We arrived at my Aunt’s house and hunkered down for three days in Chicago. Our first morning driving into the city, we stopped at White Palace Grill for a breakfast. There was no parking lot, but you can leave your car at the curb for 30 minutes or less provided that you leave on your emergency flashers. (Go figure) We went in and found a comfortable booth where we could keep an eye on the car. We ordered a meat lover’s omelet with toast and hash browns. Our waitress was friendly, and efficient. The food came right out and it was surprisingly delicious. I was expecting a boring, run of the mill coffee shop breakfast, but this was clearly a step above. The place was immaculately clean too and they had some great art work. We always love it when we are pleasantly surprised and get more than what we were expecting.
After a bit of time downtown, we drove up Lake Shore Drive where we found some free parking at a park (Lincoln Park?) and got out to walk around. The wind blowing off Lake Michigan chilled to the bone, but we hung out there as long as we could stand it. The bathrooms had heaters, but we couldn’t go in one together and give people the wrong impression. We left the park and made a few stops at Ann Sather’s to pick up some cinnamon rolls, Mr. Beef for an Italian Beef sandwich, and XOCO (see Food Network blog).
We drove north through the city up to The Shanty in Wadsworth, Illinois. There we shared a plate of the fried shrimp with the whiskey cream sauce on garlic bread. It was just as good as we hoped it would be and Anna in particular loves garlic bread. It’s her favorite food, so she was a happy camper. We didn’t get to meet the chef, but right next door is the shop where his father works. We went next door to meet him and he had us sample some olive oil. It turns out that it is there own private olive oil from their own property in Greece, and so we bought a big bottle (1.5L) of it and hauled it all the way home. The things foodies do.
If you look up The Shanty on the map, you will see that we drove way up out of our way for this shrimp dish. But it was worth the drive and we’re glad we went. We signed the guest book and had a great time talking with the staff.
On the way back south, we drifted off the major roads and meandered down Highway 21 into a charming little town called Libertyville. We walked around and checked out a bunch of the shops, met some interesting people and took some pictures.
Our next stop was Dell Rhea Chicken Basket. It was getting dark by the time we arrived, and I was getting tired of all the heavy traffic. Don’t ask me why, but I was expecting a fast food type of a chicken place. Nope. Dell Rhea’s is a full-on restaurant and so the dinner ended up being more of an event than what we were expecting. The service was decent, but sadly we didn’t think the chicken was anything to write home about. It was good chicken, and a basket done up right, but we were expecting great chicken.
Our last stop for the day was to pick up a pizza to go at Vito & Nick’s. We called it in and so it was ready when we got there. We grabbed it and headed back to my Aunt’s place in Lake Station. The pizza was great and enjoyed by all.
On day two, we started off with a light lunch at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap. We split an order of ravioli and got to meet one of the twin daughters, Deesa. She seemed very friendly, knowledgeable and sharp as a tack. I’m sure she will have a bright future. Tufano’s has a very cozy and inviting atmosphere, and I have no doubt they treat all their regulars like family.
We braved a light rain and walked a few blocks over to Al’s #1 Italian Beef, where we were completely blown away. See the Food Network Blog for more on this top ten pick.
We next headed out to the Depot American Diner to sample an order of the donuts with mocha dipping sauce that were made on the show. We met a woman dining there who is also a DDD fan and had a pleasant chat with her.
We turned north and headed for Paradise Pup. We probably should have had hot dogs, but we ordered a cheese burger because we wanted to try the Merkts Cheddar cheese from Wisconsin that they featured on the show. I got the impression that I was going to get one of those burger craft experiences, but it didn’t turn out that way. Unless I missed something, they smeared a little bit of the cheese on the top bun, but never grilled or toasted it. The cheese didn’t melt, the bun wasn’t hot, and I think the meat was a little under-seasoned. It was a good burger, but my expectations were a lot higher, so it ended up being a disappointment for me.
We turned back south and made a beeline for Tre Kroner. We split an order of the Swedish Meatballs, which were succulent and had a rich, balanced flavor. There was just one problem, they weren’t hot (which is a pet peeve of mine). This was that similar problem to the Athens Kitchen in Nashville; it’s hard to hold precooked meatballs without overcooking them, and then serving them hot without micro-waving them. They are usually reheated in a little sauce in a saute pan right before service. The problem here was that our server did not get back to the table soon enough to see if our food was okay. She gave good service, she was just too busy. Nevertheless, I love Swedish Meatballs and these hit the spot.
We tried to order the Aebleskiver, and the servers looked at me like I was crazy. Anna had them all her life, visiting in Solvang, but I have still never tried them. This was my big chance and we were both looking forward to it. They are cooked in a special pan and they are like little round pancake fritters served with jam. It’s a very odd sounding name to pronounce and I felt embarrassed to be mistaken that they didn’t serve them at Tre Kroner. If memory serves, there were two or three waitresses there, and none of them saw the DDD segment (another pet peeve). You can imagine my shock to return home, watch the segment, and see that the Aebleskiver was featured after all. I guess I should say that it’s not a surprise the owners weren’t around while we were there. I tried to call them and let them know what happened, but they weren‘t around then either. I let it drop, since it was weeks after the fact.
