16 May

Finally, we made it back to sweet home, Chicago! Where to begin? For nearly 8 months, we ate amazing food, but there were still times we dreamt of the foods we missed back home. I talked Suhail out of trying everything from burgers in Cambodia to nachos in New Zealand, encouraging him not to set himself up for disappointment and just wait until we could have the real thing back home.

We arrived on a Monday afternoon and didn’t waste any time before hitting one of our favorite hometown spots (and one of Chicago’s best beer bars), Revolution Brewing. We enjoyed frosty pints of their Iron Fist Pale Ale and some delicious burgers. If you like beer and want to support Chicago’s burgeoning brewery scene, you have got to check out Revolution!

Hombre burger (I was the only one in our group who didn't order this burger!) and fries

The workingman burger and mashed potatoes (based on the quality of this photo, I probably should have put something in my stomach before the beers, but you get the idea)

20 May

Our friends were in town from Michigan, so we used their visit as an excuse to hit a local hotspot that we had been interested in, but never gotten around to trying before. Rick Bayless is a legendary chef, owner of three restaurants, star of his own PBS cooking show and also a local food and small farmer advocate. All this fame does not come without a price…especially for his customers. We arrived at his Frontera Grill at 6:20pm on a Friday and waited over two and a half hours for a table (thanks to another Chicago tradition of many restaurants opting to not take reservations). We started the wait with patience and anticipation, but after the 2 hour mark, even with the excellent margaritas flowing from the bar, we all had our doubts this food was going to be worth the wait.

The good news is, it ended up being worth every minute! I don’t know that we’ll ever put ourselves through that again, but from the moment we sat down, the experience was great. Our waitress was informed and efficient, swishing past our table regularly, but also willing to take the time to answer any questions we had without a hint of impatience, irritation or even the feeling that she had any other tables to tend to.

We had great guacamole while at the bar. It was pleasantly spicy (though they hadn’t even asked if we wanted any spice) and it also had the surprising addition of sun dried tomatoes, which I would never have thought of, but really liked. Once we were seated, we started with oysters, but I think I was so excited and hungry that I completely forgot to take a photo. They were beautifully presented and really really tasty. Then we tried the sopes rancheros (“crispy corn masa boats, savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, homemade fresh cheese”) and empanadas. All a bit on the heavy side, but so good!

Empanadas and sopes

For an entree, I had the pork tacos. I really struggled over this because it seemed crazy to me to order tacos at a restaurant like this when you can decent tacos for a fraction of the price at dozens of Mexican joints around town. Well, after the first bite, I did not regret my decision one bit. They were next level tacos, with incredible smoky flavor and the best tortillas I have ever tasted. And there was  good news for my brother, George, and his girlfriend, Sarah, because by the time we made it to this point, I was so full that I could not eat half of my food, so they got the doggie bag. So, they got to try Rick Bayless’s food without the hours’ long wait!

Tacos al carbon

Suhail had the black bean enchiladas (chorizo, caramelized onion, sweet plantain, homemade sour cream, three-chile salsa served with Gulf-style white rice). When pressed for a quote, he proclaimed, “the mole was awesome!”

Enfrijoladas de Chorizo, Platano y Crema

22 May

I had been anticipating the opening of Girl and the Goat since I’d first heard about it. I never caught the season of Top Chef that Stephanie Izard won (no cable!), but had lived down the street from her earlier venture, Scylla, for years. It was one of our favorite brunch spots, so we felt so sad when it closed, later kind of perplexed when we found out she closed it to compete on Top Chef and ultimately happy when we heard she’d won.

So, my friend, Nicole, had the brilliant idea of booking a reservation nearly 3 months before we got home, which meant we could actually get a table to have dinner there at 9pm on a Tuesday (apparently all the hype has kept them busy, even midweek, at off-peak times). Hey, I’m not complaining – after the Frontera experience, I’m just happy we were able to make a reservation! So, she and George, Suhail and I checked it out…we really checked it out. Let me just go on the record as saying I do not advise ordering this many dishes, should you visit for yourself.

At any rate, here’s what it’s like to dine at Girl and the Goat. The decor is loungy, but bright enough that you can see your fellow diners and the atmosphere is busy, but not hectic or so loud you can’t hear each other (though it would be difficult to have too deep a conversation with those across the table). The food is small plates, which I always like because you can try so many different things. They have a seasonal menu in addition to a small menu of nightly specials, both of which feature local food whenever possible. Our waiter gave much needed advice since, as you will see, the descriptions (which I’ve included in the captions here) leave much to the imagination.

Since it was dark-ish, not all my photos came out, but here’s a pretty fair sampling of the menu the particular night we visited. Like I mentioned, we ordered A LOT of food, so there are still enough shots here that you should be able to get the idea. Bon appetit!

This was one of the most promising, but least favorite dishes of the night (looks better than it tasted!):

Seared tuna - lamb sausage - grilled blueberry - pepitas

One of the daily specials – goat empanadas

Goat empanadas

The sugo was an underdog and outdid our expectations:

Sugo - paparadelle - rosemary - cape gooseberries

Grilled baby octopus - guanciale - wax beans - radish - fava - pistachio-lemon vinaigrette

Kind of disappointing to have to share two scallops between four of us, but we made due 🙂

Seared scallops - brown butter XO - bok choy - shitakes - white asparagus

A couple of the favorites of the night:

Braised beef tongue - masa - beef viniagrette - salsa verde

Pan roasted halibut - brandade - grilled asparagus - green garlic - blackberry

And probably the most popular (with the least appetizing description and least interesting photo)…This dish was rich and comforting on every level. I know this isn’t a great photo, but the “pigface” is hiding right under the egg. Highly recommended!

