Chicago reviews

Eating Chicago: Roundup

It’s been a week since we got back from Chicago, and we’re pretty excited about going back there when the weather’s a lot warmer. Here’s a quick rundown of the rest of our Chicago trip.

Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate offers a menu of comfort food from savory to sweet, but the savory dishes we had were disappointing. The mac and cheese tasted good, but the cheese was more soupy than cheesy. A hamburger with fried egg is one of my favorite things to eat, but Hot Chocolate’s was surprisingly boring. Also boring was the Lamb and Krema Kasa, which sounded great on paper: sourdough flatbread with housemade lamb sausage, Carr Valley Krema Kasa cheese, wild arugula, and oregano oil served with pickled beets.

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Despite this, I wholeheartedly recommend Hot Chocolate for their dessert and pastries. I had a coffee cocoa nib milkshake with my burger that was really good, and it was accompanied by cookies that were great for dipping. For dessert, my wife ordered the Chocolate Again (40 percent), a “milky” chocolate pot de créme served with peanut butter and concord grape jelly sandwich, peanut butter blondie, and milk chocolate peanut brittle, which was really good. I had a Mexican hot chocolate that was easily the best thing I ordered all night. It was a rich mix of 2/3 dark chocolate, 1/3 milk chocolate, and cinnamon, served with a housemade marshamallow. It was nice to see that Hot Chocolate lived up to its name.

Hot Chocolate
1747 N Damen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647 map
Web site

Chicago Mexican reviews TV

Cemitas Puebla

Since I’m from California, I didn’t seriously consider having Mexican food in Chicago, but Cemitas Puebla was No. 1 on Chicago Yelp’s “Hot on Yelp” list and a popular topic on LTH Forum, a Chicago-based food forum. A little more research revealed that Cemitas Puebla was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which probably attributed to its Yelp popularity. Although I’m not a fan of Guy Fieri as a chef or restauranteur, his DDD gig might be the best job in the country.

Cemitas are a sandwich that’s native to the Mexican state of Puebla and at Cemitas Puebla, they’re comprised of your choice of meat on toasted sesame seed bread, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, papalo (a seasonal cilantro-like herb), their own homemade adobo chipotles. Cemitas Puebla is so committed to the authenticity of their food that they make regular trips to Mexico to get the right ingredients.

We ordered the Cemita Milanesa, a breaded butterflied pork chop that, like all their food, was made fresh to order. The milanesa was a little dry, but combined with the toasted bread, cheese, and chipotles, it was really tasty. In fact, the adobo chipotles with its mild lingering heat might be the real star of Cemitas Puebla since it has a prominent role in every cemita, as well as the Tacos Arabe (see below), and is also available on every table.

Their other specialty is the Tacos Arabe (Arabian Tacos), which owner Tony Anteliz likes to call the “cousin of the shawarma” and comes from the heavy Middle Eastern influence on Puebla. Marinated pork and onions are stacked on a spit roasted like a traditional al pastor. On order, it’s sliced and grilled for a few minutes and then served rolled in a really thin pita with a chipotle sauce that’s made by puréeing their adobo chipotles.

We got their late, so I got the last pieces of meat off the spit, which were really good, but I’m sure their better much earlier in the day. I also got a selection of other tacos including, an excellent carne asada, and very good al pastor and chorizo. One of our friends ordered the chalupas chorizo that looked amazing as well.

The best part about Cemitas Puebla is that it’s cheap, hearty food. Plus the service is fast, friendly and attentive. Even though you order at the counter, they bring your food to you when it’s ready and are always around to make sure you’re being taken care of.

The only negative about the place is that they really love Oscar de la Hoya and his pictures are everywhere. I’m all about Manny Pacquiao and expect Pac-Man to kick Oscar’s ass on December 6. :-)

Cemitas Puebla
3619 W North Ave
Chicago, IL 60647 map
Web site
Cemitas Puebla on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Chicago deep dish pizza reviews

Chicago Pizza Showdown – Lou Malnati’s v. Giordano’s

I had a hard time deciding which pizzas I wanted to try while we were in Chicago. It’s a daunting decision when there are four prominent Chicago pizzerias (Gino’s East, Pizzeria Uno/Due, Lou Malnati’s, and Giordano’s), and I wouldn’t normally eat Chicago-style pizza twice in a month much less twice in five days. In fact, I haven’t had deep dish pizza since our Super Bowl XLI party, which featured food that represented both Chicago and Indianapolis. Complicating matters is that I’ve really come to love Neapolitan pizzas over the last couple years, so would I even have the palette for deep dish?

I settled on only going to Lou Malnati’s because it was a different style of deep dish than what’s available in the Bay Area. Malnati’s trademark is its butter crust, and it didn’t disappoint, but I found the rest of the pizza to be pretty bland. Everything else about the experience was good, especially the spinach salad, which was my favorite dish of the night.