Anna and I have had several discussions about DDD places and their owners, and it seems to us that since the server is usually the only person to have contact with the diners, they should at least watch the segment. They only run a few minutes. If a server doesn’t want to watch it, then he or she probably shouldn’t be working there. That’s just our opinion… but we’re right. If you’re a server and you want to alienate DDD fans, tell them that you’ve never seen the show, and have their food ran out to them by a runner.
Our last stop for the day was Honky Tonk BBQ, which is located in a big, old brick building that sits on a corner. The place is so big it has two entrances. Inside, the décor was casual with lots of dark wood and low-slung furniture. We weren’t very hungry but we sampled a pair of sliders, pulled pork and beef brisket. Although we didn’t care for the buns (cold), the meat was excellent and so was the sauce. Our server was very friendly and took good care of us. It’s too bad we didn’t have a bigger appetite. The place look aptly named and it’s probably a great neighborhood place to have happy hour or go out with your friends for a good time.
We called it an early day and made our way out of the city to get back and visit with our hosts in Lake Station (my Aunt and her family).
Our last day in the Windy City began with a great lunch at Cemitas Puebla. If you’re a taqueria nut like me, this place is a great find. After watching the segment, I was hoping that the food would taste as good as it looked, and they did not disappoint. Upon walking in, we were greeted by the owner and patriarch of the family. He wanted to know if we had been in before (to learn their ordering system) and gave us menus. We ordered our food and grabbed a table. The place was packed, and the smells of all the authentic foods were a delight.
We ordered a Cemita, which is a style of Torta (Mexican sandwich). We ordered ours with carne asada (thinly sliced grilled beef). The bread was super fresh and the sandwich was a symphony of flavor. We also tried the Taco Arabas (a rolled taco) and my favorite the Taco Al Pastor. As you can see from the picture, it’s an awesome taco and one of the best I have ever had anywhere. Equally satisfying were the selection of hot sauces, and when I tried their hottest sauce, I was in salsa heaven. I make a good sauce at home, but this was even better. It’s the best I’ve ever had. I asked the patriarch for the recipe which gave him a big grin. I think he was kind of like a cat toying with a mouse, but he did give me some of the ingredients. The real kicker though is their recipes and the fact that he personally travels back to Mexico frequently to get the authentic ingredients. If you want food this good, outside of Chicago, you may have to go to Mexico to get it.
Just up the street from Cemitas Puebla is a nice park. We tossed our Frisbee, walked around the duck pond and played on the playground. The weather was nicer than the previous two days.
By the time we worked back up an appetite, we headed over to Kuma’s Corner. No sooner had I parked the car when we were informed that it was a four-hour wait! The hostess said we could leave and come back, which we did.
We headed over to Smoque BBQ, and were delighted to get some of the best barbeque we have ever had. The owners of Smoque, who were both there working, mentioned that they had spent a lot of time traveling and perfecting their food. Let me tell you, it was time well spent. We shared a combo of Baby-Back Ribs, brisket, baked beans, Cole slaw, and macaroni & cheese. My only regret was that we couldn’t eat more.
Every bite was scrumptious, and the meat was super moist, smoky and succulent. The sauces were great too, and the atmosphere was casual. The dining room is set up like a fast food place, but the exposed brick and other décor makes it appropriate for the barbeque experience. The place was spotlessly clean, and both owners were working the front and the back of the house.
The prices were very reasonable, especially given such high quality; and the food was prompt. These guys have perfected their business, and if they are ever able to expand/franchise, they won’t have any trouble finding investors. Smoque is on my Top Ten list, and it’s some of the best barbeque anywhere. I doubt they will ever get knocked off. It’s that good. Go and see for yourself.
After a little sight-seeing and goofing around, we made our way back to Kuma’s Corner and had about a half-hour wait for a table. After the little pig-out at Smoque, we weren’t real hungry yet, so we decided to just get one burger and share it. We ordered the same burger from the show, the Black Sabbath Burger with the house made chili and the pretzel roll (which was my first).
The kitchen is open to the dining room and the head chef, Amalia, was right there rockin’ out the burgers just like on the show. I went up and introduced myself and told her how much we enjoyed watching her on the show, and that we ordered the same burger. Amalia was gracious, friendly and totally cool. We enjoyed the atmosphere, the artwork, and our server (China) took good care of us. Everything seemed to be lining up for a great dining experience. I love chili, and Guy said the Black Sabbath Burger was among the top five on DDD. The burger was picture perfect.
The burger was served, the pictures taken, the unceremonious cutting in half was performed and it was time to dig in. I was so excited. I took a picture perfect bite, and began to explore the tastes of the pretzel bun, the cheese, the chili… all of which were very good. Unfortunately, the meat was under-seasoned for my taste (and Anna’s). I couldn’t taste any seasoning. I looked over to the grill for Amalia and I was going to go ask her about it. She was gone! The person who took her place said she had to go to a meeting. I suspect our burger was the victim of too many cooks in the kitchen, and went unseasoned. We probably should have sent it back, but I couldn’t remember if they seasoned the burger on the show. (Watching that segment of DDD was one of the first things I did after we got home. Amalia not only seasoned it with salt and pepper but she also seasoned it with a liberal dose of spices.) I hated to send the burger back, so we just made the best of it and finished eating it. I’m sure they would have been happy to remake the burger, but we didn’t let on that we weren’t happy. It ended up being a disappointment, but I would go back and order the same burger again (as long as Amalia is at the grill).
