Time-tested Chicago eats

“Excuse me, would you mind if I cut in front of you? My flight leaves in 10 minutes. Thank you so much. Excuse me, would you mind if I cut in front of you? My flight leaves in 10 minutes. Thank you so much.”

I repeated this breathless mantra in a mad dash through Midway desperately trying to make my flight home. Owing to the kindness of many, many strangers, I barreled through the security lines and ran down the terminal despite the weighty encumbrance of wearing flip flops, a heavy back pack, a generous slice of Chicago pizza in my belly, and not to mention whatever meals I ate over the weekend that had not made it through my digestive tract (TMI? Perhaps. Truth? Yes.) I got to the gate after the last boarding call in the nick of time, egged on by some rowdy travelers yelling “Run, that’s right, run!” as I sprinted past their brew pub table without being able to spare a moment to flip them the bird as a gesture of thanks for their encouragement.

The gate agent was waiting for just me and unceremoniously shut the gate door behind me as soon as he scanned my boarding pass and hustled me through. My reward for all this was a non-stop 4.5hr flight home, my body snugly sandwiched between a husky teenager overflowing into my seat and his normal-sized but equally taciturn father in the very last row (non-reclining seats) of a completely full Southwest flight.

How did this heart racing, edge of your seat suspense of a scene come about? I’ll tell you right after I collect my ragged breath…momentito por favor.

Well, it was the result of a concerted effort by some (one in particular) determined friends to convince me to move to Chicago. What better way to plead their case than by plying me with some classic bites that the windy city is known for?

Two things come to mind when I think of an edible Chicago: deep dish pizza and the Chicago style hot dog. I’ve been told Italian beef and all that jazz is good but with a limited number of meals available, I only wanted the two.  The quest for each turned out to be an exercise in patience and fortitude.

First up, hot dogs. More than just encased mystery meat of unnatural coloring slapped on a bun, the Chicago style dog is loaded with an excess of condiments, none of which include ketchup. My friend Bacon told me to check out Hot Doug’s in the northwest side of Chicago for some good dogs and duck fat fries.  Duck fat fries? I did a double take. Yes. Potatoes fried in rendered duck fat, only available on Fridays and Saturdays. She might have also mentioned that the wait was worse than being on hold with BofA’s customer service but I think that escaped me. You had me at duck fat. You really did.

Since we were staying in downtown, Nutmeg and I hitched the Blue Line to Belmont which was the closest stop to Hot Doug’s and proceeded to walk the rest of the way. The burbs there are completely different from the sharp and touristy downtown. It was almost like walking in LA (as if people actually walk in LA) complete with smelly freeway underpasses and a hot, unrelenting sun. The trip was exacerbated by the fact that it was already afternoon and I still had not eaten anything all day. We made our way from the station to California street and saw the store sign as we turned the corner. We eagerly walked towards it thinking that a meal might be close at hand. No, because the small group of people at the door was really just the head of the line. The really long line. The long line that snaked around the corner and down the block, seemingly as lengthy as an afternoon shadow cast by Yao Ming. We asked around, wait would be at least 1.5 hrs and the store closed at 4pm. It was 3pm and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that I might be half an hour short of time.

I would venture to guess that the crowd was 25% locals and 75% tourists because you know, the locals are working at that hour still.  But we were there and we weren’t even the last in line so we figured we might as well give it a try and wait it out. Perhaps Doug would take pity on us. The line shuffled slowly and those of us in the back were worried that our efforts would be for naught.  But wait we did, as I was determined to make it to the door by 4pm, reasoning that if I could wedge my foot in the door as they were closing up shop, they would have to feed me. Kind of like the wet foot dry foot policy we have regarding Cuba.

By 4:10, I was close to the door and no staff had shown up to close it. So in we went, eager with anticipation, but which we held in check for another half hour before making it to the front of the line, all the while perusing their basic menu. Some of the items were named after celebs similar to Pinks method.  But whereas Pinks is true and loyal,  Doug is fickle like a teenage lothario with way too many options for a prom date. Many items have been renamed several times. For example, the Keira Knightley was formerly called the Jennifer Garner and before that, the Britney Spears. In addition to their every day menu, they also had a special menu with some oddball dogs. I was tempted by the foie and sauternes duck sausage but the need for purity and authenticity bested me when I finally placed my order and I opted for a straight up Chicago style hot dog with radioactive green relish. And the duck fat fries.

Oh it was damn good and I’m not pronouncing this verdict by virtue of delirium from hunger and a 2 hr wait. The hot dog was great, everything in proportion and the dog slightly longer than the bun, the way I like it. And the fries. Don’t get me started on them. So crisp and hot. I couldn’t taste any duckiness but the texture was more than could be gotten from normal frying oil.

If Hot Doug’s was a test of patience, then getting deep dish pizza was an test of fortitude, that of our nerves to be specific. Bacon drove me to the airport and insisted on taking me to her bf’s favorite deep dish pizza place for lunch before my flight. Lou Malnati’s on the southwest side was the specific location but I hear there are others in the chain. This one was the closest to Midway. After some GPS mishaps, we got to Lou’s at around 12:55pm, keeping in mind my flight was at 2:20pm and we weren’t that close to the airport. I had timidly suggested to Harley that perhaps we could skip the pizza and just go the airport and the emphatic no I received in response was enough to silence me. You don’t mess with either of the Ma siblings. Those Taiwanese can get a little loco if they don’t get their way.

So we ordered a sausage, mushroom, and onion on their signature butter crust and waited nervously, checking both the ticking clock and Google maps for the route to the airport. The pizza arrived at 1:30. I admired the creation for a fleeting moment before devouring a slice. It was tasty. The crust was thin and the sauce was made from chunks of fresh tomatoes. I had thought all deep dish pizzas were leaden creations, dense, solid, and fatty. This deep dish was light yet flavorful. The crust was awesome and stood its own ground to the mass of ingredients piled on top.  I savored it for a few minutes and we ran out the door at 1:45pm.

And then traffic hit. Of course there would traffic.  We tried to be nonchalant about the impending dearth of time but with both seething road rage and hapless resignation on our minds (No guilt though. No guilt. The pizza was good) we inched our way to the airport. Bacon deposited me at the terminal at 2:05pm with only one word of adieu: “RUN!!!” and off I went, secure in the knowledge that my objectives in Chicago had been accomplished but less secure in the expectation that I would be able to get past security lines and down to the very end of concourse B because my flight would have to be departing from a gate at the furthest confines of the airport.  And the lines at the screeners would be intolerably long. Anything less daunting would not have lent much to the tortuous drama that a good story requires.

But you already know how the story ends. Would those nice folks at Midway been as accommodating if they knew that my quandary was caused by a deliciously buttery crust with layers of melty cheese and a stubbornness in refusing to forsake them? I’d like to think that they would have not only parted like the Red Sea to aid my quest but also cheered me on with pride (cue theme to Chariots of Fire) knowing that a slice of Chicago’s culinary gift to the world was worth any measure of sacrifice.

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3 responses to “Time-tested Chicago eats

  1. OMG I can’t believe you ended up in the last row…for 4.5 hours. Should’ve just stayed overnight, with me!

    BTW, when you blog about Alinea, can I be renamed as Bacon? Haha.

  2. What a great trip!!!

  3. Gawd, I love Chicago deep dish pizza…

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