Wood oven roasted pig face - sunny side egg - tamarind - cilantro - potato stix

Though our better judgment told us not to, we went ahead and ordered dessert anyway. I must say, even though I am a dessert lover, this dish surpassed my expectations and was one of my favorites of the evening. I don’t have the actual description, but I have done my best in the caption. We shared this one too, along with a glass of nice port. Let me just say, I did not think portobello gelato sounded like anything I would ever willingly eat, but it was amazing. It did taste mushroomy and was not overly sweet, but it was an incredibly delicious contrast to the density and crunch of the chocolate elements. I wish I could eat this right now!

I am pretty sure this dish was described simply as "Chocolate with portobello gelato." We also shared a glass of port.

We ordered too much food. For the most part it was all pretty good, but also pretty intensely flavored and  heavy, so we left feeling a bit portlier than we had when we walked in. In the end, we decided it was worth it, but my advice is to pace yourself – and you can always order more later!

The only complaint I had about our entire experience came at the end of the night. Granted, we had a 9pm reservation, but this place is booking tables until that time – or later – every night of the week. We too would have liked to dine at a more normal time of say 7:30 or 8. At any rate, our server was congenial and helpful all night, but when he delivered our dessert, he also placed the (as yet unrequested) check on the table. I guess wasn’t horribly rude, but it obviously sent a message. Kind of a crappy note to end an otherwise really nice evening on, but oh well. Gotta love that Chicago hospitality!

27 May

The coffee mantra at Star Lounge

Dark Matter!

We finally made it down to Star Lounge, one of the best cafes in Chicago. Their “Dark Matter” coffee is so tasty. I was happy to see it being served at Longman & Eagle. Newly Michelin starred, L&E is another of the current hot spots that we hit while we were in town (unfortunately, I inexplicably forgot to take any photos!). At any rate, the atmosphere at Star Lounge is cozy and the staff are folks who clearly really really like coffee and are happy to be making a living serving it. Go there now and see for yourself!

Latte at Star Lounge

The whole bean offerings at Star Lounge (with me in the reflection!)

Big Star's margaritas aren't even fresh made, but we didn't seem to mind

28 May

We started the afternoon off with an informal gathering of anyone who cared to head over to the Map Room, one of our very favorite bars in Chicago. Although we are all disappointed they are no longer offering free BBQ on Saturday and Sunday, it is still a great spot to spend an afternoon – either with old friends or the new ones you are sure to make at the bar. The boast one of the very best beer selections in Chicago, along with a very knowledgeable staff to help you decide (and provide samples!). As often happens at the Map Room, we ended up staying quite a bit longer than intended and eventually had to leave in search of food.

This particular evening, five of us (the same crew from Girl & the Goat, with the very welcome addition of our friend Hollie) decided to head over to Big Star, a great spot for tacos and adult beverages. Unfortunately, like most any place you’ll ever want to eat in Chicago, Big Star does not take reservations and gets packed on Saturday nights. Luckily, it wasn’t long before we got a spot at the bar and enjoyed some margaritas. Eventually we gave up on the prospect of ever getting a table and ended up scarfing down some tacos right there too.

This time, as with other visits, we found the food at Big Star to be decent, albeit pricey for tacos. The tacos are all offered singly at about $3 each. I would recommend about 3-4 to fill up the averagely hungry adult. Their big star (ha! get it? seriously though, when they opened everyone was raving about this thing) is the taco de panza, a pork belly taco which is good, but I find sometimes too dry. Before breaking down and getting the tacos (ie completely losing faith that we would ever get a table) we had chips & guac, which was really good. The chips are home made and better than most.

The atmosphere is noisy and crowded and you are going to get elbowed a lot. They play country music, but not the annoying kind and the space is kind of airy, so it’s not usually too bad, even though it gets pretty packed. For those who remember the former resident of this place, the Pontiac, it is actually mind blowing that this is the same space. For some reason, we met a lot of random people that night, which made the whole scene somehow more bearable (though I am still going to attribute that to the margaritas more than anything).

Scene at the bar

The tacos - de pescado (fish), al pastor (pork) and de panza (pork belly)

30 May

Our two weeks in Chicago rapidly came to an end – and we hadn’t even had a Chicago dog (I didn’t have a beef either, but Suhail had a couple, so I guess we’ll just let that count for both…but may I put in a plug at this point for Joe Boston’s, one of the coolest and best beef joints I’ve ever been to? Weird location on Grand & Chicago, cool retro EVERYTHING and really excellent beefs!).

At any rate, time was running out and we already were at O’Hare when Suhail realized the inevitable. We were going to have to get a dog at the airport ): We found a spot that looked ok, although it was more of a bar than a hot dog stand, but the dogs were steamed and had the works and it was actually pretty good. Till we meet again, Chicago!

After our experiment in Thailand, I don't think I will get Suhail to taste too many other "dogs of the world," so we may never have scientific evidence proving the Chicago dog really is the best, but we all know the truth anyway!