The Malnati’s experience left me as cold as the Chicago weather, and I felt like there was a void that still needed to be filled. We spent our last two nights at the Wyndham O’Hare, and there were Giordano’s delivery menus all over the lobby. Since I wasn’t too keen on spending a day out in the cold, I decided that I would stay in the hotel on Sunday, watch football and have a Giordano’s delivered to the room.

The Giordano’s pizza was infinitely more satisfying than the Malnati’s pie, but it’s also the same style of pie that I’m used to getting at Zachary’s here in the Bay Area. My friend Steph, who’s from the Chicago area, told me she didn’t really like Zachary’s because it tasted “too fresh.” I think the freshness is what I like about Zachary’s rendition of Chicago deep dish. Plus I prefer Zachary’s tangy and acidic tomatoes to Giordano’s milder tomatoes.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be back in Chicago some day, but I don’t really see myself making return visits to Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s, although I definitely want to give Gino’s East and maybe Pizzeria Uno/Due a try. But if I ever get a Chicago deep dish fix here in California, it’s good to have Zachary’s or San Francisco’s Little Star (my favorite) nearby.

(For those of you wondering…I’m not a big fan of Patxi’s in Palo Alto, but will eat it if it’s in front of me.)

breakfast Chicago reviews

Uncommon Ground on Devon

Uncommon Ground is a restaurant/gallery/music venue/bar/cafe that boasts Chicago’s (and maybe the nation’s) first certified organic rooftop farm, which helps supply the restaurant with seasonal vegetables. The roof also houses two beehives, which helps provide pollination in their community as well as honey for the restaurant. Quite simply, this is urban farming that works. In fact, for every tree-tini (a martini with organic ginger-infused Rain Vodka, Liquor 43, tart apple syrup and apple cider) you order, Uncommon ground will plant a tree. For more information about Uncommon Grounds environmental efforts, check out their Web site.

Of course Uncommon Ground’s environmental commitment deserves to be praised, but what about the food? Well, we went in with empty stomachs for a Saturday brunch and left with full stomachs and smiles on our faces.

I had been planning on checking out Nuevo Leon for some chilaquiles on this trip, but we never got around to it, so I ordered them here. It wasn’t the down-home chilaquiles I was craving, but this more refined version totally hit the spot. The blend of crispy tortillas, chorizo, salsa verde and sour cream was perfect. The home fries were perfectly cooked and a couple dashes of Cholula gave them a nice kick.


Of course, I got to sample everyone else’s dishes, which included some really good halibut fish tacos, a ground buffalo corncake skillet and a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, mixed peppers, chihuahua cheese, cumin créme, spinach tortilla and smoked chili sauce. Check them out here:

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We ended the meal with some Black Dog Gelato, which is made locally in Chicago. The flavors we selected were salted peanut, coffee cocoa nibs, and caramel goat cheese. The peanut ended up being our favorite because we liked the salty flavor, the slight sweetness and a nice coarse texture. The caramel goat cheese tasted like cheesecake (always a good thing), and the coffee cocoa nibs was good but still a distant third.

Black Dog Gelato Trio

Uncommon Ground is one Chicago restaurant that would be welcomed with open arms in the Bay Area. Their use of fresh, local, organic ingredients, as well as a commitment to running a completely sustainable, green philosophy permeates every aspect of the business, means that Uncommon Ground is doing in Chicago what many Bay Area restaurants only wish they could.

Uncommon Ground
1401 W. Devon Ave.
Chicago, IL 60660 map
Web site

Chicago hot dog reviews

Hot Doug’s

Hot Doug'sWe’ve been doing these Chicago eating binges with our friend Maria, which allows us to do a lot more sampling than if it was just me and my wife. This is why we can order four different sausages at Hot Doug’s without feeling too guilty.

Chicago-style hot dogs differ from other styles of hot dogs because they generally include mustard, onions, an artificially colored neon-green relish, tomato slices, and a pickle spear, all served on a poppy seed bun. I made sure that all of our orders had everything on it, although this may have been a tactical mistake on the bratwurst, which I would have like to have tried with just sauerkraut. The bratwurst was still excellent since it was very juicy, probably because it’s soaked in beer. We also had The Elvis, a smoked polish sausage, and The Dog (below), a traditional Chicago-style hot dog.

The Dog: Chicago Style Hot Dog

But the best hot dog of the day was the spicy hot dog known as The Keira Knightly. What I liked about the Keira was that the spicy dog had a nice heat that balanced out the other flavors that were packed into the dog, especially the sweet relish. The other dogs were good, but Keira’s relative hotness separated it from the pack.

