Billy Goat Tavern – Chicago, Illinois

Directly below Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile is the world-famous Billy Goat Tavern

The genesis of the idiomatic expression “got your goat” which means “to greatly annoy someone” is in dispute with sources attributing it to both the United States and England.  The American version has it that horse trainers would put a goat in a racing horse’s stall to keep it calm.  When bettors wanted a horse to race badly, they took it away (ergo “got someone’s goat”) and the horse would become agitated and run badly.  No evidence exists to support this legend.  According to the English version, keeping a goat in the barn has a calming effect on cows, thereby motivating them to produce more milk.  When rapscallions wanted to upset competing cattle ranchers, they would abscond with their goat rendering their cows less to non-productive.

In Chicago, the phrase “got your goat” has meant something entirely different since 1945, the very last time the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series.  That’s more than 67 days of ineptitude and frustration.  That’s the power of the “billy goat curse” and it all happened because Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley prevented local Greek restaurateur William “Billy Goat” Sianis and his pet goat Murphy from going through the turnstiles to watch game four of the Series.  Legend has it that William cursed the Cubs with the prophetic statement “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.  The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field.”  Not only did the Cubs go on to lose game four and the subsequent games in the Series, they haven’t experienced success since.

Established in 1934

You might think that such an outcry of anger and disapproval over William and his restaurant would have ensued that William would have been forced out of business, but since that day of infamy, most rancor seems to be directed at the Cubs organization.  William’s Billy Goat Tavern has not only been a Chicago institution since 1934, it’s earned worldwide fame…and it’s done so despite serving food which, at best, be described as mediocre.  The Billy Goat Tavern is not a dining destination.  It’s not where any self-respecting gastronome would ever go expecting a great gourmet meal.  We visit because of the experience.

We visit to experience for ourselves, the famous Saturday Night Live skit (back when SNL was funny) executed so uproariously funny by the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”   John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Loraine Newman.  The hilarious skit was based on the Billy Goat Tavern, a hang-out for many of the show’s writers.  It satirized the experience of dining at the restaurant where it doesn’t matter what you order, the colorful waitstaff will call out “cheezborger; no fries, cheeps; no Pepsi, Coke.”

The bar and dining room area at the Billy Goat Tavern

Today, the thickly accented Greek wait staff continues to entertain guests just as William Sianis did all those years:  “Try the double cheese!  It’s the best!  No fries, cheeps!”  It’s part of the restaurant’s charm.  It’s why we return.  This type of wait schtick just doesn’t get old.  The entertaining wait staff is just one of the things we love about the Billy Goat Tavern.  We love that the restaurant isn’t at street level, but directly below Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile.  We love the homey hang-out feel of the joint where regulars belly up to the bar and grin with amusement as tourists snap photo after photo of their home away from home.

Cheeseburgers are the Billy Goat Tavern’s featured fare, some would say the only thing to eat.  While the menu may list other items, including a few sandwiches, order something other than a cheezborger and you’ll incur the ire of the counterman who will admonish you: “Cheezborger!  Double cheez!  That’s the best!”  I won’t advise ordering two double cheez.  They just aren’t very good.  Not only are the beef patties waifishly thin, they’re desiccated, maybe the driest burgers I’ve ever had.  Worse, they’re served on a very dry Kaiser roll.  You add your own pickles, onions, mustard and ketchup at a condiment bar.  Trust me, you’ll need a lot of ingredients to make the burger palatable.  The cheeps, made by Vitner’s, a Chicago staple, are very good.

Two double cheezborgers with cheeps, no fries; Coke, no Pepsi

Visitors to the Billy Goat Tavern are fully cognizant that they’re not going to be treated to a gourmet meal, but we still visit in droves. There’s a lot to be said about a restaurant with so much personality it’s become legendary.

Billy Goat Tavern
430 N. Michigan Ave at Lower Level
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 733-9132
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2012
BEST BET: Cheeps, Coke

Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Al’s #1 Beef – Chicago, Illinois

Al’s Beef, home of some of Chicago’s most popular Italian beef sandwiches and more

Assume the position!  It’s been called the “Chicago Lean,” the “Italian Stance” and simply “The Stance.”   It’s  the time-tested, traditional art and science of eating Italian beef sandwiches, a Chicago specialty.  Trust me, it’s not the same as eating an ordinary sandwich.  If you don’t follow the process, you’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto your clothing.  Italian beef sandwiches are as messy as they are delicious. 

Some Italian beef sandwich shops don’t even offer seating.  Instead, they provide high, thin counters with or without stools where you’ll park yourself and proceed to assume the position.  I’ll let the professionals take over from here.  Courtesy of

(1)  Put your sandwich on the counter and stand in front of it, with your chest about 12 inches from the edge of the counter
(2)  Lean forward so your chest is at a 45-degree angle to the counter (Note: if you’€™re wearing a tie, make sure it’s tucked inside your shirt)
(3)  Pick up your sandwich, resting your elbows on the counter
(4)  Angle the sandwich at a 45-degree angle to the counter, with the top end towards your mouth. (Imagine making a triangle: the counter is the bottom, your head and chest are one side, the sandwich is another)
(5) Eat and enjoy. For best results, keep the sandwich wrapped in the wax paper it most likely came in, unwrapping it as you go.

The Italian Stance: the only way to eat an Italian beef sandwich

There is no one single version of truth as to who invented the Italian beef sandwich.  One of the claimants to being its progenitor is Al’s #1 Beef which first opened in 1938.  According to the founding family, the Italian beef sandwich was born out of necessity.  Needing to stretch a small amount of food a long way for Italian weddings, meat was sliced as thinly as possible and inserted between bread with giardiniera.  Chicago Sun-Times dining critic Pat Bruno asserts that the Italian beef sandwich is the scion of the French Dip sandwich, introduced in Los Angeles in 1918.

Whether or not Al’s #1 Beef is the originator of the Italian beef sandwich, one thing’s for certain.  It’s probably the most famous restaurant in the Windy City to serve Italian beef sandwiches.  Al’s #1 Beef has also earned more accolades than any competitor.  In nationally televised one-on-one competition (Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” versus the Food Network’s “Food Feuds.“) against Mr. Beef, Al’s was selected as the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Moreover, Al’s has been featured as Esquire magazine’s picks for “best sandwich in America.”  In 2012, Al’s Italian beef sandwich was named the Midwest’s Best Sandwich according to the Travel Channel’s show, Best Sandwich in America.

Italian beef-sausage combo

Nationwide networks and publications, however, don’t speak for all Chicagoans.  If you think Chicago’s politics are a contentious topic, try debating which restaurant serves up the city’s best Italian Beef Sandwich.  Opinions don’t necessarily vary that widely as there are just a handful of Italian beef restaurants which have truly distinguished themselves over the years. It’s in the intensity of the debate with which you might be surprised. Each of the anointed restaurants has its vocal supporters and each has its detractors and some in either party won’t hesitate to explain (with fisticuffs if necessary) why their choice is the best and yours is not.

