This post was made possible through collaborations with Choose Chicago and Smart Destinations. I also included sponsored links to delicious Chicago eats you don’t want to miss. Your belly will thank me!
This post on my summer vacation in Chicago is all about the food. And with the city being named Bon Appetit’s Restaurant City of 2017, you know it will be good! I divided the entire trip into three sections, which you can find links to below. “When I Say First Things First, I Mean Food” is the section you’re reading now. You can also click to sections on navigating Chicago streets or the upcoming Chicago sights below.
“More Fun than We Could Handle in Just Five Days”
After I had some idea of how to get around Chicago I focused on more important things. First and foremost being Chicago’s eateries*. I must admit my daughter Lily and I eat on the go a lot. A few of our meals consisted of quick bites at local cafes and food trucks. However, it was also a birthday trip so I made sure to add in some fine dining and Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza. *Disclosure: we all know there are hundreds of amazing restaurants in Chicago but, unfortunately, I couldn’t eat at all of them. If you have any can’t miss Chicago eats tell me about them in the comment section. I’ll save them for my next trip!
The Birthday Gift that Keeps on Giving
I love a good deal and eating out is no exception. Most restaurants have loyalty programs or special offers for newsletter subscribers. (Like free birthday dinners!) Over the years I have signed up at dozens of my favorite places to eat. Come August of every year, I watch the deals roll in. Restaurants can offer birthday rewards ranging from a percentage off your meal or a complimentary appetizer to an all out free entrée! I browsed through my birthday emails to make a list of restaurants to try. Here’s a list of over 110 restaurants that offer birthday meals.
Diving in the Deep End
When I asked those in the know (aka Chicago locals) where I should eat, Giordano’s was the resounding answer. This joint has a famously long-lived reputation as the king of Chicago eats with its signature deep dish pizza. We ordered the small Chicken Sausage Deluxe which was easily enough for three people. The pizza pie came loaded with an earthy tomato sauce and ooey gooey mozzarella cheese. Mama Giordano created the recipe in a small northern town near Turin, Italy. First made as a specialty for holidays, the pizza became one of the town’s most beloved dishes. In 1974, brothers Joseph and Efren Boglio brought the recipe to Chicago, IL.
Luckily, if by some unearthly stretch of the imagination you don’t like pizza, Giordano’s has plenty of other fare worthy of the same spotlight. The restaurant claims to have “The Best Tomato Bruschetta”. Well I had to find out for myself. Our appetizer came as a complimentary birthday reward. (Sign up for those emails!) Crisp slices of Italian bread topped with thick slabs of fresh mozzarella cheese, sweet diced tomatoes, a drizzling of tart balsamic glaze, and ribbons of basil. Although the pizza was delicious, this was my favorite part of the meal. The naturally bold flavors of each ingredient complemented each other beautifully. Some could argue whether it’s the best, but it comes close.
If you don’t make it to Giordano’s, here’s a deal for up to 38% off a two topping deep dish pizza and wine or beer at Pizzeria Due in downtown Chicago. For a more hands on dining experience, Pizzeria Uno, is also now offering a pizza cooking class.
You Got Me Fiending
When it comes to famous Chicago eats, this city is also known for over the top hot dog toppings. Even “classic” Chicago hot dogs come loaded with peppers, pickles, onion, relish, tomato, and mustard. How often do I eat hot dogs in normal life? Never. Horror stories about nitrates and fillers usually have me scared to touch them. Not to mention if hot dogs were the only food left on Earth, Lily would let herself starve. (She doesn’t care too much for them.) But for this I cast all fear aside. Chicago hot dog are famous! I was going to pig out on at least one. I found a couple for places to add to my list. Hot G Dog and Chicago’s Dog House. Unfortunately with all I had planned neither one ending up fitting into our schedule. (It’s hard to keep a real schedule when your GPS is a fail.)
During one afternoon of sightseeing we walked by the Hot Dog Fiend food truck. On South Columbus Drive, between Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park, five food trucks lined the street for hungry tourists. The Hot Dog Fiend had a fair amount of people waiting in line. I usually take this as a sign the food will be good. And I was right. Lily and I perched on the ledge of the west side of Maggie Daley Park after a little less than 10 minutes with a bacon bleu dog and a basket of “dirty” fries. I drizzled both with spicy brown mustard which took the flavors up several notches.
