Chicago-bound: suggestions on the cheap? [Travel]

2008 Apr 16
I'm heading to a conference in Chicago in two weeks' time, and will be there for five days (leave at noon on Sunday, get back at noon on Thursday). Though some of the meals are provided, I do have to fend for myself for breakfast twice, lunch once, and dinner three times.

Since I'm going alone, I don't have the inclination to go to the high-end places like Alinea and Charlie Trotter's (no sense going if you can't share the experience with someone!)

Any suggestions for cheap-but-delicious places I should check out? I'm staying at the Hilton downtown. Already on the hit list is deep-dish pizza (pictured) and at least one of their crazy "dragged-through-the-weeds" hot dogs.

2008 Apr 16
One place to consider (at least I would) is Moto. Its not on the cheap but I don't think it has to be as expensive as the 2 restaurants you noted. I have not been there but have read about and seen it featured on At the Table. Its one of the restaurants that specializes in what many call "molecular gastronomy". Their website is:

As I said, I have not been there but have it set aside in my mind as a place to consider, along with the ones you note, when I get a chance to go to Chicago.

I have been to a few high end restaurants by myself and its been fun. Probably not as fun being with someone else but still enjoyable... besides, your partner will be jealous!


2008 Apr 16
I've never been to Chicago, other than flight stopovers, but if I did, I would definitely want to check out one of Rick Bayless' restaurants, Frontera Grill or Topolobampo. Both are authentic Mexican, and I'm told very good.

2008 Apr 16
Medicinejar: Moto is another one that I've been interested in visiting. Definitely more affordable than the full treatment at Alinea, too! Maybe I can find somebody on an expense account to come with me ;)

Tre: How could I have forgotten about Fontera Grill? That I can see myself doing. Dude.

Thanks for the suggestions, guys!

2008 Apr 16

Try the regional forums on eGullet.

2008 Apr 16
My wife and I went to Frontera when we were in Chicago last year. We went for brunch on a Saturday and ended sitting all afternoon on their patio. Definitely a tasty experience. They also have a selection of fancy tequilas.

If you find yourself a little thirsty after dinner at Frontera, walk up to the Clark Street Ale House (742 North Clark St.) for some great American micros.

I can't give any specific recommendations, but you may want to explore the Lincoln Park area. I noticed lots of interesting looking restaurants and shops in that area. Plus, it has much more of a "neighbourhood feel" than downtown.

2008 Apr 16
Note: Spinach deep-dish Chicago-style pizza = BEST. PIZZA. EVER.
I was going to suggest Gino's East before I noticed it was already on your hit-list.

Also, you should try to hit up a popcorn place for thier "Chicago Mix" (a cross between caramel corn and cheesecorn) which is famous; "Garret Popcorn Shop" seem to be the favorite with the locals, however Nuts on Clark (described as "eccentric" lol) was voted "Best Caramel Corn in the Country" by Saveur magazine. "Popcorn Works" is also highly rated.

And don't forget that Chicago is famous for "Chicago-Style hotdogs"; topped with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish (usually neon green), a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, peppers, and a dash of celery salt; but never ketchup. The complete assembly is sometimes called "dragged through the garden" because of the unique combination of condiments. There are a billion hotdog stands and shops PLUS the famous "Maxwell Street Polish" (grilled all-beef Polish sausage topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard and the optional peppers, on a bun) which can be found at "Jim's Original" and "Maxwell St. Express Grill".

2008 Apr 16
Momomoto - Lucky you, I've always wanted to see Chicago. Can't offer much because I haven't been, but you might want to check out Trip Advisor they list 4212 restaurants in Chicago. You can just browse thru the listing, or use the search engine. Like any other review site you have to take things with a grain of salt, but I use it frequently when going out of town to give me an idea of what I might expect. Besides, it is cool to see what is written about restaurants (and hotels for that matter) that you already know to be exceptional. Sometimes you'll pick up tips on what to ask for (like say a room in one wing vs. another) or not to waste (waist) your time in a location on dessert. You can check them out at

2008 Apr 16
A nice breakfast/brunch suggestion:

Orange at 75 W Harrison.

Very interesting menu which includes "frushi" = Fruit Sushi, Jelly donut pancake, Green Eggs and Ham... You can even do a flight of pancakes! Yummy.

