Tag: Chicago (page 2 of 3)

The Glass Ledges At Skydeck Chicago: A Review

I was provided with the opportunity to tour the Skydeck Chicago before hours with an optional audio tour device and  participate a photo session to facilitate my review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

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I’m typically afraid of heights, but did just fine at the Skydeck Chicago observation deck located in the Willis Tower (also referred to as the Sears Tower).

This trip to Chicago along with seven North Iowa Bloggers in partnership with the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce commemorated my sixth visit. During grade school, I first visited Chicago with my family and have faint memories of the Willis Tower. I was enamoured with the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and wanted to lean against the observation deck windows just like he and his friends did. You can find a guide to the Chicago locations featured in the film here here. Back then, the glass ledges didn’t exist, for they were built in 2009. You can just make them out gazing at the building from a distance.

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Currently, the Willis Tower is the highest observation deck open to the public in the United States and receives more visitors than the Hancock. It’s the eighth tallest building in the world, tallest building in Chicago, and home to the American Airlines corporate headquarters. According to this recent New York Times article, the Blackstone Group recently purchased the Willis Tower in March 2015 for $1.3 billion. The Blackstone Group’s Global Head actually grew up in the Highland Park area of Chicago. This article notes that the building sits 20% vacant and adds that the Blackstone Group plans to spend $150 million to renovate the tower’s retail space and Skydeck.

The John Hancock Building ranks as Chicago’s fourth tallest and their observation deck is now known as 360° Chicago. It looks like the Hancock is remodeling and has added some sort of tilting glass observation box feature. Jake and I visited the Hancock in 2010 before this was added. The Hancock also features a cafe and bar on the observatory floor and a restaurant called the Signature Room on the 95th floor.

The Skydeck staff invited us to visit before their official opening hour on a Friday. The weather became stormy in the afternoon, but we enjoyed a beautiful morning. Since there was no one in line, we quickly moved through security and took the elevator up to the 103rd floor. Our ears popped.

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Our reflection on the elevator’s ceiling.

In between the front entrance and elevator to the Skydeck, we walked by what appeared to be exhibits and theater presentation people could view as they waited in line. I’m guessing that the line can grow rather long, hence the waiting space and option to purchase a FASTPASS.

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We took advantage of the empty Skydeck by admiring all of the views and stepping onto the ledges. I found the glass ledges less scary than I had anticipated.

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Loni, Donna & I playing on the ledge. Don’t look down!

The glass booths provided fun places to take photos. Many selfies were taken.

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Fun with selfie sticks.

A photo station run by a staff member is located in one of the glass ledges. The photographer this morning provided our group with a photo session.

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Image courtesy of Skydeck Chicago

Soon after we finished taking photos, a huge group of grade schoolers entered the SkyDeck. I’m guessing the Willis is a popular destination for field trips. I learned that the Victoria’s Secret Pink apparel line is still a thing!

Let’s talk pricing: A regular adult pass costs $19.50 and a FASTPASS, which allows guests to bypass the exhibits and theater presentation, costs $45. There’s also a day/night ticket package and reduced ticket pricing for children ages 3-11, except for FASTPASSES. Children under three receive free admission. For an additional $5.50, you can purchase an audio tour device that looks like an old school flip phone. One side of the device displays pictures and text. The audio tour provides some Chicago history and helps you identify 20 locations from the Skydeck.

Finally, you’ll find nice bathrooms and a gift shop located on the Skydeck and a larger gift shop upon exiting.

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All in all, I enjoyed my time on the Skydeck, despite my fear of heights. When I travel on my own, I usually stay close to the ground, but if observation decks are your thing and you want to walk in the foot steps of Ferris Bueller, check out the glass ledges at the Willis. In case you’re curious, the Skydeck and Hancock observation decks are similarly priced. Before you visit the Skydeck, keep in mind that it’s a popular tourist attraction. Depending on when you visit and whether many school groups are present, anticipate possibly waiting in line for a while before reaching the elevator to the top. We were very lucky to visit before the opening hour and have the whole Skydeck to ourselves.

Thank you Skydeck Chicago for your generosity and warm welcome. 

