For a long while my thoughts on the Chicago food scene were limited to deep-dish pizza, the SNL sketch about the Billy Goat Tavern, steakhouses, and gussied up hot dogs. When I became more of a gourmand these ideas were supplanted by a strong desire to sample Grant Achatz’s modernist culinary wizardry. In the spring of 2011 I took a weeklong trip to the Windy City with the aim of trying as much of the city’s food as possible. My traveling companion Chef Bruce had chosen quite an itinerary, including everything from Jimmy Bannos’ Cajun spot, Heaven on Seven and his newer joint, The Purple Pig, to a Thai banquet. As much as I wanted to try Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, my staunch eating buddy forbade it. We did however both agree that we should try to snag same-day cancellations for M. Achatz’s restaurant Next, which had just made its debut with a menu devoted to Paris in 1906. Unfortunately we did not get a seating. For almost a year afterward I continued to receive text alerts on my phone. It was torture to receive alerts about the restaurant’s second iteration, a tribute to Thai cuisine.
To this day the only traditional Chicago style hot dog I’ve eaten—dragged through the garden with sport peppers, tomatoes, and onions among other things—has been at the original location of the Shake Shack in New York City. Chef Bruce and I were after wieners of a somewhat loftier pedigree, haute dogs. Our first stop Hot Doug’s, offers dozens of decidedly gourmet dogs. I had been reading about Doug’s foie gras topped number for years. The snappy foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage was lashed with truffle sauce and gilded with five slices of rich and creamy foie gras mousse. Stupendously delicious, and a bargain at $10. Lately they have been offering turducken sausage ($8), with pumpkin cream and cranberry-infused Brillat Savarin cheese. I am planning my next trip already.
Our next stop was Belly Shack, Bill Kim’s Asian street food spot in the hip hood of Wicker Park. There we had the Belly Dog ($9), an Asian spin on the classic Chicago dog. The tubesteak was slathered with chili sauce and curry mayo and topped with papaya salad, crunchy noodles,and fried shallots. With toppings like these who needs sport peppers?
For one breakfast we checked out Heaven on Seven, a Cajun joint run by local chef Jimmy Bannos.We hit the original location located on the seventh floor of the historic Garland building. I had a shrimp angry omelet ($11.95), packed with teeny shrimp and possessed of a pleasantly wicked chili kick. A fine wakeup call.
The following evening we bellied up to the bar at The Purple Pig, another Bannos joint, located on the Magnificent Mile. As we were perusing the menu Chef Bruce looked up and said, “Hey Jimmy,”to a guy standing behind the bar. Soon we were being regaled by Jimmy Bannos himself, and getting recommendations for some off the beaten path spots. Lest I forget many delicious plates were consumed at the pig that night, including fried pig’s ear with crispy kale and pickled cherry peppers ($8). Crowned with a fried egg I like to think of this dish as somewhat more refined version of the Filipino pork offal fry-up that is sizzling sisig.
Bannos was particularly hot on a joint called Freddy’s Pizza, in the suburb of Cicero. Chef Bruce and I jumped in the rental car and headed out there. With a gelato counter, in-house bakery and tons of hot plates Freddy’s was as impressive as any Brooklyn pork store this Italian-American boy has ever encountered.
Freddy’s is the type of place it would take a month to eat through, so we ordered some excellent fried calamari ($10.99). That and the namesake pizza. Freddy’s makes deep dish, but we stuck to square. Both the plain cheese slice ($2.15) and an artichoke and black olive number ($2.75) were excellent.