The search for America’s best food cities: Chicago
Third in a monthly series
When Rahm Emanuel wants something, he tends to get it.
After 24 years in the Big Apple, the James Beard Awards gala — the Oscars of the food world — was snagged by the Windy City this past May. Attendees arriving at O’Hare International Airport were met with banners, and local restaurants fell over themselves hosting rival parties for out-of-town guests.
Above: Chilaquiles Yucatecos served at Topolobampo, one of Chicago chef Rick Bayless’s modern Mexican restaurants.
Sealed with the support of local businesses, this year’s deal netted almost $2 million more in sponsorship money for the Beard Foundation than it would have gotten back East. Sweeter still: Chicago gets the gala back for the next two years.
Even without the mayor’s charm offensive, the city was a natural choice. As foundation President Susan Ungaro put it, “Chicago boasts over 40 Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants, second only to New York.”
The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I: Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.
For the local food community, it was a chance to show the country “what we’re doing and why the city is so special,” says chef Paul Kahan. “A huge feather in our cap,” echoes chef Rick Bayless.
The spring awards ceremony wasn’t my sole reason for spending the week in Chicago. I was also in the heartland as part of my nine-month tour of the country’s 10 best food cities, beginning with Charleston in April and San Francisco in May. At the end of the year, I plan to rank the top 10 destinations based on creativity, sense of tradition, community and other criteria.
For now, I’m reliving memories of prime steaks, (thin, not thick) pizza, vibrant tacos, pristine crudo, desserts painted on tarps instead of plates as if by Jackson Pollock (at the modernist Alinea) and what might be the only restaurant in the country to serve the food of Macau.
With a tip of the fedora to Sinatra: My kind of chow, Chicago’s is.
Clockwise from top left: Workers at Portillo’s in downtown Chicago deliver the restaurant’s famous hot dogs over a busy counter; the view along State Street in the Loop, the city’s central business district; diners enjoy a meal at GT Fish and Oyster.
Photo gallery: A close-up of Chicago’s dining scene.
The center grows
No sooner did a mud flat of 400 or so people become the city of Chicago in 1837 than posh hotels sprang up to feed a population that had developed a taste for the finer things back home in the Northeast. Ice cream was served at the Lake House hotel, and menus from the period showcased quail with Périgord sauce and fine wines from France and Germany, says Bruce Kraig, a professor emeritus at Roosevelt University and co-author of the forthcoming “Food City: The Encyclopedia of Chicago Food.” Welcoming the working class was a slew of taverns where deer and prairie chickens were cooked up with readily available corn, and beer and corn liquor were the quaffs of choice.
“I eats 50 people for dinner every day, by gar,” said Mark Beaubien, identified by Kraig as the jolly owner of an early watering hole, Sauganash Tavern, patronized by Yankees, French-Canadians, Southerners and Potawatomi Indians — all of them men.
Some of the land purchased from the U.S. government by veterans of the War of 1812 became wheat fields, the bounty of which transformed Chicago into a baking center. The city also became the country’s meat capital. By 1900, 80 percent of all American meat was processed in Chicago, says Kraig.
Abundant commodities necessitated new ways of getting them into the hands of consumers. To be closer to customers in the Midwest, Cyrus McCormick, the creator of a reaper called the “mechanical man,” moved to Chicago in 1847. By 1860, 4,000 reapers a year were leaving his factory. Wheat plantings doubled, and Illinois emerged as the country’s No. 1 producer of the grain. Refrigerated railroad cars were commissioned by cattle dealer Gustavus Swift; it was easier to slaughter his wares and send them to the East Coast in chilled parts than as live animals.
As Chicago matured and German and Irish immigrants arrived in great numbers, a Midwestern sensibility developed. Food was for the most part plain, inexpensive and served in copious portions. “Housewives worked as hard as men,” says Kraig. “They were cooking constantly” and didn’t have time to fuss much with food. The exception to the rule, he says, gleaned from community cookbooks of the era: “The dessert, you take time on.”
Cranking out sausages and spaetzle at The Radler
Deep-dish pizza and Al Capone
On the surface, the everyman dishes of Chicago sound simple. Hot dogs, Italian beef, deep-dish pizza: all can be eaten with the hands. Yet the food of the proletariat turns out to involve more instructions than Julia Child’s epic recipe for baguettes.
