This is the first part of our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Chicago. The next post will cover fine dining.
Chicago is a terrific food city with a rich culinary history and a distinct collection of local specialties. Like New York, its culinary landscape has been developed by waves of immigration, each group bringing its own specialties from back home, and an innovative spirit that generated a cuisine all its own. On a recent weekend trip, we sampled some of the diverse offerings, from Chicago style “stuffed” pizza and hot dogs to some of the best Szechuan food I have had.
Chicago Style Pizza: Giordano’s
One of the first things we wanted to do upon arriving in Chicago was to enjoy some serious Chicago style pizza. Sometimes called “deep dish pizza” or “stuffed pizza”, Chicago style pizza is prepared by lining a deep round pan with flaky crust and filling the inside with layers of cheese and fillings, topping the whole thing with tomato sauce and baking it in the oven.
Having arrived late on our flight from New York, we swung by the nearest Giordano’s, a local chain found all over Chicago. Founded in 1974, Giordano’s is popular and open late. While we waited for a table, we efficiently pre-ordered our pizza, which takes 35 minutes to prepare, and enjoyed some beers at the bar tables set up in the front of the restaurant.
Once seated, the pizza did not disappoint. The crust is deep and the cheese is thick, with tomato sauce spread on top. The sauce has a lighter, brighter taste than the sauce typically used on New York style pizza. The fillings (which in New York we might call “toppings”) were delicious, stuffed in between layers of cheese. For me, fresh garlic really made the pizza. It was strong and flavorful, stuffed in the cheese and worked into the sauce.
As far as I can tell, non-pizza items at Giordano’s are uninteresting. And the decor definitely said “chain restaurant” to me; it looked and felt a little too much like TGI Friday’s. But you come to Giordano’s for a single purpose, and that is to enjoy the excellent stuffed pizza.
So which pizza wins, New York or Chicago? It’s a silly question. These are two completely different foods. All I can say is I wouldn’t mind seeing some good Chicago-style pizza in New York.
Chicago Style Hot Dog: Al’s Beef and Portillo’s
Another local specialty is the Chicago style hot dog. In search of a snack after an excellent tour of the city’s early skyscrapers, we stopped for one at a nearby branch of Al’s Beef. Founded in 1938, Al’s is famous for its depression-era Italian beef sandwiches, consisting of thinly sliced seasoned beef and sweet or hot peppers on Italian bread; Chicago’s answer to the Philly cheese steak. A photograph on the wall demonstrates the proper eating position: elbows on the counter, mouth open, body angled outward to avoid drippage.
Our Chicago style hot dogs came “dragged through the garden”, as they say, topped with chopped onions, bright green relish, sport peppers (small hot vinegared peppers) and yellow mustard (“no ketchup!”, she quickly advised us). Like all proper Chicago dogs it was served on a poppy seed bun, and it was accompanied by pretty decent french fries. I was disappointed by the absence of tomato slices, which are typically included, although some Chicagoans (evidently) leave them out.
Another good spot for a Chicago style hot dog is Portillo’s, which we visited on a previous trip to the Windy City. Portillo’s is the largest privately owned restaurant group in the Midwest and its Ontario Street location looks like a giant indoor fairgrounds complete with neon signs and a carnival atmosphere. While Portillo’s sells far more than hot dogs, those are the main attractions; busy days can see large lines snake around the cavernous interior. The all-beef dog comes with mustard, chopped onions, relish, sliced tomatoes, dill pickles, and sport peppers all crammed in a poppy seed bun. The tomato slices make up for the absence of ketchup. It’s a loaded mess of a hot dog but delicious nonetheless.
Admittedly, my feelings on hot dogs are colored by having grown up in striking distance of Gray’s Papaya, New York’s premier hot dog destination where the dogs are perfectly grilled and served with whatever toppings you want. They come out with a crispy skin and a soft interior. There’s no seating, though, and not enough room at the counter to assume the proper eating position.
Chicago’s Greektown: Artopolis
Chicago’s Greektown, a neighborhood on the Near West Side of Chicago, used to be home to tens of thousands of Greek Americans. Many of them have dispersed to other parts of Chicago and beyond, but the neighborhood’s restaurants, cultural institutions and festivals retain their heritage. Importantly for our purposes, Greektown is home to lots of fantastic Greek food.
Artopolis is a good spot for lunch. It is an interesting place, combining a store selling Greek olive oil and other ingredients, some bakery and take-out counters, and a sit-down cafe with table service.
