Sunday, June 5, 2011

finding chicago

i flipping loved chicago. i loved chicago more than new york city (no need to pause for reaction here.) i loved how clean the streets were, i loved how it seems fast pace but it's really laid back and most of all, i loved how incredibly friendly everyone was. talk about a city. i loved chicago so much that i'm about to give 'finding cupcakes' a new home there.

i really tried to keep this post as short and sweet as possible by just giving you the lowdown on where we went and why it was awesome - remember, i like to leave out places that weren't too great since it's not my intention to be a harsh critic. one area i struggle to keep it short is telling you who i had the pleasure of enjoying my adventure with. although i have included my sister shafia in plenty of posts before, this trip was our very first together just the two of us. having already lived there herself over a year ago, shaf's very kind and generous friends kevin and mike let us stay at their unbelievably nice apartment in river walk - with a view of the city's skyline that left a permanent 'jaw-dropping' expression on my face.

my sister and i galavanted the city for three days and there was no stopping us. days started at bars, nights ended at bars and the in between was better than any great sandwich could even boast - ingredients like asking locals where the sears tower was, shaf wimpering like a little kid at the skydeck, asking locals where we could 'find cupcakes', hitting my head underneath the bean while waiting for the rain to stop and then walking right into mud in wedges, trying to find one restaurant and ending up at a speakeasy bar... each unique moment, we just laughed out loud and lived in the present.  i don't know how others feel about their younger siblings but as i get older, i truly fall more in love shafia and can't help but feel blessed that someone as courageous, charming and endearing is my very own little sister.

... an 'fc' fyi: it's all about the neighborhoods in chicago, hence the neighborhood name after each place...

public house 
river north

all about the beer here but with a food menu like theirs (in a bounded book), you can skip the brewskis and still love it. i ordered one of their mussel bowls - the lemongrass ponzu: steamed mussels in a bountiful bowl of lemongrass broth, ponzu butter, kimchi, honey-anise bacon and thai basil served alongside a rustic piece of sourdough bread. you know the drill, dip the bread in the broth aaand insert sound that reminds you of why comfort food is the best. the components of the bowl were magical and made the mussel eating all the more enjoyable. i wasn't thrilled when shaf ordered their pulled chicken salad but the light plate shut me up - dates, avocado, goat cheese, apple, walnuts, etc, etc... a little honey-cilantro vinaigrette and public house scores. they've got flatbreads, an array of mac & cheeses, sandwiches, ribs - the list goes on. day one was off to a delicious start.

elephant & castle
magnificent mile

a good ol' british pub, with three locations in chicago, serving all the comforts one would hope for in this sort of english establishment. we were on a james & ginger binge but did annoy the bartender to let us try samples of their daily beers that i honestly can't remember what they were (bad blogger, bad!) however, after asking our bartender, we were able to find out two restaurants that he said are loved by the locals - big star and girl and the goat - which we fortunately did on our last day and hence the plug for elephant & castle. kapeesh.

hub 51
river north

got here around the time happy hour was ending but the place was packed. we met up with two of shaf's delightful friends, amish and jared, to continue the james & gingering (i'm sorry liver.) the boys ordered chicken nachos and sushi from the extremely diverse menu also offering tacos, lots of seafood dishes and  fun salad and sandwich choices. definitely a lot of energy at hub which was matched by our great company. i loved the house rules on their menu such as "guys, no tank tops. trust us, we're doing you a favor" and "it's too soon to bring you home to mom. try her carrot cake instead."

potbelly sandwich shop
mucho locations around chicago

okay - shafia would not stop talking about this place. i remember when she was living in chicago and would message me saying, "i just ate at potbelly again - it's amazing!" so it was inevitable that we were going to eat here during my trip. sandwich was great but i loved the concept a lot more. walked in during lunch rush, long line of hungry customers, chick playing guitar and singing on the second story... very scrappy decor but that's a total compliment. turns out the founder's first store was actually an antique shop and out of a whim they started making sandwiches... thirty years later they are rolling in dough or wheat bread - whatever. everything is made to order and the line goes quick - shaf went turkey and i went chicken cheddar. i happily finished my toasty sandwich and my beautiful little sister got her potbelly fix.

