Day 2 of our Culinary Tour in Chicago brought us to a three of Chicago’s very own restaurants. We visited 4 places today, which meant that our beef gourging experience at Texas De Brazil the night before had to come to an end and sampling smaller portions at various restaurants was the way to go from this point on. Our group went to Portillo’s Hot Dogs, famous for their Chicago Style hot dogs, Big Star which serves up highly rated tacos, Carmine’s, a high class Italian restaurant, and Grand Lux Cafe for dessert.
Today, we were still unadjusted to Chicago time and woke up late again, with a start time of 11am. We’ve all heard on the Travel Channel and Food Network that Chicago served up a mean hot dog, so we were on the hunt to go find one. Luckily there was a place that was highly rated on Yelp that was only a few blocks down from our hotel, so we ventured toward it with our hungry stomachs.
Portillo’s Hot Dogs
Our group ordered three things off their menu that they were famous for, their Jumbo Hot Dog, the Italian Beef sandwich, and a Chocolate Cake Milkshake.
The Jumbo Hot Dog included a thicker sized hot dog with mustard, relish, freshly chopped onions, sliced red ripe tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers. You might see that Ketchup is lacking in that description, and that is because a properly made Chicago style hot dog doesn’t include Ketchup ever. After taking my first bite into the hot dog, that tradition proved itself correct. From the saltiness of the sausage to the tangyness of the sport peppers to the sweet sliced tomatoes, the busy flavors formed a wonderful unique hot dog taste that was absolutely mouthwatering.
On the other hand, the Italian Beef didn’t have much flavor since it didn’t have that much going on in terms of condiments which included hot peppers and pickled carrots. The thinly sliced beef with extra gravy sauce provided the bulk of the flavor which was very soft and sweet to taste. Combine those items in a nice large bun and that gives you the Italian Beef sandwich.
At this point, we figured out the convenience of the public transportation in Chicago (CTA) and stopped taking expensive taxis to get to our far destinations. We headed over to a nearby Walgreens and purchased a CTA 1-day pass ($5.25) for each person that allowed us to utilize either Train or Bus for 24 hrs with no limits. With our unlimited pass in hand, we wanted to escape the touristy areas of The Magnificent Mile to places where local Chicagoans frequent. This brought us to an area known as Wicker Park. We had a few restaurants we had in mind we wanted to visit here but only one was open during the odd afternoon hour. Our group clearly ignored the thunderstorm forecast with an 80% chance of rain. With just a few blocks to walk to Big Star, it started to pour and we took refuge inside some of the local shops and boutiques. We tried to wait out the rain but decided to take our chances and run the last few Chicago sized blocks to Big Star. Our group finally made it, drenched from the huge storm, and Big Star welcomed us in with a dry roof, loud music, and seating right at the bar.
Big Star Tacos
The ambiance of this restaurant was like no other. The place was packed full of people, even at an awkward time of 2pm. This meant that the food had to be good for the restaurant to be operating at full capacity at this hour. Being a typical bar environment, they had the speakers cranked up to 110% playing great classic rock tunes and many people socializing around the tables with their drinks adding to the sound level. It didn’t bother us though, because it just added to the eating experience that was to come.
We were told by some friends that this place had killer tacos. They had four different kinds of tacos, a Fish Taco, Al Pastor, Pork Belly, and Vegetarian, so we ordered two each.
Out of these four, two of them knocked me dead with their flavor, the Al Pastor and the Vegetarian taco. As a meat lover myself, I tend to stray away from the vegetarian options at restaurants, but this taco was like no other. It seemed very simple. Corn tortilla, roasted corn, fresh oregano, chipotle, avocado, and cotija cheese was the perfect formula here. It was so fulfilling that I had to order one more. The Al Pastor taco did not disappoint as well. The pork combined with an unexpected pineapple thrown in made up the awesome taste of this taco.
Another member of the group wanted more and decided to opt for a Sonoran Hot Dog. Little did he know what he was getting himself into.
I tried a small bite of the Sonoran hot dog, and immediately knew that hot dogs weren’t Big Star’s specialty. Although it had a grand presentation and delivery, the taste was too overpowered by the saltiness of the sausage. He didn’t regret ordering it though, after devouring the monstrous hot dog within minutes.
