One week in Chicago: Food

Last week I introduced you to my mini-guide to Chicago. When I finalized my plans to spend a week there, I followed the advice of Frugal Travel Matt Gross and let all my Twitter followers and Facebook friends know that I was accepting any and all recommendations on things to do and places to go. Of course, I was inundated with an incredible amount of useful advice, almost all of which included ideas for where I should eat. That’s why today I’m going to focus solely on food. I hope you’re hungry, because things are about to get gluttonous.

Chicago doesn’t have just one iconic food; It has several. The Chicago dog, deep dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches are all quintessentially Chicago. As the recommendations came pouring in from my friends, I knew I’d have to be ambitious in my eating when I arrived in Chicago. None of the aforementioned dishes are light. None are healthy. But they’re all pretty amazingly delicious (except for deep dish pizza, but we’ll get to that later).

How much can one man eat over seven days in Chicago? How memorable can it really be? Let’s just say I experienced the best burger of my life and the joy that is a sandwich with ham and peanut butter.

Hot Doug’s
Hot Doug’s was recommended to me by countless people. It was visited by Anthony Bourdain for an episode of No Reservations. It’s not a secret, but it is fantastic. This is not your average hot dog joint. Sure, you can get a Chicago dog here. But you can also get a foie gras dog or have your french fries cooked up in duck fat. It’s decadent, for sure, but it’s also insanely delicious. I opted for the venison sausage with cheddar and bacon sausage with caramelized onions and brie.

Wiener’s CircleA Chicago institution, Wiener’s Circle is known for its customer service. Well, more like customer berating. As day turns to night and more and more customers start arriving in a state of inebriation, the employees behind the counter begin to yell, curse and bark at customers. And the customers hurl the insults right back. Showtime and NPR’s This American Life even documented the phenomenon. I went for a sober lunch, so I was politely given an outstanding Chicago dog.

Al’s #1 Italian BeefYes, it’s a chain. Yes, it doesn’t look all that quaint or authentic. But Al’s #1 Italian Beef is the place to go for this greasy, meaty sandwich. Be sure to get it with both sweet peppers and giardiniera. Make sure you have plenty of napkins handy.

Kuma’s CornerI’m a hamburger snob. You can’t just throw any meat on a bun and expect me to say that you have a good burger. Well, I am without a doubt prepared to say that I had the best hamburger of my life at Kuma’s Corner. First things first, Kuma’s Corner is not T.G.I. Friday’s. If you don’t like listening to blasting rock music while you eat, don’t go. If you don’t like a place with bourbon on tap at the bar, don’t go. If you don’t like a place that names their burgers after heavy metal bands, don’t go. That said, if you enjoy all of these things and are amused by a hamburger called the Goblin Cock (a hamburger with a full Chicago dog on top), then get to Kuma’s Corner post-haste. I opted for their signature Kuma Burger, which came with bacon, cheddar and a fried egg (my favorite burger accoutrement). I ordered it medium rare and it came to me red on the inside and warmed through. In other words, perfect. Juicy, flavorful and simply the best burger I have ever eaten.

Pizzeria DueWhile the original Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due are officially part of the Pizzeria Uno chain, the two flagship locations are allowed to keep their unique menus and are considered authentic restaurants as opposed to the other franchise location. But, you see, deep dish pizza ain’t pizza. Sorry, but it’s the truth. Sure, it’s sauce, bread and cheese. But it’s more of a casserole than a pizza. The flavor ratios are off. The sauce is on top. That’s just wrong. Frankly, it’s an abomination. My friend told me to consider it a “lasagna with a biscuit crust.” Well, that seems like a slippery slope toward those Dominos Pasta Bread Bowls. That’s not a good thing.

Perry’s Deli“Because it’s there.” That was George Mallory’s response to a reporter who asked him why he wanted to climb the world’s tallest mountain. And it was my response when my friend asked me why I was going to Perry’s Deli to try the Peter Panski – a sandwich with ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and…peanut butter. Before you scoff, gag and/or stop reading, hear me out. This crazy combination actually works! The sweetness of the peanut butter compliments the ham. The smooth and creamy texture plays nicely with with the chewiness of the thick-cut bacon. After a few bites, I found myself no longer eating the Peter Panski for the novelty of it and was just enjoying my lunch. Afterwards, however, I did need a nap.

Sun Wah Bar-B-QueIf you’re looking for a break from typical Chicago cuisine, head over to Sun Wah for some Peking duck and other succulent Chinese dishes. Go with a group so that you can share, though. While the Peking duck buns were a treat, my friends and I are still talking about just how big our oysters were. Served with garlic and ginger, the oysters were roughly the size of a bread plate. While bigger does not always mean better when it comes to food, these oysters were flavorful, delicate and had a liquor that was beyond delicious. Order a Tsingtao or three to cut through that duck fat and spin the lazy Susan until there’s nothing left to eat.

< a href="" target="_blank">Lula Cafe – Not every meal I enjoyed was over-indulgent and ridiculous. Lula Cafe provided me with a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a fresh, seasonal and expertly crafted meal. Their Monday “Farm Dinner” features seasonal ingredients from local farms and is worth every penny. The menu is simple, but when the ingredients are this fresh and the kitchen is staffed by chefs who are respectful of their menu and their customers, simple is better. If the weather is cooperating, sit outside, order a beer and enjoy a quality meal with no pretense.

As you can imagine, I gained a few pounds in Chicago. But it was totally worth it! How did I work off all the new found weight? Check back tomorrow when I review some of my favorite Chicago activities.

Check out my Chicago food gallery here.

Special thanks to Jenny Lee, Joe Hobaica, Mike Lee, Gadling’s own Jeremy Kressmann and everyone else for their food suggestions.