitting in direct contact with the filling while it bakes. They're able to use a pretty light bread dough, and it goes really nicely with their tomato-and-sausage sauce.

I didn't grab a picture because it's mostly lettuce, but we had the chef's salad as an appetizer. This is necessary for two reasons: one, it takes a while to bake the pizzas, and two, their salad dressing situation demands you get a salad. They have damn good dressings! You get three: an italian oil/vinegar situation, a sweet dressing, and a cool ranch dressing. The salad was the most basic thing you can imagine, but it was great. Also too much for three people; if you're a small group, definitely stick with the "individual portion" of the salad for sharing.

The pot pies themselves are best eaten individually. They can split their larger 1lb for a couple people, but as soon as you cut into it, it descends into chaos; each diner should order their own half pounder for the best experience.

Day Two

The next day, we had Green Street Meats for lunch. This was a struggle: it's very easy to order Everything there, but we had big plans for dinner, and needed to have some restraint. I tried two things I've never had there before: the (vegan) broccoli salad, and the smoked salmon.

The salmon was a heckin' chonker, coming in at twice the size of your regular grocery-store portioned salmon filet. And despite being smoked and reheated, it was still a bit rare in the center. It was delightful. The broccoli salad was also really good; fresh cold broccoli with some kinda slaw dressing and nuts.

The other folks got the more typical things: pastrami, ribs, elote, yadda yadda. I didn't get pictures of any of this though.

We did the 90-minute boat tour on the river in great weather. We lucked out and got John as our tour guide. He's got the best reviews, and he gave us a good mix of technical architecture stuff, Chicago history, and weird stories about stuff happening in the buildings adjoining the river.

For example: Rufolf (the reindeer) was invented along the Chicago river, by Montgomery Ward & Co for a free give-away colouring book one holiday season. Robert May, over in the advertising department, was told to come up with something, found inspiration from some shitty weather, and wrote the original story. The company got the rights to Rudolf, and when it went gangbusters, he ... continued to see the exact same salary.

Eventually, Ward moved on from Rudolf for their Christmas promos and gave May the rights to his story. He put together a song and shopped it around ... the singing cowboy Gene Autry initially hated the whole thing, but his wife loved it, and convinced him to perform it. The rest is history.

For dinner, we did the tasting menu at Elske. I've done this one before, waaaaaay back in the days before COVID-19, and it was pretty good.

I was a bit surprised to find how little the menu had changed. I remember the chicken croquettes and the salted ramp foie gras tart as some of the highlights from the first time I went. I wasn't too disappointed though: they're damn good dishes!

The lamb tartare & beet cracker things were described as a Scandanavian take on a hot dog. I know that sounds weird, but they really did have a similar taste to a Vienna beef hotdog, despite being lamb. Not completely the same, but it was certainly a thing.

The first time around, we had a sourdough bread -- this time, they gave us some nice little buns with a dusting of saurkraut powder on top. This stuff was awesome, and I hope somebody figures out how to start putting it on potato chips 👀

They offer a non-alcoholic juice pairing in addition to the wine pairing. I don't know if they had this a couple years ago -- it's a good addition if that's new, and I hope every tasting menu gets that option. They did a solid job coming up with beverages to match each dish.

I really liked the presentation on the cod. It looks like an overgrown log by a pond.

Day Four

We left our guest to explore on their own for a day and a half, rejoining them for another tasting menu on day four, this time at Maman Zari.

This is the only persian testing menu in Chicago. Their wine pairing cannot draw on the Iranian wine industry, since producing alcohol was banned in 1979. And, oddly enough, they do not offer an NA pairing -- that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity for them?

They did try to offer some persian wines by proxy: a couple of them were made by people who'd emigrated to re-establish their winery elsewhere, or smuggled an Iranian grape varietal into another country. They didn't do a ton of storytelling with the wine presentations, but what they did give us was pretty interesting!

The food was pretty much a "persian food 101" set: you saw things you'd expect. I don't think the chef was playing with most of the dishes; they were just executing some slightly-chef'd-up versions of classics. I've never had mirza ghasemi or sekanjabin, so that was new, but most of it was stuff you've probably already encountered.

There was a fun story for the lamb: the dish was originally for royalty in the 1400s, and serving it to other folks wasn't allowed. The chef thought this was a stupid rule and started making it for everybody. There wasn't really an ending (did he get away with it? did his head roll?), but it was interesting to speculate. I can't find more about baghali polo's history, so if you know, send me a message!

