Culinary Chicago — My Travel Article in Alaska Airlines’ Magazine

My August 2017 Alaska Beyond Magazine 5-page travel article on the best in Chicago food, arts and hotels now… 

As Alaska Beyond magazine called it quits in 2021, the articles have all been taken down. My article content is below:

Chicago Kalbi

The Windy City has long been one of the country’s great food cities for sheer diversity alone. From rare Pakistani hunter beef sandwiches on Devon Avenue to Polish food at restaurants like Staropolska, Chicago is a regular stop for the food obsessive like myself who ruthlessly researches and narrows down edible “hit lists” around the globe. The region’s food is Midwestern and hearty, to be sure — this isn’t the place for the pure ingredients I’m surrounded by at home in San Francisco or “the scene” associated with dining in NYC and LA, both areas I grew up in. It is the kind of city where experimental fine dining tasting menus are nearly as common as Italian beef sandwiches and deep dish pizza.

This Spring brought me back for the “Oscars of the food world”, the James Beard Awards (JBFA), while I stayed on a week for a relentless run of eating. With towering views from its 20 story perch, Conrad Chicago Hotel is my home base. Walking that fine line between luxury and ease, it feels both big-city-sophisticated yet ultra-friendly, relaxed. I find mid-century, 70’s opulence in velvety, rust-colored couches, brass and wood accents, Nespresso machines, roomy bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows gazing over the Chicago skyline. It gets even better when I discover that their 20th floor bar and restaurant, Baptiste & Bottle, is home to some superb cocktails from beverage director Michael Fawthrop, who offers whisk(e)y cocktails prepared tableside via cart or drinks like a Rootbeer Fizz with a subtle bitter, herbal backbone from Averna Amaro, frothy with egg white and orange. It tastes like childhood… but all grown up.

Following the JBFA trail led me to Monteverde in ever-hot West Loop. I watched Sarah Grueneberg win Best Chef: Great Lakes at the awards a couple days after I tasted her dreamy handmade pastas, some made a la minute (prepared to order) in view of diners. Her tortelli verdi alone, packed with winter spinach and parmesan in roasted white miso and lemon, dotted with Piemontese hazelnuts, confirms why she won. The biggest surprise was the inventive way Grueneberg wove her Germanic heritage into dishes like an Eastern European-influenced cabbage roll stuffed with porcini mushroom bolognese or a skate wing schnitzel, pounded flat and breaded, Austrian Wiener schnitzel-style… but with fish.

On the JBFA-nominated front, I trekked far north to the Avondale ‘hood to Parachute. Korean American food is category I’m long used to, whether from the densest Korean communities of LA and NY to pioneering restaurants like Namu in San Francisco or newcomers like Portland’s Han Oak. Curious how the intimate and always mobbed restaurant would stack up nationally, I tried a range of small plates and banchan (bites). I was won over by the meltingly-good baked potato bing bread I’d heard raves about. Whether asparagus in smoked eel cream or a pork belly and mung bean pancake in pineapple butter and black garlic, the meal delivered a slew of hits, confirming this one of the US’ great modern Korean American restaurants.

Near Monteverde in the West Loop, I liked Bad Hunter so much I went back again (a rarity in my relentless efforts to pack it in). This place reminds me of home in California with its vegetable-centric (but not vegetarian) menu of inspired, shareable plates like buttered English peas decadently lathered in Camembert, smoked onion marmalade and horseradish, or plump butter dumplings marked by charred fava beans, cucumber kimchi and seaweed. Likewise, meat — a juicy, green merguez sausage — and dessert — coffee-roasted carrot cake with smoked sorghum ice cream — do not disappoint.

While California has (by far) the largest Mexican population in the US with around 6 million in LA County alone, Chicago has a dense population of Mexican-born residents at around 600,000 according to the 2010 census. Many modern or mainstream Mexican restaurants in the city run hit-and-miss in quality (and freshness of ingredients). But Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and surrounding areas are where much of the best, “real deal” Mexican food is found.

Focused solely on birria, Birrieria Zaragoza specializes in the Jaliscan spicy meat stew of traditional goat meat marinated in adobo chiles, accompanied by corn tortillas, onions and limes. Zaragoza’s friendly staff serve arguably one of the top birrias in the country, comparable to the best I’ve had in Jalisco. Slow-cooked and heartwarming, order a side of their molcajete-ground salsa.

Monteverde pasta

Another Mexican great in Pilsen, 5 Rabanitos, hides behind tacky, glowing signage with a colorful space run by a chef who used to cook with Rick Bayless. In fact, Alfonso Sotelo’s popular tortas — like cochinita pibil layered with black beans, habaneros and pickled onions — draw comparison to Bayless’ tortas at Xoco given the same bread source (local La Fournette). But it’s Sotelo’s family recipes, likes grandmother’s molé negro from Guerrero, Mexico, that are worth a visit alone.