Consider the hot dog. Most purveyors buy their all-beef sausages and their poppy seed buns from a handful of suppliers, then steam, simmer or grill the links. What makes it a Chicago dog are the many garnishes: “Dragged through the garden” refers to the yellow mustard, pickle relish, chopped white onions, chili peppers, tomato slices, pickle spear and celery salt dressing each dog. Conspicuously absent from the mix? Let the sign at Fatso’s Last Stand in West Town make the point: “It is considered bad manners and harmful to the taste buds to put ketchup on your hot dog within the city limits of Chicago.”
It gets even more complicated with Italian beef, which is shorthand for a heap of shaved roast beef drenched in gravy and packed inside crusty Italian bread with sweet or hot (or both) vegetable accoutrements. As crucial to the dish is the bread, which must be substantial enough to withstand a dip or two in the cooking juices of the meat. Then there’s “the stance.” When eating Italian beef, fans know to place their elbows on the counter and angle themselves in a way that won’t mess up their clothes.
Writing in “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie,” a collection of essays by Midwestern authors, Michael Stern says, “I have come to think of [Italian beef] as the signature dish that embodies Chicago’s personality better than any other. It is brawny, intense, symphonic, and, for all its apparent disarray, audaciously composed.”
Hyperbole? When Steve Dolinsky set out this past spring to find the city’s best versions of Italian beef, the ABC 7 food reporter thought he’d do a Top 10, maybe a Top 15 list. Followers of his Web site weighed in with so many tips, Dolinsky, who also co-hosts “The Feed Podcast” with Rick Bayless, ended up sampling 31 Italian beefs in two weeks. Traffic to his site spiked.
As for deep-dish pizza, he says, “it’s definitely our Al Capone,” meaning a tired Chicago stereotype.
“I don’t know anybody who really eats that stuff,” says Bayless, who thinks deep-dish pies and the like are missed “mostly by people who have moved away.” He adds, “I’m more inclined to debate where the best carnitas are.”
The Chicago flavors I’d rush back for tend to be on the South Side, at neighborhood spots like Uncle John’s Barbecue, where I was introduced to pork tips cooked in an “aquarium” smoker, and Vito and Nick’s, a time warp of a cash-only pizzeria beloved for its thin-crust sausage-and-cheese pizza. The base is crackery, with a buttery flavor, and is cut in a grid.
Inhaling the pie, this former Pizzeria Uno waiter switched allegiance on the spot.
‘We’re innovative and accessible’
Even if Chicago hasn’t been at the inception of many restaurant trends, the city has long been “open to innovation, a refiner of ideas,” says Phil Vettel, the Chicago Tribune’s longtime dining critic. (True, and not just in food terms: In an attempt to compete with a previous world’s fair featuring the Eiffel Tower, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago marked the debut of a 250-foot-in-diameter wheel designed by one George Ferris.)
“Our reputation was meat and potatoes, super simple food,” and later, fancy French, says Nick Kokonas, partner with chef Grant Achatz at the avant-garde Alinea and its cocktail bar equivalent, Aviary. But “that was 20, 30 years ago, and that’s changed.”
Adds Achatz: “We have a long history of being creative risk-takers and breaking genres in music, architecture and art that carries right into food.”
Across the city, diners can find novel food at all price ranges, be it at Alinea; a stage set like Intro, where visiting chefs have a restaurant to call their own for a limited run; or one of multiple pan-Asian darlings. Two-year-old Fat Rice dishes out the food of Macau, a former Portuguese colony taken over by China. An explosive piri-piri chicken there goes for $29. Parachute, introduced a year ago, is a Korean-influenced American retreat where the lavish bibimbap with mackerel and preserved lemon costs $22 and is plenty for two.
Clockwise from top left: Chef Grant Achatz, left, and executive chef Mike Bagale in the kitchen at Alinea; a selection of cuts from Publican Quality Meats; chef Beverly Kim toasts with customers at Parachute; chicken fried chicken served at Dove’s Luncheonette.
Which brings up a point about the scene: “We’re innovative and accessible,” says Kahan, whose One Off Hospitality Group includes some of the city’s top tables. (Midwesterners appreciate value with their fashions.)
