We spent last weekend in Chicago for my friend Liz’s wedding. By “we,” I mean just the hubby and me. We whisked away for our first weekend away from the kids (EVER) while the grandparents flew up to stay with them. By the time we boarded our plane, the hubby and I looked at each other, our single rolling suitcase between us, and sighed, “Was it really just that easy?”
As I’ve mentioned before, the hubby and I don’t shy away from traveling with our kids. We love taking our road warriors out to explore the world with us. But sometimes, the logistics of that are kind of crazy. We travel with two full-sized car seats, so we automatically check bags every time we fly. I also have a separate carry-on bag designated solely for snacks (and sometimes, depending on the schedule for the flight, a full-on meal). The kids need in-flight entertainment, which means lugging at least two books per kid and a myriad of small toys (hint: do not, under any circumstances, bring Play Doh. It is a bear to wipe off of upholstered airplane seats). The amount of flotsam that follows our wake any time we have to board a plane is nothing short of a minor archipelago spontaneously bursting into flames. When we arrive at our destination, the kids are usually energized, excited and ready to tackle our first tourist stop. The hubby and I are usually frazzled, exhausted and sweaty. Sure, we’re also happy, but phew. It’s a lot.
So, as we sat peacefully, no children’s hands pawing at the tray table or demanding an immediate snack, we held hands and thanked our lucky stars that our friend Liz gave us a solid reason to escape without bringing the insanity with us. And that’s where things only started to improve. We went straight from the airport to eat lunch, and over the course of the weekend we had three great Chicago eats that I’d solidly recommend to anyone visiting that fine city.
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1. Frontera Grill, 449 North Clark Street
Our first stop was Frontera Grill, the flagship Mexican restaurant for celebrity chef Rick Bayless. I mean first stop literally, by the way. We boarded the subway at O’Hare airport and showed up forty minutes later at the doorstep of the restaurant right when it was opening. I’d made an 11:45 am reservation two weeks ago, which turned out to be a wise move, as the line to get into the joint snaked around the corner. We ordered a Meyer lemon margarita and a non-alcoholic beverage called the Scarlet Wave, a mixture of limeade, Jamaica flower tea and Peychaud bitters (translation: tarty, floral awesomeness). The Meyer lemon margarita, tart, sweet and with barely detectable notes of heady tequila, went down easier and faster than I probably should admit. We studied the menu intensely, coveting basically everything, until we settled on appetizers: the Frontera ceviche and the guacamole almendrado, a kicked-up version of guacamole mixed with the ingredients of mole almendrado (pickled jalapenos, toasted almond, raisin, panko, sunflower seeds and sundried tomatoes).
I know I speak in hyperbole a lot, but I need to say something concretely, so you understand my point with no hidden agenda: the Frontera ceviche was the best ceviche of my life. I’d never thought of the brine of olives as a great acidic base to marinate and “cook” the fish, but it was genius. The fish was tender and buttery, and the flavor was spicy and tangy, the way any great ceviche has to start. A healthy scoop came perched on top of crisp, thin tortilla chips, perfectly sized for a single bite. It’s been a week since that ceviche entered my life, and I am still thinking about it. That’s the mark of a great dish, in my book. The guacamole was no slouch, either. The consistency was creamy like peanut butter, and the sunflower seeds made for a nice textural crunch that broke up the creaminess. I wonder, though, whether we made a misstep on ordering it with the ceviche. Combined with the powerful punch of the acid in the ceviche, I feel like all of my tastes of the guacamole felt bland in comparison. But that doesn’t mean much, since we finished every last drop of that guacamole anyway.
For our main courses, we had the duck in mole coloradito, a dark Mexican chocolate mole. We agonized over this decision. Rick Bayless is known for his mole, and the hubby and I have a soft spot for any chocolate-based mole. Who knew that the rick dark chocolate could be a great savory component in meaty dishes? I certainly didn’t (before I lived in Texas, that is). There are several different types of mole on Frontera Grill’s menu, so much so that there’s a mole trio option that allows you to sample. In the end, we stuck to our guns and ordered the duck mole. It wasn’t one of the three in the trio, and we really wanted a chocolate-based sauce. Our other selection was a street food trio, comprised of enchiladas potosinas (chile-spiked masa turnovers with cheese), sopes rancheros (masa boats filled with beef, cheese, avocado and roasted tomato) and chorizo molotes (masa “torpedoes” filled with chorizo, potatoes, pasilla salsa and pea shoots).
The duck mole was — oh, my. The duck breast was perfectly medium-rare, with a delightful spicy crust. If the kitchen had served just that duck, with no sauce or any trimmings, I would’ve gone home a happy girl. But then, the mole sauce –a silky sauce chock full of layered flavor — makes this dish heavenly. The mole is confident, revealing itself to you spice by spice. There’s sweetness and heat and tartness all folded into this sauce, which must take a good amount of careful simmering in order to reach this level of depth. I’m generally a sauce girl anyway, but if I had to live on a desert island with no access to good food except for one thing, I might bring a bottle of this sauce with me. I think I’d be okay then.
Again, I don’t want to give short shrift to the tiny bites of street food that comprised the trio, either. Each item was executed well, packed lots of spicy flavor, and really shone in its own way. My favorite was the sope rancheros, which came with a delightful spicy, tomato-based ranchero sauce. I’d order the trio again if I weren’t still obsessing over that duck mole. And the ceviche. Forever ceviche.