Occasionally JeniEats.com receives free products for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and were not influenced by any form of compensation. This disclosure is done in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission 10 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

I Wanna Eat Croissants In This Club: Sheraton Chicago Review

I was provided with a hotel stay at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers to facilitate my review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

We stayed at the Sheraton Chicago and spent a lot of time in their Club. Our clubbing experience mostly involved quietly drinking sodas and eating granola bars.

Sheraton provided our group with two rooms connected by a door, each with two queen beds and a bathroom and access to the Club Lounge, hence all of the club references.

We flew into the O’Hare airport and took the train to the hotel’s closest stop. From the train stop, we walked for about 10-15 minutes through downtown Chicago. Parking in Chicago can be difficult, especially in downtown Chicago. If you are driving to Chicago and want to stay in a downtown hotel, expect to budget anywhere from $40-$60 a day for parking. Really, it’s easiest not to have a car if you want to stay downtown. Our train tickets cost $5 from the airport to the hotel and about $2.50 vice versa. O’Hare and the train stop closest to the Sheridan are on opposite ends of the line, but it’s an easy 30-minute ride. There are lots of stops, but the ride goes by quickly. We noticed a lot of people carrying luggage through the downtown area, so don’t feel sheepish about doing so.

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The hotel is massive and the lobby is attractive. You’ll find many sitting areas, big glass containers of fruit-infused water, and flowers. At least two conferences occurred in the hotel during our stay.

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I’m one of those people who is OK with my own filth, but totally freaked out by other people’s. But in all honesty, I found the hotel to be very clean. Obviously, the hotel staff was aware they were hosting bloggers, but I didn’t notice anything untidy from the lobby bathroom to the elevators.

Here’s the view from our room:

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And glimpses of our bedrooms and bathrooms:

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Who doesn’t love artwork above the toilet?

As a word of caution, your hotel room may contain a motion-activated tray of tempting la cart snacks. This little jar of cookies was so cute that I grabbed it after noticing the sign that said guests are charged for snacks lifted from the tray. If you or your child accidentally picked up one of the snacks, you could try talking to the staff like we did. I’m sure this happens all of the time.

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We stayed at the Sheraton for one night. One of our trip coordinators has a connection with the hotel who surprised us with some evening snacks. I don’t turn down free champagne.

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We spent a lot of time in the Club Lounge located at the 33rd Floor.

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The Club Lounge is a beautiful space equipped with comfortable furniture, granola bars and fruit, chilled sodas and bottled water, wifi, pool tables, televisions, coffee and espresso. According to the website, the lounge also provides business travelers with meeting space and some office supplies. The view’s nice too.

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Guests with Club Lounge access are invited to enjoy a continental breakfast and evening appetizers. We caught the last half of the appetizer hour on Thursday evening and found chips and salsa, mini egg rolls, beef skewers, and cheese platters. I think guests can order beer, wine, and cocktails from the server for an additional charge. If you want to catch the food at its freshest from the kitchen, arrive near the beginning.

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The lounge breakfast included pastries, fruit, granola & greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, bagels (toaster provided), and a steaming kettle of hot oatmeal. I especially liked the coffee, yogurt and granola & mini croissants.

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I loved how these croissants tasted like real butter and had some lacquer on the outside. I’m experiencing croissant withdrawal and ate my fair share.

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Overall, I found breakfast thoughtful and adequate. If you have Club Lounge access, you’d be wise to grab breakfast here. The evening appetizers are pretty substantial and could provide a light meal.

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So how does one get Club Lounge access? It appears the Sheraton Chicago provides a lounge access upgrade with room reservations. I searched for reservations on a random June weeknight for a similar room with Club Lounge access and found it cost about $395 prepaid & $418/night with a flexible reservation. The Club Lounge access upgrade might cost about $44 more per day. This upgrade could be worth it for those sharing a room with at least one additional person who plan to take advantage of all of the food options, and business travelers. Starwood Preferred Guests also get free club access if they are platinum members (meaning they booked 25 stays in a calendar year).

Keep in mind that if you are not a Starwood Hotels & Resorts preferred guest, internet is not included in your room rate and will cost an extra $15-19 per day. As far as I can tell, you can receive the free internet as a preferred guest by registering online and booking your room through their website or app.