The sunlit garden filled with trees, flowers, and sculptures made for the loveliest scenic views as I took my first bite. Best Hot Dog I’ve Ever Tasted! It could be because it was lunchtime or my affinity for food trucks. Either way my taste buds were singing a happy tune. The Hot Dog Fiend’s bacon bleu is a jumbo 100% beef hot dog on a grilled bun topped with crisp bacon, mixed green, tomatoes, onion strings, and the chef’s special bleu cheese aioli sauce. I washed it down with a thick pineapple milkshake from Abigail’s Ice Cream food truck. I use the term milkshake loosely as it was closer to drinking ice cream with a straw. If thick shakes aren’t your thing you might want to pass. But I like thick, brain-freeze inducing shakes! The sweet creamy milkshake paired deliciously well with the spicy hot dog and fries.
Speaking of famous eats, you should also check out Big & Little’s while you’re in Chi-town. This new American eatery serves tons of flavor. It’s also been featured on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives and Check Please! Use the link above to get a $20 restaurant certificate for $12. (I hear the soft shell crab sandwich is a must!)
Afternoon Seafood Delight
A birthday dinner at Devon Seafood Grill continued our journey into the bold side of Flavor Town. I selected the pretzel crusted trout with brown sugar and a mustard vinaigrette. You might think, “She eats a lot of mustard”. Well, I’m thinking the same thing considering I used to hate the stuff. The regionally sourced trout came with Parmesan and herb roasted potatoes, garlic butter haricots vert, and a frisée salad. Elements of the dish were reminiscent of traditionally German ingredients. However the pretzel crust made it a stand out meal. The crunch from each bite of sourdough pretzels pulled all five senses in for this dinner.
I’m on a crusade to get Lily to branch out as far as trying new flavors. She is normally a plain vanilla kind of girl. UGH! My attempt at Devon proved unsuccessful also. She ordered fried buttermilk shrimp and sautéed asparagus. Clearly, she prefers simpler flavors as opposed to the bold tastes I usually for go for. Maybe someday, I’ll win that battle.
The Walking Diners
While out and about we stopped at a couple of noteworthy cafes for some quick bites.
I may or may not have a slight addiction to bubble tea. The jury’s still out on that one. Meanwhile, when we walked by Vivi’s Bubble Tea I needed a fix. We were headed to Northerly Park, so this place was a convenient pit stop. It’s in the South Loop across from Pritzker Park. The inside looks like the sugar-licious cotton candy pink colored stuff my five-year old daughter dreams about. Yet, as cutesy as the shop was, my tea time at Vivi’s didn’t matcha up. (Get it, matcha up!?)
After looking through the sea of menu choices I picked a blended matcha green tea with boba. The girl handed me a cup and I took a sip. A strong taste of bitter jasmine filled my mouth. I’m not a tea expert so I couldn’t imagine why matcha tea would taste like jasmine. Well, the girl behind the counter told me that their green tea is made with a jasmine base. “Why”, I thought. I replied by reminding her that I originally asked for matcha tea. She made me a new cup with matcha. I took a sip and still tasted bitter jasmine. Rather than go through trial #3 for a bubble tea I added chocolate syrup which made it drinkable. On the flip side, Lily ordered a strawberry bubble tea. It was refreshingly sweet and delicious. I guess sometimes it pays to stick to simple flavors.
If boba isn’t your particular cup of tea, then you might like TeaGschwender. Do not ask me how it’s pronounced! The company brings the finest loose leaf teas from around the world to its tea room in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Named one of Chicago’s Best Tea Shops by Chicago Magazine and CBS Chicago, you’ll find over 300 varieties here plus an expert staff eager to help you select a tea you’ll love. Or how about three of them? TeaGschwender is offering a deal of $32 for three teas valued at $15 each.
Tic, Tac, Tiny Tapp, Toe
Where Vivi’s is cute, Tiny Tapp is just too beautiful for words. This small café is on the Chicago Riverwalk. The picturesque views you’ll see here are a delightful addition to any breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Tiny Tapp also had a few adorable pieces of decor which made for my favorite photo of the entire vacation. Unfortunately, our time at the café had to be cut short. We were on a walking tour of downtown Chicago and could only stop for a moment. We grabbed a couple of scones and cookies and were on our way again. However, I would recommend giving yourself at least an hour or two for taking in a meal.
Shake, Rattle, and Sushi Rolls
Another way I saved on Chicago eats for this trip was with LivingSocial deals. $10 for $20 worth of Rock, Wrap, and Roll? Yes, please! Rock, Wrap, and Roll is a Thai sushi restaurant on the westside of the Lincoln Park neighborhood. From its name I expected a 50’s style themed eatery complete with a jukebox full of Elvis Presley hits. Instead I found a tiny hole in the wall spot that happens to have a fairly decent menu of sushi, maki, and sashimi. Half the menu options were pretty much standard when it comes to sushi. The rest was fantastic exceptions to traditional rolls. Rock, Wrap, and Roll has specialty rolls that are the whimsical creations of Chefs Itti and Kit. Their strawberry maki roll combines unagi, fresh salmon, avocado, cucumber, spicy tuna, and sliced strawberries. We ordered the futo veggie maki, sweet potato maki, and unakyu maki rolls.