Perhaps in an attempt to achieve a greater consensus, Al’s #1 Beef has become the most ubiquitous Italian beef presence in the Chicago area and has started to expand nationwide.  In addition to thirteen Chicago area restaurants, current franchise locations can be found in Athens, Georgia; Scottsdale, Arizona; and soon in Las Vegas, Nevada and San Jose, California.  My most recent visit to Al’s was at the East Jackson Street location a few blocks from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile where, in addition to the long, thin counters, you can actually find seating.  Take a seat and eat, if you dare!

Hand-cut fries with blue cheese crumbles

Now for Gil’s verdict.  First, in the interest of full disclosure, my very favorite Italian beef sandwich in the universe is at Johnnie’s Beef.  None of the dozen or so other proprietors of Italian beef I’ve sampled in the Chicago area come close.  Al’s #1 Beef isn’t in the top five.  Here’s why.  I always ask for a “wet” sandwich, meaning it’s momentarily baptized in a spicy au jus style gravy.  No matter how substantial the bread, the moistness almost immediately begins to disintegrate the bread.  The bread used at Al’s is the wimpiest I’ve seen, soon resembling shards of bread swimming in a soup.  Al’s uses a much more assertive spice mix to create its au jus than other Italian beef restaurants.  It’s not my favorite.  Neither is the giardiniera which is a bit overwhelmed by a spicy red pepper kick.  The giardiniera tends to be mushy. 

My friend Bill Resnik, who had never experienced an Italian beef sandwich in Chicago, agreed with me that the Italian beef in Albuquerque’s own Pizza 9 is actually better than the Italian beef at Al’s #1.  That’s as much a validation of Pizza 9 as it is an indictment of Al’s.  If there is one saving grace about Al’s, it’s the hand-cut fries if you order them with blue cheese crumbles.

Al’s Beef
28 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 461-9292
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2012
# of VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Italian Beef-Sausage Combo, Fries with Blue Cheese Crumbles

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

David Burke’s Primehouse – Chicago, Illinois

David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago

By day, my friend James Sorenham was an architect of his business group’s data warehouse and business intelligence strategies.  By night and on weekends, James was a gentleman farmer tending to a small herd at his Broke Again ranch outside Portland, Oregon.  James took immense pride in raising prized beef cattle and kept his colleagues apprised of their progress through his weekly status reports.  Alas, his writing skills weren’t in the same zip code as his data management skills so when he reported that he had “personally inseminated sixteen cows,” he got teased mercilessly about his deviant bestial activities.

The fact that David Burke is the first chef to own his own bull means “personal insemination” of beef cattle can best be left to the bovine persuasion.  That leaves Chef Burke to follow his passions as one of America’s most pioneering chefs and self-proclaimed chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor.  The New York-based Burke is a practitioner of culinology, a revolutionary approach to food that blends technology and the culinary arts.  By experimenting with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, he has developed such culinary innovations as an edible bacon candle which can be lit, smelled and eaten.  His innovative style translates well to the arena of prime grade beef.

My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner about to take their seats in one of the capacious dining rooms at David Burke’s Primehouse

Founded in 2006, David Burke’s Primehouse has redefined the modern American steakhouse with its out-of-the-box approach to culinary creativity.  Located in the James Chicago Hotel on the corner of Rush and Ontario just west of the Magnificent Mile, the restaurant remains one of Chicago’s few remaining practitioners of dry-aging its beef.  The Primehouse dry-ages its beef in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room on the premises.  While USDA prime grade, hand-selected beef is the restaurant’s raison d’etre, the menu also showcases Chef Burke’s signature whimsical and imaginative dishes such as the Lollipop Tree, cheesecakes on lollipop sticks.

The Primehouse has two full-time butchers who butcher meats and fish on a daily basis Monday through Friday.  The back wall of the aging room is lined with Himalayan pink salt which performs two functions.  It purifies the air and slowly seasons the beef by extracting all the moisture out of the beef.  The Himalayan Salt Room (henceforth known as the aging room) is maintained at a constant state of between 34 and 40 degrees with sixty-percent humidity (a normal refrigerator is at about ninety-percent humidity).  All the beef is tagged with the date it was placed into the aging room and its weight at the time.

Cheese bread

Because of the room’s climatic conditions, the beef begins to break down very slowly, but doesn’t dehydrate all the way through.  Instead it becomes more tender.   While in the drying room, however, the beef’s exterior is desiccated and the cut of beef is firm and hard as might be expected from beef stored in a cold-temperature.  Ideally, the beef experiences about a twenty-percent loss of volume after 28 days and another fifteen-percent when it’s trimmed later.  At 75 days, the beef experiences a loss in volume of about 55 percent.  The Primehouse dry-ages ribeyes, sirloins, short-loins and chuck as well as prosciutto, kidneys, veal breads and brisket.

With “wet-aging,” the process used by many of Chicago’s best steak and chop houses, the beef is placed into a plastic bag and is then cryo-vacuumed (air is sucked out of it).  The beef basically “sits” there and flavor isn’t developed.  When you cut a wet-aged slab of beef into individual steaks, a puddle of blood ensues  With the dry-aging process used at the Primehouse, flavor is actually developed because of the catalytic intensification.  When a dry-aged cut of beef is prepared, what’s being cooked is the beauteous marbling and fat which breaks down the beef, making it tender and imparting a sweet, meaty flavor some have likened to an exotic foie gras like quality.

Bacon Sticks: black pepper, maple syrup

The beef at David Burke’s Primehouse is brought in once a week from Kentucky.  The aforementioned 2,500-pound bull, who just might have the best job in the world, performs his “service” three times a day six days a week.  The cows are high quality Black Angus prime.  The aging room can accommodate more approximately 12,000 pounds of beef valued as much as some homes.  Because of the restaurant’s bustling business, the aging room retains a month and a half of inventory at all times.  The minimum dry-aging period is 28 days and the maximum is 75 though one ribeye has remained in the aging room since April 4, 2006 when the restaurant first opened.  It’s starting weight was 10.10 pounds, but today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

When the beef is trimmed down, all the aged beef trim and fat is rendered down and tossed with roasted garlic, mustard powder and spices before being brushed on each steak as it goes out.  The staff calls it “beef love.”  It’s no wonder so many consider the Primehouse the very best steakhouse not only in Chicago, but in the entire country.   Prime dry-aged beef is only one of many things the restaurant does exceedingly well. Chicago Magazine named the Primehouse “Burker” one of the top ten burgers in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, the ten ounces of beef which form the beef patty are also dry aged.