In conclusion, I enjoyed my stay at the Sheraton Chicago and can’t describe anything I didn’t like. Obviously, the hotel was expecting bloggers. The space was beautiful, staff greeted us warmly, and treated us to perks we weren’t expecting like Club Lounge Access and champagne.

The only drawbacks I can think to mention are that the trays of snacks in your room are motion-activated and that the hotel could be cost prohibitive to travelers who can’t or don’t wish to spend $300+ per night. Jake and I have found that hotels accessible to touristy areas of downtown Chicago (or any large city) provide smaller rooms, cost more per night, and don’t include as many amenities in their basic nightly rate. If you want to stay within walking distance of Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Michigan Ave, the reality is that you’re going to pay more for this convenience. Plus, there’s the whole cost to park your own car downtown. Expect to pay $60 a day for valet parking or at least $40 to self park in a downtown ramp. It’s really easier not to have a car if you are staying here. The public transportation to and from the airport is affordable and easy to navigate.

If the Sheraton Chicago is within your budget and you want to stay downtown, I feel confident telling you to go for it! If it’s not, there are lots of hotels and bed and breakfast in cool neighborhoods near the downtown area that provide good values and amenities, too.

Thank you to the staff at the Sheraton Chicago for hosting our group and giving us full access to the hotel’s amenities. 

Flying To And From Chicago on Air Choice One: Highs & Lows & Things You Should Know

As part of a bloggers tour with the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce, I was provided with a free boarding pass to Air Choice One to facilitate this review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

I come from a family of pilots, but I’ve never ridden on a small plane.

My dad and brother have offered to take me up in two-seater planes many times, but I’ve always refused. I’m prone to motion sickness and avoid things that move (where I can’t drive or sit in the front seat) such as boats, busses, trains, and small planes.

So, how did I end up on a Cessna? The Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce partnered with North Iowa’s new air carrier Air Choice One and invited eight North Iowa Bloggers on a trip to Chicago. The trip was intended to demonstrate how easy it is to travel between Mason City and Chicago and spread some Clear Lake love. When Jake and I moved to Mason City in June 2013, the airport actually sat vacant until Air Choice one began offering flights November of 2014. Now, one can either fly to Chicago or St. Louis on a Cessna for about $150, roundtrip.

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Although some of my friends have flown on Air Choice One, I missed the part about the planes being Cessnas. I’d seen their photos showing off their spacious leg room and had this mental image of something like this 65-passenger CRJ-700.

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We arrived at the Mason City airport two hours early. It shares the building with the Jefferson bus terminal and restaurant called Them People At The Airport Cafe.

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Yup, that’s really the name. Them People replaced Bumbleberry Bakery (Yup, that’s also the real name, too) about the time Air Choice One began its contract.

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Donna’s mustard to my ketchup. The prices are very affordable (like $4 for a breakfast combo) and I love the colorful flooring.

Unlike MSP, our airport may only host one airline that flies to two destinations, but there’s free parking! When I tweeted about our free airport parking, a Twin Cities friend replied that she didn’t even know how to comprehend that statement. The same person who prints your boarding pass and examines your luggage may also usher you onto the plane. For big city folks, flying out of a small regional airport is really a unique experience.

I remembered Beth had flown Air Choice One before so I asked her, “Hey Beth, are there snacks on the plane?”

“Um, no,” she responded. “It’s a really small plane.” I shrugged but kept picturing that CRJ-700.

“There’s also no bathroom,” someone added. “Just a camper potty and a curtain.”

“WHAT? NO BATHROOM? HOW CAN THIS BE?” I wondered. We passed through security, which enforces the same protocol as any large airport. One has to toss their bottled water here and there isn’t anywhere else to buy a new one. I slurped water from the bathroom sink.

“Hey Sara,” I asked, “Is there beverage service on this flight.”

“Um, no.” she responded.

Imagine my surprise, when I saw our plane pull up to the terminal.

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What is this? A plane for ants?

I was really glad I took that motion sickness medicine an hour before. We filed out onto the tarmac.

