In food, like in life, all good things must have balance. While Mike and I were ecstatic to go luxe in Chicago during our long weekend we knew our wallets couldn’t handle this city fully loaded. We aren’t Oprah, after all. (Really, we aren’t even Jerry Springer.) Luckily Chicago offers dozens of options where we can eat and drink well without breaking the bank.
Mention you’re going to Chicago, and the first thing you hear from just about anyone is a variation on “You’ve got to try the hot dogs!” Go figure…the city immortalized as the “hog butcher to the world” is known for their encased meats. But it’s not the dogs themselves that inspire the fanatical following; it’s the condiments. Chicago-style dogs are almost as architecturally impressive as the city itself, piled high with mustard, onions, chopped tomatoes, celery salt, bright green relish and a whole pickle spear. At Hot Doug’s, however, the sausages and other encased meats (their phrase…try not to laugh as often as we did) are just as noteworthy as their toppings. Their high-quality versions of the basics (hot dog, smoked Polish sausage, beer-soaked bratwurst, etc.) are all ridiculously well priced…you can get a dog for $1.75, tax included. Our total bill came to exactly $20, and that included a $9 specialty dog that we just couldn’t resist.
The real draw – and it is a draw, as evidenced by the nearly hour-long wait we endured despite arriving soon after their 10:30 AM opening time on Saturday morning – is the secondary menu of rotating specials. Eager to try an alligator sausage? Hankering for the ‘Teuben’ made of corned beef and topped with sauerkraut and Swiss? Just looking for something out of the ordinary that you’re unlikely to find in any other hot dog joint? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. We opted to try a Chicago-style dog and a sausage with the works, but we couldn’t just ignore the specialty menu so we went for the big daddy: a foie gras and sauternes duck sausage topped with truffle aioli, foie mousse and sel gris. And in the name of science, we decided to do a side-by-side test of their regular fries and the duck fat fries that are only available on Friday and Saturday. The basics were solid from poppy seed bun to crisp pickle spear, and that foie gras sausage was as rich and decadent as it sounds…thank goodness we were splitting it among three of us! And the verdict on those fries? The ones cooked in duck fat were thinner, crispier and generally tastier…but we weren’t quite convinced that they were worth twice the price of the standards. Better to use that cash for a second dog!
There is perhaps nothing more comforting that a steaming bowl of soup on a cold night. Which is a good thing for Urban Belly because there is no shortage of chilly evenings in Chicago. This noodle soup house hidden in an anonymous strip mall serves up much more than everyday salty pho. With a small bites menu of reimagined dumplings and sides – asian squash and bacon dumplings anyone? how about pineapple and pork belly fried rice? – diners have an opportunity to fill up before the main courses slosh onto the long wooden tables. Which would be a shame because these shimmering soups are worth the trip all on their own.
We tucked into our enormous bowls as soon as they arrived, slurping up noodles and willing the roofs of our mouths to toughen up to the scalding broth. My spicy soup of rice noodles, Thai rice cakes, hominy and succulent pork belly thinned my blood and warmed my soul. I adored the rice cakes looked like floating water chestnuts but tasted like a piece of thickcut homemade pasta. They cut the perfect platform for the fiesty broth. Mike’s Urban Belly ramen featured a full-bodied pho broth with mushrooms and pork. He slurped to his stomach’s content. Bailey, who brought us and had toured the menu thoroughly on her own time, went with a favorite bowl of soba noodles plunged into a snappy Thai basil broth with scallops and oyster mushrooms. We slurped and chatted and slurped some more, way past our stomach’s comfortable contentment. Friendly waitresses offered to put remaining soup in take-home bowls. Alas, we knew our food agenda was full so we had to leave them behind. Relunctantly we sloshed back into the night.
Killer brunch and a massive beer list after the jump.
Over Easy Cafe
When you’re on a vacation weekend, morning meals are fraught with pitfalls. Do you settle for the buffet breakfast they offer in that restaurant just off the hotel lobby? Do you try to seek out that hole-in-the-wall that guy told you about late last night (and what the heck was its name, anyway)? Or do you just try to find the best of what’s around? In our case, we got lucky – our friend Bailey has a breakfast and brunch g0-to just around the corner from her place. The Over Easy Cafe is known for, well, just about everything on its menu, so we were happy to check it out. As it turns out, so were plenty of other people.
Over Easy Cafe doesn’t take reservations, so the sidewalk outside the restaurant was crowded with groups who were waiting for tables. Thankfully, Over Easy Cafe aims to please by offering complimentary Julius Meinl coffee while you wait. Once you’ve made it inside, attentive service ensures that you get your order quickly – you don’t have to worry about a second lengthy wait after you’ve been seated. We made our choices from the impressive brunch menu, opting for blueberry crunch pancakes, an “ultimate” breakfast burrito, and “Simone de Beauvoir’s Favorite Breakfast Sandwich.” The pancakes were deliciously fruity, with big, plump blueberries and a crunch from granola baked into the batter. The attention to detail at the Over Easy Cafe showed through surprisingly in the burrito, where the scrambled eggs were light and fluffy. Perhaps best of all, the breakfast sandwich paired eggs with gruyere, carmelized onions and chopped pancetta for a taste that was salty and rich…if just a bit messy. Whether you like your brunch savory or sweet, the Over Easy Cafe is well worth the wait.
What would a trip to Chicago be without a stop at a bonafide beer bar? Elizabeth knew just the spot – Hopleaf in Andersonville. Let’s just say a previous visit ended in a late-night phone call to 411 to ask the operator which pizza places still delivered. Remember that wall of beer bottles that you started in college? Well if you had stuck with it, you might very well have ended up with a place like this. Hopleaf’s owners, Michael and Louise, take their beer seriously and their menu reflects it in both diversity and depth of description. Haven’t seen a particular beer before? Chances are the description on the menu will make it seem like an old friend before you take your first sip.
Hopleaf offers an impressive menu of upscale pub grub that’s still heavy on the comfort food. Mussels. Crispy pork belly. A duck reuben. Sound familiar? The whole place gave off a very Granville Moore’s vibe…though with about three times the space. We were between meals when we stopped into Hopleaf, so we didn’t sample any of the food. But Elizabeth was overjoyed to see Ayinger Brau-Weisse on tap and I decided to try the Bender from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company. The Ayinger is a German weissbier with a nose that always reminds me of banana and a crisp flavor. My Surly Bender was a powerfully malt-heavy beverage that managed to pack a hoppy punch at the end. As promised, it defied easy classification…but I definitely enjoyed it.