One of the many benefits of living in a global society is we can try food from all over the world. But sometimes things just taste better when you travel.
Trying something new in the place it was made or in a community where people have an intense emotional connection to it makes a meal (or even a quick snack) about so much more than just sustenance. It’s about tradition, local pride, a place’s unique atmosphere or vibe.
It’s also a sensory thing. Food is always about more than just nourishment, if we just slow down and appreciate it. But that can be hard to do when we’re rushing through our lives. When we travel, we’re more open to the sights, sounds and smells around us. We relax enough to really savor our food, to take in the checkered tablecloth at the restaurant, the cool metal curve of the patio chair, the buzz building in the bar as night falls.
Chicago has a great food scene and it’s exported some of its classic flavors all over the world. We’re lucky that we can try many of the city’s most iconic dishes, even if we never set foot in Illinois.
But some flavors are worth a pilgrimage. Here are some of my Chicago favorites.
Italian Beef Sandwich
Hearty, hot and filling, the Italian Beef Sandwich is a quintessential Chicago staple. Beef is roasted, sliced thin and heaped onto crusty white bread and topped with peppers or giardiniera, spicy pickled vegetables. There are a million tiny variations, all of which lead to fierce debates.
Which is better, hot (with giardiniera) or sweet (with sweet peppers)? Should the sandwich be fairly dry or drenched with flavorful juices from the meat? What cut of beef produces the juiciest meat? And (perhaps the most intense debate of all), which place has the best sandwich?
One constant remains. You will make a godawful mess eating this sandwich. Juice will run down your fingers, peppers will fall out onto your plate and into your lap and your napkin will be a shredded, soggy wreck of a thing. That’s fine. This is part of the process. Consider it your initiation.
Deep Dish Pizza
The thin vs. deep dish debate still rages, but I’m firmly in the deep dish fan club. And nobody does deep dish better than Chicago. It’s not terribly photogenic, but it’s freakin’ fantastic.
My first deep dish experience was at Lou Malnati’s. The Chicago institution gave me my first taste of decadent, cheesy, carb-laden glory back in college. My last was a few weeks ago, when a friend from Portland mentioned she’d never tried deep dish pizza. We took an immediate detour to Gino’s East to gorge ourselves on thick slices heaving with toppings on top of a thick buttery crust. Heaven.
I know the title of this article is “5 Chicago Tastes Worth Traveling For” but both of these restaurants ship pizza worldwide. So if you’re saving up for a pizza pilgrimage, that should tide you over.
This street cart staple has become a city standby. You can find these absolutely everywhere, from the humblest hot dogs to sit down restaurants. There’s a very specific formula for creating a Chicago-style hot dog, so don’t try to get all cute and creative here.
Start with an all beef hot dog and a poppy seed bun. Then top it with a carefully orchestrated pile of colorful veggies and condiments — yellow mustard, green relish, chopped white onions, two tomato wedges, a thick pickle spear, two sport peppers. Sprinkle the thing with a bit of celery salt and you’re good to go.
Do not — I repeat, do not — add ketchup. Ketchup is sacrilege.
Chicago takes its baked goods seriously. Readers sent me a whole list of donut shop recommendations to try (Doughnut Vault and Glazed and Infused came up a lot). But the one that stole my heart was Do-Rite Coffee and Donuts.
When you see a line snaking out the door, it almost always means people are on to something. Do-Rite Donuts were were definitely worth the wait.
We sampled three varieties in the bakery case, a bacon topped donut (which my friend Liz immediately seized after the taking of the photo above,) a yummy birthday cake concoction with sprinkles and a luscious Red Velvet donut.
Look, I don’t usually get too worked up about cake donuts. And I don’t even particularly like Red Velvet cake. But this Red Velvet cake donut was among the top five donuts I’ve ever had in my life. Worth the wait, indeed.
Okay, Old Style (shown at the top of this post) is technically a Wisconsin beer (shhhhhhh), but it’s deeply ingrained in Chicago’s psyche. It’s served Wrigley Field, the signage is all over the city and Old Style is practically a symbol of the city.
I’m a beer writer (hence, the two photos of beer in a post primarily about food!) but I’m not a beer snob. I once had a client tell me I must have been an old man in a past life, since I always accepted the “old man beer” he offered me, but the truth is, plenty of historic beer have stuck around because they’re good. Old Style is one of those, in my opinion. (That doesn’t mean that they haven’t tinkered with the recipe a little, though.)
If you do actually want to drink something brewed in Chicago for Chicagoans — or you want to try something a little more experimental — the local craft brewing scene offers plenty of options. (And unlike many of the items on this list, you really do have to travel to try most of these, because beer distribution in the U.S. as a riddle.)
Baderbräu does super approachable pilsners and lagers, while Off Color Brewing tempted me with a killer saison and sours that made me smile. And Revolution Brewing’s IPA and Pale Ale quickly became my go-to, end of the day beers, the ones we’d crack open in our hotel room after walking a dozen miles through the city. (I might have put a few in my backpack to drink on the train back home, too!)
What about you?
What are your favorite pizza, hot dog and hot beef sandwich joints?
I need ideas for my next trip, so send me your recommendations, the more detailed, the better.
What’s the best donut spot in Chicago — or in your neck of the woods?
What food transports you back to the place you tried it?
What other Chicago foods should I sample the next time I’m in town?
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