No trip to Frontera should be complete without dessert, so we finished our meal with a gooey chocolate pudding cake with honeyed mango and Negro Modelo ice cream. The cake tasted like just-cooked cake batter, which was fine by me — it was rich, intense and satisfying. The biggest surprise was the Negro Modelo ice cream. Although the texture was grittier than normal ice cream, the hoppy flavor of the ice cream made me wonder why we don’t eat more ice cream with beer. Then I remembered that there’s such a thing as a Guinness float, and the world was right again.
2. Bella Bacino’s, 75 East Wacker Drive (multiple locations throughout the city)
No trip to Chicago is complete without trying some deep dish, and believe me, we did not have an easy time selecting a place to be ours (Giordano’s, Lou Malnati’s, Burt’s Place). We chose Bella Bacino’s for a few reasons, the first and foremost being proximity to one of the wedding event venues and secondly because we’d heard that Bacino’s makes a solid stuffed pizza that is less greasy than some of its competitors. As it turns out, there’s a nice patio at the Wacker Drive location we visited, and the weather was perfect for sunning while taking in views of the Chicago River. Since we were basically eating a pre-dinner dinner, we slowed our roll by ordering just a small spinach stuffed pizza with mushrooms and housemade sausage (yes, that’s us on a slow night). We started out with a beet and burrata salad on top of a bed of arugula, which turned out to be a great way to mitigate the heaviness of the deep dish pizza.
When the pizza arrived (a good thirty minutes after we ordered it, so plan accordingly, as that much pizza takes a good amount of time to bake), the crust was nice and crunchy without feeling too heavy. The tomato sauce, spread evenly in a hefty layer on top, was light and slightly sweet. The housemade sausage also turned out to be a good move. It was crumbly and woven throughout the mushrooms and spinach embedded in the cheese crust. Nevertheless, being that it was a Chicago deep-dish pizza, I could only eat one slice at the time. I did eat another slice the next day, when it was cold and had been sitting in our hotel ‘fridge. As it turns out, having leftover deep dish in your fridge is like the having the beating tell-tale heart under your floorboards. You cannot stop thinking about it.
3. Little Goat Diner, 820 W. Randolph Street
Here’s a cruel reality when you travel without your kids for the first time in four-and-a-half years: your body no longer lets you sleep in. Add in the one hour time difference, and every morning at 6:00 am, there we were, staring at each other in the hotel room wondering what was supposed to happen next. On Saturday morning, we decided that our original plan to make ourselves a walking tour of the city before heading to brunch was a fool’s errand, since we had five whole hours before the brunching hour. Luckily, former Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s casual dinner, Little Goat, opens at 7:00 am. I made quick online reservation for 8:15, and we were on our way.
Little Goat Diner has a great sense of humor to its menu. The dishes are described esoterically, like the hubby’s “Kimchee and Bacon and Eggs and Pancakes Asian Style Breakfast Tasty Thing” and my “This Little Piggy Went to China.” It made interpreting the menu a little more difficult, as you had to read the descriptions thoroughly to get an idea of what the dish actually was, but, as it turns out, the names were pretty well-suited. My breakfast sandwich, a riff on your typical sausage and egg biscuit, did have all the hallmarks of Chinese food woven throughout it. The biscuit, a flaky cheddar rendition with spiced sesame seeds, was a really nice, buttery conduit for a housemade spicy sausage peppered with fragrant Szechuan peppercorns (for more on that, click here). The best part of the sandwich was the spicy-savory cilantro and soy sauce drizzled over the whole thing. The sauce tasted exactly like the kind of dipping sauce we usually make for our jiaozi (dumplings) at home, and I wondered aloud at the compatibility of a sauce I eat all the time with a breakfast biscuit. I never would’ve considered it myself, but it worked.
The hubby’s breakfast thing was also a homerun. The pancakes, reminiscent of the eggy crepes we eat in Chinese cuisine all the time, had a decidedly American breakfast tone to it with the bacon and eggs. However, when topped with fresh bean sprouts, scallions and wrapped around the spicy sourness of Korean kimchee cabbage, it tasted like a whole new Asian dish. The spiciness of the kimchee married so well with the savory crunch of the bacon. I wanted to fly these dishes to Asia to let the other half of the world know that WE ARE MISSING SOMETHING FROM OUR BREAKFASTS.
Lest you (and I) forget, by Saturday afternoon we were headed to St. James’ Chapel to see my friend marry her best friend. In my old(er) age I’m getting soft. Or maybe I’m just old enough now to have friendships that touch my heart deeply, in places I sometimes forget that exist. I watched my friend, beaming through layers of gorgeous tulle and sparkle, say her “I dos” in a chapel fit for a fairy tale. As I watched, tears rolled down my face. I’d forgotten tissues, so there was no choice but to let them fall freely. I started sniffling, then snorting. People in rows in front of us turned, and the hubby squeezed my shoulder, part tenderly, part “you are making a fool of yourself, rein it in a little.” I did not care. On most days, I get bogged down by the routine of work, cooking and caring for my family. Chicago was a wonderful place to stop, take a beat, and celebrate love in its simplest and purest form.
Many happy congratulations, Liz and Kyle. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.