After browsing through records at Logan Hardware in hip Logan Square, a vinyl shop with rare and bargain LPs, I have my pick of quality food nearby. In past visits to the neighborhood, I’ve enjoyed my favorite Chicago brunch at Lula Cafe, modern Mexican at Dos Urban Cantina and the Chinese-Macanese cuisine of ever-popular Fat Rice. This time, I singled out Quiote for its modern Mexican fun in a sunny corner space and the buzzed-about Giant for its creative New American dishes.

Quiote didn’t disappoint, starting with their beloved avocado salad laced with apples, brussels sprouts, tomatillo, lemon and toasted quinoa, or with a hearty torta con chorizo verde, a Toluca-style green sausage slathered in green chile aioli and stuffed in a lobster roll. Friendly and cozy, some dishes at Giant, like fried uni shooters, feel like a waste of good sea urchin, while others delight, particularly Jonah crab salad with waffle fries, playful pastas like jalapeno and bacon pici or an unforgettable sweet and sour eggplant accented with cashews and pancetta.

On the “I won’t tell if you won’t tell” side, a humble, local gem known more to baseball fans and the Japanese community is Chicago Kalbi in Albany Park. It appeals to fans of baseball, Korean BBQ, Japanese hospitality and MEAT. Serving an array of meats grilled tableside  (Korean BBQ-style), the best cuts include beef heart or tongue. This is Korean food using quality Japanese meats, run by a charming Japanese couple. And the baseball? From baseballs signed by just about every Japanese ball player you can think of to a life-size cutout of Ichiro, this is where Asian baseball players hang out when they’re in town.

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Birreria Zaragoza

Near Magnificent Mile, Ema is a one-year-old restaurant where California native and chef CJ Jacobson’s Cal-Med cuisine is as sunny as the glowing, light-filled space. Even on a rainy day, it feels like vacation dining on fluffy house bread with spreads (charred eggplant, avocado pea, or my favorite: spicy hummus with roasted Fresno chilies) and dishes like salmon tartare, asparagus risotto and ramp-tomato panzanella salad. One of the menu’s surprises — and a rarity in Chicago — is a range of wine from Morocco, the Middle East (Israel to Lebanon), Spain’s Canary Islands and other underrated wine regions.

Also in River North, RPM Steak is one of those sleek steakhouses that pleases even those who don’t like steakhouses. Here, king crab legs in lime and coriander or the changing raw bar section keep up with steak and chops. Then there are the stellar wines — if you want to splurge, try raiding their Burgundy collection or vintage Sauternes, though I go with sommelier Richard Hanauer’s “deep cut” recommends like lush Austrian Smaragd or red wine blends from Provence.

From low-key neighborhood joints to award-winning restaurants, it has been another gratifying Chicago journey… despite the extra five pounds. As ever, eating around Chicago is blissfully worth it.

SIDEBAR: Sightseeing In the Arts
Whether you love music, art, architecture or theater, Chicago offers some of the most exciting art in the country. Here are just a few of the best:
Steppenwolf: One of the city’s greatest theaters since the 1970s, this is the place for cutting edge, award-winning plays.
The Second City: The sketch comedy king, founded in Chicago in 1959, has launched the careers of many of the greatest comedians in history. Snag tickets to an improv show to catch the next generation of comedy stars.
Grant Park Music Festival: Held only during the nicer weather summer months, Grant Park is a magic setting for outdoor classical concerts.
Neighborhood Music: Go for live jazz and martinis at Al Capone’s old hangout and Chicago legend Green Mill. An intimate, retro cocktail bar since the 1930s, California Clipper runs a near-nightly calendar of live jazz, soul, country-western, world music, DJs and more.
The Art institute of Chicago: One of the greatest art museums in the US (and the world), over 95,000 works of art ensure that even after multiple visits — with ever-changing exhibitions — you won’t see it all.
Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF): Given the city’s renowned, historic architecture, CAF offers over 85 different architecture tours to choose from, some of them by boat along the Chicago River.

Conrad Chicago hotel

SIDEBAR: Drink Time
Chicago’s cocktail scene offers a wide range of worthwhile bars from the romantic, 1940’s inspired respite of Sparrow downtown to the casual-but-crafted dogs and cocktails at The Duck Inn in Bridgeport. Both have a retro vibe — of differing eras. So does Best Intentions in Logan Square with its wood-paneled, 1970s quirkiness, and staff that serve Angostura on draft or a quality cocktail as easily as a craft beer or Coors.

The most exciting bar newcomer is Otto Mezzo, a gorgeous Art Deco-era tribute to Italy and Italian film lined with Fellini accents, vintage furniture and wall murals of the great Tamara de Lempicka’s paintings. It’s romantic, seductive and serves stunning cocktails and rare Italian spirits, wines and beers. It feels like an escape to Italy — but in another era.

For easy drinking with seasonal ingredients, pull up to the big, wrap-around bar at one-year-old Estereo in Logan Square. Back in Bridgeport, Maria’s Packaged Goods has been one of the city’s great dive bars behind a liquor storefront run by mother and sons. While I prefer the dim, wood-paneled older side to their shiny, newer adjoining bar, you’ll find quality cocktails and craft beers at both.

Banchan starters at Parachute