jc travels

A bean, a loop, and a pie: yes, we’re in Chicago!

Had a couple of days off work for Easter, so left Berlin for a little weekend getaway to Chicago. Maybe traveling to the other side of the world for just 3 days is a little over-the-top, but I really needed this vacation. Both for my sanity and just to escape the cold, gloomy weather in Berlin right now. I know, I know – Chicago is usually much colder but we were fortunate enough to catch the small window of spring sunshine these past couple of days.

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Being the nerd I am, I prepared a Google spreadsheet of all the places to go, sights to see, and things to eat – and scheduled it so we could cram as much of it into the 3 measly days as possible. And not going to lie, we were pretty successful in doing so! Although the real champs are our stomachs for bearing through my hefty list of restaurants, bakeries, and cafés.

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When it comes to short periods of travel, I believe both in thoroughly planning ahead but also staying spontaneous. That way, you have a plan to start off on, but when you stumble upon something along the way and it feels right, go with it and see where it takes you. Most of the time, those are the things that turn out the best anyways. Coincidentally, I was reading an Anthony Bourdain interview before bed last night and he gets it – “Everything about it was unexpected, but it came together. The beer was cold, the right song — something by Peter Tosh – came on the radio. It was a happy accident, and it was the best jerk chicken I’ve ever had. There’s something to be said for letting great meals just happen to you.” (There was one particular ‘happy accident’ on this trip that was a total game-changer, but we’ll get to that later.)

It’s pretty true. Many of the things I had listed on this spreadsheet didn’t turn out to be all that spectacular – and much to my disappointment, this includes Girl & The Goat and Glazed & Infused. I found the dishes at Girl & The Goat to be too heavily seasoned yet still flat in flavor, and our halibut was severely overcooked. The honey sambal brioche was pretty tasty though, I have to admit. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that maybe I just went on a bad night. Glazed & Infused was unbearably sweet for my palette and I felt pretty gross after eating it (Blue Star in Portland still reigns in my book!). The Magnificent Mile / Michigan Avenue area was equally as underwhelming in terms of things to do there, but it’s a lovely place for a stroll nonetheless.

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But! On the other end – there were so many things that were great. Lou Malnati’s satisfied my long-time craving for a sinfully indulgent, American-style pizza. There’s plenty of Italian pizza here in Europe, which is also delicious, but sometimes you just want something with a little more oomph, you know? Yes, I’m talking greasy, thick-crusted, and loaded with toppings (or in this case, more like fillings). And what’s better to give you that oomph than an oozy, cheesy Chicago deep-dish? Nothing. This is the real deal.

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“The Bean” (Cloud Gate) was also pretty sweet, especially how the city skyline is mirrored from every angle. The views from The Signature Lounge was breathtaking and definitely worth the long wait. Chicago has such a beautiful landscape. Because the land itself is so flat, you can really see the definition between the varying heights of the buildings. At night, the traveling cars illuminate the streets in warm, glowing ribbons that carve through the neighborhoods into perfect, organized grids (and you can’t help but admire the meticulous city planning after the tragic fire in 1871 burnt everything down). The city is lit up with such vitality – a stark contrast against the vast darkness of the night sky and lake surrounding it.

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Revolution Brewing Company was a pretty chill spot. My favorite beer was “Fist City”, an extra pale ale brewed in collaboration with Big Star, a local bar / restaurant. Crisp and refreshing, and quite welcomed because to be honest, I’m getting tired of hefeweizens and it’s not easy to find beer like this in Germany.

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The vibes I got from Chicago were that it’s a city based on a history of rich culture and strong traditions. The people here seem to be really proud to be Chicagoan and have a lot of loyalty to the things that have stuck around. There is a sense of modesty, mutual respect, and friendliness. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley, this lack of entitlement is like a breath of fresh air. What’s also refreshing is that here, it doesn’t seem like a competition to see who can be “less mainstream” (or for lack of better words, “hipster”). Here, chains rule. And here, the chains don’t suck. Lou’s, Intelligentsia, Garrett Popcorn Shop, Tortas Frontera, Potbelly, Portillo’s… the list goes on. There are amazing, more low-key places in Bucktown and Wicker Park, but for the first time ever, I’m more drawn to the bigger names. Maybe I’ve been in Berlin for too long – where chains and franchises are practically boycotted and forever deemed “uncool”.

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I’ll end this post with a list of my favorites from the trip.

1. Howl At The Moon

On my first night in Chicago, I met up with a few friends from back home. And one of them (hi Kurtis!) introduced us to his favorite place in River North, Howl At the Moon – a bar with on-demand, live music performances. Yes, any song you could possibly want, these talented musicians can play on the spot for you, adding their own flair to it. And to be honest, I thought many of the versions performed that night were better than the originals. How they turned “Look At Me Now” (Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, Busta Rhymes) into a catchy pop tune on the spot still baffles me. That takes some serious talent.