The portions are large, so bring an appetite. Oh yeah, it gets busy on the weekend real quick, so get there early.

We pretty much had breakfast there every day while we were in Chicago - we stayed at Hotel Blake which was just around the corner, so it was easy for us since no travelling involved.

Oh yeah,the Chicago classic hotdog... Go get one at Portillo's. Remember it's supposed to be "taboo" to add ketchup on a Chicago dog. :)

Alinea got the thumbs down from us, but we love Charlie Trotter's. Avoid Everest at all cost.

Good eating!

2008 Apr 17
My friend who lived in Chicago for several years suggests:

Tango Sur (Argentine food)
--- awesome steaks, bring your own beer.
--- location Southport (maybe $20 cab ride, or take the redline El)

Metromix web site, which is sort of an entertainment guide

2008 Apr 17
FiH: I think the toughest part of the trip is choosing which place to go for "Chicago-style" hot dogs. Clearly I'll need to go to a couple and pick a favourite. And Chicago Mix sounds so disgusting it must be good.

TtE: Holy crap! Orange is less than a ten-minute walk from my hotel! I'd be a fool to not go there. I'll even bring my student ID ;)

2008 Apr 20
Frontera for sure. So damn tasty.
There are a bunch of amazing old-skool diners in the downtown core that are a treat.

2008 Apr 20
- The best brunch memory I have is from eating at THE BONGO ROOM in Wicker Park -- when I was there (a few years ago now) you could even order 1/2 portions of some of their food. Google it and many reviews available. When I went we shared 1/2 order of white chocolate macadamia pancakes with english cream; 1/2 order of pumpkin spice pancakes with english cream; duck breast eggs benedict...

- BUFFALO JOE'S in Evanston (close to NWU). Their wings are so super saucy and taste incredible -- I've tried to recreate the flavour and the closest I can get is mixing Frank's Red Hot + butter + dill sauce. Super saucy wings.

- AL'S #1 ITALIAN BEEF. Another big Chicago thing is "italian beef sandwiches". Basically really thin slices of roast beef sitting in juices, slabbed between bread and topped with hot giardiniera. Actually, as an aside, I found that hot giardiniera was everywhere in Chicago -- at PotBelly's and other sub places alike. I'm addicted to that stuff and pick up the Aurora brand at Loeb.

- WALKER BROTHERS. Another great breakfast place. Their corned beef hash is awesome! Buckwheat pancakes nice and nutty, too.

- SUSIE'S DRIVE-IN. Generous portion greasy philly cheesesteak... cheese fries served in a fried shell... enormous banana-oreo milkshake... can't go wrong. Open 24/7 I believe. Definitely an experience.

- TRADER JOE'S. Okay this isn't a restaurant but it's a neat organic grocery store that has tons of its own brand products -- I personally enjoy the plastic tubs of chocolate covered _____ (almonds, blueberries, etc etc).

Aaaah now I wish to go back.

2008 May 4
Alright, I finally got the pictures transferred onto my HD—my card reader doesn't support SDHC, I've now discovered—so I can show all y'all my Chicago Experience.

We'll start the show off with the "boring" one: a breakfast panino from Panera Bread. Sadly, Orange wasn't open until 8:30, meaning that there was no way I could both have breakfast there and make it to the first presentation of the day on time.

It's just a fried egg, bacon, and swiss cheese pressed between a couple slice of ciabatta. That plus a large coffee plus a cherry danish was eight bucks. Not bad.

2008 May 4
Next we have another disappointment-turned-delight: the Italian Beef from Gino's East that I got on the day I arrived.

The disappointment part was that I was told that there was a one-hour wait for the pizza on top of the half-hour wait for the table. Since I hadn't had lunch that day, I was starving and couldn't wait the extra time.

Doesn't it totally look like the Philly Cheesesteak from East Side Mario's? You know it does.

It was all right. Tasty, don't get me wrong, but if I went to a place that "specialized" in Italian Beef I'm sure I'd get more giardiniera and au jus than the little two-ounce Solo cups that they did give me (in the background and foreground, respectively).

$15 after tax and tip (and a generous tip at that, see below).

943 - Giardiniera is so good.

