Eating Our Way Through Chicago

We didn’t do tons of planning for our vacation, but we knew our first priority, food-wise. Rick Bayless. I’ve mentioned before that we are big fans of his cookbooks, even though we haven’t caught many of his shows. And he’s from Chicago, with a bunch of restaurants there. Of course, by the time I called for reservations any time, ever, none were available, and we were scared off by Yelp reviewers talking about massive lines at Frontera (in retrospect we should have checked in out ourselves, but that’s okay), so we headed to XOCO (SHO-koh), which is sort of his demi-fast-food restaurant. Think a bit nicer than Panera, with alcohol. We walked there, and it was one of those walks on vacation with your kids that starts to feel a little bit like a death march. It didn’t help that neither Cute W nor I had been in Chicago for more than 20 years, so there was that low-level anxiety that we wouldn’t actually find the restaurant or that we would and there would be some other wrench in the works.

When we arrived, we were both delighted and discombobulated, so while I fussed over the girls, Cute W tried to get oriented with the ordering and menus, and he was helped along by two staff members by the front door. One of whom was Rick Bayless himself! I did a double take as Cute W shook his hand, and by the time we’d caught the girls up on the excitement and ordered our food, he’s disappeared, presumably to one of his many other businesses. But seriously, dude, what are the odds?

M was thrilled with her Carnitas Meal-in-a-Bowl-Caldos choice (although she left the big pile of greens mostly to Cute W and me):


J was a bit more hesitant, but she got along all right. Honestly, my single favorite item was the cucumber limeade. Yum. In fact, I just went to look for the recipe, and I didn’t find it, but I DID find a recipe for a cucumber lime margarita, so that will be the next drink I make myself. In fact, I’m pretty much restraining myself because we have all the ingredients in the house right this minute and the only thing that’s holding me back is that it includes simple syrup and it’s already 11 pm, which, in my book, is too late to turn on the stove.

Oh! And everyone else’s favorite, I think was the churros and authentic chocolate.


Our next dinner on Thursday was pizza. Bcause we were in Chicago and it had to be done. But it was also the perfect choice because we’d had an unsatisfying museum snack bar lunch, and J had been iffy on the Mexican offerings the night before. So I really wanted something that was yummy and completely stress-free.


We were excited to discover that there was a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria not too far from our hotel. The girls and I had been running around all day and we were all pretty exhausted, so a short walk was all we could manage. The food was delicious and easy. Mission accomplished.

I ordered “The Lou” with spinach, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, and three cheeses. Yum.


Even though Cute W was in a conference for most of Friday, he’d already scoped out Yelp for yummy meal choices for us. For breakfast we went to the Little Branch Cafe, which was perfectly situated along our walk to the Shedd Aquarium. This was in a tucked-away little spot, in the first floor of a very residential cul-de-sac. As you know, I have absolutely no sense of direction and I was navigating through the city without human-compass Cute W, so I was just about to hyperventilate–because it looked like we’d absolutely taken a wrong turn–when M, the chip off the ol’ block, spotted the place. I love that girl! This was honestly one of our most delicious meals of the trip. M ordered the (less photogenic) breakfast burrito while J went for the French toast (they’re known for their stuffed French toast, but that sounded too exotic for J):


And I had the quiche of the day with a glorious arugula salad. Who likes a salad for breakfast? I do!


The girls and I had discussed many possible activities and destinations for our trip. Both of them have a suburbanite’s fascination with public transportation. (Come to think of it, I suppose many surburbanites have a horror of public transportation, but my girls both fall into the “fascinated” camp), so after the aquarium we took a train to U. B. Dogs for hot dogs. Getting there was rather an adventure, and I was fortunate to find a tremendously patient and friendly and–did I say patient?–CTA employee to talk me through getting all of us onto the trains with a transfer. Mildly humiliating, and at least once I had to tell her that if I were getting a Metrocard in NYC I’d be completely competent. But the girls were thrilled and we didn’t have too much walking ’til we hit the dogs.

In spite of the fact that we had gone all the way there to experience hot dogs, J wanted an Italian sausage. With a nod to my heritage, I went with the Maxwell Polish (lower left), which had peppers, grilled onions, and mustard. M, meanwhile, ordered a naked dog, knowing that she could get her hands on some ketchup. She’d seen the signs at various vendors which say, “It is considered bad manners and harmful to your taste buds to put ketchup on your hot dog within the city limits of Chicago,” and since we girls all usually like ketchup on our hot dogs, M, for one was going to have it. In fact, she’d refuse a hot dog without ketchup, just out of spite, even  J avoided the issue and I went the “when in Rome” route.


The fries were tasty, especially with the dipping sauce. The only bummer was that the place itself was hot, crowded, and greasy enough that it was tough to complete the meal without just wishing that it were done so we could all take a shower. They deliver, and if I had to do it again and I’d get a delivery to a park so that I could eat my dog in some fresh air.

On the way out of town on Saturday morning, we made a stop at Do-Rite Donuts.


We ordered way too many donuts, but when will we get a chance to go again? Cute W’s favorite was the Pistachio-Meyer Lemon. The donuts themselves were cake donuts, so a bit denser than others out there. Honestly? I can generally pass up a donut? Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t tempt me at all, and I can even resist Krispy Kreme, unless they’re 1) warm or 2) covered in chocolate. We doubled up on the basic glazed and chocolate-covered donuts figuring that they’d be universally popular, but this turned out to be a miscalculation. They were good, but for J and I, donut nirvana was available in the Boston Creme Pie and Toasted Coconut Bar donuts. Holy sugar they were delicious. In an otherwordly, perhaps-they-have-magic-powers kind of way. And then of course we were all sharing around everything, so once everyone had tasted a bite of each, there were complicated negotiations. J and I had the same favorites, and because I am a giving, kind, and wonderful mother, I held back so that she’d have plenty. And then she wanted to finish later, and I still held back. And time passed, and the donuts became hard and lost their magic. And I continue to mourn the loss of those precious bites. Sometimes our kids totally don’t deserve us.


  1. Erin T

    I have been known to make simple syrup in the microwave. Probably not proper, but it works in a pinch.

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