The Foodette and I made our way up to The Windy City for a short vacation and had a few culinary encounters along the way. We'd never been to the city but I felt like I already knew so much about the food. Deep dish, Italian Beef, Chicago Style Hot Dogs - so much to eat and so little time!
Geno's East of Chicago
We kicked off our trip with a visit to Geno's East of Chicago. We visited the North Wells location because it was a short walk from the hotel.
We arrived and took the immediately available spots at the bar to avoid the line at the door - this place is popular with tourists and some locals as well. Without hesitating we opted for the large deep dish with half spinach and half pepperoni. The Foodette is one of those people that eats vegetables on her pizza and it pains me so.
The pizza takes about 45 minutes to prepare so the wait was fairly excruciating but I found ways to self-medicate. When the pizza did arrive it truly was something else.
Sauce on the top and cheese on the bottom and thankfully the waiter served up our first slices because I wouldn't have know where to start. The pizza needed a little more time to cool and set - like a lasagna - but we were too hungry to care so it was falling apart rapidly on the plate. The first bite was a cheesy, meaty, saucy mess and it was amazing. The sauce that Geno's uses is one of the best I've had on a pizza and was easily the best thing about the dish. It had a nice sweetness paired with the acidity of the tomatoes and a healthy dose of seasoning. It had been pureed and it worked well here.
The best comparison I can make is that this pizza was like a deconstructed calzone. Or really, like an entirely different kind of Italian dish. Like something cool that I don't even know about. I really had a hard time calling it pizza though because it was just so different. There was no shortage of cheese or pepperoni but the meat topping tended to be stacked in random places around the pie instead of spread around evenly. I guess the folks in the kitchen don't care as much about my pizza as I do. Regardless, after toppling and relocating some of the pepperoni towers, the flavor was good - but a little more spice would have been nice for my taste. Also, because all toppings are submerged in a deep dish pizza the pepperoni never really got that nice crisp it gets on a standard pizza and I missed it.
Now my least favorite element - the crust. After a few bites, I noticed the crust was very tough and dry. It carried a heavy taste of corn meal and the texture made me think they didn't use very much water in the dough - it reminded me a of a dry biscuit or cracker. It really did not fit in well with the rest of the meal. Overall, the Foodette and I just kept talking about how different the whole thing was. I wonder if we made a tactical error by not visiting the original location?
Murphy's Red Hots
We stopped for a Chicago Style hot dog while on the way up to Wrigley Field to watch the Astros lose to the Cubs. Of course, when you're sitting outside at a baseball game in late July and its 75 degrees with a cool breeze coming off the lake, its hard to have a bad day.
Murphy's Red Hots on West Belmont serves some mighty good Vienna Beef Dogs. I opted for the traditional Chicago Style - as if there was any other option - and a side of fries. For those not familiar, the traditional Chicago Style hot dog is served with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, cucumber slices, and celery salt on a poppy seed bun. All of these elements were included at Murphy's while The Foodette requested just ketchup and mustard. The man behind the counter refused to put ketchup on it and I applauded him for it. There is no place on a hot dog for ketchup after you reach the age of 12.
The Foodette and I ordered our dogs charred which for us is the best way to enjoy them. Before throwing it down on the grill, a few slices were made on the sides of the frankfurter to give more surface area exposure to the fire. This was a great idea but it did give it an odd shape.
The first bite is intimidating and somewhat of a challenge simply due to the volume of food stacked on the bun, which had also met the grill for a brief but tasty encounter. This is the second time in my life that I can recall thinking of a hot dog as a challenge. The first would be the gigantic hot dog costume featured on the dramatic and groundbreaking game show known as, Double Dare.
Each element on the Chicago Style hot dog works with with the beef itself but no single ingredient overpowers the flavor and what results has got to be what Frank was going for when he originally invented the Furter. The casing on the all beef dog had just the right amount of snap while the flavoring of the inside was spiced just as you would expect - it tasted exactly like a hot dog should which meant there was no food to which it can be compared. The tartness of the tomato, the coolness of the cucumber, the bite of the onions, the spice of the mustard, the sweetness of the relish, and the brine from the pickle all brought together with a dusting of celery salt. It was practically gourmet.