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Obviously, we had to take a photo with the pilots before boarding.

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Donna and I switched seats with two of the taller gals and sat in the back. If I sat up as tall as possible, I could touch my head to the ceiling. We looked around and did not see the camper potty, but did notice the curtain which means we rode to Chicago in the bathroom.

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Our in-flight reading: The new Clear Lake Chamber magazine.

I’m not gonna lie. The flight to Chicago was bumpy. The weather created some turbulence that almost overpowered the motion sickness medication I took. I had a difficult time on this leg of the flight. We landed at the O’Hare Airport and an Air Choice One rep guided us from the tarmac to the main terminal where we took the train to our hotel downtown.

The actual flight home on Saturday was much smoother, but we experienced some glitches. For, we weren’t supposed to fly home on Saturday but on Friday! We had arrived at the airport early Friday afternoon just as the weather began pouring rain. Air Choice One’s ticket counter is located at the very end of the hallway where the ticket counters end. A Shel Silverstein poem came to mind.

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At some point when we were scrambling to find a ticket agent, we asked an airport employee to point us towards Air Choice One. “Air Force One?” he asked in disbelief. “Not exactly,” we responded. He asked where we were flying to and when we replied, “Mason City, IA” he asked “Why the hell would you want to go there?”

We live there.”

Hopefully some of our North Iowa enthusiasm rubbed off on him:)

Flights everywhere were cancelled or delayed. An Air Choice One rep informed Libbey of Chamber that our flight could arrive 30-minutes late, but that they’d text us the details. We waited. A half-hour after our flight was supposed to land, we had still heard nothing so we called the airline who told us our flight was cancelled. We asked why they hadn’t provided an update about the cancellation and they replied they were just calling us as we were calling them.

Air Choice One had two flights scheduled to return to Mason City the next morning, but the early flight was partially booked. We knew we wanted to send the mothers of young children home first and drew straws for the last open seat. Three bloggers had to return home on the late flight the next day.

Stormy weather affected airlines across the board. I was not frustrated that the flight was cancelled due to bad weather, but that the airline did not communicate this in a timely manner. Since our flight was cancelled due to weather, we were responsible for our meals the next day. The rep from Air Choice One did offer a coupon for a hotel that provides discounts to stranded travelers, but the Clear Lake Chamber generously secured our lodging.

Since flights everywhere were cancelled, many tried to board the hotel shuttles.

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We met some chaos as we attempted to board the first shuttle. Our group of eight found seating, and people continued to file onto the shuttle after the seats were filled. The driver announced he was unable to drive if people were standing. “The next one will come in 15-20 minutes,” he pleaded. Nobody wanted to get off the shuttle. It became clear that the people who were standing simply would not exit, so two of us bloggers followed Sara off the shuttle so it could at least leave the station.

Another one arrived shortly after and we found a seat. The shuttle incident made me feel like I was at my wit’s end, but I was encouraged by my companions’ calm demeanor. They’re experienced travelers who are accustomed to navigating unexpected bumps in the road.

We stayed at a very clean and very quiet Doubletree hotel. The Sheraton Chicago had a club room lounge where we enjoyed free snacks and sodas, so we jokingly asked this front desk staff member if they, too had a club room. He very sternly informed us about their “no partying” policy. We giggled and quietly ate our warm Doubletree cookies before going to bed.

The good news is that both flights to Mason City were on time the next day and each left a little earlier than scheduled. Unlike our flight to Chicago, our passage home was smooth sailing. We’re very thankful to the pilots for getting us all safely home to Iowa. After all, this was the most important thing.

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Photo Credit: Travel With Sara. Waving goodbye to the three bloggers left behind at the O’Hare.

As I mentioned in my post introducing this Clear Lake Chamber-sponsored Chicago series, our community warmly welcomes Air Choice One. We’re two hours from the Minneapolis and Des Moines Airports and appreciate having a the option to fly to Chicago and St. Louis. My personal suggestions to Air Choice one are to communicate delays and cancellations with their passengers in a timely manner, via phone call or text, since the company doesn’t provide updates their website. I also hope Air Choice One continues to interact with their customers over social media. Someone needs to be available to answer tweets and Facebook messages promptly, most especially when flights are scheduled. I’ve noticed an improvement and hope they keep up the efforts.

