The Windy City Part 2: One Dish Wonders
Updated: Sep 20
As I mentioned in my last post, my primary reason for wanting to visit Chicago for all of these years, was the culinary scene. My expectations about how good the food would be, were met and exceeded.
Chicago is a foodie's paradise, in my opinion. It didn't matter whether it was fast food, casual or fine dining restaurants I visited. They were all exceptional.
There was so much good food in fact, that rather than sit down for a two- or three-course meal at a single restaurant, I would often order an appetizer at two restaurants to try to experience as much as possible. This post is dedicated to those one dish wonders that I encountered at eateries across the Windy City.
Tzuco is the creation of chef Carlos Gaytán, the first Mexican chef ever awarded a Michelin star for his restaurant, Mexique. After Mexique (which was also located in Chicago) closed, Chef Gaytán returned to Mexico with a promise to make his way back to Chicago.
He returned one year later and opened Tzuco. The name Tzuco is short for Huitzuco, Gaytán's hometown in Mexico. Gaytán has brought his hometown, authentic, Mexican cooking to Chicago and patrons and critics are noticing. Tzuco, which opened on September 16 (Mexican Independence Day), 2019, has since earned and held a Michelin Bib Gourmand distinction.
Tequila, Cointreau Liqueur, Cucumber, Elderflower and Lime Juice
Stuffed Squid Ink Tortilla, Fish Fillet, Tomato, Onion, Garlic, Fresh Thyme and Avocado Salsa
Unlike a traditional quesadilla that is stuffed with cheese, the pescadilla at Tzuco is stuffed with a spicy fish filling that balances and complements the thick, squid ink tortillas that have just a hint of sweetness.
Bar Mar is the creation of Chef Jose Andres, who is most famously known for his restaurant, Bazaar Meat. I had the chance to eat at Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas, Nevada and it was incredible. The website accurately describes that restaurant as the "James Beard award-winning chef’s wild and wonderful celebration of the carnivorous."
Bar Mar ("mar" is translated "ocean" in Spanish), is Chef Andres' ode to seafood, and is described as "a true celebration of the bounty of the sea."
I opted to dine at the bar, instead of in the dining room, because the place is called "Bar" Mar after all. I ordered a Paper Plane to celebrate Chicago, the city where this cocktail was created, according to the bartender. The drink, which is named after the M.I.A. song "Paper Planes," has taken flight and is now popular far beyond Chicago's borders.
Next, I decided to order the octopus, because hanging over the bar, and directly above my head, was a giant, glowing octopus. It was as if it, and Jose Andres, were not so subtly telling me what to order.
Pulpo en Aceite y Ajo
La Mariscadora Octopus with Garlic Oil, Pan de Cristal
The octopus was both tender and crispy and the garlic sauce and garlic oil complemented both the meat and the potatoes beautifully.
The Wiener's Circle
The Wiener Circle serves up classic, Chicago-style, hot dogs either steamed or char-grilled. They also serve up a major attitude. The Wiener Circle is famous for its combative and downright hostile service. In fact, their sign reads, "Now open for delivery and curbside abuse."
Do not come here without a sense of humor and a thick skin. This infamously rude hot dog venue has been visited by many celebrities including Jack McBrayer and Cuba Gooding Jr. Some, like Ed Sheeran, have even taken up residence behind the counter, serving up hot dogs to customers. Despite his best efforts, Sheeran's service was criticized by the establishment for being "too proper and friendly."
The Wiener Circle's culture aside, the best reason to go there is the remarkable, classic, Chicago dog. You might be wondering, as I was, "what is a classic Chicago-style hot dog and how does it differ from your standard hot dog with ketchup, mustard and relish?"
I learned that a Chicago dog starts with a hot dog nestled in a poppyseed bun, topped with fresh tomato, onion, sport peppers, a pickle and celery salt.
I am a believer! I much prefer the fresh tomato to processed ketchup, the poppyseed bun to standard white bread buns and the spicy, sport peppers and fresh, whole, dill pickle to sweet relish.
Pequod's has been serving deep-dish pizza since 1970 and is a staple of the Chicago deep-dish pizza story. If you are a fan of FX's The Bear, I am sure you have heard of it. I heard about Pequod's growing up, as my mom told me stories of it being the first deep-dish pizza she had eaten.
Pequod's was named after the whaling ship in "Moby Dick" by the original owner, Burt Katz. The only indication of this today, is the signage featuring a whale wearing a thong. I'm sure Melville would (not) be proud.
Pepperoni and Sausage Deep Dish Pizza
So what is deep-dish pizza? It is a pizza with a high, thick crust, baked in a round, steel, oiled pan and layered with ingredients. It is similar to a pie in that regard.
If all of that isn't making your mouth water, Pequod's adds another layer: a caramelized crust. This crust was created by Katz several years before he opened the original Pequod's in Morton Grove. For those of you who have had deep-dish pizza, you may be picturing a biscuit-like crust. That's where Katz makes his departure once again. The crust he created is more foccacia-like.
The cheese is rich and gooey, the tomatoes are bright, the meat is savory and the crust is both crispy and doughy. And all that said, my words do not do it justice. Just give it a try if you are in Chicago.
Birrieria Zaragoza is a casual, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that has indescribably good birria tacos. Michelin agreed when they gave this restaurant, with a tiny menu, a Bib Gourmand distinction.
Birria is a slow-cooked meat recipe that originated in Jalisco, Mexico. The result is fall-off-the-bone, juicy, tender, sweet, spicy, and savory meat, that is served in a warm, tortilla and then dipped in consommé.
Birria can be made with various kinds of meat including beef, lamb or goat. At Birrieria Zaragoza, goat is the only offering, and that is not a problem, because this was some of the best goat I have ever eaten.
The goat is not the only story though. As you can see, the hand-made tortillas are made to order and pressed on a mesquite wood press. The consommé is made with tomato broth and without any meat drippings or fat. My taco is hanging out in the corner, waiting to be devoured, but still incomplete.
Taco de Birria
Shout out to the chef who came over and personally constructed my taco to have what he called the "perfect ratio of meat to condiments." It might not look like much, but when meat is cooked this well, you don't need back up dancers. Simply put, this was the best birria taco I have ever eaten.
Blue Door Kitchen and Garden
Blue Door Kitchen and Garden is located in an old mansion in Chicago's Gold Coast and is one of Chef Art Smith's seven restaurants. Aside from being a restauranteur and a two-time James Beard Foundation winner, he also served as Oprah Winfrey's personal chef for ten years.
At Blue Door Kitchen and Garden, he focuses on Southern delights such as fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and macaroni and cheese, as well as seasonal farm-to-table dishes such as purple potato gnocchi. If you're looking for comfort food in a comforting setting, this is your spot.
If weather permits, I recommend sitting in the courtyard patio.
Blue Door Ranch
Corazon Blanco, Lime, Cucumber Soda
Fried Chicken Benedict with Pork Braised Greens, Sausage Gravy
An already decadent dish, this preparation of eggs Benedict was especially hefty. One piece of the fried chicken itself was enough to fill me up, but the greens, eggs and gravy took it to another level. This is comfort brunch at its best.
A little bird (who unexpectedly landed on my table) told me that this dish, as well as all the others in this post, are excellent. If you get a chance to visit these restaurants, and try any of these (or other) dishes, I hope you'll agree.
This is not the only post about Chicago dining. There are still two more to come, including an in-depth review of a restaurant that I had wanted to visit for well over a decade.