Ahi Tuna: spicy chili bean sauce

The Primehouse has a relatively understated ambiance.  It’s contemporary and relaxing.  The cynosure at one wall is shelf work from which small blocks of Himalayan salt dangle.  Lighting is subdued, but sufficient for the visual appreciation of your meal.  The ambassador-like staff will take excellent care of you, explaining every detail of the aging process to the extent you want.  We asked a lot of questions and were amazed at our server’s encyclopedic knowledge. Our server happened to be from Santa Fe and took very good care of us.  Frankly, the only aspect of our meal that wasn’t absolutely first-rate was the soundtrack which seemed overly loud and disjointed for an otherwise classy milieu.

As you contemplate the menu,a cheesy Parmesan bread “popover” on a tin-can-like pan will be delivered to your table.  It’s a delicious difference from the de rigueur, ho-hum bread served at many steak restaurants.  The exterior of the Parmesan popover is crusty while the interior is light and chewy.  Best of all, it’s served with soft butter.  You’ll luxuriate in the popover’s wispy softness as you contemplate the “sticks and stones” on the menu.  Sticks are essentially items such as bacon, octopus and Kobe corn dogs served on a lollipop type stick.  Stones are hot Himalayan salt stones atop which you cook such starters as ahi tuna, steak and lamb loin. 

A “Caesarista” prepares to create a Caesar salad tableside.

One experience not to be missed is the tableside creation of a Caesar salad.  It’s one of the unique and personal experiences that once set apart the very best prime steak restaurants of a bygone era  A specially trained “Caesar barista” or “Caesarista” whisks the Parmesan-rich dressing by hand with egg yolks then tosses it with fresh Romaine lettuce.  Other classic ingredients include garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and of course, Parmesan.   Your Caesarista will ask whether or not you want anchovies on your salad.  Frankly, it’s the only way a Caesar salad should ever be made.

From among the “sticks,” the one which called loudest to me is the bacon, five sticks of thick pork-belly bacon.  This is a perfect marriage of savory and sweet, pairing a smoky, salty bacon laced with black pepper and a lacquer-like maple syrup coating.   This fun carnival-stick-food-like starter is further proof that bacon goes well with everything.  From the “stones” section of the menu, we had the Ahi tuna with a spicy chili bean sauce.  For what more could you ask: five pieces of uncooked tuna per order plus the treat of preparing it yourself on a thick Himalayan salt stone.  If you like your sashimi slightly seared, you’d better pay close attention to the cooking process.  Even at just slightly more than seared, the tuna is quite good.  The spicy chili bean sauce adds punch and saltiness.

Himalayan Salt Dry-Aged Reserve Ribeye Steak Aged 75 Days

On an October 8, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “Meat & Potatoes,” host Rahm Fama called the Primehouse’s 75-day dry-aged rib-eye “the best steak I’ve had in my 35 years!”  An endorsement from a highly respected chef and fellow carnivore (especially one from New Mexico like Fama) certainly carries a lot of weight with me.  While the 75-day dry aged rib-eye may be perpetually listed on the menu, it isn’t always available.  On the date of our visit, only one 75-day aged steak remained.  My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner insisted I have the privilege of consuming it.  Bill would order the 55-day aged ribeye and Paul the 40-day aged ribeye.

I must admit there’s more than a little bit of trepidation in ordering a steak the menu describes as having “intense beef flavor.” That sounds just a bit intimidating.  Just what is intense beef flavor and why haven’t I had it before?  Our server recommended the steak be prepared at medium-rare.  Two bottles of David Burke’s 207L (the designation for Burke’s prize bull) Prime Steak Sauce were brought to our table, but none of us could conceive of desecrating our steaks.  No sauce could possibly have improved on perfection.  The 75-day aged rib-eye was indeed sinfully rich, decadent and utterly beefy. The rib-eye was richly marbled and just as our server explained, the marbling intensified the aged flavor.  So did the “beef love.”  The steak was tender and moist with a pinkish hue, but not the bloody flavor of wet-aged beef.

55-Day Rib-eye

There was a discernible difference in flavor profile between the 75-day rib-eye and the 55-day aged rib-eye described on the menu as “deep, concentrated beef flavor.”  This was another absolutely outstanding steak, one named “best dry aged steak” by Chicago Magazine in 2008.  The 55-day aged rib eye had a nice fat and marbling content and indeed, a bold and concentrated flavor.  The 40-day aged ribeye, described as having “rich beef flavor” was similarly distinctive.  We were amazed at what a difference a few days makes!  Why all prime beef and chop houses don’t dry age their steaks for as long as David Burke’s Primehouse is a mystery.

There are seven side dishes available to have with your steak.  All are available for seven dollars a piece or three for nineteen dollars (as of September, 2012).  The Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style will never be mistaken for Kraft dinner.  It’s a grown-up mac n’ cheese made with a rigatoni noodle, heavy cream, fresh peas and rich cheeses.  Another superb side is the creamy spinach tinged with garlic.  Both the mac n’ cheese and the creamy spinach were very rich, perhaps too rich after having had such an indulgent steak.

Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara style

David Burke has lamented that the steakhouse experience often leaves guests so full, they don’t have room for desserts.  That’s one of the reasons so many of his dishes are intended to be shared.  You have got to save room for one of Burke’s fun and inventive desserts.  The Primehouse desserts, cheeses and coffee menu is unlike that of any restaurant not owned by David Burke.  As fun as it is to peruse, have your server explain the dessert in which you’re interested.  Desserts are not always as they appear.  The “carrot cake” which my friend Bill ordered was essentially a “deconstructed” and reinvented carrot cake.  The components–gingerbread dream rooibos cake, pineapple golden raisin jam, orange cheesecake, black walnut ice cream and candied carrots–aren’t what your mom’s carrot cake recipe calls for, but they make for an outstanding dessert.

The banana split sundae is also unlike any other banana split-sundae hybrid you’ve ever had.  It’s layers of flavor complexity and absolute decadent deliciousness, one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had.  Each component–salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans and roasted pineapple slices–would have made a wonderful dessert on its own, but the compilation was mouth-watering.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the next best thing on the menu to one of the fabulous dry-aged steaks.

Banana Split Sundae: salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans, roasted pineapple

David Burke’s Primehouse is a pioneering steakhouse in a city long renowned for its prime steakhouses.  It’s  a beef emporium for the new millennium with dry-aged prime beef unlike any other anywhere.

616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 660-6000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: 75-Day Aged Ribeye, 55-Day Aged Ribeye, 35-Day Kansas City Strip, Banana Split Sundae, Carrot Cake, Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style

David Burke's Primehouse on Urbanspoon

The Purple Pig – Chicago, Illinois

The Purple Pig on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Dining al fresco is a terrific option on a cool autumn evening

Poet Carl Sandburg bestowed the nickname “hog butcher for the world” upon the great city of Chicago at a time when the city was the epicenter for meatpacking in the United States. Companies such as Oscar Mayer, Swift and Armour operated large plants in the city, employing hundreds of residents. Unfortunately, Chicago’s streets became frequently overcrowded with pigs and cattle being herded through the streets to the plants. Ultimately the largest companies banded together in 1865 to build the Union Stock Yards next to the railroad tracks. Henceforth animals were ferried to the plants by train instead of through city streets.