What struck me as most peculiar was that we were the only diners in the restaurant for most of our meal. Normally this is a giant red flag. I somewhat gauge a restaurant’s quality by the size of the crowd already eating there. Yet, I gave it a chance and got a good meal. Plus with prices of about $5 or $6 per roll we ordered, that $10 for $20 Living Social deal went a long way. This is also the first restaurant where I experienced the concept of BYOB as the norm. But you don’t have to simply take my word for it! Rock, Wrap, and Roll is currently offering a deal of $12.50 for $20 worth of sushi.
Lost in Translation
Alas we arrived at the last day of our Chicago vacation. Sigh! Parting is such sweet sorrow. Our last day also just happened to a Tuesday. You foodies know what that means. Tacos! During our explorations, we ventured past a place called Latinicity a few times. A quick Google search told me it’s a modern-day Latin food court featuring several eateries and a market. (Similar to Eataly, another food court in Chicago with Italian cuisine.) Bonus: the website boasted of a taco Tuesday happy hour. Perfect! Or so I thought.
A hostess at the main entrance gave us the rundown of how Latinicity works. You get a temporary card to use at the restaurants in the food hall. The card is for keeping track of your dining tab. When you’re done you return the card and pay your bill. But that’s not what happened.
We started at the first restaurant and asked if they had any happy hour deals for taco Tuesday. A man slicing a large hunk of meat directed us to another dining front about 20 steps away. We walked to this counter and again asked what their specials were for taco Tuesday. We were told to go to the first restaurant. The one we had just come from. Um… Okay… Have you ever gotten a funny feeling about a place? Well, Latinicity had me feeling all sorts of weird vibes at this point! Out of curiosity we checked out the bar at the back of the hall. Then left. Without any tacos.
My perception of Latinicity is that it’s an awesome concept which is gaining popularity in the Midwest. Check out the Lenexa Public Market in Lenexa, Kansas. However, in this case it was poorly executed. It seemed as though nobody knew what I meant when I said “happy”, “hour”, “taco” or “Tuesday”. The operation was highly disorganized.
Now You’re Speaking My Language!
We passed by Nutella Cafe on the way to Latinicity. A quick glance inside showed a promising display of sweet breakfast and brunch dishes before we continued on. Since it seemed tacos were out we decided to walk back to the café. I just wish my phone had received that message because I couldn’t get a GPS signal to save my life. I tried to recall the steps we took with no luck. Apparently I’m directionally challenged with and without Google maps. We still had a few hours to spare so I figured a bit of wandering might find us a decent place to eat. Hopefully somewhere with WiFi.
We only walked a few blocks when I saw the sign. “$2 Taco Tuesday” As we got closer I could see a graffiti mural with the words “Broken English” painted in vividly bright colors. Yes! Taco Tuesday was going to happen!
About those tacos! Broken English features several variations. At $2 each we ordered one of the al pastor de pollo, pork belly al pastor, carne asada, tinga de pollo, and parrillada de verduras tacos. Lily ate two tacos then promptly fell asleep. (By the way, at what age should you stop falling asleep in public? She’s five… I’m curious. Please leave your answer in the comments below.) That left three for me. Each one tasted better than the last. But I must say my favorite was the tinga de pollo. The meat was tinder and spicy but not overloaded with heat. Of all our Chicago eats, Broken English is definitely one I will have to come back to next time!
For the person who, like me, was eating at (Broken English) for the first time I would describe it this way. Broken English is a hip urban eatery with an unpretentious menu of Mexican cuisine. What you see is what you get. And what you get is honestly good and flavorful food. No fuss. No muss. Bonus: it does have WiFi! The bold, loud atmosphere gives off vibes of a place where young rock star wannabes get their first taste of playing somewhere other than a garage. Yet it isn’t just for the cool kids. We sat next to a couple of women meeting for drinks after work. A grandpa and his grand kids sat at the table in front of us.
Speaking of the cool kids, if you’ve made it this far, you’re definitely one of them! Thank you so much for reading! You can also check out my post on “How to Get Around Chicago“. Subscribe to My City Adventures now so you’ll be the first to read about our adventures including the upcoming “Chicago Sights”. You’ll also be eligible for special giveaways featuring amazing local businesses.