mucho locations around chicago

our chicago galavanting even included a round or two of shopping, the most notable at a shop called akira. we were in their shoe store but they also offer clothes for men and women. very eclectic vibe - i was in awe of their shoes... ranging from reasonable to "whoa, definitely can't afford that" but all beautiful in their own right.

lou malnati's pizzeria 
mucho locations in chicago

i would have gotten slapped silly if i didn't try deep dish pizza in chicago. so i tried it and it was wonderful but i think pizza was always meant to be thin, no? regardless, lou malnati's was a really fun place to be. i always prefer to eat at the bar because the bartenders treat you the best and i just prefer the dining experience that way. since shafia wasn't having pizza, i ordered a wee little baby six inch size pie but the ingredients made up for the size. the bartender said i had to get the 'malnati chicago classic', which is where the pie is made with sausage, some extra cheese and the necessary tomato sauce. like i said it was wonderful, especially the buttery crust and i'm glad i got that bad boy off the bucket list.

violet hour
wicker park

we accidentally stumbled upon this place. our original plans were to go to big star but as we got out of the cab, a random dude told us it was closed but mumbled we should try "that place" - pointing to what was a red wall, which someone happened to walk out of and in shafia and i went. turns out we were in one of the most raved about places in chicago - a speakeasy bar that makes cocktails for you to talk about days after. you have to wait until you're seated since they have a very strict rule on no standing inside. the interior is dark, adorned with chandeliers, candles and a whole lot of whispering. we were lucky to get seated at the bar and enjoyed watching the mixologists make fancy drinks for guests, while (unbeknownst to us) we went in our plain drink of choice. it took a good hour until we realized it's all about their specialty drinks such as the 'juliet and romeo' and 'the willing hostage' - gin cocktails with highlights like rose water and cynar. we then found out big star was owned by same people as violet hour and was definitely open (and right across the street.) violet hour was awesome but it was time for some food.

big star
wicker park

i wish more places like this existed. they've got a crazy whiskey menu (some from boutique distilleries) and even serve a different $3 whiskey shot everyday. followed by tons of beer, tequila and outstanding food... like the organic, sustainable kind. the whole idea behind big star was an ode to the 30's and 40's when the working class were migrating west towards california and small spots were opening that had a 'screw you' attitude to society... emphasis on struggling, drinking and trying to make sense of everything. besides the love of drinking and food, big star is also all about infusing music in the culture of the restaurant... sort of like a mix of hipster meets western. i tried the 'tacos al pastor' - spit roasted pork shoulder, grilled onions, pineapples, cilantro - and the 'tacos de pescado' - beer battered tilapia, chipotle mayo, cabbage, cilantro. amazing - no need to explain how each ingredient complimented each other... just simply fantastic. whiskey and tacos?! yes and please, more. our friend rummi joined us for an endless round of drinking. the night was true grit at its best... har har har (no, but it really was.)

*courtesy of

girl and the goat
west side

i guess you can say that i saved the best for last. top chef's very own stephanie izard is behind this exquisite (i love any opportunity to use that word) restaurant. there's lots of goat to be had here and all served in the best manner. we were told before going here that the wait can be long, no kidding two hours in but they clearly get away with it because everyone falls in love with the food. this place is for food lovers and our sleeves were rolled. we started with the chickpea fritters - topped with a terrific romesco, hummus and sesame combination  & the pan fried shishito peppers (beware, it's on the salty side as it's accompanied with lots of parmesan and miso) but we were already singing praises.

shaf got the fried soft shell crab served with a delicious chili-lime and pickled ramps medley. i ordered the wood oven roasted pig face, served with a sunny side egg that was drizzled with a magnificent tamarind sauce and if that wasn't enough, they were kindly showered with potato stix. shaf's dish was yum, my dish was sinfully yum. dessert was dropped off from heaven in the form of a ridiculous concoction of shortcake, lemon gelato, rhubarb and lemon, panna cotta and graham crackers. another big star moment where it's not even important why those key components made it semi-orgasmic... they just did and that's all you really need to know. we were smiling... alongside everyone else in the packed restaurant.

did i mention that i flipping love chicago?!