Nov 05, 2009, 05:36AM

A Love Letter for the City of Big Shoulders

An expat goes deep into the gastronomic and cultural foundations of Chicago.

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About a month or so ago a friend of mine moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to attend law school and she asked me for some tips on where to eat and drink. Simple enough. But what started as a simple email with a few off-the-beaten-track eateries and watering holes turned into something far different—a love letter of sorts.

Having grown up in the city of big shoulders, with stints in New York and now LA, I have come to the frustrating understanding that to many people foreign to the ways of the middle west, Chicago is still considered a cultural backwater—more famous for its bitter winters, doughy pizza, Al Capone, the great fire, the curse of the goat, corrupt politicians, the Blues Brothers and greasy hot dogs than for its vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, innovative haute cuisine, legendary music scene and vibrant nightlife. 

Okay, so I have a bit of a chip on the old, wide shoulder. Part of the reason I and so many Chicagoans were so disappointed that Chi-town lost to Rio to host the 2016 Olympics (yes, Rio did deserve it) was how the rejection only stoked the fires of our slow-burning civic inferiority complex. We just wanted some credit. The city that wins the Olympics is worshipped, fawned over, stroked, every detail of its fascinating history and sparkling future chronicled in dizzying detail. We wanted our city to be it for a month. Fuck New York and Los Angeles. It gets tiresome being the second city.  

But this is about food and drink, isn’t it? While Los Angeles has its gourmet taco truck, small plate, raw food and wine bar revolutions going full tilt to widespread acclaim (thanks in part to the obsessive, mad-cap genius of Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold at the LA Weekly) and New York remains the gastropolitan capital of the world, Chicago is just emerging as a true heavy hitter in the melting pot of food and drink history. Merging the lo-tech authenticity of its thousands of immigrant-run cookeries and century-old saloons with the elite Michigan Avenue style of local celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, rising star Michael Carlson (who makes his famous Pad Thai noodles out of jellyfish) and Doug Sohn, a local culinary school grad who’s gourmet sausage shop “Hot Doug’s” has gained national attention for dishes like the Bacon-Jalapeño Duck Sausage dog—seriously, try it—Chicago deserves to be a food and drink destination no matter where you're coming from. 

While there are thousands of high-end choices that deserve your money, the few places I listed below are more modest, local joints. Sometimes you just need the basics and these are the places I miss most when I’m gone:

LA UNICA at 1515 W Devon St. in Rogers Park/Edgewater (map)

Driving on Devon Ave. on the Northwest part of Chicago is a little like leaving the country. Each block morphs into a unique and distinctly ethnic enclave—largely Mexican and Central/South American from the lake to the intersection at Clark St., Devon molts into the Middle-East at the junction of Western Ave, then Indian and Pakistani for a solid stretch (with competing sari shops as far as the eye can see), before giving way to heavily Polish, Russian and Korean communities in the western suburbs. Especially in the Indian and Middle Eastern sections, most signs are in the native language only. I recently saw a great low-budget debut feature by Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis called Amreeka and was happy but not surprised to see that, in the beginning of the story, the homesick family living in rural Illinois drove two hours just to go to a few of those fragrant old-world shops on Devon. 

On the eastern stretch is La Unica. A quite average looking Cuban grocery store with hidden restaurant in back. Inside the store there's no sign there is even an eatery, so you just have to follow your nose and snake your way through aisles of colorful, smelly-looking delicacies: floating pickled pig tongues, pigs feet and pig brains, freeze dried googly-eyed prawns and hanging jungles of red, green, yellow and black plantain. (Better practice your Spanish if you get lost).

Though the hastily-decorated 1970s cafeteria has many more exotic items to choose from (tongue, brain and various intestine-sausage selections abound), go for the simple choice: No doubt, La Unica has the best Arroz Con Pollo I've ever tasted. The neon-gold rice is soft as down, the dimpled peas are juicy flavor bombs, the red peppers are tangy, slippery wonders, and the plantains are both tender and molten crisp at the edges.

And the chicken. The golden chicken, buried far underneath, falls sweet and buttery off the bone and works better if you use your hands. Get the bright gold, bubble-gum-tasting Inca Cola (from Peru) while you're at it and finish up with the chunky rice pudding. 

MR. BEEF at 666 N Orleans St, Downtown Near North Side, River North (map

Vegetarians should note the ominous address and just not bother—Mr. Beef is a palace built for the earnest worship of authentic Chicago Italian Beef. Though the real estate around the place is now rather ritzy, with pictures of celebrities everywhere and a sign on the wall pointing to the "elegant dining room" in the back—it’s just a long row of grey plastic picnic tables with oversized plastic replicas of the Blues Brothers hovering over you—there’s absolutely nothing elegant about Mr. Beef. The sweaty, un-chipper staff wants to know one thing: hot peppers or mild peppers on that beef, son? 

For those of you who haven't tried real Chicago-style Italian Beef—on the West and East coasts I am ashamed to say the delicacy barely exists—the phenomenon is a tad hard to describe. The meat is thicker than the liquid-y cheese-choked Philly-style beef, thinner than most thin flank steaks and springier than your standard cold-lunch roast beef. Vienna Beef Inc., ground zero for arguably the best hot dogs, sausages and Italian beef in the world, has a justified monopoly in the Midwest. The company was born at Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893 by Austro-Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, and it supplies Mr. Beef with its best. In fact their factory is about two miles to the south of this shop. 