Hamburgers just aren’t going to be satisfying if they are not seasoned. Some places under-season or non-season by accident, and some places do it on purpose. I assumed everyone seasoned their burgers, but I was mistaken. I’ve since learned to ask in advance if the burgers are seasoned (which avoids the big disappointments). It’s utterly amazing how much difference a little salt makes in food. For more on the topic of great burgers, see my list of Hamburger Don’ts.
We had been intending to sample the famous Italian sausage deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, but will have to save it for our next trip.
As it turns out, we missed Guy Fieri in Chicago by one night. We didn’t know about it before we left, but he was out on tour, cooking live and promoting his new book, Guy Fieri Food (which I highly recommend). We left Chicago Saturday morning, and Guy was there that Saturday night (while we were in Milwaukee). We would have planned on catching his tour there had we known about it. Talk about an unexpected treat. Guy Fieri himself.
We left Chicago and stopped for breakfast at Frank’s Diner in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Sadly, we already knew that Chrissy and Lenny wouldn’t be there because they were on vacation. We were both really looking forward to meeting them. Greg and Carrie from the Triple XXX spoke very highly of them as well.
We found a close parking spot right out front, and hoped that there wouldn’t be a long wait. The line wasn’t out the door, but it was right up to the door inside. Being a converted dining car, it was very tight. There is an adjacent dining room and every seat was full. The place was packed and people were milling around everywhere—constantly being careful to turn and pass people without bumping (well, let’s just say anything sticking out). Thankfully (or regrettably), I managed to make it in and out of the place without getting slapped. Oh, be-have!
While we waited in line, we got a full view of the front kitchen and a griddle full of Garbage Plates being made (production style). I ordered the full Garbage Plate with everything and Anna ordered a S’mores pancake with marshmallow sauce, chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. The total wait was a little over an hour, but the food was good (see pictures). If you missed the show, the Garbage Plate starts with an order of hash browns griddled up with green peppers, onions, jalapenos, eggs, choice of meats. We enjoyed some coffee while we waited, and watching all the hustle and bustle was entertaining. I was happy to have the experience of visiting a place that has been in business since 1926. We bought a souvenir magnet/bottle opener with the catchy phase, “Order what you want, eat what you get.”
We left Frank’s Diner happy and continued the short drive up to Milwaukee. We explored the town a little bit, visiting the Milwaukee Public Market and a big park near the Milwaukee Art Museum. They were flying gigantic kites off Lake Michigan and there were lots of places to walk around and explore. There were lots of fountains, some statues, and some of the park benches even doubled as percussion instruments.
We made our way up the hill to the Comet Café and ordered the most amazing interpretation of a meatloaf sandwich we’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Hey, if you’re going to have a meatloaf sandwich, why not have a work of art? (see picture). The place was casual and comfy. It has a big bar in the middle and seating on both sides. We missed the rush, so it was fairly quiet. The owners weren’t in, but our server took great care of us. We read the local paper to see all the goings-on in the Milwaukee area.
If you haven’t seen this segment of DDD, you’ve just got to see it. The bacon wrapped meatloaf is killer all by itself. It is griddled in butter to order and served on top of toasted rye bread. The meatloaf is then topped with bacon and herb mashed potatoes and topped with beer gravy (yes I said beer not beef, although the gravy starts with homemade beef stock which is reduced till its crazy good). The sandwich is further topped with two slices of bacon, slices of grilled tomatoes, some grilled onions and parsley. It was so beautiful we hated to cut into it and devour it, but that’s exactly what we did. As the expression goes, we hoovered it. Honestly, it was so good, I hated to have to share it. In fairness, Anna probably did too. We were saving room for dinner at A.J. Bombers, and we wanted to arrive hungry.
Next time I go to the Comet Cafe, I’m going to have the Akimbo Burger, which they also featured on the show. Roughly, a killer cheeseburger with lots of bacon and goodies in between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Awesome. The turkey nuggets in chicken gravy also look great. Guy gave it one of his trademark word plays: Crunchitastical. We’ll have to try those too. They’re doing it right at the Comet Café and everyone who lives close enough to eat there whenever they want is a lucky duck, especially if you love bacon, beer, and crafted food. I’m surprised they can keep their prices so low, given the exceptionally high quality of the food and the service. Comet Café gets our highest marks.
It’s a good thing I don’t live anywhere near Milwaukee. Between all the great foods, great cheeses, great beers and breweries, and especially the burgers, I’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe of much larger clothes. I hope to make it back again someday, and stay longer next time. I wonder what they do for fun during the long, brutally cold winters?
Next DDD Destination: Minneapolis/St. Paul (DDD count: 119)