The 1970 closure of the Union Stockyards brought an end to the time when Chicago was nicknamed the “hog butcher for the world.” Perhaps if Sandburg were alive today, he might be inspired to write about the rebirth of the presence of the pig in Chicago. More specifically, he might write about one particular Purple Pig, a restaurant recognized by Bon Appetit as one of America’s top ten best new restaurants in 2010. In his inimitable fashion, Sandburg could explain the genesis of the restaurant’s name being from a legend that if a pig drinks red wine, it will turn purple.

The very crowded dining room

When waxing poetic about the Purple Pig, Sandburg would have to exclude another sobriquet he penned for Chicago. “City of big shoulders” isn’t sufficient enough to describe the Purple Pig’s holistic use of the pig in its menu. The restaurant literally serves the entire pig—from snout to tail. A quick perusal of the menu bears this out. There you’ll find house-cured lardo, pork neck bone, pig’s ear, Balsamic braised pig’s tails, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), pork jowls, pork sweetbreads, pork blade steak and a variety of cured pork meats. It’s a pulchritudinous pigfest. It’s porcine perfection.

The Purple Pig is located in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the downtown neighborhood which houses more than three-million square feet of restaurants, hotels, retail stores and museums. On the intersection of North Michigan and Illinois Avenues, the Purple Pig is a boisterous, high-energy milieu with a decidedly youthful customer demographic. The restaurant is perpetually crowded. Much of the seating is in communal tables where you’ll get to know your neighbors. An L-shaped bar with extensive (but accessible) wine and beer offerings is among the choice seating because of its unobstructed view of a capacious open kitchen, but if the weather allows, you can’t beat al fresco dining on the patio.

Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago Cheese and Salami Toscana

The Purple Pig doesn’t currently entertain reservations and waits can be half an hour or longer. It’s worth the wait, especially if you wish to be seated on the patio. When you’re seated–likely in a communal table–you’ll quickly learn there are no strangers at the Purple Pig. There’s just friends who haven’t yet met. You’ll find your tableside neighbors are more than willing to recommend their favorites. The wait staff is encyclopedic in its knowledge of the menu to the point they can tell you about each ingredient used to create the fabulous feast on which you’re about to indulge.

You can summarize the restaurant’s menu in four words: “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” Most, but not all, of the featured fare will be comprised, at least in part, of pig parts complemented by a fromage fanatic’s fantasy of cheeses. The Purple Pig is a bona fide Charcuterie (a term referring to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie) with many of the cured meats offered being proudly made in-house. The menu is inspired. It also calls for a certain level of audacity among non-gastronomes. We were surprised at how “daring” other guests were in ordering foods many would consider “yucky” and strange.

Burrata Pugliese with Arugula, Marcona Almonds, Sour Cherries, Popcorn & Maraschino

Similar to Spanish-style tapas restaurants, the concept behind the Purple Pig is for diners to share small plates with dining companions, ergo more variety. While most of our neighbors ordered two plates per person, our table of three–Bill Resnik, Paul Fleissner and me–shared nearly twenty plates in two visits. For every item we ordered, there were several we wanted to try. The biggest surprise wasn’t our capacity to eat so much, but the fact that none of us were bankrupted by the bill of fare. In fact, we were surprised at how reasonable costs were.

The menu is segmented into nine sections: Antipasti, Smears (spreadable items served with toasted bread), Fried Items, Panini, Cured Meats, Cheese, Salad, A La Plancha, Etc. and Dolci. Each section of the menu lists a number of dishes. The A La Plancha, Etc. tended to be the highest priced and the ones which most closely resemble full entrees instead of small dishes. The menu isn’t exclusively pork-based. You’ll also find mussels, chicken, turkey, rabbit, sardines and more.

Eggplant Parmesan Balls

From the Antipasti menu, one of our favorites is the Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette. This is roasted beets living up to their potential. This is roasted beets combined with ingredients which complement each other very well. The salt, a large crystalline variety, bring out the sweetness of the beets without overwhelming them. The beets are tender while the pistachios were wonderfully buttery and crunchy. The goat cheese is rich, thick and creamy while the vinaigrette added the acidity that balanced other flavors while keeping the salad fresh and vibrant.

Also from the Antipasti menu are Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago & Salami Toscana, an ingredient combination which probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. The “binding” which puts it all together deliciously is the sharp, but semi-sweet Asiago cheese which proves to be an excellent counterpoint for the “summery” flavor of the artichokes, the robust flavor of the Salami Toscana and the savory-sweet flavor of the fingerling potatoes. The biggest surprise to me was the freshness of the braised baby artichokes which were as good, if not better, than the artichokes I’ve had recently in California.

White Sardines with capers

Several years ago my friend and fellow gastronome Sandy Driscoll introduced me to burrata, a rich, creamy ball-shaped cheese with an interior akin to soft, stringy curd and fresh cream. It’s been an addiction ever since so an Antipasti dish of Burrata Pugliese with Arugula, Marcona Almonds, Sour Cherries, Popcorn and Maraschino is a no-brainer. The burrata shines, but so do the sour cherries and maraschino which prove a perfect foil for the peppery flavor of the arugula. This is a plate-licking good dish.

From the Fried Items section of the menu, comes the Eggplant Parmesan Balls, six bite-sized balls of gooey, cheesy meets crunchy deliciousness. While they might resemble the de rigueur fried mozzarella served at many Italian restaurants, these are several orders of magnitude better. The cheese is melted, but not molten so you probably won’t burn the roof of your mouth. Nor is the cheese so stringy that you can stretch it around the block. The parmesan balls are served in a thin tomato sauce.

Panini: Slow-roasted ham, Scamorza Cheese, Pickled Portobello and Sun-dried Tomatoes

One Fried Items dish which probably qualifies as an acquired taste is White Sardines with Capers. Sardines have a pronounced “fishy” taste (think anchovies, only stronger). Perhaps because sardines, even the more sublime white sardines, are so fishy tasting, the Purple Pig prepares them with plenty of capers. The capers lend a sharp, tangy and slightly salty taste. If you like sardines on their own, you’ll be very happy with these fried three-inch beauties. Just make sure to masticate them vigorously because the sardine, spine and all, is fried intact.

The Panini menu lists only three sandwiches, but if the one we had is any indication, the Purple Pig would be an outstanding restaurant if it focused solely on sandwiches. Our panini was engorged with slow-roasted ham, Camorza cheese, pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes. Scamorza is a cow’s milk spun cheese, belonging to the same family as mozzarella and provolone. It’s perfectly melted on this panini par excellence and it complements the slow-roasted ham very well. The pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes are a nice foil with acidity and tanginess.