Keira Knightly: Spicy

The menu described the Keira Knightly as “mighty hot,” but I thought it was a pleasant, mild heat. By comparison, the andouille sausage known as The Salma Hayak (which we didn’t order) is said to be “mighty, mighty, mighty hot.” If this is true, then Salma is hotter than Keira both in hot dogs and real life.

Still, as good as the hot dogs were, they were nearly eclipsed by an even more impressive concoction…duck fat fries. That’s right…french fries fried in duck fat. I shouldn’t have to say anything more, so here:

Duck Fat FriesDuck fat fries are only available on Fridays and Saturdays, so plan your trip accordingly.

There’s a quote on the wall at Hot Doug’s by someone named Secret Robbie that says:

There are no two finer words in the English language than “encased meats,” my friend.


Hot Doug’s
The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium
3324 N. California Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618 map
Web site

Chicago fried chicken Korean reviews


Korean fried chicken (KFC) is a favorite topic of mine, as seen here, here, here, and here. But KFC was the last thing on my mind when I started planning this trip until I started reading about Crisp on various food blogs and Web sites. So on our second day in Chicago, having tackled White Castle and Greek food the night before, I skipped out on the city’s pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches and headed to Lakeview for some KFC.


The essence of Korean fried chicken lies in its sauces and Crisp has three different offerings (Crisp BBQ, Seoul Sassy, and Bud’s Buffalo). We ordered two whole chickens and went for the Crisp BBQ and the Seoul Sassy.

The Crisp BBQ is a Korean sauce that’s got a mild heat, which was nice because other spicy KFC sauces I’ve had have totally blown out my taste buds. If you’re like us and like trying different flavors of KFC, then you’ll appreciate that even more. The heat does linger on your tongue, and I love that.

Crisp BBQ

As much as we liked the Crisp BBQ sauce, the Seoul Sassy was our favorite. The ginger, garlic, and soy-based sauce was excellent, one of my favorite KFC sauces ever. This basket of chicken disappeared faster than that Crisp BBQ.

Seoul Sassy

Sauces aside, the most important thing about this fried chicken is that it lives up to its name. The chicken skin is crispy, despite being drowned in sauce, and it’s juicy too. I’m pretty confident that most fried chicken fans could order the sauceless Plain Jane chicken and be very happy.

We got a chance to talk to Jae Lee, one of Crisp’s owners, and he was really cool. I told him that we don’t have Korean Fried Chicken like this in the SF Bay Area and that this rivaled the KFC we had in New York. Jae told us that he went to New York as part of his research and sampled pretty much everything they had to offer. Because of our conversation, our next New York trip is going to feature a trip to Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights. But if you’re in Chicago, definitely check out Crisp if you’re looking for some excellent Korean fried chicken.

As their slogan says, “The bird is the word.”

2940 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657
Web site

Chicago reviews

Greek Islands

Greek food might be the one cuisine that Chicago really does better than anyone else in the America. Luckily, Maria’s husband is from Greece, so we were comfortable following him all the way to Greek Islands, which is their favorite Greek restaurant because it’s consistently good.

Generally, my experience with Greek food had been limited to gyros, souvlaki, tzaziki, and spanakopita, so I was very excited to try some new dishes. It also seemed like a good way to purge the memory of the White Castle sliders we ate two hours before. Since we weren’t all that hungry, we ordered a variety of of small plates instead of entrees.

We started with Taramosalata, a blend of cod roe, potatoes, onions and olive oil. It’s described as Greek caviar, but it’s more of a dip that you can eat almost anything with it. I spread it on some bread and loved it because it’s a little salty, and you get the little crunch from the roe. It’s also pink.


Chicago entertainment musings reviews Top Chef TV

White Castle and Top Chef — A Match Made in Hell

Our first meal in Chicago wasn’t on my list, but it wasn’t entirely unwelcome either. I’ve always been intrigued by the White Castle hype, especially since the burgers don’t really look all that appetizing. My friend Maria mentioned that there were several White Castles near her South Loop condo, so we stopped by for a little snack on the way back from the airport.

The impromptu White Castle visit also coincided with the season premiere of Bravo’s Top Chef, and we made it back to Maria’s condo just in time to watch it from the beginning. Can there be a greater juxtaposition to White Castle than Top Chef?

White Castle - Chicago, IL

I really don’t understand the appeal of these burgers. The buns are soggy, the meat is mushy, and for something so small, they kinda just sit in your stomach like a big grease bomb. I think they’re easily outshined by something as mundane as McDonald’s regular hamburgers. Why do people like them so much? Is it the nostalgia? Or do you really have to be high to enjoy them?

As far as Top Chef is concerned, the chefs seem pretty boring compared to previous seasons, although there are a couple Filipinos in the mix this year. Gene is looking like the anti-Dale (temperamentally speaking) and Leah definitely has potential. The two cocky Euros (Stefan and Fabio) should be make the show interesting though.