I may be a little biased, but I think Chicago is one of the best food cities in the world. That’s right, I said the WORLD. While I’ve totally become dependent on GrubHub.com to help me expand my culinary options, I have yet to discover all the wonderful gastronomic experiences the city has to offer. So recently, I decided to embark on a tasting and cultural walking tour offered by Chicago Food Planet. The company offers two, three-hour-long food tours.
You can eat your way through the beautiful Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park neighborhoods with their signature Near North Food Tour ($42, food included), or discover the artists’ colony that evolved into a hidden foodie paradise on the Bucktown/Wicker Park Food Tour ($42, food included).
While the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhoods have always been my favorite destination spots in the city for live music and bumping bar scene, in recent years the area has experienced a burst of new retail shops and restaurants. My friends and I opted to go on the Bucktown/Wicker Park food tour to discover some of the new eateries that have integrated into the eclectic area and revisit some of the old staples that never seem to disappoint.
1. George’s Hot Dogs
1876 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL
Traditional Hot Dog Stand
Established in 1948, this quick-serve eatery has had a few extra decades to perfect its craft. George’s Hot Dogs earned the coveted title of “Best Hot Dog” in 2008 — beating out the likes of popular joints like Hot Doug’s. After more than 60 years in business, George and his wife Mary are still behind the counter grilling up and serving their popular hot dogs.
George’s special? The Chicago style hot dog of course. This Chi-town special comes with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish (usually a dyed neon green variety called “Nuclear Relish”), a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. It’s considered sacreligious to add ketchup to your Chicago style dog — which I ended up doing despite knowing this tidbit. I guess there’s special place in hot dog hell for me.
2. Hot Chocolate
1747 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL
Restaurant and Dessert Bar
Established in 2004, Hot Chocolate offers casual lunches, leisurely weekend brunches, a savory dinner menu and late night desserts.
Pastry creator and owner, Mindy Segal, specializes in contemporary American cuisine at Hot Chocolate. But it’s her signature sweets that have foodies swarming the joint. Segal won the Jean Banchet award for Best Celebrity pastry chef in Chicago, Chicago Magazine’s pastry chef of the year, and the James Beard Foundation 2007 nomination for outstanding pastry chef in the country.
It was a balmy 85 degrees out the day of our food tour, so rather than indulge in a cup of hot chocolate, we had our drinks iced. Calling it the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had is an understatement. The drink comprised of milk chocolate with a touch of dark chocolate and a hint of caramel. And the homemade squared marshmallows served with the beverage, was the most amazing gooey sweetness to melt in my mouth.
3. The Goddess & Grocer
1646 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL
Gourmet Foods & Catering
Established in 2004, this boutique grocery store serves up products from local distributors and vendors; as well as deli sandwiches made to order, readymade salads, a fresh salad bar, sliced deli meats and cheeses, artisanal cheeses, rotisserie chicken and ribs, and hot ready to eat meals.
Goddess & Grocer owner Debbie Sharpe is also the proprietor of Feast restaurant. In a past life, Sharpe use to keep rock gods like the Rolling Stones well fed while on their tours.
4. Piece Brewery and Pizzeria
1927 W. North Ave., Chicago, IL
Pizzeria and Brewery
Established in 2001, unlike most pizza joints in the city, this eatery isn’t known for its Chicago style pizza. Piece unites classic New Haven-style thin crust pizza with award-winning microbrews at its spacious loft style restaurant. The owners transformed the space from a former roofing company garage into a casual pizzeria, complete with a skylight ceiling and sunken lounge area.
I’m a huge fan of thin crust pizza, so this place was right up my palate. We sampled the White pizza, which was a plain crust, brushed with olive oil, diced garlic and topped with mozzarella cheese.
5. Sultan’s Market
2057 W. North Ave., Chicago, IL
Middle Eastern Deli/store
When Sultan’s Market first opened its doors in 1985, the restaurant only offered fast food staples such as burgers, hot dogs and fries on its menu. It wasn’t until the owner decided to bring in a batch of her homemade hummus and sell it as a special, did she realize the neighborhood was open to trying some Middle Eastern flavors. The batch of hummus sold out before the end of the day.
The fresh, inexpensive falafel sandwiches ($3.75) at Sultan’s Market have drawn a loyal following from vegetarians near and far. But the low cost and generous portions have also attracted local hipsters and families alike to the Middle Eastern deli.
I’ve eaten my fair share of falafel sandwiches since moving here to Chicago, but Sultan’s Market ranks on my list of top five eateries when it comes to Middle Eastern food. The falafel is served in a warm pita lined with hummus, and stuffed with Jerusalem salad and tomatoes. The falafel itself was super moist and had the perfect blend of garlic, cumin, and coriander spices — making every bite, pure awesomeness.
1537 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL
Ice Cream/Sorbet/Yogurt Café
While this one-of-a-kind ice cream shop just opened its doors this past March, it didn’t take long for it to win the hearts and palates of ice cream aficionados around the city. On the weekends, you can expect an assembly line of people patiently waiting to order up their inventive concoctions.
At iCream you can custom create your own ice cream, sorbet or yogurt. But unlike other create-your-own ice cream shops, you won’t find premade tubs of ice cream or soft serve machines. Using liquid nitrogen and commercial mixers, the ice cream is created fresh right before your eyes. Co-founder Cora Shaw said she got the idea to use the liquid nitrogen after watching a cooking show on television. Cora decided to develop her business plan in one of her classes at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — testing out different flavors on her classmates.
If you don’t feel inventive, you can also order from a suggestive list of flavor recommendations and recipes. We tried the “That Guy from Florida” mix. The recipe confirms my theory that if you add Nutella to anything, you can’t go wrong.