Pig Platter, an assortment of cured meats that includes Prosciutto Di San Daniele, Lingua Agrodolce, Catalonian Fuet, Sopressata, Chorizo, Prosciutto Di Parma, Jamon Serrano, Cacciatorini, Coppa, Loma and Tartufo

The Cured Meats section of the menu is a veritable smorgasbord of cured meats from throughout the pig. Though you can order meats individually, your best bet is the Pig Platter, an assortment of cured meats, some of which are made in-house. All eyes on the table will train on the platter on which the meats arrive. It’s a pinkish-reddish treasure trove of thinly sliced pork and an exemplar as to why I will never become a vegan. There are some stand-outs on the Pig Platter and no one meat grades any less than excellent. Some, such as the Prosciutto Di San Daniele are prepared with such high and exacting standards that no prosciutto meeting those standards can legally call itself Di San Daniele.

The Lingua Agrodolce, literally sweet and sour tongue, is one of the stand-outs. Resembling a smaller cut of Spam (in appearance only), it will delight you with its rich flavors and the interplay of how they contrast on your taste buds. The Catalonian Fuet (a word which means “whip”), from the Catalan region of Spain, is whisper thin, dry cured pork meat sausage with a salty, dry flavor. The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor. The Cacciatorini is a well-seasoned pork with a great depth of flavors; it’s among the most addictive of all dry-cured sausages. The Coppa is a flavorful combination of meat and fat, heady from the aromatic spices and herbs in which is it cured. Salami Loma is literally “head salami,” a pungent, spicy salami cut into thin slices. Tartufo is a thin-sliced salami with a delicate, earthy aroma. I’ve only explained what they are; you’ll have to experience them for yourselves to taste how wonderful they are.

House Cured Lardo Iberico on Toasted Bread

The Smears section of the menu proved to be our favorite, not for the sheer numbers of plates listed, but for the visceral flavors provided. This is the section of the menu which separates the professionals from the amateurs. It’s where you might test your own mettle. Smears are served with toasted bread which they are meant to be spread onto or top. There are eleven smears on the menu. Among the ones we forwent were one made with foie gras and membrillo and another crafted with Taramasolata, the poor-man’s caviar.

We didn’t know what to expect when ordering the house-cured Lardo Iberico. Made from 100% acorn-fed pork back fat in Spain, we frankly expected something akin to pork belly. Instead, we were treated to four slices of toasted bread topped with a sheer, almost transparent “sheet” of lardo. It resembles “melted” fat but with a flavor rivaling that of duck fat. Despite the waifishly thin sheet, the flavor is very pronounced. It’s salty and fatty with a melt-in-your mouth quality. The toasted bread had black edges and was toasted to a greater extent than any of the other smears we sampled.

Roasted Bone Marrow with Herbs

The one Smear we all agreed was most transformative was the roasted bone marrow with herbs. It’s a life-altering dish, the only item we had during both our visits to the Purple Pig. Bone marrow is one of Anthony Bourdain’s very favorite things to eat in the entire world. Now it’s mine, too…and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. My favorite Vietnamese phos are replete with floating marrow. Henceforth, I’ll forever think twice when considering how to dispose of a marrow-filled bone.

The roast bone marrow is meant to be scooped out with tiny spoons and slathered onto toasted bread then sprinkled with sea salt. I couldn’t bring myself to adding capers (which I love) or any of the complementary herbs. Bone marrow is rich, buttery and delicious with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal. Its gelatinous texture may be a bit off-putting to some people, but true gastronomes haven’t lived until they’ve had roasted bone marrow (and sweet breads, but that’s another story).

Pork Neck Bone Gravy with Ricotta

The third, but just slightly less wonderful Smear, we enjoyed thoroughly was pork neck bone gravy with ricotta. My mental picture was of a traditional brown gravy redolent with natural pork drippings. Instead, we got a thick red sauce (almost marinara-like) with shreds of pork neck braised for hours swimming therein. The light, fluffy ricotta resembles an island surrounded by the red sauce which has notes of heat and herbaceousness. It could be argued that the red sauce subtracted from the flavor of the braised neck bones, but that’s a nit.

Unlike the Pig Platter in which most of the meats on the menu are featured, there is no cheese platter. Instead, you order as many cheeses as you’d like to have. We opted for five and allowed our server to select four of them with a request that we receive a balance of flavors and textures. We hit a home run. The sharpest and most pungent of the cheeses was a Piquant Gorgonzola replete with blue veins signifying a long aging period. It’s a breath-wrecking cheese to say the least. Another sharp, pungent cheese is the Blu Di Bufala, a rare aged buffalo blue cheese. This is a flavor which lingers on your taste buds and on your memories.

Cheeses: Big Ed’s, Podda, Delice de Bourgogne, Blu Di Bufala and Piquant Gorgonzola with a grape chutney and toasted bread

The Big Ed’s cheese, made from raw cow’s milk ripened for 120-days, has a buttery texture and is mild, but full-flavored. It’s a connoisseur’s cheese, one any fromage fanatic would be proud to serve. It will win over your heart and your appetite. The Podda has a hard rind and a dry, slightly crumbly texture and a sweet-nutty flavor resultant from having been aged for nearly an entire year. It’s a pasteurized cheese made from a combination of sheep and cow milk. My favorite of the five may well be the Delice de Bourgogne, a rich, creamy cheese with a whipped buttery texture and a pungent fragrance. Eating this cheese is said to “triple your pleasure” because cream or creme fraiche is added during the manufacturing process. The cheese is served with lightly toasted bread and a grape chutney which proves a sensational counterpoint to the savory, salty, creamy, utterly (would that be “udderly”) delicious cheeses.

The only item we ordered from the A La Planca, Etc. section of the menu was the Pork Secreto Romano Beans, Marinated Red Bell Pepper & Pickled Watermelon Rind. Pork Secreto, we were told, is thus named because not even many butchers know how to extricate it from a pig. Pork Secreto is a tender strip of pork hidden beneath a thick layer of belly fat. Secret though it may be, it doesn’t taste like the mystery meat you find at some restaurants. Some connoisseurs consider it the best part of the pig, a “poor man’s tenderloin.” The Purple Pig serves it with marinated red peppers and pickled watermelon rinds, neither of which detract from the flavor of the secreto. It’s a very tender, pinkish hued piece of heaven that’s as good as pork belly.

Pork Secreto with Romano Beans, Marinated Red Bell Pepper and Pickled Watermelon Rind

There’s only one way to top a meal at the Purple Pig and that’s with something from the Dolci section of the menu. That’s where the restaurant’s post-prandial sweets can be found. Our server recommended a Sicilian Iris, a round fried brioche filled with ricotta and chocolate chips and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. She earned a generous tip based on this suggestion alone. Bite into the golden disc of fried dough and you’re rewarded with rich, creamy ricotta and adult chocolate chips. It’s a sweet piece of heaven on earth.