2008 May 4
The tip at Gino's was way generous because of this: the totally free beer I got from the waitress. Like many places in Chicago, Gino's has a stack of microbrews available on-tap, and when I told asked the waitress what the "Blue Moon" tasted like, she said she'd give me a taste.

The taste happened to be a whole pint, provided on the house.

So, like any good solo diner, I tipped her the cost of the beer on top of what I would have normally tipped.

2008 May 4
Next dining experience was at the Place We've All Been Waiting For: Frontera Grill.

For those of you who are planning to visit at some point in time: Frontera Grill doesn't take reservations for parties fewer than . . . four or six, I think it is? If there's room at the bar they have the full menu available, but since I was looking to relax and take pictures I waited the hour or so for a table to open up.

I ordered a Negra Modello to start off the meal, and it was brought to me with these babies: peanuts and pepitas (I think?) dusted with lime and chili. Bar snack par excellence. I could have eaten a buck of this and been satisfied.

Everything I had heard about Negra Modello is true. It's a delicious beer to go with Mexican food. Picture the dark ale equivalent of Corona: kinda-bright, kinda-cheery, and great with citrusy or spicy food. Only, since it's dark, it's got a lot more going on for it than Corona does.

2008 May 4
And here's the Ceviche Fronterino: lime-marinated Hawaiian blue-fin with cilantro, roasted red peppers, served with tostaditas. I haven't had that many ceviches in my life, and most of them have been with thinly-sliced fish, rather than cubed like this. This was a cavalcade of textures. I believe that the greens that they were served with were sunflower shoots? Or maybe pea shoots?

The fact that this place smelled like baked corn all evening made me so happy.

2008 May 4
My side order of refried beans. I couldn't not get these. It'd be wrong for me to get Mexican without any.

They were all right. Since I don't have a metric for great frijoles refritos, I can't say much about them.

It was at about this time in the meal that the table beside me was occupied by a positively colourful group of five. They were clearly enjoying themselves, based on their conversations and laughter. Then again, I think everybody enjoys their time here. It's one of those raucous, jumpy places where you can just feel that everybody's happy.

2008 May 4
Good call on the Modello. Is it available at the LCBO/Beer Store?

I had it for the first time in San Francisco a few weeks ago at a couple taquieras I ate at.

Nice pics too...did you just get the D80? :P

2008 May 4
Now the main event: Tamal de Chivo: banana-leaf-wrapped tamal filled with slow-cooked Pleasant Meadows Boer goat, spicy red chile guajillo sauce, grill-roasted onions and peashoot-cilantro salad.

Sure it was about the same size as the ceviche, but the fact that it was goat meat and not fish gave it more oomph.

Now, those of you who have been here for a bit may remember a couple of discussions on goat a while back. I've eaten my fair share of goat. This particular goat, on the other hand, was unlike any I've ever had. I asked my waitress how they did it, because I couldn't believe how soft and fall-apart tender it was. Usually the goat that I've had in curries etc. has been fall-apart tender, but still has structure to it.

The "secret" is that it's rubbed with chili and lime and marinates for five hours before they slow cook it. I guess that breaks down the structure enough that it just melts in your mouth.

2008 May 4
Here it is after I tore into it: there's sauce at the bottom, followed by the goat, followed by the layer of masa, and then more sauce, cheese, and onions. All steamed in a corn husk and totally delicious.

So two roughly equal-sized plates, plus a side of refried beans, plus two beer ended up being about $40. Worth every penny. I'd definitely go back.

2008 May 4
The next night I planned ahead and got my deep-dish pizza fix, only I had it at Pizzeria Uno instead of at Gino's. Brought a cohort this time, too: somebody I had met at the conference.

The greeter planned ahead on our behalf, and suggested that we pre-order our pizza while we waited for a table to open up. What an idea!

We opted for the Pizza Numero Uno, which is essentially a combination pizza (mushroom, onions, peppers, pepperoni) with sausage.

2008 May 4
Here it is out of its container. They kind-of build the pizza upside-down: after they par-bake the crust, they put a layer of cheese, followed by the sliced sausage, followed by the sauce, followed by the other toppings.

My God this is a hearty dish. But the crust is fantastic because it's so toothsome. And I can definitely see why they need to par-bake the crust, since it looks like there's at least a three-to-one ratio of toppings to crust. A small pizza was more than enough for the two of us. That, plus two beer each, came to about $60.

