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A culinary trip to Chicago


Fri, Jun 27th, 2003
Posted in Features

The country’s third largest city, Chicago has been called “The Pulse of America.” With its rich ethnic diversity, it is a city with an extraordinary range of dining opportunities. Photo by Al Mathison

"First we eat, then we do everything else."

M.F.K. Fisher

A few weeks ago we took our family summer vacation to Chicago. Our plans included taking the kids to the usual museums, walking around and gawking at the tall buildings and going to a Cubs game. We did all those things but once back home we found what we remembered most about the trip was the food.

It was all we could talk about: the deep-dish pizzas - a Chicago invention, the Oaxacan moles (a Mexican chocolate sauce for meats), the incredibly spicy Thai curries and then there was the nondescript little Italian joint that an old friend I hadn’t seen in over twenty years took us to in a seedy neighborhood on the southwest side. Italian food, I knew little about, but after that plate of Gemelli pasta with spinach pesto, I’m determined to learn more.

To borrow a phrase from Hemingway, “Chicago is a movable feast.” Or rather to put it in modern-speak, Chicago is a foodies paradise.

This was pointed out in an article in the Chicago Tribune that I read at the hotel the first morning in the city. A foodie, I learned, lives to eat and never tires of talking about food. A foodie, the article said, spends inordinate amounts of time in proximity to food: in restaurants and home kitchens, markets, limitless gatherings that celebrate food and various beverages, even on farms and in forests where food grows wild.

I felt as if I’d been struck by something meaningful and profound.

“I think I’ve got a new identity,” I exclaimed to my wife, Linda. “A new calling.”

“What is it this time?” She asked.

“I think I’m a foodie!” I said. Though I really don’t like the sound of that word.

“Or a glutton or a chowhound,” Linda replied.

“Yeah, either one of those sound better,” I agreed. “But, think about it. Isn’t food a way to discover the wider world? You might even say that the road to enlightenment begins on the palate.”

When I was growing up I never thought of food as being anything more than a basic necessity of life. It served as fuel to keep your energy up, to make it through the long farm workdays. We ate lots of Norwegian inspired hotdishes and really well-done meat and plenty of potatoes.

Typical Fillmore County fare, I suppose. It tasted good and the portions were always substantial, but I don’t recall ever thinking of food as adventurous.

When I first moved to California in the mid 1970’s I ordered a burrito at a sidewalk place in downtown L.A. and was surprised that it didn’t come served on a bun. I had thought I was ordering a Mexican hamburger and had never seen a tortilla before. It looked just like a piece of lefse. I know that sounds like another century ago, and come to think of it, I guess it was. But, at last my culinary horizons were expanding.

I like to think I’ve come a long ways since then and am proud to see that my ten-year old daughter, Jamie, eats green, yellow and red vegetables with enthusiasm. She is especially fond of artichokes and brussel sprouts. She’s got a few quirks too. I’ve seen her dump a half bottle of capers on a filet of fish. She is usually bored with kids menus. The last time we went to an Italian restaurant in the Cities, she ordered ravioli stuffed with Portobello mushroom and is still raving about it.

* * *

There was already a line in front of the Frontera Grill just north of the Loop at 11 a.m. that first morning in Chicago. It wasn’t due to open for another half hour. The Frontera is a high profile Mexican restaurant, due in part to the fact, that Rick Bayless, the owner, is the host of a PBS Television series called “Mexico, One Plate at a Time.” Bayless is a fanatic about authenticity especially when it comes to Oaxacan cuisine, from the far south of Mexico. He annually takes his entire restaurant staff to Oaxaca to soak up the local atmosphere and to learn more about the regions cooking secrets.

The Frontera wasn’t a hoity toity sort of place at all. Bright and colorful Latin art and folk masks hung on the walls. Latin Salsa music blasted from hidden speakers. Our waiter brought crayons for our 3-year-old son to doodle with on the childrens menu. Instead of tortilla chips there was a small plate of toasted pumpkin seeds that tasted great with a dark red chipotle based dipping salsa.

The menu changes every other week and I jotted down a few of the listings just because I liked the way they sounded. Maybe I was overly hungry as we had skipped breakfast in anticipation of our early lunch, but I thought the listings sounded like poetry:

Puerco en Mole Coloradito - Maple Creek Farm pork loin in classic mole coloradito of ancho chile and sweet spices with bacon-flavored red beans, braised quelites (wild greens) and crispy onion strings.

Tinga de Tres Hongos - rustic Pueblan-style stew of woodland mushrooms (shiitake, crimini, oyster) with local seasonal vegetables, white rice and fresh cheese; served with homemade tortillas for making soft tacos.

Tacos al Carbón - wood-grilled meat, poultry, fish or vegetables sliced and served with roasted pepper rajas, two salsas, frijoles charros, guacamole, and homemade tortillas.

I was glad I knew a little Spanish, as we took our time in making our ordering decisions. Linda had the pork loin and I had a halibut filet smothered in red peanut mole sauce and a bunch of other exotic things I’d never heard of. The kids wolfed down the tacos and slurped up the guacamole. We all agreed that the meal was one of the best we’d ever had, and it wasn’t even noon yet

“I wish we could afford to come back here again tonight,” I said.

During the rest of the day we embarked on adventures in public transportation, riding the elevated trains around the Loop and taking a bus down to the Museum of Science and Industry. We took a water taxi up to Navy Pier and then rode another one on the Chicago River over to the Sears Tower.

From the top, 1,353 feet above the city I looked down through the smog at the maze of streets and tall buildings.

“Just think about all those restaurants down there that we haven’t eaten at yet,” I said.

“Dad, we’re only here for five days, how could we possibly eat at them all,” Jamie said with mock exasperation.

“The ones we don’t eat at this time, we can eat at next time,” I said. “You’d like to come back here to Chicago sometime, wouldn’t you?”

“You bet!”

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