The not-so-secret ingredient here is the juice the beef is dipped in. Who knows what's really in it? It’s a little different everywhere you go—and it’s the combination of this spice-flecked beef sap with the home-stewed onions and peppers give a Mr. Beef sandwich that fragile, sloppy, spicy, oily, crunchy feeling that loyal costumers have come to count on. 

This is not something you take to go. Ever. Like Cinderella, the elegant beauty just doesn’t last. Better eat it while it's hot: The soft flaky buns the meat is shoveled into disintegrate like shivering ghosts in minutes, leaving most of the grinning eaters in Mr. Beef's packed back room—from stock traders to tourists to local soccer moms—eating the hallowed remains of the sandwich with their fingers.   

THE LUCKY PLATTER at 514 Main St. in Evanston (map)

Like many of my generation I am descended from the long-bearded, afro-picking, folk-song-humming, post-hippie baby boomers who came of age in the late sixties and seventies and went into business and had families in the eighties and nineties. Evanston, where I grew up, is the first major little town north of Chicago and though it once was a hotbed of activism and the arts, the chain stores and big name brands have mostly taken over the downtown, save for a few stubborn holdouts. 

The decidedly oddball Lucky Platter was a quirky childhood staple and my now post-new age parents continue to bring me primarily for their standing-room-only Saturday breakfasts. It would be easy to start with their exemplary buttermilk and buckwheat pancakes (with a large variety of stuffed fresh fruit options), or the impossibly thick, smoky bacon, not to mention the toasty homemade scones and tart, chunky, fresh squeezed juices. But it’s the more unconventional menu items that make Lucky Platter special. Only seasonally available but lip-smacking good any time is their tangy, rich tomato bisque which comes with a side of corn bread. Also striding the delicate is-it-breakfast-or-is-it-lunch divide are their apple-ricotta blintzes, which stuff everything sweet, soft and salty you’ve ever tasted into two long burrito-like wraps. The smoked turkey hash is also strange but good, with molten, drippy mozzarella and tiny scorched pieces of broccoli mixed in (accidentally?); I hear great things about the spicy turkey meatballs.  Like the best homemade meals I had growing up, all of it can fall under what the Platter management dubs “funkalicious post-Hippy eclectic world cuisine.”

Sure, it’s a restaurant, but The LP is as nearly well known for its prolific absurdist art collection. On every wall, nook and cranny there are hanging sculptures of bent steel fish with glowing marble eyes, huge posters of circus freaks like “Lobster Boy,” faded fliers of pre-WWI baseball players and abstruse cubist renderings of The Kennedys. It’s almost as if the owner let his five year old kid have his way with the place when they were decorating: look up and their ceiling is covered with fist-sized balls of glimmering tin foil. Heck, even the bathroom has strange paintings hanging and, sorry for this, future eaters, but the toilets may be the coolest items of all: They have glimmering pennies ingrained in their clear plastic bodies. 

But did I mention the banana buttermilk pancakes are transcendent?

THE GREEN MILL at 4802 N Broadway St in downtown (map)

One thing that seems shocking and sad when you return to the United States after traveling abroad is the realization that we Americans seem to relish obliterating our historic architecture. Somebody got it right with The Green Mill, which opened in 1907 as a roadhouse by "Pop" Morse and became a premier Vaudeville music hall with the likes of Al Jolson and Edie Cantor filling the place for a decade. It even featured a convenient hitching post set up so people could park their horses out front before a night of revelry. Legend has it, during the ‘20s, Al Capone's people had a 25% stake in the place and ever since The Green Mill has kept the look of a plush, freewheeling and slightly seamy speakeasy with a strangely Greco-Roman design. Booths are hard to get but the long horseshoe bar is a cool place to sit and watch the sights as the dusty, plaster cherubs fly blissfully above you. 

Jazz innovators like local Kurt Elling often strut across the stage in the back but the best thing to do is to check out the swing orchestras on Thursdays and the intricately dressed dancers who come to jive (some must be pros) on the somewhat cramped dance floor. Halloween may be far away but if you like, you can dress up in full Lindy-hop attire with gloves and fedoras a must. After all, everyone else is doing it. The drinks are steep so this is not your casual night out choice but it's close enough to an authentic speakeasy experience so shut up and enjoy yourself. 

ROSA'S LOUNGE at 3420 W Armitage Avenue in Logan Square (map)

Rosa’s Lounge is, plain and simple, one of the grittiest, most authentic blues clubs in town. Opened by an Italian immigrant and his family in 1984 after seeing Junior Wells tear it up in Milan, Rosa’s is not in the best part of town and it may be a bit worn on the inside but you’ll forget the broken chairs, faded photographs and over-crispy bar food when the band starts playing. It gets nice and loud in there so sitting in the back with a PBR is often a wise choice. 

Hosting local heroes like Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards and Lurie Bell, Rosa’s (named after the proprietor’s elderly mother who still tends bar almost every night) is all about the music and supporting local talent, something the glossy and overpriced clubs downtown have forgotten. The New York Times called it the best place to see blues in Chicago a few years back and it’s not hard to see why. 

  • Great article, but can we just call Chicago, Chicago, instead of The City of Big Shoulders! I mean, does anyone in New York call it the "Big Apple" anymore?

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