Young entrepreneurs behind the hottest scenes are “cooking the food they want to eat,” says Bayless, who could just as easily apply the description to himself and his work.
No chef in the country does better Mexican food, at all price points, than Bayless, whose skill with the cuisine was rewarded in 1995 with an Outstanding Chef award from the Beard Foundation. At the top is Topolobampo for fine dining; in the middle is the fiesta called Frontera Grill. The baby of the bunch is Xoco (“little sister” in Aztec), serving top-notch versions of Mexican street food.
To keep his menus fresh, the restaurateur takes staffers on multiple trips to different parts of Mexico every year. And to nurture local talent, Bayless launched a culinary scholarship for students of Mexican heritage in Chicago. (One in five Chicagoans is of Mexican descent. The first wave of Mexicans came in the mid- to late 1910s as a result of economic and political displacements associated with the Mexican War, according to the Encylopedia of Chicago. Jobs in the U.S. industrial and agricultural sectors attracted laborers and their families.)
Bayless says the strong “masa culture” supports more than a dozen companies that boil and grind their own corn. For his part, the chef is working on creating a market for heirloom corn varieties from south of the border.
Kahan’s stable of stars includes Blackbird, one of the first modern restaurants to jump on the farm-to-table bandwagon; Avec, a wine bar whose spare design inspired Momofuku in New York; Publican Quality Meats, a butcher shop and bakery where the display case might include mica, a funky sausage fermented in rye flour, and the sandwiches run to lamb and pork belly sausage slipped into a lobster roll; and the Violet Hour, one of the city’s pioneering craft-cocktail sources. Nico Osteria, a relative newbie in the collection, excels with Italian seafood dishes.
The osteria also demonstrates what a catch the city is for fish and seafood. A favorite pit stop for oysters — both raw and fried, then slipped into a po’ boy punched up with kimchi — is the shipshape GT Fish & Oyster.
Asked what he thinks his city lacks, Achatz mentions authentic British pubs, true pintxos bars and (say it ain’t so, Grant!) pizza.
At heart, Kraig reminds us, “Chicago is a meat city,” even though the stockyards closed in the 1960s. Steakhouses abound. The old guard is represented by places like Gene & Georgetti, prized for the char the unseasoned steaks pick up from 1,000-degree gas broilers. Of the more contemporary steakhouses, Chicago Cut Steakhouse, overlooking the Chicago River, is choicest, in part for the VIP service it doles out to Regular Joes but mostly for its superior shopping. The beef, all prime, is aged and butchered in-house, and even the Oreo mint pie shows flair, flavored with an intense peppermint oil.
Anyone who has sampled the city’s smorgasbord would be hard-pressed to challenge Kokonas when he says, “Chicago has become the creative bed for experimental cuisine in America.”
Why? Aside from talent that can comfortably afford to live here, commercial real estate is easier to find in Chicago than in New York or San Francisco, says the restaurateur. The size of the Windy City — at 2.7 million, the country’s third most populous — means a large pool of potential diners. Further, Chicagoans are used to driving for their meals in the sprawl.
Clockwise from top left: Head bartender Julia Momose creates an intricate cocktail at the Aviary; Jermaine Mitchell carries Jmiah Amos in Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain; matcha-dusted cheesecake served with berries and hibiscus at Alinea.
The Second City also loves to throw first-class parties. Hosting the Beard gala is new, but rolling out the red carpet for food-related conventions is not. Chicago has long been the site of the National Restaurant Association show, where the trade picks up ideas to serve around the country.
If Kyle Joseph, a tech start-up veteran, gets his way, the city will also be getting Foodseum, a Chicago-focused center devoted to teaching people where food comes from and how to enjoy it. The mission: “Education, celebration, inspiration,” says the executive director of the project, who hopes to find a permanent home in the next few years.
To whet the public’s appetite, a pop-up museum has been planned for August. Although its location has yet to be nailed down, organizers already know what the inaugural exhibit will be: a tribute to hot dogs.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the beef tips at Uncle John’s Barbecue; they are pork. The story also referred to Chicago Cut Steakhouse as Cut. This version has been updated.