(MOVIE PLANNING VIEWING: "CHICAGO", "BLUES BROTHERS", "FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF", "THE UNTOUCHABLES", "MY BEST FRIENDS WEDDING")
Chapter 1: Vegas to Chicago
We arrived in Chicago after a 4 hour flight from Vegas and checked into our hotel around 11pm after an interesting shuttle bus ride in from the airport. We discovered that Larry, our driver’s favourite TV show was ‘Cheaters’ and he wondered aloud at how big New York must be as he thought Chicago was huge and he “ain’t been anywhere ‘cept Chicago” but he was intent on leaving as he could no longer stand the winters. And from the air we almost agreed – Chicago looked BIG! We managed to get slightly lost trying to find our room - there were fire doors every 5 yards (see what I did there!) - and ventured out to find some food. A quick drink in the Hilton before working out that at midnight, not much was open except a Dunkin’ Donuts and opted for toasted sandwiches for dinner. Wandering the area around our hotel we found Buddy Guy’s Legend Blues spot, a noted venue for hearing great blues. The music we could hear coming out of its doors had its groove on but we thought we might come back at another time when more appropriately attired (and showered...).
Chapter 2: Relish, onions, celery salt, tomato, peppers, pickle and mustard – no ketchup!
Today, Saturday 29 May was a big day in Chicago, it was the Memorial Day long weekend and there was a big parade through the downtown streets planned for the afternoon. (FYI Memorial Day is actually 31 May.) There was a particular excitement in the air as the current American President Obama and his family were back in their home town for the long weekend and expected to attend the parade. We may have gone along for a sticky-beak at the parade however months ago we booked a Planet Food walking tour to do in Chicago and on our way there, streets were already being closed off for the parade. The expedition we selected wandered through the eateries of Bucktown and Wicker Park; culturally the place to be ‘seen’ in Chicago, probably the equivalent of Surry Hills / Newtown in Sydney or West End in Brisvegas. Justyn was quite excited as we had the opportunity to catch the ‘L’ train to Bucktown – included in many famous movies - ‘The Blues Brothers’, and books - ‘Chicago Loop’. We arrived early at the launch stop so decided to continue exploring the area on our own, finding ourselves at the Map Room which was a bar funnily enough filled with maps and here they served the largest tea I have ever encountered; black tea with a slug of honey and served in steins at the bar with a wedge of lemon is the future my friends.
The hour of our tour drew near and we wandered back to George’s Hot Dogs (with a detour via some fabulous dress stores!) to commence our tour. Fifteen eager foodies met our tour guides Jess and Nicole who took us into George’s, winner of many hot dog voting polls, to sample a traditional Chi-town hot dog. It is a hot dog with 7 accompaniments – relish, onion, peppers, tomato, mustard, and a slab of gherkin – NO ketchup – and then you try to wrap your mouth around all of that, including the dog and the bun, to give you tastebuds a little thrill. And to my surprise, it was really tasty! We then headed off to our next stop, which was my favourite of the day, called Hot Chocolate. This place was bustling and the trendy brunch crowd were there in force. Our special treat of the tour was a hot chocolate served over ice with a homemade marshmallow on the side – it was a little party in my mouth! We were told the secret of what make this drink so awesome; milk chocolate, caramel and dark chocolate, but not the amounts or brands. We vowed to return later that day for some tasty tasty little morsels that we saw on their bakery shelves, including bacon and chocolate chip cookies – yes you read right – bacon and chocolate! A side note, the chef at Hot Chocolate has won every pastry chef award going around, including the James Beard – that’s a big deal! Stop Three was the Goddess and Grocer, an Aussie chick who toured with major artists as their caterer and decided to quit the touring circuit and throw down some roots in Chicago. Our tasting was an antipasto salad, but while it was quite nice, we reckon Kelly makes a better one! By this time, we’d had three large servings and were only 2 blocks down from where we started! It was time for a beer and pizza at Piece, co-owned by the bassist of Cheap Trick. We were told that you can karaoke there during the week and have the dude from Cheap Trick backing you! Served in a shot glass was a sampler of the Golden Arm beer, the best seller at this micropub and a slice of a white new haven pizza which has no sauce, just cheese, tomato, basil and olive oil. The cool thing was when you ordered a full pizza, it came in a huge baking dish and sat on a stand above your table along with shakers of chilli, parmesan and dried basil. Awe-inspiring! So four meals under our belts and we still had two more to go? How were we going to make it? Fortunately it was time for the ‘cultural’ part of the tour and our guides took us through the back streets of Bucktown and Wicker Park to show us some of the fabulous architecture that Chicago is known for. This was really lovely – not only did we walk off some food through the really delightful back streets; it was 45 minutes before our next treat! But it was time soon and Sultans was stop number five. A mediterranean / vegetarian deli, Sultans catered to the artistic crowd in the early days of Wicker Park who wanted cheap vego meals – which they still do today. We were given half a falafel sandwich which was a pita pocket with a delicious falafel, hommus, yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad – very fresh and very delicious. But of course, our tour was going so well, there had to be a catch and there was, our last stop called iCream had encountered a technical difficulty with their icecream maker! They use liquid nitrogen to make any flavour icecream and they had run out of the gas! So no icecream!! Justyn and Kelly were bitterly disappointed as they wouldn’t be getting any icecream, but I perked up when I found out we were having burnt butter hot pudding with a graham cracker crust. Mmm mmmm, I had Justyn’s as well... We definitely had a fabulous time on our tour of Bucktown (we found out it was named after the goats that were kept in the area when it was first settled – male goats are called bucks) and Wicker Town but we HAD to go back to Hot Chocolate to try that bacon choc chip cookie! And yes, it was divine!