Cheese, wine and swine. The Purple Pig excels at all three. The same year it was named one of America’s top ten new restaurants, it received the Bib Gourmand award, a Michelin Guide distinction awarded to restaurants judged to offer very good food at a very good value. For Michelin’s purposes, a “very good value” means an appetizer and entree, plus a glass of wine, will cost $40 or less. It remains consistently one of the most popular restaurants in Chicago according to Urbanspoon and has earned a “27” rating on Zagat.

Sicilian Iris {Ricotta & Chocolate Chip filled Fried Brioche}

“Seeing pink elephants” is a euphemism for drunken hallucinations. Savvy diners would much rather see one famous Purple Pig in a section of Chicago not too far from the “hog butcher for the world.”

500 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 464-1744
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
1st VISIT: 4 September 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Sicilian Iris,

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Frontera Grill – Chicago, Illinois

The Frontera Grill, one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the United States. Next door is Xoco, the restaurant Chef Rick Bayless launched in 2011

Not everyone has the relentless drive and impassioned fortitude to parlay their most ardent desires and zealous fervor into a wildly successful thematic venture, but then not everyone is Rick Bayless, America’s Mexican chef and restaurateur nonpareil. His single-minded passion for the Mexican culinary experience is reflected in multimedia ventures such as his successful PBS television series “Cooking Mexican” and “Mexico – One Plate At A Time” as well as his genre-redefining, award-winning books. One of those books, Authentic Mexican was heralded by the New York Times as “the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable” while another, Mexican Kitchen was chosen best cookbook of the year.  Mostly, however, his passion is reflected in his restaurants.

In 1987, Bayless launched the vivacious and hyper-energetic Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago, a veritable pantheon to his unique interpretations of contemporary regional  Mexican cooking.  The walls of the Fronter Grill could be decorated with all the plaudits and accolades it and its proprietor have earned. Instead its walls are festooned with museum quality folk art from throughout Mexico, some whose whimsical quality will bring a smile to your face.  It’s more likely, however, the edible culinary arts played a more significant part in the restaurant being named the “third best casual restaurant in the world” by the International Herald Tribune and in earning a James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” Award in 2007. It goes without saying that you won’t find a sombrero or a serape decorating these walls.

The colorful dining room at Frontera Grill

The Frontera Grill rocks and rollicks! It’s vibrant, boisterous and lively–no need for mariachis here. The wait staff is ambassadorial in its courtesy and Mensa-like in its knowledge. The food is beautiful to look at and absolutely delightful to the taste.  It is fresh, vibrant and plated like a work of art. The Frontera Grill would be the very best Mexican restaurant I’ve experienced in the United States were it not for its fabulous sister restaurant, the more upscale Topolobampo.  It’s a restaurant at which every morsel of every appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage dances on your taste buds like a sensuous siren.  It’s the antithesis of every stereotypical Taco Bell quality pseudo Mexican restaurant to which Americans have, for far too long, been subjected.  With his triumvirate of terrific restaurants, Bayless has redefined what diners recognize as and appreciate about Mexican food.  He has elevated Mexican cuisine it to the levels of gourmet, fine-dining and to recognition as one of the world’s great cuisines.

The Frontera Grill is to be shared; it should not be experienced alone lest you risk friends and family not believing your tales of culinary indulgences so great and grandiose as to sound mythical. Take friends or family and you’ll not only double the fun, you’ll also double what you’ll get to sample by sharing orders family style. You’ll also have witnesses to validate a sensational shared experience.  In September, 2012, I had the privilege of sharing a meal at the Frontera Grill with friends and fellow culinary bon vivants Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner.  It was Bill’s inaugural visit to Frontera and it was wholly unlike any visit to any Mexican restaurant he’d previously had.  His wide-eyed wonder mirrors that of many first-time visitors.  The Frontera Grill must be seen and experienced to be believed!

Just-made Tortilla Chips & Two Salsas: Three-chile (Cascabel, Morita, Guajillo) and tomatillo with Serrano & cilantro. Bacon Guacamole: Grilled white onions, roasted Serrano, roasted tomatillo, bacon. Tortilla chips

The Frontera Grill menu of hardwood grilled dishes, rich moles, and chile-thickened braises is  gleaned from cooks in markets, homes and restaurants throughout Mexico.  That menu changes every month which keeps things lively and interesting, but may also mean your favorite dish may not be available next time you visit.  Bayless’s sometimes rather loose interpretations of Mexican dishes are, at the very least, optimized versions of time-honored and traditional recipes.  At other times, they’re Mexican “inspired” dishes showcasing his creativity in making Mexican cuisine all it can be.  He has forged relationships with local artisan farmers who provide the high-quality, fresh and organic sustainable ingredients used in his restaurants.  Quite often those ingredients are of much higher quality than might be found in Mexico.

From the onset of your meal, those ingredients shine both figuratively and literally.  The tomatillo salsa, ameliorated with Serrano and cilantro, is nearly luminescent, as green as pulsating kryptonite.  It’s fresh, lively and invigorating, not so much with piquancy but with a brightness of ingredients coalescing to give you just a bit of heat complemented by a savory tanginess which characterizes tomatillos.  A three-chile salsa, made from very different but complementary chiles–Cascabel, Morita and Guajillo–is similarly luminescent, an iridescent reddish hue.  It has a greater depth of flavor than its verdant cousin, but only enough heat to get your attention.  The tortilla chips have a just-made and very pronounced corn flavor.

Ceviche Trio: Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive), Yucatecan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber), Tropical Tuna Cocktail (big eye, avocado-tomatillo, tropical fruit salsa).

The Bacon Guacamole, constructed from grilled white onions, roasted Serrano, roasted tomatillo and bacon is rich and unctuous, as smooth and creamy as butter and lovingly tinged by the sultry porcine perfection that is bacon and a pleasant piquancy courtesy of the roasted Serrano.  It may seem like an unlikely flavor pairing, but it works exceptionally well.  The guacamole is made from avocados at their very peak of ripeness.  Nestled atop a sheet of banana leaves, it’s a special starter.

No matter what other appetizers you order, make sure to save room for an item or two from the ceviche and raw bar (oysters, seafood cocktails and ceviches).  Oysters are shucked to order and served with a tomatillo-habanero “minoneta” and a smoky chipotle-garlic salsa and fresh-cut limes.  Even better is an oyster and ceviche plate featuring one dozen oysters and their accompaniments as well as ceviche and a tropical tuna cocktail.  The ceviche is incomparable, as good (if not better) than the ceviche you’ll find at Peruvian restaurants.

