My favourite Chicago eats

I had fun mentally re-eating all the good stuff I had in New York… let’s do it again!

This week, I’m going back to Chicago. Initially, I only agreed to add it to the itinerary because husband wanted to go; I really didn’t know much anything about the city, other than it’s home to the Chicago Bulls, and as children of the 90s/the Jordan era who both grew up playing basketball, that’s obviously our NBA team of choice. Other than that, it was a bit of a blank city for me.

After spending almost a week there over Christmas, though, my opinion changed completely; I loved that city. I can’t tell you why, either – it was just one of those places that felt good to be in. Beautiful buildings, the gorgeous river than runs through it, friendly people, and amazing food. The food scene reminded me a lot of Melbourne, actually, which may be one of the big reasons I loved it so much! We ate a lot in that week, and it was hard to narrow it down to the favourites, but here they are….


1. Do-Rite Donuts (donuts)
The food: A traditional buttermilk glaze

The memory: Ohh I loved this place! Our first day in Chicago, it was cold like I couldn’t believe, and it was Christmas Eve! We were on our way to the Christkindl Christmas Market, and noticed a giant donut pointing the way to a cute little store. We grabbed a donut and some hot tea, pulled up our hoods and sat out the front in the cold to take it all in… a kindly old man sitting on the table next to us struck up a friendly conversation, and it was the most wonderful welcome to any city we’ve ever had!


2. Au Cheval (diner, burgers)
The food: The Au Cheval cheeseburger with a fried egg; same thing everyone else was ordering!
The memory: The wind was like little frosty daggers this day, and after a morning of sight-seeing, we couldn’t have been happier to get into Au Cheval and escape the cold! After much pre-trip Googling, Au Cheval’s fried egg cheeseburger seemed to be the must-try burger for Chicago, and it didn’t disappoint. We were lucky enough to get a seat at the counter where we watched the most well-oiled machine out together the most spectacular looking (and smelling) food for the Saturday lunch crowd; it was mesmerising, and really made us think of Chicago as a proper food city.


3. Portillo’s (hot dogs)
The food: A Chicago dog. Obviously.

The memory: Another day of walking and walking and more walking, we finally found ourselves in the neighourhood of a Portillo’s, and it was finally Chicago Dog time. I remember sitting on the second level of the restaurant watching over all of the happy people and families with their tables of dogs and fries, and thinking how lucky we were to have made it all the way across the world to enjoy something as simple as a hot dog, which so many people would completely take for granted!


4. Billy Goat Tavern (burgers)
The food: Double cheezborger. No fries, CHEEPS! No Pepsi, COKE!
The memory: This was another exciting one – we love watching travel shows, especially the ones that are food heavy. And on all of the travel shows about Chicago and food, the Billy Goat Tavern shows itself. We sat there in the crowded sub-street level diner with our burgers re-hashing the Bulls game we’d been to the night before, and talking about how long ago it felt that we were sitting on the couch watching this place on TV wondering if we’d ever actually get there…


5. Lou Malnati’s (deep dish pizza)
The food: The Malnati Chicago Classic – sausage, cheese and vine-ripened tomato sauce. Simple.

The memory: I know that “real” Chicagoans don’t do deep dish pizza, but to enjoy it, you just need to not think of it as pizza. It’s a quiche pizza hybrid. A quizza, if you will. This was one of the deep thoughts that was discussed over dinner, sitting at a high bench table, finally out of the -15°C cold. Sometimes we just act like kids…


6. Rubi’s Tacos (street food – tacos)
The food: Pork tacos – amazing!!!
The memory: Market and street food are two of my favourite things, and when we came across Rubi’s with a massive line, we figured we should probably join it – I remembered reading somewhere they did the best tacos. When we realised no one in the line was speaking English and there was no real menu, we figured a) we were definitely in the right place for breakfast and b) it was lucky I knew how to order pork tacos in Spanish. Sitting among the crowd, we stood out like green elephants, and really enjoyed feeling so out of place – that’s what travel is all about!


7. Doughnut Vault (donuts)
The food: A vanilla glazed raised and a buttermilk old fashioned

The memory: A tiny little place with the delicious smell of fried dough in the air and nowhere to sit – it felt just like being back in Melbourne! Another freezing day, we got there nice and early, grabbed our donuts and enjoyed them outside – I remember my butt being freezing against the cold concrete sidewalk we were sitting on, my fingers being sticky as all hell, and the two of us giggling like we were two kids who’d stolen a piece of birthday cake. Good times in Chicago! 🙂

Eat here: Chicago classics – Al’s #1 Italian Beef & Portillo’s Hot Dogs

I think my husband caught something off me. A bug of sorts, if you will. No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter. I think he’s caught the travel bug. Like, a proper case. He’s into travel too, always has been; in fact, he was even studying travel and tourism before he ditched that for his sports science degree (where he ironically met me, the girl who later gave up as career in the health industry to start working in travel – I know, its completely demented). Travel has been a common interest for us right from the start, its just that I’ve been a bit lot more determined aggressive in chasing creating opportunities to get some passport action. So when, a few months ago, he announced that he was looking into the feasibility of flying to America to watch a few baseball games, I was stoked!

I know that a lot of wives might be a bit apprehensive about their husbands flying to the other side of the world with a mate for 10 days of sports bars and sports games and sports whatever, but this is the same guy who’s backed my trips with other friends to Thailand, Vietnam and Japan later this year – we’ve made it this far together because we still have our own lives and dreams. I wanted to learn to cook banh xeo with my sister in Hoi An, he wants to watch dudes in tights hit balls. We don’t judge!

Anyway, he’s most keen to get back to Chicago and see a Cubs game, with Wrigley Field in all its restored glory – it was mid-facelift when we were there over Christmas. He’s also keen on the food; Chicago knows how to eat! I re-visited classics Lou Malnati’s and the Billy Goat Tavern a few weeks ago, so today allow me to introduce you to another two foods Chicago is really well known for – the Italian beef at Al’s #1 and the Chicago dog at Portillo’s.



Al’s #1 Italian Beef

Now with more than a few restaurants in the chain, Al’s was started as a family business (as most Italian eateries are) back in 1938, to cater for the masses suffering during the Great Depression. In the true Italian fashion of using everything and wasting nothing, thinly sliced beef was sandwiched in freshly baked rolls. These days, you’re also getting a bit of their delicious home made sweet pepper mix on top, as well as the gravy – either a light pour or absolutely drenched, as you please. You can read more about the gravy which is so distinct to Al’s, but here’s the sandwich we demolished:


It more than lived up to the hype; it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had, and considering my extreme aversion to soggy bread, that’s really saying something! Don’t bother checking out the menu, just order the Al’s original and join the club of faithful followers.


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Like Al’s, Portillo’s is all around, which is good news for lovers of the Chicago Dog. You can get dogs all over the city, what makes a chain store so special? I can’t tell you. I don’t know the secret recipe. I just know that this was the best Chicago Dog I ate over there. They’re on the small side, so order two, but everything is just in perfect proportion and tastes amazing together! Except that spicy green chili – I don’t do chili, I donated mine to the husband, who was much obliged. Mental.


Anyway, still try the other dogs you come across in Chicago – just make sure you end with a Portillo dog so you can walk away very very happy! Damn, now I want to tag along with the guys…


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