Chapter 3: Ice Hockey + Rick Bayless = Hot Hot Hot!
You might think that our gastronomic tour of Chicago was over after we completed our Plant Food tour, but you’d be wrong! After watching Top Chef Masters earlier in the year, we were all enamoured by Rick Bayless who represented all things awesome about restaurants, sustainability, community and of course great, great food. We had tried to book into his restaurant Frontera, traditional Mexican fare (not Tex Mex) but they only took limited bookings and then all other seatings were first come, first served which was part of his philosophy on making his food accessible to everyone. After a freshen up back at our hotel, we headed over to Frontera to see if we would be lucky enough to get in. There was a crowd gathered and it was very busy inside, yet they took our names and informed us that it might be up to a three hour wait. Considering the food we had consumed earlier that day (by now it was 6:45pm) we were more than happy to oblige at the Irish pub down the road. Just as we were leaving, they did say to check back in an hour. We found a seat in the pub and watched all these sports nuts enter in wearing Blackhawks gear as it was first game of the Stanley Cup final (ice hockey) between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. Some of you may remember Kelly's and my last experience with ice hockey in Vancouver back in the 90’s when the Canucks were playing New York in the finals also and a riot broke out in down town Vancouver. We were hoping that history did not repeat itself! Fortunately we were safe and we cheered the Blackhawks on with the locals. One hour went by pretty quick and we thought we’d give Frontera a buzz and we were informed that if we could get back in five minutes, they had a table for us. You’ve never seen three people scull their drink, pay the bill and scurry back to a restaurant so fast! The menu was brilliant. We started with a share plate of cheese quesadillas, corn chips with ceviche, chips and guacamole and chicken taquito’s with some margarita’s to get the party started – actually the party started at the Irish pub, the ‘rita’s kicked it on some more. Sharing was the name of the game and our main meals were the Saturday special ribs, flank steak soft tacos and chicken with green almond mole and rice. All dee-licious and finger licking good (the ribs were too spicy for me and I couldn’t finish my serve, but J and K coped very well!). We had to finish with dessert and we chose the two custards to share and I had a traditional hot chocolate and Kelly had a cafe tacuba (coffee margarita) – all very morish and all in all Frontera lived up to its expectations!
Oh and in case you were wondering, the Blackhawks beat the Flyers – one game down and up to six more to go!
Chapter 4: Buses, Boats, Oprah and Cheesecake!
Originally I had planned to head to Six Flags Great America near Chicago for some more rollercoaster fun, but we had quite a few parks planned during our holiday and as we were enjoying Chi-town immensely, we made a last minute decision to discover some more of this famous and great city. The best way to do this was the Hop On Hop Off bus. Joining the other tourists on another glorious day, we travelled around the town of Chicago learning more about its history, the movies and books set in and around The Loop, that they don’t like to talk about the Great Fire (even though they do go on about it!) and even how it got the name the Windy City (well one theory was that Chicagoan’s like to brag...). The hilarious thing about the tour was how the city had decorated its statues around town with Blackhawks gear – everything from the statue of Michael Jordan and the dinosaur at the museum in Blackhawks jerseys to the lion statues out the front of the art gallery in Blackhawk helmets! It was brilliant! Sydney and the Swans should take a leaf out of this book if we ever make it to the Grand Final again! We decided our first stop would be Navy Pier, and so did everyone else in Chicago. Being the middle day of a long weekend, people were out in numbers and enjoying the sunshine with us. Navy Pier was interesting, a bit like Southbank in Brisbane or Darling Harbour in Sydney. We found ourselves some food and souvenirs and then Justyn took himself back to the hotel for some rest as he was feeling a little under the weather. So Kelly and I took a late afternoon harbour cruise on Lake Michigan which was so big it looked like an ocean! It is a freshwater lake and also the only one of the Great Lakes that is totally within the US border and not shared with Canada. After our wander around Navy Pier, we took the Hop On Hop Off bus back to the hotel, finding out which hotel Oprah puts her guests up at, where she lives and even what church she worships at! We also saw the fountain from the opening scene of the TV series ‘Married with Children’, the church used in the movie ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’, the building and statue Jake and Elwood drive into to make their payment for the orphanage in the movie the ‘Blues Brothers’, the tallest building in the Northern Hemisphere and even the second largest McDonalds in the world (largest in Moscow, Russia) and apparently the Mickey Ds of the future... Justyn was still crook that evening so stayed in, but that didn’t stop K and I hitting the town starting with cocktails and appetisers at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building and finishing with Reece’s peanut butter cheesecake and choc coconut cheesecake and cocktails at The Cheesecake Factory. We loved Chicago and will definitely be back.