For awhile the Foodette had me eating turkey hot dogs which have no flavor at all and so I was glad we discovered these as an alternative that she finds acceptable. Of course, they have to be the 97% fat free variety - but I'll take it. I try to pick my battles.
After the game we made a stop at Harry Caray's:
Directly across from Geno's is Ed Debevic's, a diner opened in the 80's that is a fairly busy tourist trap. But we didn't go here for the food, we went for the experience. Besides, we were tourists, weren't we?
For an appetizer we ordered onion rings because they're just something that The Foodette and I have a tough time avoiding - like jury duty. They were clearly frozen and trucked in which was a little bit of a disappointment but not a surprise. The taste was most comparable to Burger King but the texture was much better - it was an actual onion ring inside the batter instead of the mash that BK uses.
We took a couple of desserts to go, Oreo Pie for me and Chocolate Cake for The Foodette, which we enjoyed late the next evening. All in all, we had a good time and it seemed like a great place to take kids. Don't go for the food though, go for the experience.
Al's #1 Italian Beef
After taking in the view from the Skydeck at the Sears Tower - I will never call it by its new name - The Foodette and I hiked over to the University of Chicago area and through Greek Town on our way to try the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor.
Italian Beef is not something you find very often in the south and I had never tried it but I had seen Al's featured on The Travel Channel and was intrigued. We arrived and there was a small line but not too long of a wait. I chose the regular beef with sweet peppers and an order of home cut fries. I also went all out and had them dip the sandwich because it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Al's is very proud of their home cut fries and they should be. I'm a big fan because of the potato skin which adds a nice texture and substance. These fries were salty and a little bit weighed down with grease so they didn't have much crisp to them but they were still great. My only complaint is that there was no access to ketchup and getting help from behind the counter was next to impossible. Luckily, the fries were so good that we didn't miss it that much.
Since this is the only Italian Beef I've ever had I have to, by default, agree that it really is #1.
When I think Chicago food, I think pizza. My experience at Geno's had left me wanting more because although it was good - it didn't live up to expectations. We needed to try it again. Luckily, a Chicagoan that I sat next to at the Astros/Cubs game was very helpful and pointed us to Pizzeria Due which was opened in 1955. This is the sister location of Pizzeria Uno which was founded in 1943 (by a Texan) and is considered to be the birthplace of deep dish pizza. Although it has since been franchised out - make no mistake - this is the place to get real deep dish.
Pizzeria Due is situated in an old house almost within shouting distance of Pizzeria Uno. Its a charming setup and we arrived with hearty appetites. Due to the volume of leftovers we took back to the room after Geno's we chose to get a medium deep dish with half pepperoni and half broccoli. Again with the vegetables on the pizza?
We ordered garlic bread to hold us over during the unbearable and agonizing wait - truly, we are spoiled in this great country. The bread was buttery, crispy and not shy with the garlic but we still ended up getting out-breaded by the table next to us who ordered the garlic bread with cheese; it looked good enough to use as currency in Fat Max - like a $10 bill. And the marinara came with it - no charge. That's the way it should be. You got that Olive Garden?
After the requisite 45 minute wait, our pizza arrived and it was just as impressive as the first. It may have been almost as big as the large at Geno's. After being served our first pieces I could immediately tell a difference. While Geno's reminded me of a deconstructed calzone, the Due pizza held together very well. After my first bite, I noticed several other differences; the crust was delicious and had a more typical texture and taste. - flaky and buttery The sauce was more chunky than Geno's and I could taste the individual elements of it more easily. This wasn't a good or bad thing; they were both great sauces but just very different from each other.
Chicago was a great city to visit in the Summer with amazing weather and too much to do in the time we had there. We will definitely be back some day.
What We Did Besides Eat:
Sears Tower Skydeck
CAF River Cruise
GIRCON Range: 5-3