As night fell, we headed back to our hotel and after a nice hot tub and pool session, looked up a place to go for dinner. The last time I visited Chicago a few years back when I was younger, we went to Carmine’s and I still remembered it having great food and family style dining, similar to the Buca Di Beppo chains, so we had to go back for round 2. We called at 8pm, but didn’t get a reservation until 9pm which was expected as it was a Saturday night during a holiday weekend. The restaurant was 10 blocks north of our hotel and after a quick 15 minute walk, we were there. Carmine’s is located in one of the liveliest nightlife neighborhoods of Magnificent Mile. The street is populated with bars, lounges, and outdoor dining as loud music from these places filled the night sky. Because it was a Saturday night, everyone was dressed to the nines to dine and celebrate the week end.
We finally got a table upstairs in this large restaurant and stuck with ordering light. 2 appetizers and 1 entree for 4 people to share. As we were seated, we were served bread with olive oil and vinegar, a typical Italian faire. We got a Caesar Salad, Calamari, and the chef’s special which was Lobster Stuffed Ravioli in Cream Tomato Sauce.
Honestly, the food was pretty good for this high class restaurant, but their service was the worst we’ve experienced ever. I’m not sure why we weren’t provided service you’d normally expect for a high end restaurant like Carmine’s. Maybe it was because we were seated in a corner behind a door? Maybe it was because we didn’t order a drink this time and stuck with tap waters? Our waiter gave his utmost attention to nearby tables but not to us. He never said a word to us except for a short “Thank You” when dropping the tab at our table, never recommended anything on their menu, and never told us any specials they had. To the tables across from us, he spent at least 5 minutes chit-chatting with the other patrons. Because of this, we quickly finished our food and left highly disappointed due to a high-cost meal and the worst service we received in a while. Maybe we are spoiled in the Bay Area where waiters and waitresses are mostly friendly. I definitely had a much better experience at Carmine’s the first time a few years back.
Grand Lux Cafe
To rebound from our terrible dining experience earlier at Carmine’s, we decided to have a late night snack / dessert at Grand Lux Cafe which was located conveniently across the street from our hotel. From the reviews we had read online, this place had excellent dessert, particularly their Molten Chocolate Cake. We walked in pretty late around 11pm but we still had to wait 20 minutes before getting a table. Upon walking in, we noticed that the decor was extremely similar to the styles of The Cheesecake Factory. A quick Google search on my smartphone told me that this place was owned by them.
Right when we were seated, we were greeted by our waiter, who was very nice and took the time to explain specials on the menu, and other things which made us happy to find that they cared for their customer service. We immediately ordered their Molten Chocolate Cake since it’s made in house and takes about 20 minutes to bake. We also got a Strawberry Cheesecake, a Cafe Mocha, and a Spinach and Artichoke dip to snack on while we waited for our sweet tooth delights.
I’ve had better from the appetizer as the dip wasn’t very creamy and rich as I’d expected. This is a dish our group normally orders when we go out to eat and the dip at Grand Lux Cafe didn’t compare to the other places we had. Although it was only ok, we still managed to finish the large portion they served us.
By this point, the dessert had come out and the display of the Molten Chocolate Cake was absolutely stunning.
I quickly broke into the chocolate cake and hot chocolate liquid gushed out, spewing everywhere like a broken fire hydrant. The cake seriously lived up to it’s hype from the online reviews I had read prior. It is the ultimate hot / cold combination dessert that has ever been invented by mankind. The piping hot chocolate fudge inside combined with the ice cold vanilla ice cream creates a one of a kind super-rich indulgence. Some people don’t like chocolate desserts due to it’s sweetness, but I am one of those who love it. This dessert is easily listed on the top 10 desserts I’ve had in my life.
I can’t comment much on the Strawberry Cheesecake because I ruined my taste buds by eating the sweeter Molten Chocolate Cake first and then trying the less sweet cheesecake. So I went back to finishing every last drop of chocolate left from the chocolate cake.
Overall, today was a successful eating day, visiting 4 restaurants and sampling the specialties each had to offer. I can’t wait for what tomorrow has in store!