Air Choice One is a convenient and affordable option for transportation to and from Chicago and St. Louis. The ticket agents and pilots were exceptionally friendly and personable. However, keep in mind that this is a small airline before booking. They don’t have reciprocity with other airlines and don’t provide lodging or food vouchers for flights delayed due to weather. Cessnas fly at a lower altitude than jumbo jets and so they are more affected by weather. Also, this airline offer fewer flights each day and can only carry eight passengers per flight. Therefore, if you get rescheduled, you may not get home as soon as you’d hope (which could be said for bigger airlines, too).

Also, your mom was right. Always pack an extra pair of clean underwear. I’m sure glad I did.

Thank you again to Air Choice One for providing boarding passes and the Clear Lake Chamber for inviting me on this trip!

The Ten Best Things I Ate During 2014 (Plus Some Very Honorable Mentions)

At Jeni Eats, I proceed into 2015 without a list of New Years Resolutions, except for these three goals: To spend 2015 “doing strange things with weird people,” to keep food blogging fun, and remain delightfully imperfect. From our household to yours, we wish you good things in 2015 and thank you for joining us here.

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We tried to take a family photo

I had a difficult time summarizing my eleven favorite recipes from 2014, but found choosing my favorite foods was even more challenging. Here’s my best attempt at selecting just ten, plus a handful of very honorable mentions.

Top 10 Favorite Foods:

Dining at a table set for 2,000 was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Chef James Baker’s menu of honey-ginger-soy chicken, beans and rice, and spicy Ethiopian vegetables was one of the freshest and most flavorful meals I ate all year. You can try recreating the chicken and vegetables yourself with these recipes published in the Star Tribune. I did, but Bakers’ was still better.

Meal Serving Collage

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When I work in Mitchell County, I like to check out the daily hot lunch specials served at the Mennonite-owned and operated Kountry Kupboard. Half of the store sells groceries like baking supplies, homemade nut butters, cheeses and other bulk-food items while the other half functions as a cafe. I was most excited about a Friday fried fish special. The coating was flavorful and super crispy while the fish was moist and flaky. Fried fish is one of my favorite treats and this was the best (or eat least tied with Ward 6).

Each meal comes with the softest and fluffiest butterhorn rolls. The meatloaf is also fantastic. It’s better than my meatloaf and I make really good meatloaf.

Peppermint Ice Cream Bar

Cristen chose the Bauder Pharmacy Peppermint Ice Cream Bar as her favorite Iowan food in Iowa Bloggers Speak: Favorite Hometown Restaurants. We finally got to try the peppermint bar and meet Cristen at our first visit to the Iowa State Fair. The bar is layered with the creamiest ice cream imaginable and somehow, the combination of ice cream, peppermint, and Oreos didn’t strike us as too sweet.

  • Pastry Chef Diane Yang’s Lemon Curd Mousse Dessert at Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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You may recognize this dessert because I just wrote about visiting Spoon and Stable over Christmas week. We liked the tart lemon flavor and fresh pineapple. Each bite brought a different texture and temperature. Basically, it was like magic.

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My cousin Brian and his family live near Calumet Fisheries, a small seafood smokehouse at the edge of the 95th Street Bridge. The bridge was featured in The Blues Brothers movie, while the restaurant was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. We tried two varieties of smoked fish and smoked shrimp, enjoying everything immensely. However, the shrimp stood out. They weren’t overly smoked and had a firm texture like lobster. They tasted especially good dunked in the mild hot sauce.

More Chicago posts: Part I (includes Calumet) and Part II

  • Whole Fried Fish With Three-Flavors Sauce from Bangkok Thai Deli, Saint Paul, Minnesota 

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Thai restaurants have come and gone in the Twin Cities since we moved to Fargo in 2010, but our favorite is still Bangkok Thai Deli. We visited them when they were located in the back of that small grocery store with a shiny, mosaic chimney and we continue to stop by now that they’ve relocated to the old Burger King. On Valentine’s Day, we shared this whole, fried fish served in three-flavor sauce.

