This past weekend, my girlfriend took me to the city of Chicago for my birthday weekend. On one of the days, she set up for us to go on a taste tour. It turned out to be one of the most fun and interesting things I have done in a long time. I found it to be so great, that i thought I would share with you a brief recap of this tour so you can get a better idea of what it was like.
We started our journey from the South Loop Hotel (near US Cellular Field) and utilized first the bus route and then the subway system to travel to the Bucktown/Wicker Park area of Chicago. Upon exiting the subway, we found ourselves transported into what I had always pictured in my mind what Chicago should look like. The streets were full of activity. It brought back memories of watching Sesame Street in the early 80’s when I was a kid. I was also reminded of the movie the Blues Brothers as Jake and Elwood went through the busy streets of Chicago. It was almost like stepping into the movie. be headed west to the starting point of our tour.
We were officially participating in the Bucktown/Wicker Park Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour put on by the Chicago Food Planet Food Tours company (www.chicagofoodplanet.com.)
As the 15 or so of us that were on the tour assembled at our starting point, we were greeted by our tour guide, Colleen Farrell. Colleen was full of smiles and humor and you could tell from the very start that she was going to be a wonderful leader for the next 3 hours or so of our great food oddessy.
Our first stop was George’s Hot Dogs (www.georgeshotdogs.com.) George’s was established in 1948 by a couple who immigrated from Greece. Inside, we took our seats and we were served our very first food item. It was an authentic Chicago Dog. Hot dogs can have so many different toppings and certain toppings make the hot dog known to different areas of the country. To have a Chicago Dog, the ingredients are a Vienna beef hot dog, warm steamed bun, hot peppers, diced raw white onions, tomato slices, dill pickle spear, mustard, and celery salt. It is very important that you do not put ketchup on a Chicago Dog. Colleen explained that they cut the tomatoes only after the order has been placed to ensure the maximum freshness. You know what, I could really taste the difference. The tomatoes were juicy, just like they had just been taken out of the garden back home. The taste of the dog was fantastic. I had a Chicago style dog before, but never before in Chicago and never this good. It was amazing! George also serves an amazing Gyro, but we did not have one on this trip. If I am ever in the area again, I will definitely try a gyro because I just love them.
We then walked a couple of block down the street to a place called Hot Chocolate (www.hotchocolatechicago.com.) This place was opened in 2004 and the pastry chef there is unreal. She has won several James Beard awards since opening. On our tour we tasted the Medium hot chocolate. It was full of chocolate goodness that was warm and silky as I swallowed it. To top it off, we were each given a marshmallow that is made from scratch in the store. After dipping it into the hot chocolate, it just added to the richness. I will admit, that I am not a big fan of marshmallows. To my defense, I have never tasted a homemade one before and this one was fantastic. Rachel Ray from the Food Network had traveled to this shop and featured it on one of her Tasty Travels episodes. I can see why she went there. Later in the day, we returned to the store and bought some butterscotch hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows to take home for Stephanie’s sister. At that time we tried one of the bacon chocolate chip cookies. The flavor combination of the salty and sweet just popped in my mouth. It was unreal. I think they are on to some thing there.
On our journey, Colleen stopped us at a small park and told us some history about how the name Bucktown got its name. There are many theories that she shared with us, but I think it was from the large number of bucks (male goats) you would see walking through the streets at the turn of the century. There are many goats incorporated in some of the landmarks there. It was definitely a working man’s town where you could find cheaper housing than some of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Next on our journey was a stop at Goddess & Grocer (www.goddessandgrocer.com.) This little store was also opened in 2004. The owner of this cozy little shop got the name from her nickname as the “Goddess if Catering” that she got after working on catering jobs for Paul and Linda McCartney, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones as some of her top customers. She decided to open a store so people could try some of her wonderful creations. We got to sample a roasted vegetable salad. It was served cold and contained red onions, asparagus, red and yellow peppers, and arugula all tossed in the Grocer’s herb dressing. It was topped with a few chunks of goat cheese. The tang of the vegetables popped in your mouth and was brought all together by the creaminess of the goat cheese. It was simply fantastic. The Goddess had a whole assortment of comfort foods available for purchase, but we had to keep moving.
Next on the journey, Colleen stopped us in front of a multistory building called the Cheetah Gym. She explained to us that it used to serve as the main coffee shop for the neighborhood and then the building was bought by MTV and used as a bungalow for the cast of Real World: Chicago to stay in. Filming for the show was done there. The neighborhood quickly grew tired of their presence and the show had a very short life in that building, but it was very cool to see.