In conclusion, I have to go back to Chicago and stay for a while, and not be there for business. Just eat my way around for a week and see some of the spectacular architecture.

2008 May 4
Oops! Forgot the pic.

2008 May 4
Wow Momo, I'm quite jealous! I need to find a reason to get to Chicago, if only to get to Frontera....

2008 May 4
Frontera was definitely the highlight of my stay. I'm pretty sure that the wait staff was all Mexican, and all very proud of it. It was such a lovely place to eat in.

2008 May 5
Momomoto - Sounds like you had a great time (you were working, right, LOL). Love the food porn, can't wait for the photos and details on the Domus Winemakers Dinner.

2008 May 5
That was some incredible looking food Momomoto! re: Alinea -- I just heard that the chef is recovering from tongue cancer (riveting story here: His sense of taste is just beginning to return!

2008 May 5
Momomoto -- I'm sorry you didn't have the greatest experience with an italian beef sandwich. Mine definitely did not come with cheese... I agree, the one you had looks like a philly cheesesteak!

Anyway, I was able to dig up a picture of the one we got from Al's Italian Beef... the pic doesn't make it look all that appetizing but the glossiness of the sandwich translates into juicy goodness.

And yes, giardiniera is SOOOO GOOD and addictive. When I returned from Chicago I was on a major hunt and the best brand I could find was the Aurora brand of Hot Giardiniera. You can find them at most Loeb Plus supermarkets. I'm trying to remember if the Nicastro's stores carry them too?

2008 May 6
(One reply post to rule them all . . .)

F&T - I'm planning to strip the pictures from the winemaker's dinner off the camera some time tonight. Don't know what they'll look like.

FF - Thanks for the praise. I owe it all to my 50mm f/1.8 lens. All of the Frontera shots were done hand-held and without flash. I vaguely remember hearing about Chef Achatz's battle with cancer, and I'll definitely read that article when I'm, errr, not at work.

943 - Oh *man* that Italian beef looks better than the one I had. So it came pre-soaked in au jus and pre-dosed with giardiniera? Al's was on my list of places to go, too, so now I'm sad.

Nicastro's must have giardiniera in one form or another, since that's where I get my spicy pickled eggplant.

2008 May 6
My comments got lost in the midst of your original postings of photos :\

"Good call on the Modello. Is it available at the LCBO/Beer Store?

I had it for the first time in San Francisco a few weeks ago at a couple taquieras I ate at.

Nice pics too...did you just get the D80? :P"

2008 May 6
Momomoto -- Yes, if I remember correctly, the thin beef slices were soaking in a deep tray / vat of jus! After they stuffed the bread with the beef, I think they dipped the entire sandwich into the jus and then stuffed it with their spicy giardiniera! Messy + delicious.

On a side note, I think I remember walking past a cafe on Preston St last summer, and seeing a sign that said "Chicago style Italian beef sandwich"... I never tried it though and I don't remember which store it was.

2008 May 7
Momomoto - Thank you for the write up and pictures of Frontera, it was great to hear a little bit about your experiences there. It is a restaurant that I would love to try - just need another excuse to go to Chicago!
Also, just to let you know that we carry Giardiniera here at Chilly Chiles.
Il Primo brand, in a Mild and an Extra Hot (we are out of the Hot at the moment!)

2008 May 7
Monty - I searched both the LCBO and the Beer Store sites, and couldn't find it. It's a sad situation, because I love it so. I wonder if it's available at Ahora? Sounds like a good reason to go try it out finally.

I've had the D80 for . . . well, I want to say a year-and-a-half or so now? Maybe more. Got it soon after it came out. I have a lot to learn about using it still, but I'm working on it ;)

Alley cat - Thanks for the tip. Sounds like a trip to Navan is in my future. So awesome. And, yes, Frontera was exactly what I was hoping it would be. Everybody was happy, the music was great, the smells were divine, the prices were affordable. I'd eat here a couple more times before biting the bullet and getting the four-diamond experience at Topolobampo. High-end Mexican is something you have to work up to, I think.

2008 May 7
Momomoto - there is a LCBO and Beer Outlet next to Chilly Chiles in Navan(JT Bradley's Country Convenience)
I just checked with the owner and they have Negra Modello 6 x 325ml
Sells for 12.40 includes deposit.