The highlight of our lunch was the spanakopita. In contrast to other spinach pies I have had, theirs has a round shape that is sealed around the outside, with a filling of spinach, feta, scallions and dill. Artopolis has a number such pies available for purchase at the counter or to be enjoyed in the cafe. They include Tiropita with feta and kasseri cheeses, Manitaropita with mushrooms and emmenthal cheese, and Kotopita with chicken, artichokes and mozzarella. The crust is flaky and delicious. Paired with a simple Greek salad, it makes a great lunch.
Avgolemono, the traditional Greek chicken-rice soup with egg and lemon, was nice and comforting. I thought it needed more lemon, but fortunately they give you a lemon slice so you can adjust to taste. A nice touch.
Artopolis offers a variety of sandwiches served with good pasta salad or potato salad. The Briammi Kefte is one of the more interesting ones, consisting of seasoned flat meatballs (or “kefte”) of lamb and beef with vegetable ratatouille (i.e., the “briammi”) and feta cheese. Given the bakery on premises, I expected the bread to be better. But the sandwich took advantage of good flavor contrasts, with the savory kefte, the sweetness of the briammi and the saltiness of the feta.
The narrow but two-story cafe is situated by large windows looking out onto the street, making for good people watching. It is a nice place for a leisurely lunch enjoying some Greek specialties, desserts or coffee.
Chicago’s Chinatown: Lao Sze Chuan
Located in the city’s South Side, Chicago’s Chinatown offers terrific food and a fun pedestrian walkway lined with stores, bakeries and restaurants. Although there are many options to choose from, we went straight for Lao Sze Chuan, the award-winning flagship restaurant of Chef Tony Hu, a Szechuan native who has built an empire of five successful restaurants in Chicago.
Culinary excellence has made Chef Hu famous, and it is almost as if he or his managers do not know how to handle it. Photos of him with Bill Clinton and other luminaries are plastered all over the front window and the menu has four pages dedicated to his many awards. His web site refers to him repeatedly as “Celebrity Chef Tony Hu”, perhaps taking a page from New Orleans’s “Chef John Besh”. It’s too much. One of the great things about being a celebrity chef is that you don’t have to tell anyone you’re a celebrity chef.
That said, Lao Sze Chuan is the real deal. With more than 600 items on the menu, its offerings range from the familiar to the exotic. It pulls no punches, delivering the explosive Szechuan flavors of garlic, ginger and chilies. The food is all kinds of spicy, but the heat is delivered with great skill and balance.
I was eager to try Tony’s Three Chili Chicken, which many Chicagoans refer to as “chicken crack”, presumably because it is addictive. At first glance, it appears unexceptional, consisting of diced chicken thighs that have been battered and fried. Fried anything is delicious, of course, but this dish was something else entirely. It was intensely flavorful with many different dimensions of flavor including a touch of sweetness. Despite the name, it was not particularly spicy, at least by comparison to other dishes. It was simply delicious. I would order this dish on every visit.
Another star of the menu, albeit with less recognition, is the Szechuan cold noodle salad. The fresh noodles are simply prepared with chili oil, rice vinegar, sesame seeds and Szechuan pepper. The dish has a strong peppery, back of the mouth spicy taste that hits you hardest after it has gone down. But the genius of this noodle dish is that it is served chilled, not merely room temperature. The low temperature creates a beautiful contrast between the peppery heat of the chili oil and the cooling mouth feel of the chilled noodles. The heat is also cut by a nice hit of rice vinegar. Even more than the chicken, this is the dish that most sticks out in my mind. It is Szechuan cuisine at its best, using heat with finesse and balance. Once I figure out how to make it, I shall post a recipe.
Ma po tofu, a Szechuan staple, had all kinds of heat and a generous amount of Szechuan pepper. Whereas the cold noodles displayed great finesse, ma po tofu derives its flavor from layer upon layer of different kinds of heat. The texture was perfect and the color was deeply red. Some critics have been skeptical of the restaurant’s decision to prepare this dish without ground pork, but I see it as a show of strength; a statement that their tofu is rich and flavorful enough to stand on its own. And it is. Of course, they are happy to make it with pork if that is your preference.
Chef Hu has expanded his empire outside of Chicago, including with branches of Lao Sze Chuan in Downers Grove, Illinois and in Milford, Connecticut. We would give him a warm welcome if he were to open a restaurant in New York.
View Foods of Chicago in a larger map
Giordano’s: 730 North Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 951-0747.
Al’s Beef: 28 East Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, IL 60604. (312) 461-9292.
Portillo’s: 100 West Ontario Street, Chicago, IL 60654. (312) 587-8910.
Artopolis: 306 South Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60661. (312) 559-9000.
Lao Sze Chuan: 2172 South Archer Avenue, Chicago, IL 60616. (312) 326-5040.