Everyone on stage can play pretty much anything – piano, bass, guitar, drums, violin, or even bucket drums. On top of that, they can sing (and rap). Whaaat. What have I been doing with my life? Now I regret not sticking with my piano, bass, and drum lessons growing up.

Beyond the live music, the atmosphere of this place is pretty cool. It hosts an older crowd, ranging from late 20’s to mid-30’s, and everyone there is there to just enjoy good music and dance.

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2. Wendella Architecture Tour

This is one that everyone recommends – and for good reason. It’s pretty awesome. You hop on a cruise for about an hour and a half and soak in the sights while a tour guide explains everything to you. There’s also a bar on the lower level, can’t go wrong with that. The buildings that line the Chicago River are both stunning and visually unique. It’s especially nice when the sunlight hits at the perfect angle, and you see the river and the surrounding architecture reflect off the faces of the buildings.

My favorite building (don’t remember the name) had two connected towers. There was some concern surrounding the proximity of the towers, so the architects built every floor to be an eighth of an inch more outwards than the floor preceding it, creating a slight “V” shape between the towers. It was perfectly calculated so that when the tenants moved in, the weight distribution settled the building back into perfect alignment. Crazy!

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3. Xoco by Rick Bayless

One word: tortas. The torta we had here was so bomb, just a good mesh of flavors and very uncomplicated. The “Milanesa” is one of the two tortas that are grilled at Xoco – crispy-crusted chicken breast, pickled jalapeños, jack cheese, red onions, Napa cabbage, and black beans. The bread is toasted to a crumbly perfection in a wood burning oven. And it comes with a side of crazy good tomatillo-avocado salsa if that isn’t enough for you.

They have a guacamole bar (how can you go wrong with a guacamole bar?) where you can customize your dip with premium toppings, such as chicharrones, queso fresco, crisp-fried bacon, spicy roasted poblano & serrano, pepitas (Mexican pumpkin seeds), grilled onion, sun-dried tomatoes.. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And the two salsas that come with the tortilla chips don’t fall short either – three-chile and tomatillo that are out of this world.

The churros here are supposed to be good too, but I didn’t want to overindulge. But I sort of wish I had, someone in our vicinity ordered them and they looked incredible. They come with a side of chocolate dipping sauce, but if you want to be fancy, there are “glazed churros” also (pistachio, hazelnut, or chocolate-peanut).

Rick Bayless is a boss – look him up. Fun fact – he is Skip Bayless’ brother! (Not in tune with the sports world, but my boyfriend was excited when he found this out so I thought I’d share.)

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4. Longman & Eagle

Saved the best for the last. This was hands-down the best thing that happened to me in Chicago. We were originally planning on going to Au Cheval for dinner, but sort of stumbled upon this restaurant instead, as we were already in Logan Square, tired and hungry. I am so happy we did (re: ‘happy accident’, Anthony Bourdain). I have never had such a mind-blowing culinary experience in my life – and prior to this, I didn’t know food could have such an effect on me.

Every dish was a complete thought – with subtle yet complex flavor profiles, prepared with such a deft touch and awareness of what was being put on the plate. All components of every dish worked so harmoniously together. Dining here felt almost like an out-of-body experience. My boyfriend and I were practically speechless throughout the entire meal.

I took horrendous photos of these dishes and am probably doing an injustice by showing you these, but here it is anyways.

We started with a bar snack (housemade pâté, giardiniara, sourdough tartines, whole grain mustard).

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Then, a small plate (bone marrow, bacon-shallot jam, green apple kimchi, pickled garlic & shallots, parsley, sourdough toast).

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The entrée (seared Berkshire pork tenderloin, foie gras, stewed pork shank, cannelloni beans, butter squash-cardamon purée, serrano chile, maple gastrique).

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And finally, the dessert (praline pecan terrine, caramel & bourbon, espresso, honey foam, chocolate oil, whipped molasses, malted ice cream, molasses syrup, chocolate powder).

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While unassuming from the outside, this gem has had a Michelin star every year for the 5 years it has been open. Michelin-starred, but with a very unpretentious atmosphere and service. James Wentworth, you are a culinary genius, and thank you for making such amazing food! I will fly back to Chicago just to eat here again.

p.s. Hi Pete, Deb, and Kurtis – thanks for taking time out to hang with us!

1 comment
  1. Peter says: April 12, 20156:38 pm

    Hi Jacq!! It was so great to have you here! I hope it was a great a trip as you hoped and come back soon! ^^

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