As a food writer and restaurant critic, it’s important for me to know a bit about the restaurant and bar scenes in other major cities. A city’s food scene is an ecosystem. Restaurants provide meals but are fed in their own way by both longtime residents and the newly arrived. It’s an organism always under evaluation, and it is especially important for a critic to have an accurately calibrated sense of judgment. Traveling is one way to accomplish that.
I’ve made an annual trip to Chicago three years in a row. It’s an important food city that bears some similarity to Houston. This year, more than ever before, I have returned thinking that there is little in the way of cuisine that Chicago has that Houston doesn’t. Chicago's food scene has simply been nourished longer and is perhaps a little more polished.
The one huge element that Chicago has that Houston sorely lacks is an outstanding public transportation system. It’s so good that it makes me want to gnash my teeth, cry and go kick the nearest METRORail car (not that there’s ever actually one near me because that might be an indicator of an efficient rail system).
It’s as easy to explore some of the best places in Chicago as it is economical. Arrive at O’Hare International Airport and walk to the train terminal. Follow the signs marked “Trains to City.” Buy a $20 pass that is good for 72 hours. Take the Blue Line to the Central Loop area and check into a hotel. From there, go wherever your heart leads. Here are the Chicago restaurants and bars our hearts sent us to.
Little Goat Diner, 820 West Randolph
The Pink Line train goes straight from the Central Loop to the West Loop area, which is one of Chicago’s culinary epicenters. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Montrose, and the crowd is predominantly young adults in their twenties and thirties. That particular night, as we walked from the train stop to Randolph Street, the air smelled of warm chocolate brownies and browned butter. We never found the source, sadly, so we assumed there was a commercial bakery in the area.
Our intended destination was Au Cheval, but we arrived around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday to discover there was a three-hour wait. Fortunately, Au Cheval uses the Nowait app, so we got on the list. The Nowait app lets you see how many people are ahead of you waiting to get seated. (When we arrived, there were 49, and Au Cheval only seats around 60.)
We meandered down the street and killed some time at Little Goat Diner, the more casual follow-up act to award-winning chef Stephanie Izard’s restaurant Girl & The Goat next door. The diner was every bit as packed as Girl & The Goat was on our previous trip to Chicago, but we found a haven at the espresso counter of the adjacent bar and passed the time with cocktails and chili-cheese fries.
Texans have to remember to check their privilege at the door when it comes to eating chili in the North. There’s something amusing about fries topped with Cincinnati-style chili. It had beans, of course, and the seasoning was more about the cinnamon than any sort of heat. Still, it was a satisfying snack. We finished, walked around the area for a while, had a quick beer at Haymarket Pub & Brewery (crowded, and the beer was lackluster — not recommended) and returned to Au Cheval.
Au Cheval, 800 West Randolph
Why wait three hours for any restaurant? Well, there’s no telling when we’ll get to go back to Chicago. Second, a well-traveled friend said Au Cheval’s cheeseburger is “life-changing.” Third, Bon Appétit agrees, as the publication named it “best cheeseburger in America” in 2012.
I didn’t notice that the cheeseburger changed my life. I probably was too distracted by the cramped space with the tables placed entirely too close together. I had a backpack, which was a liability for not only me but for any server or fellow patron trying to get around me when we were in the front of the restaurant waiting to be seated. When we were led to our table, I had to pitch my laptop, purse and coat into my seat, turn sideways and then slide through the narrow space between the tables to sit down. As if all that weren’t enough, a lady at the neighboring table accidentally hit her cocktail coupe with the heavy water bottle, which sent glass shards and dust flying.
All that aside, every single dish we had was indeed excellent. Our “double” cheeseburger ended up having three patties and was topped with thick planks of bacon. Thick, warm slices of Texas toast were served alongside a fine dish of chopped chicken liver. Marrow bones were hunky and sizable, and while the beef cheek marmalade was a nice touch, it was too sweet to use much of it, nor did the marrow bones need the condiment. What they did need a bit more of, though, was coarse salt.
It was this meal, more than any other I’ve had in Chicago, that caused a realization of how far Houston’s culinary scene has come in the past few years. There was nothing I ate at Au Cheval that I could not get in Houston of similar character and quality. The burgers at Hunky Dory and Southern Goods, with their double patties and layers of good old-fashioned American cheese, are quite similar. The chopped chicken liver at Weights + Measures, served with Slow Dough bread, is every bit as rich and comforting as the dish at Au Cheval. The marrow bones at Hubble & Hudson are not only just as big but better seasoned, too.
Would I go back? Yes, but I’d do three things differently: I’d try to get in “line” ahead of my trip there with the Nowait app if possible, would go on a less-busy weeknight and would ask for a more comfortable table.
Dove’s Luncheonette, 1545 North Damen
The brisket-laced Burnt Ends hash at Dove’s Luncheonette was, hands down, our favorite breakfast in Chicago. The egg-topped potato chunks sported crispy, seared edges, and plenty of diced poblano was strewn in for peppery, vegetal flavor. It was so hearty that we sailed along easily, not needing to eat again until dinner.