One thing that was a bit unfortunate was the fried potatoes with the cobia. They went to the effort of frying up potato chips to go with the fish, but since they're sitting in that sauce, they had sogged out by the time the dish hit the table. That ... seems like a predictable outcome, so I dunno what the deal is.

I would have preferred them to skip the potato entirely, do a fish filet with crispy skin, and serve a little bit of bread to mop up the sauce. The thin, moist potato wasn't picking much of it up -- and everybody ended up leaving a lot of it on the plate for lack of any effective way to eat it!

Somebody got a glass of lebanese arak to go with dessert. I've got a bottle of batavia-arrack that I had never opened, and we weren't really sure if they were the same, since sometimes I see 'arrack' spelled 'arak'. When they served it, it came with a carafe of water, and we tried it both undiluted and diluted.

It has a very different character when you dilute it! Arak is an anise-flavoured spirit and it'll louche like absinthe. If you have no idea what you're looking at there: when you add water, the oils in the spirit instantly form a stable emulsion, which is an odd thing anise-flavoured spirits do3.

When I got home, I opened the arrack and it was a VERY different thing: it's a funky rum. No anise flavour in a hundred miles of that.

Day Five

For lunch, we visited Piece, which offers Correct Pizza -- or a reasonable approximation, given we're 856 miles from Modern. They could have burned it more. But it was thin. I didn't get pictures, because it looks like a pizza. You know what a pizza looks like.

We toured the area and walked the 606 a couple times. I'm not sure I've been up there before. It was ... not the best pedway because it's a bit narrow and there are tons of cyclists. And, despite being against da rulez, we had a fair number of eBikes/scooters passing six inches to the left at their top speed.

There was a new apartment building with direct access to the 606, with a little rest station available to everybody. I'm sure it's expensive as all fuck, but it was cool to see the integration.

For dinner, we went to Giant. This is not a tasting menu -- instead, it's fine dining done family-style.

Which initially seemed like an absolutely ridiculous thing to attempt. The resturant is small. It's not the tighest place I've ever been4, but the server suggested two items per diner, and the idea of having six big dishes, our own dinner plates, and drinks at our tiny table did not seem realistic.

But, the team at Giant were pros and knew exactly what to do. They brought items out two at a time and figured out which two would be best to serve together. It worked well!

All of their pasta was on-point. The tagliatelle has big chili crab energy; I've had chili crab in Singapore, so I appreciated the trip down memory lane!

The pizette with the foie gras custard spread all over the asparagus was fantastic. It's The Time of Asparagus right now, so I dunno if it's always this amazing or if it's just the incredible quality of the asparagus you can get -- but damn, definitely try that if you're going to Giant before aparagus season ends.

They also wisely served it with scissors, which ended up being the ideal tool for portioning a flatbreat with loose toppings.

The swordfish -- which looks like a croquette with the incredible crust they developed on it -- wasn't very good. The dish itself had some really nice peanut & chili sauce, but the steak left a lot to be desired. That crust came at the cost of it being kind of dry, and the size of the steak left something to be desired when split amongst the party.

I am starting to wonder if swordfish just sucks in general. I'm not sure I've ever had a stand-out swordfish steak. I've tried cooking it on my own, and that usually sucks. I've had it at fish resturants, and it's okay. I've had it at Giant, and it was easily the least-exciting dish.

Why do we think swordfish is Fancy and Good? A nice piece of wild Alaskan salmon has more flavour and skin you can crisp up. Swordfish is just a big hunk of fish, and you've gotta take the skin off at some point because it's gross and indigestible. Why do we bother?

But that was the tour!

  1. Tomato wedges are permissible as well. Any hunk of fresh tomato will do, as long as you can get it to fit on the dog. 

  2. Sport peppers are a very particular variety of small, pickled hot pepper. If you've never had them, they're sort of similar to greek golden peppers (pepperoncini) -- but smaller and without a stem. 

  3. Maybe because they're all flavoured with wormwood? Not sure what's different when producing arak, ouzo, absinthe, & all their other friends. 

  4. This award goes to Blackbird. If you look at this old photo from Chicago Eater, you notice most of the dining happens at tables along the wall. The gap between tables was not enough for somebody to pass through. To seat you, the staff have to pull the table out, which also disrupts service if somebody needs to pass with dishes. Only dinners with the strongest bladders could sit against the wall, because getting up was an ordeal. It's fucked that you can win a michelin star by trapping your guests like that; seems like basic hospitality would require you to provide an environment where you can go to the bathroom under your own power. But what do I know?