2008 May 7
Oh, excellent! Maybe I just did a crummy search, or maybe they hide some of their results because they're not from major brewers ;) Thanks a bunch. I'll check out my local Beer Store (the sketch-o Somerset one) next time I'm returning empties.

2008 May 7
You're welcome! By the way, my apologies, but we just have the mild left in the Giardiniera, but will get more of both the Hot and the Xhot in soon!

2009 Aug 14
*Bump* going to chicago for a weekend in October to see Da Bears. Trying to figure out where to eat and drink. Frontera is definitely in the plan, either brunch or dinner on Saturday. I've hear there is good Thai at Spoon Thai, and others. Any other suggestions? I'm trying not to break the bank, so Trotters and Alinea are probably off the list (Bears tickets are soooo expensive). Hot dogs, and Italian Beef will be had - but I figure they will not fit in the schedule as an extra meal - burp - hope I don't get charged for the extra "baggage" on the flight back!

Anyone know of some good brew pubs? I'll be sure to put Clark Street Brew House on the list.

2009 Aug 14
Where are you staying? I went back to Chicago in July and got to try a few more places.

It's not a brewpub, but the State/Lake bar in the Wit hotel is a nice addition to the beer scene in the Loop. The State/Lake closes early (11pm?) but you can head upstairs to the ubertrendsy bar on the top floor of the Wit or walk over to the Clark Street Ale House.

Rock Bottom is a brewpub downtown not too far from the Clark St. Ale House. This is a chain though that can be found in other U.S. cities. Haven't tried it.

Not too far from downtown in the old Fulton Market area, you can find the Publican, described in Metromix as a "temple of beer, pork and seafood." You need reservations for food, but you can sit at the bar if you just want a drink and snacks. Great taps and large bottle list. Might be a bit pricey for a cheap weekend though.

Wicker Park is another great area that is quite accessible from downtown (take the blue line train to Damen Station). There, you can find a brewpub called Piece, so called because they serve pizza as well.

There's a Mexican restaurant called Los Palmas not too far from here that has good food and a sweet patio.

Top off your Wicker Park visit with a trip to the Maproom. Eat first. They don't have food.

Other places worth considering for booth food and drink are the Hopleaf (very far from downtown and very popular, ie. packed to the rafters) and the Goose Island Brewpub.

If you find yourself downtown on Sunday afternoon, you could go visit the Maxwell Street Market. The whole street gets taken over by vendors of every sort, including good, cheap Mexican food. Yumm.

2009 Aug 14
Thanks, we are staying at the Travelodge downtown - E Harrison. I found a great Chicago foodies website - bookmark on my other computer. I'll add it here later. The reviews of the publican were pretty mixed, however there was a strong preference to Avec (same restaurant group) so I think I'm going to hit that up. Hopleaf sounds great, but I'm guessing its too far - I've got no idea how easy or long it takes to get around the chicago area. I'll post my itinerary here later if others are interested. I'm pretty sure we'll be hitting up Maxwell Street market before the Bears game on Sunday.

2009 Aug 15
For deep dish I liked Lou Malnaties way more than Gino's. Gino's had an overpowering sauce. I have yet to try Pizza Uno or Giordanos we were only ther five days and one can only eat so much pizza or so says my wife. Lou's is small so get there early or you will have to wait. Frontera Grill was amazing but get there before it opens at 5:20. We got there at 5:15 and there was already a line on a Tuesday night. Had to wait an hour and a half but it was well worth it. You also have to try the Italian beef sandwitch at Al's don't forget to get it juiced delicious and very cheap. I was just there two weeks ago and stayed on the Magnificent Mile. Don't forget to get a transit pass a one day pass was $5.75 I think as was good for 24 hours on all city transportation in the city so you can get out to a Chipotle Grill which is very similar to Mucho Burrito.

2009 Aug 15
Ken V's post we me that Frontera opened up Frontera Fresco on the seventh floor of Macy's. This is an excellent cheap eats option if you find yourself in the Loop around lunchtime. It's worth going up there just to see the interior of the building. There's also a gourmet burger joint and a few other places on the same floor.

One more "cheap" idea. If you want a skyline view, you can have a drink at the skyline lounge in the Hancock Tower for the same price you would pay to go to the observation deck two floors below.