The fish skin is crispy and the sauce tastes sweet, sour, savory, and spicy. Bangkok Thai Deli also makes Jake’s favorite version of Pad Thai.

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Signatures Supper Club catered a work event where they served grilled butterfly pork chops. They tasted so much more moist and flavorful than this phone picture depicts. Of all of the pork tenderloins I tried during 2014, this was my favorite.

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As part of the Webster City Bloggers Tour, we ate lunch at Grid Iron Grill. Owner Burk Risetter treated us to fried pickle chips with [good] ranch, of course:) I kept going back for more. Risetter takes pride in the care his cooks take in hand-breading most of their appetizers instead of purchasing frozen, pre-made products. We tried a variety of appetizers and dishes and could tell the difference.

More Webster City posts: Part I & Part II. Part III coming soon. 

I stayed at Country Heritage as part of the Franklin County Harvest Bloggers Tour in the fall. Our hosts prepared a lovely soup supper complete with three different choices. Jake and I loved Lacey’s scratch-made beef and vegetable soup with garden green beans and tender beef. We were surprised to learn this was the first time she ever prepared it. We also enjoyed a memorably good beef soup at City Limits Eatery in St. Ansgar. Beef soups often bore me or taste like tinned stock, but City Limit’s one was also scratch-made and perfectly balanced. Their salad bar was also my favorite of the year.

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This sandwich surprised me by being so compelling. Normally I hate boneless skinless chicken breast, but my friend Amy was right-on with her recommendation. I liked the flavor of the Greek seasoning blend that coating the chicken and the Greek salad topping. The fries are crispy and the ranch is good, too. what can I say? Ranch like North Iowa’s second ketchup.

  • Jake’s Pick: Poc-Chuc Taco from the Taco Joint, Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois

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When we visited Chicago in April 2014, the Poc-Chuc taco was the Taco Joint’s special Monday taco. The griddled, marinated pork loin, habanero salsa and crunchy radish made for an addicting combination. Jake liked it so much, he returned for more during a business trip. I no longer see the Poc-Chuc tacos listed on the Taco Shop’s current menu, so you’ll have to ask if it’s still available.

Honorable Mentions
Let’s be real. It’s impossible to stick with only ten favorite tastes. Plus, I already cheated by giving Jake a pick. Here are seven more very honorable mentions.

Red Pepper Hummus

The 1910 Grille is a restaurant we visit for special occasions or bring our families. It’s unique to dine in the only operating Frank Lloyd Wright hotel. When Jake’s family spent the day in Mason City, ordered their red pepper hummus as an appetizer. I was expecting it to taste like the typical versions I’ve eaten before, but their hummus was so much better. We liked the fried pita triangles and the dip’s garlicky and slightly spicy punch.

Hashbrowns, LD’s Filling Station, Mason City, Iowa 

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LD’s is the first Mason City restaurant where I found hashbrowns listed as side potato option. I’ve since found that hashbrowns are a common side in North Iowa. They’re served with any meal of the day and I’ve yet to find ones that aren’t served crispy. LD’s makes my favorite, crispiest version.

More reasons why I like LD’s.

Beth Snack mix

I’m going to make the bold claim that Beth’s snack mix is the best snack mix ever. Travel With Sara and I nibbled on it all the way to Springfield, Illinois, and, when she gave me a tin for Christmas, I squirreled it away so I could enjoy it without Jake’s interference. This occurred during the week he wanted to eliminate gluten from his diet, so I feel less bad about not offering him a taste. This snack mix is so addicting because it’s seasoned with dill and contains a big variety of snacks.

Butchers

Jake and I enjoyed our first pork tenderloin sandwiches at Butcher’s Steakhouse. What I enjoyed the most were their thin, hand-battered onion rings. These types of onion rings are all too rare and so very special. Of course, they were served with ranch.

  • Pasta Salad from Cafe Moxo, Springfield, Illinois

Cafe Moxo

Sara and I enjoyed a lot of memorable food in Springfield, Illinois, but one of our favorites was this pasta salad from Cafe Moxo. I ordered too many fried foods on this road trip, so this vegetarian sandwich tasted especially refreshing. This pasta salad was tossed in a light dressing and contained fresh slivers of cucumber and feta.