Northern-Style Quesadillas: Flour tortillas folded over Wisconsin Jack cheese and stuffed with Duck carnitas with grilled red onion

If you’re a ceviche addict, there’s no better starter than the Ceviche Trio: Frontera Ceviche, Yucatecan Ceviche  and a Tropical Tuna Cocktail. Each showcases the freshness and flavor of seafood “cooked” in citrus juices.  The Yucatan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber ) is bold and beguiling, a melange of briny seafood cooked perfectly and tangy citrus so invigorating you’ll dredge up every last drop.  It would make an excellent cocktail.  So would the remaining liquid after you’re done consuming the seafood and its accompaniments on the Tropical Tuna Cocktail (sashimi-grade Hawaiian big eye tuna, avocado-tomatillo, tropical fruit salsa).  The tropical fruit salsa  and avocado-tomatillo are as refreshing a pairing as you’ll ever find on ceviche while the big eye tuna epitomizes smoothness.  The eponymous Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive) isn’t quite as lively, showcasing the just-caught freshness of the albacore.

At the hands of the Frontera Grill kitchen staff, even something as simple as quesadillas are elevated to the level of sublime.  Northern-Style Quesadillas start off with flour tortillas folded over Wisconsin Jack cheese then engorged with one of the following fillings: black beans and young greens, duck carnitas with grilled red onion, charcoaled chicken with guacamole, tender Mexican woodland mushrooms with roasted poblano peppers and grilled shrimp with smoky, spicy chipotle peppers.  The duck carnitas are exquisite, a light smokiness permeating the rich, moist duck which was moist and tender without a surfeit of fat.  The saltiness of the Jack cheese and the sweetness of the grilled red onions made for a perfect interplay with the savory goodness of the duck.

Sopes Rancheros: Crispy corn masa boats filled with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, homemade fresh cheese

Frontera’s Sopes Rancheros, crispy masa boats filled with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado and homemade fresh cheese are wholly unlike the sopes found in Mexican restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment which tend to pile on ingredients atop a tostada shell.  The masa is perfectly textured–light and delicate, but strong enough to form an interior “pool”  into which the ingredients are piled.  The shredded beef is savory and lightly seasoned.  There isn’t much bite to this dish, but there is a lot of flavor and it’s all quite good.

It’s not every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll find Swiss chard.  Frontera’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever experienced–a cast iron skillet replete with Poblanos rajas, thick cream, roasted potatoes and homemade queso fresco.  The thick cream imparts a bit of sweetness reminiscent of coconut milk on Thai food, but it’s all Mexican crema.  The melange of ingredients play very well off one another: the sweetness of the cream against the piquancy of the Poblanos, the savory qualities of the roasted potatoes against the saltiness of the queso.  It’s a surprisingly good entree.

Swiss Chard: Poblanos rajas, thick cream, roasted potatoes, homemade fresh cheese.

In a market increasingly saturated with such pretenders as Taco Bell and Chipotle,  Frontera Grill is a refreshing change of pace, an authentic champion of the flavors and festivity of Mexico at its very best.

445 North Clark
Chicago, Illinois
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Guacamole, Queso Fundido, Tacos al Carbon, Flan de Cajeta, Panque De Chocolate y Kahlua

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

Portillo’s Hot Dogs – Bolingbrook, Illinois

Portillo's Hot Dogs in Vernon Hills, Illinois

Portillo’s story is the story of the American dream, a rags to riches saga that began with a single hot dog stand opening in 1963. That single investment has blossomed into a multi-million per year chain with six different concepts and more than 40 restaurants in the Chicago area. The Portillo’s Restaurant Group has become, in fact, the largest privately-owned restaurant company in the Midwest. Among Chicagoland expatriates with whom I’ve worked (and one whom I married) Portillos is consistently named as one of the things they miss most about living in the Windy City.

Expatriates like my Kim know there isn’t anything like Portillo’s anywhere else in America.  Other than frequent trips to the Chicago area, their only recourse has been ordering hot dogs online through Tastes of Chicago which offers nationwide delivery of all your Windy City favorites.  In October, 2005, Portillo’s launched its first location outside of Illinois, the lucky city being Buena Park, California.  Since then, a second Portillo’s was opened in Southern California and a third in Merrillville, Indiana.  That little bit of expansion has heightened hopes that Portillos will spread across the fruited plain.

Hungry hordes line up to place their orders

There’s no way you could ever mistake Portillo’s for a simple hot dog stand today.  Most Portillo’s restaurants are veritable theme parks–culinary shrines celebrating terrific food and the heritage of the Windy City in the 20th century.  Typically this means no discrimination between both sides of the law; more than perhaps any city in America, Chicago celebrates (and sometimes it elects) its criminals.  The Portillo’s in Vernon Hills where these photos were taken is rich with photographs of the city’s nefarious and notorious characters as well as sundry antiques.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn.

Portillo’s doesn’t offer table service.  When you walk in, you’ll immediately proceed to a long, fast-food chain-like queue that seems a mile long.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly the line moves and how efficient Portillo’s is at taking and processing orders.  Within minutes after placing your order, your number will be called and you’ll pick up your order.  Tables are adorned with checkerboard tablecloths, the red and white ones reminiscent of Italian restaurant table settings.  Tables are spaced fairly close to one another despite the cavernous confines of this sprawling restaurant.

Italian Beef Sandwich with Hot Giardinara

True to its name, Portillo’s features the quintessential Chicago all beef hot dog in all its cornucopia of ingredients glory–mustard, relish, chopped onions, cucumber, sliced red tomato, kosher pickle and sport peppers piled onto a perfectly steamed poppy seed bun.  Most appropriately, it’s often said of the Chicago style hot dot that it’s been “dragged through the garden.” The first time you have one, the Chicago style hot dog seems like an odd collection of toppings–some hot and some cold–that work surprisingly well together. The textures range from crispy to chewy and the flavors from tangy and acidic to pleasantly piquant.

The melange of ingredients is by no means a cover-up for an inferior wiener; in fact, dog wiener is the highlight of this hot dog.  Bite into it and your teeth will puncture an all-natural skin with a discernible snap, unleashing a salty, juicy meat impressed with a faint smokiness.  Th poppy seed bun is warm and pillowy soft yet substantial enough to hold in all the ingredients nestled in its crevice. These hot dogs aren’t for everyone, but aficionados swear by them. Some proprietors will swear AT you if you ask for ketchup.

Chicago Style Hot Dog

Portillo’s also serves one of the best Italian beef sandwiches in the City of Big Shoulders, a mighty feat in itself. Better yet, try the combination beef and char-grilled sausage sandwich, imbued with the most tender, thin sliced beef and the most succulent sausage. If you don’t ask for your sandwich “wet” (dipped in the “gravy” in which it is prepared), you’ll notice that Portillo’s uses a fairly hard-crusted bun, one that crunches when you bite into it. The giardinara is also crispy, an assemblage of pickled and spiced vegetables you can have in either the hot or the regular variety.