Our next stop was at Piece (www.piecechicago.com.) This pizza shops was opened in 2001 and is one of the most popular pizza joints in all of Chicago, Wicker Park for sure. It is located right on the border of Bucktown and Wicker Park. The guitarist for Cheap trick owns a portion of the establishment and on Saturday nights starting at 11 pm, they do karaoke with a live rock band playing the songs for you. That sounds so cool. Wish we could have stayed for that. I would have loved that. It is not an easy place to get a seat at. This place also serves as a brew pub. The distinction that a brew pub has is that the beer is made on site and it must be drank on the site. You can’t take beer home with you. We got to sample the Goldenarm beer, which is a lite German Kölsch beer. I thought it was amazing. It had great flavor. The brewery has won several medals at the World Beer Cup at the American Beer Festival so you know that they know what they are doing. We then sampled one of the best pieces of pizza I have ever had. It was a thin crust New Haven style pizza. It had olive oil, crushed garlic and mozzarella cheese with tomatoes and basil on it. It was simple, yet sophisticated at the same time. The quality of the cheese along with the bite of the garlic and basil made it simply amazing. Chicago is known for their deep dish pizza, but thin crust pizza actually outsells the deep dish 3 to 1 in the Windy City. I know that if I lived in that area, I would go to this place a lot.
Next on the tour, Colleen took us for a walk down and around Wicker Park (the actual park in Wicker Park that is.) She showed us some amazing historic homes in the area and explained some of the architecture to us. I will not go into great detail on this, but I found it very fascinating. We saw the shop where the record shop scenes from the movie High Fidelity starring John Cusak was filmed. We also saw the very ominous house and porch that a portion of Stir of Echos starring Kevin Bacon was filmed. I included a picture of a castle house right by the park (see picture.) The top floor was made into a fully functioning ballroom and now houses the family’s dog. Talk about a lucky dog. I thought that would be such a cool house to live in.
Our next to last food stop was at Sultan’s Market (www.chicagofalafel.com.) This store was opened in 1985 by a family from Jordan. They specialize in middle eastern food. We had a chance to try their award-winning falafel. To make this, they grind up chic peas with parsley and make balls. They are then fried. They come out crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. This is very hard to do, but they do it perfectly. It looks like a meatball, but trust me, there is no meat in this dish. The ball is then placed into a pita with a homemade humus and a relish containing cucumber tomato, parsley, and lemon juice. I must make a confession here. I have a strong dislike for chic peas and humus. I just don’t like them. In this dish, I loved both. I even ate an extra falafel. It was amazing! Colleen explained about how reasonable their prices are and for that reason, penny-pinching people will often eat here to get filled up on as little money as possible. It only cost $3.75 for a whole falafel. She told us about the $10 challenge. The store challenges anyone to be able to eat more than $10 worth of food here. Almost no one has been able to do it. I think I could do it though. I didn’t tell Colleen that in Amarillo, I beat the food challenge at the Big Texan. I ate a 72 oz. steak, dinner salad, baked potato, and a slice of Texas toast in 41 minutes. Bring it on, I am ready.
Our last stop was at a shop called iCream (www.icreamcafe.com.) This was the newest of our stop opening in 2008. Miss Cora is the owner. Miss Cora was taking a business class at the Univ. of Chicago and they were asked to come up with a business plan idea. She came up with the idea of using liquid nitrogen to free and make instant and ultimately fresh ice cream. She got an A on the project and her professor told her that she would be fool not to pursue it. So she did. It took about a year to get the combination right, but then it was gangbusters. fresh liquid syrups are added to a Kitchen Aide. Emulsifying powder is added and then liquid nitrogen is added just at the right amount as the mixing occurs and it creates the freshest ice cream you will ever have. We sampled the flavor called That Gur From Florida. It was amazing. It was a combination of white chocolate and cream soda with Nitella Hazelnut chocolate spread mixed in. It was seriously amazing. probably the best ice cream I have ever had. The story behind the name is that there was a guy from Florida who was dating a girl who worked in the store. Everyday, he would come to the store and have them make this flavor combination for him. After he left and went back to florida, they decided to name the flavor after him. Colleen told us that if he ever broke up with that girl that they would change the name of the flavor to That Jerk From Florida.
Sadly this ended our tour. Over 3 hours had passed since we started this adventure, but it did not seem like near that long. Colleen insisted that we each give her a hug and it was great. She was amazing. She taught us so much and I didn’t want our time to end. She explained to us that she was originally from New Orleans, but had come to Chicago to pursue her career as a comedy sketch writer and actor. Just through her amazing performance with us, I knew that she has what it takes to make it. Leading this tour is just a side job for her to help her make ends meet. If you are a fan of comedy like I am, you should check out the group she is currently working with, Butch LaRue Classy Sketch Comedy. They perform all over the Chicagoland area. I will definitely be checking that out the next time i go to Chicago.
So there it is. There was my little culinary/cultural adventure. It was amazing. It was a blast. I don’t know if I have ever learned so much and had so much fun at the same time before. If you are ever in the Chicago area, I definitely recommend doing this. At $45 per person, you definitely get your moneys worth. They also have a Near North and a Chinatown tasting tour as well. definitely check it out at www.chicagofoodplanet.com. If you are lucky, you will get Colleen as your tour guide, but if not, I’m sure the others are good too, I am just partial I guess. To Colleen and the rest of our 1 pm tour group on Sat. Apr. 14th, 2012, thanks for sharing the afternoon with me. It is an experience I will carry with me always.