More Springfield posts: Springfield Ghost Walk, Road Food, Attractions

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Val of Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids is one of the first Iowa bloggers I met. She’s also a talented cook who introduced me to my first ham ball. Her baked potato dip is silly good and her baked beans are the best I’ve ever tasted. I don’t state this lightly, as they really, truly are. We enjoyed them during the Harvest Bloggers Tour and hear they’re legendary in Franklin County. You can find the recipe on her blog. They contain a secret and surprising ingredient.

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I returned to The Burnsville Center, my childhood mall, for this taste of nostalgia. While I’m unsure if the ownership has changed since our last visit with my mom, the Philly Bomb tasted exactly the same. I had more fun writing this post reminiscing about the 90’s mall experience than any other. Sometimes the most satisfying posts are the ones we write for ourselves.

My Most Read Posts Written During 2014

1. Thoughts On Our First Naturebox Snacks

2. My Knoephla Soup Recipe: A Taste of North Dakota In Iowa

3. Ipsy Glam Bag Review, April 2014 (followed by March, February & January)

4. My First Membox: A Korean Tries Korean Beauty Products

5. Introducing The Every Bar In Mason City Quest

6. How To Make The Perfect Frozen Pizza

7. Iowa Bloggers Speak: Favorite Hometown Restaurants

What was one of the best things you ate during 2014? 

Chicagoland Aventure Part II: Villa D’Citta, Taco Joint, Homeslice, Grace’s African Restaurant, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

Book the cheapest room in the most luxurious bed & breakfast.

This is what I did at Villa D’Citta, an Italian-themed bed and breakfast located in Lincoln Park across the street from De Paul University.

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The villa did not have conspicuous signage and even its neighbors might never know it’s there. I chose it based upon its Tripadvisor rating and culinary amenities.

Mmmm Food
Freshly baked cookies every day. They even rotate the flavors. Chocolate chip on the first day and chocolate-chocolate chip on the second.

The fridge was stocked for guests’ snacky needs. We were invited to make our own paninis at any time from a variety of Italian meats, cheeses and condiments like pickled peppers. There were also bottles of chilled water with fancy stoppers to take to our room, lemonade, iced tea, plus a drawer full of tea bags and Intelligentsia coffee.

We checked out early on our last morning to beat the morning’s rush hour traffic, but enjoyed sausage eggbake with a crunchy crouton top and warm blueberry muffins on the first. The kitchen also stocks granola and milk and the giant bowls of fresh fruit aren’t just for decoration.

Accommodations
Our room was the least expensive because it’s only large enough to fit a queen-sized bed and nightstand and the bathroom is located next door. But we did not mind these things. The bathroom was private (we were given a key to lock it) and contained a fancy glass shower with stone tiling. We were out so often that we only needed our room to sleep and watch television in the evenings.

Other Likes
I was amused by the villa’s combination of extravagant and quirky decor like the rock face in the courtyard (pictured above) and a pair of glass skull pen holders at the check-in table.

The Villa’s manager Cathy worked especially hard to make sure everyone was welcomed and settled.

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Jake and I stumbled into the Taco Joint out of hunger. We realized we hadn’t eaten all day and it was there.

The Poc-Chuc taco was the best thing we ate during the whole trip, and we ate a lot of delicious food. It’s listed as the special taco of the day for Mondays and is filled with marinated pork loin and habanero salsa. Jake tried his taco first and made such a dramatically happy noise the moment it hit his tongue that I thought he was over-exaggerating. I know there are countless places to eat tacos in Chicago and can’t speak for the rest of the Taco Joint’s offerings, but the Poc-Chuc was the best taco I’ve eaten since my trip to Puebla. Yup. 

I ordered their Happy Hour/Lunch Deal. For $12 you choose two tacos, guacamole or rice & beans + a margarita or Modelo. For me, two tacos was enough and the guacamole came with a generous basket of corn and fried plantain chips. They’re made with small corn tortillas but don’t skimp on the meat. My margarita was hella strong. Jake liked his grapefruit margarita lined with a spicy salt. It took a while to walk these off.