In October, 2010, a writer for Serious Eats, one of my favorite food blogs, endeavored with three friends to determine the very best Italian beef sandwich in the Chicago area.  Their quest took them to eleven purveyors of pulchritudinous beef where, in six hours, eating about three inches of each sandwich, they decided the very best Italian beef sandwich was Portillo’s.  Every sandwich sampled was topped with giardiniera and served wet. Portillo’s rendition was described as “having no flaws,” despite all the components being pre-cooked at a corporate location.  My favorite Italian beef from Johnnie’s finished third in their balloting.

Portillo's chocolate cake

Portillo’s chocolate cake is a rich and moist piece of heaven, an absolutely delicious hunk of chocolate perfection. It’s diet-devastating deliciousness in a slab-sized piece big enough for three. The chocolate cake is perhaps the best from a triumvirate of desserts. Strawberry shortcake and caramel pecan cake are the other two. You can also sate your sweet tooth with bone-chilling cold shakes and malts. Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are available in thirst-slaking sizes of small, medium and large.

Most thematic restaurants eventually become caricatures of themselves and begin to pay more attention to their atmosphere and less to their food.  Thankfully this hasn’t happened with Portillo’s which after nearly five decades in operation still serves one of the Windy City area’s best Chicago style hot dogs and so much more.

Portillo’s Hot Dogs
148 W. Broughton Road
Bolingbrook, IL
(630) 759-3735

LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hot Dogs, Italian Beef Sandwich, Chocolate Cake

Portillo's on Urbanspoon

Gale Street Inn – Mundelein, Illinois

The nautically themed Gale Street Inn in Mundelein, Illinois

It took 47 years and one visit to the Gale Street Inn to understand why sailing vessels are ascribed the feminine gender. According to a placard on a wall at the Gale Street Inn, a nautical themed restaurant in the Northwest Chicago suburb of Mundelein, a ship is called a she because “there’s always a great deal of bustle around her…because there’s usually a gang of men around…because she has waist and stays…because she takes a lot of paint to keep her looking good…because it’s not the initial expense that breaks you, it’s the upkeep…because she is all decked out…because it take a good man to handle her right…because she shows her topside, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

While that theory may have the same veracity as a used car salesman telling you the lemon you’re about to buy was owned by a little old lady who used it solely to go to church on Sundays, its presence on the wall may infer something about the Gale Street Inn. To the women in our dining party, the inference was that the restaurant reeks of masculinity–a contention further borne out by the massive stone fireplace that divides the wood rich dining rooms on whose walls are hung paintings of sea-faring vessels and Bosn’s head busts of mariners. The bar’s television tuned to ESPN lent further credence to their argument.

Bread rolls and butter

For me, the Gale Street Inn is quintessentially Chicago, a city in which masculinity is historically defined by political power, competitive sports teams, broad-shouldered skyscrapers…and restaurants with rich wood appointments serving huge slabs of beef; hearty, rich soups; steaming bread rolls with thick pads of butter; bounteous salad bars with powerful salad dressings; and often, seafood with a surprisingly fresh, just caught taste.

The Diamond Lake restaurant shares a name, menu, reputation and a loose affiliation with a Chicago restaurant once situated on Gale Street, but it has something its big city brethren doesn’t have–unobstructed views of Diamond Lake whose shimmering waters glint like a diamond in either the moonlight or the day’s sun. It’s one of the crown jewels of Lake county.

Salad bar includes chicken liver pate and an out-of-this-world garlic dressing

Dinner at the Gale Street Inn includes a complementary salad bar with traditional iceberg lettuce and decidedly un-masculine spinach as well as several conventional salad bar accoutrements. What really sets Chicago area salad bars apart from everywhere else are the intensely flavored salad dressings. A Chicago style blue cheese dressing is thick and creamy, replete with deeply pungent, sharp blue cheese. Even more intensely flavored is Chicago style Garlic Ranch dressing so heady it will wreck your breath and may reek off your pores the following day. The Gale Street Inn’s version of these dressings is among the best you’ll find anywhere. The salad bar also includes a delicious chicken pate redolent with garlic and bacon bits.

The pate is so good we would have begged, pleaded, cajoled…maybe even bribed the chef for the recipe.  Fortunately we didn’t have to.  After explaining how far we drove to the restaurant and being sworn to secrecy, the chef gave us the recipe and we’ve managed to duplicate all but the experience. Warm bread rolls with sweet butter are replenished faithfully throughout your meal.  A pate sandwich is even better.

Special of the month for October, 2010: a half-rack of babyback ribs and three crab-stuffed shrimp

In a city known for barbecue baby back ribs, the Gale Street Inn’s might be the very best we’ve had. If not the best, these ribs are certainly the most tender–as in slide-off-the-bone and melt-in-your-mouth tender. These are ribs you eat can eat with a knife and fork or with your hands. A caramelized crust and a mild, smoky flavor complement the slightly tangy sauce. A side of sauce, served warm, is also provided, but isn’t needed.  During our October, 2010 visit, the Gale Street Inn’s monthly special was a unique version of surf and turf–a half-rack of babybacks and three crab-stuffed shrimp.  Shrimp is a misnomer for these delicious decapods which are engorged to bursting point.

Carnivores will also enjoy the slowly roasted prime rib of beef, a perfectly marbled 20-ounce slab of perfectly prepared beef served with au jus. Ask for the end piece if you want a slightly less rare cut defined by its tenderness and flavor intensity.  The prime rib isn’t nearly as fatty or rare as served at some restaurants, but lacks none of the flavors that make this cut of beef so popular.

Prime Rib, an end cut

The Gale Street Inn’s symbol is an anchor with each of its four points corresponding to one of its staples.  The ring or top part of the anchor represents ribs, perhaps the restaurant’s most popular entree.  The left bill (the point) represents steak while the right bill represents chops and the crown (or bottom point) represents seafood.  The menu prepares this quadrumvirate in various ways, ostensibly all delicious and hearty.

An eight-ounce grilled butt steak prepared at medium and seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides is an excellent option.  Because of its name and its alternate name, rump steak, butt steak is (pun intended) the butt of many a joke.  Essentially, a butt steak is a boneless sirloin steak.  For optimum flavor, butt steaks are usually grilled or broiled.  Overcook them and they’ll lose much of their flavor.  Experience in preparing this cut of steak shows at the Gale Street Inn because the pulchritudinous beef on your plate will be juicy and almost fork tender.

An eight-ounce butt steak

The Gale Street Inn is surprisingly value-priced and even features several stimulus specials that will fill you up for a paltry sum.  It’s a masculine restaurant with something for everyone, the only requirement being that you come here hungry.

Gale Street Inn
935 Diamond Lake Road
Mundelein, IL
(847) 566-6145
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2010
1st VISIT:  20 November 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Salad Bar, Garlic Ranch Dressing, Potatoes Au Gratin

Gale Street Inn-Diamond Lake on Urbanspoon

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