There should be no shame about drinking at breakfast here, because the drink list fairly encourages it. That said, keeping it simple might be best. A friend declared the tepache, a fermented pineapple drink, the worst he’d ever had. On the other hand, I reveled with my new friends, the Tres Palomitas: a shot of Xicaru mezcal, a bit of sweet and spicy sangrita and a glass of Pacifico beer.
An urgent message arrived over social media: “Have the horchata pie!” It was from chef Adam Puskorius, who used to work just down the street from Dove's at Big Star. (By the way, his and Keith Doyle's own restaurant in midtown Houston, Stoked Tacos & Tequila, is now open.) Of course, the creamy, cinnamon-laced pie was terrific — just right without being too heavy.
If possible, get to Dove’s as soon as it opens, as we did. By the time we finished breakfast, the place was packed with a line of hungry patrons waiting.
Topolobampo, 445 North Clark
Chef Rick Bayless’s jewel of a tasting-menu restaurant is nestled inside Frontera Grill. This was the one dining visit truly planned for our trip, and it did not disappoint. (Bayless, by the way, recently dropped by The Pastry War in Houston and is about to open his own mezcal- and tequila-focused Leña Brava in Chicago.)
There are two sides to the menu. The left is the “choose your own adventure” side. Diners can select the number of total courses and which dishes they’d like, with or without wine pairings. The right side is a set, seven-course tasting menu, the theme of which changes every month. The theme on our visit, “Mexico City 1491,” seemed especially challenging for the cooking staff. All foods were prepared without using any ingredients that had not been available before the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. That meant no lime, beef, pork, cilantro or spices that would later be imported from across the ocean and adopted by Mexicans, such as black pepper.
Phil Vettel, the restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune, loved the 1491 menu from a few years ago, so we fearlessly dived in — although we did skip the $90 wine pairing option (that would have been $180 for two plus tax and tip) and selected our own cocktails and wine. That move saved us about $100.
The tasting menu itself cost $110 plus tax and tip per person, and the only regret we had was that the experience ended all too soon. That was not because it was rushed; the meal took hours. It was just that we never wanted it to end.
The full menu is available online, but our most fun moment was disassembling every potential meat-filled piece of Pacific langostino in sunflower seed and guajillo chile “molito” (kind of a rustic mole sauce). “Good job,” said our server. I’m not sure if he was actually proud or just amused at our persistence. Every morsel of the sweet shellfish meat was totally worth the effort.
Ramen Misoya, 213 East Ohio
“Spring” in Chicago can be much colder than it is in Houston. During our first two days, it was 45 degrees and rainy. As a result, I woke up on Sunday morning craving ramen for breakfast. Ramen Misoya opens at 11 a.m. We stopped at the Millennium Park location of Intelligentsia Coffee (53 East Randolph) for coffee and mochas before riding the Red Line most of the way to the shop’s location near the Magnificent Mile.
I’m not going to say Ramen Misoya's tonkotsu was the “best” I’ve ever had. (So far, that honor is a tossup between Tiger Den right here in Houston as well as Momufuku Noodle Bar and Ippudo on New York’s West Side. I can’t even choose between them as there’s no way to do a side-by-side tasting.) With its oily, peppery sheen and fairly rich broth, though, Ramen Misoya’s version certainly did hit the spot. I wish the interior of the egg had not been cold, though.
Lost Lake, 3154 West Diversey
What’s better than exploring a city? Exploring it with fun, adventurous friends from your hometown. Lost Lake is a great gathering place.
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There’s a Houston connection to Lost Lake, as the Anvil Bar & Refuge team ran the place for a week with the creative Texas Tiki Disco theme while the home team was out of town for some extensive training in rum. Shortly afterward, a fire damaged the kitchen area at Lost Lake. The bar has since been repaired and reopened.
The staff is every bit as congenial and accommodating as one could ever want, and it wasn’t too long before our group of seven were settled in drinking the most outrageous-looking cocktails I’ve ever seen in my life. There were drinks for two or four people served in big copper pineapples. The straws for the group cocktails were three feet long, and the drinks were decked out with paper flamingos, bananas carved to look like dolphins and Lost Lake swizzle sticks, which made perfect souvenirs.
It was a terrific time. Houstonians should know that our closest equivalent to Lost Lake is Lei Low, a Tiki bar at 6412 North Main. One thing both bars have in common: remarkably nondescript storefronts, especially considering the Polynesian interior designs.
All of that only covers two days of our four-day sojourn: from 5:30 p.m. on Friday night until 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. There are an amazing number of worthy places to see in Chicago, and the approximately two-and-a-half-hour flight from Houston is a pretty short and fairly economical ride when reserved far enough in advance. United Airlines has hubs in both Houston and Chicago, so its fares are usually quite reasonable and often on sale. Chicago is an incredibly worthy destination for foodies, and those from Houston will not only find new experiences but might come away with a great sense of pride in their own city as a culinary destination as well.