The ceviche made us happy. Fresh and limey. Speaking of Limes, I hear there’s a lime shortage, but would have never known here as I saw the bartender peeling and juicing piles of them.

Home Slice

Jake and I visited Chicago before we were engaged. It was Jake’s first time and we did more touristy activities like stay downtown, wander Michigan Ave. and go to the Hancock Observatory.

We had discovered more of the Dahlens were also in Chicago, so we had an impromptu family reunion at Gino’s East. Later, we visited Portillo’s for beef sandwiches with hot peppers, our first Chicago dog and chocolate cake. Jake was slightly bummed that it looked like we weren’t going to have time to return on this visit so he embarked on an evening pizza run.

He chose Homeslice and ordered a small Cheese Burglar ($8), simply topped with mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and marinara. It was cheesy, greasy goodness on a thin, airy crust. The service was memorably friendly all around and a server offered us ice waters during our short wait.

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Cousin Brian returns! This time, he and his friend took us to Grace’s African Restaurant (Interesting review from 2011) to try Ghanaian food

Brian’s friend Stephen is originally from Ghana and attended college in Chicago where he met his wife. Both of them traveled to Ghana for work last year and Stephen will lead a trip again soon. He thinks this restaurant prepares food most closely to his mothers’ and was excited to introduce us to some of his favorite dishes.

I found it interesting when they described how Americans and Ghanaians talk about food differently. Brian said in Ghana, people considered it strange when he asked them questions about the food, such as asking about name of a sauce or the ingredients in a dish. On the flip side, Stephen said he thought it was strange seemed to ask him so many questions about his food in America, such as how he wanted a food item cooked or served.

At Grace’s, we left our meals in his Stephen’s hands. He recommended the peanut soup with fufu, a pounded mixture of plantains and yams with the texture of bread dough. We learned how to cut small pieces of fufu with our fingers and use it to scoop up the soup and goat which tasted like lamb. The peanut soup was spicy enough to induce a sweat and the fufu didn’t have a strong flavor.

Brian ordered a dish that came with Waakye, a dish made of rice and beans covered in a spicy red sauce, fried chicken legs, spaghetti, salad, and a dark red sauce. The red sauce reminded me of berbere while the darker sauce was spicier, sweeter and funkier. We learned it’s often made with ground fish.

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I could say Ba-Ba-Reeba all day. Before we went to Chicago, I read about Ba-Ba-Reeba on My Name is Yeh and we were tickled to see that it was down the street. One glance and Jake was dead-set on going. How could you forget a name like that?

At the B&B, we enjoyed breakfast with a couple of gentlemen celebrating their marriage. They described their reception at Ba-Ba-Reeba and praised the food. This sealed the deal.

Sangria is $6/glass, red or white. And it’s not poured into small glasses, but substantial glasses with tiny, floating cubes of fruit. You can also buy $2 Pintxos instead of whole appetizers. I tried a chorizo-wrapped date stuffed with cheese which arrived on a skewer.

Jake ordered the shaved brussel sprout salad with toasted marcona almonds and manchego cheese. It was a big portion for $6. The slightly sweet dressing reminded us of fancy coleslaw. Marcona almonds are the best.

I still had a belly full of fufu and wasn’t as enthusiastic as Jake about ordering paella. A server scraped it from a shallow paella pan onto two plates with a flourish and each contained a mountain of it. The menu offers paella by the serving and our seafood version cost $15/each. I wouldn’t want to eat that much rice in one sitting so I’d hypothesize that two servings would more accurately feed three. The bay scallops and shrimp were plentiful and tasted fresh. There was less monkfish, but the small pieces that were there were delicate in texture and flavor.

Our first paella experience was a win. I can’t describe exactly what seasonings I tasted, but they were complex. We never got tired of the flavor and it was far from one-note. Plus, the paella is garnished with lemon wedges and aoli. I dunked everything into the aioli, considering the experience a wonderful excuse to eat garlicky mayonnaise. Is this how you are supposed to eat it?

The End
And thus ends our mini[honey]moon a year late to Chicago. We loved connecting with old friends and family in this larger-than-life city and eating lots of new foods.

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