I’m having a difficult time writing about Chicagoland.
The city is a monster. It’s so massive. Mindblowingly diverse and strikingly segregated. I wanted to eat everything. The buildings are tall and there’s nowhere to park. We hit a terrible, $4 tollbooth (that’s not a toll, that’s extortion!) and Jake got his first traffic ticket, yet we love it anyway.
One and a half years ago, we got married amidst a small group of family and friends with a reception the following April. We were transferred to Mason City so quickly the next summer that we couldn’t even think about planning a honeymoon. With the reality that life will never slow down, we took off part of a week from work and hit the road towards Chicago.
My cousin Brian, his wife Sara, and their five children invited us to stay with them in Calumet Heights. You may remember Brian wrote the guest post How to Make the Perfect Frozen Pizza. Growing-up, our family spent every holiday with Brian’s family. He and his brother always seemed much older than us, even though they are within about six years. It’s been a joy to get to know them and their wives as adults and relate more as friends.
The architecture is so different from what we’re used to. The homes are mostly built from brick and stone and adorned with sculpted shrubbery. From the outside, houses look small. Inside, they are deceptively spacious because they’re built long and in multiple stories. People seemed surprised that we were staying on the south side of Chicago, but Brian’s family likes their quiet neighborhood and we do too. I would totally live there.
One of my favorite moments occurred when Jake awoke to a new kind of alarm clock. The kind that’s two years old and sits in your face, diaper first. On Sunday morning, Matthias told us early risers he wanted to wake-up Uncle Jake. We instructed him not to, yet none of us tried very hard to stop him. Oops.
Here are some culinary highlights from the first two days we stayed with Brian and family.
Brian and his daughter Grace took us to Calumet Fisheries for our first meal. Grace likes to explore new places and try every kind of food. She reminds me of myself a gazillion years ago.
- We ordered the smoked salmon with black pepper & garlic, smoked trout, and smoked shrimp.
- The smoked salmon had the most beautifully creamy texture.
- Everyone’s favorite was the smoked shrimp. Lightly smoked so it didn’t overwhelm the natural shrimp flavor. Perfect snappy texture. Not cheap at $23/lb. but they are large and worth a taste.
- Housemade hot sauces. The mild was our favorite. It tasted a little bit like BBQ and the kids liked it too.
Brian took us to explore Mariano’s Fresh Market in Greektown. Here’s why this grocery store is so magical:
- Large organic produce section with affordable prices.
- Giant cheese section.
- $1 donuts. Brian encouraged us to try his favorite salted-cashew variety.
- Sushi bar, oyster bar, juice bar, wine bar, gelato bar with $1 scoops. The lemon was my favorite.
- Seafood section: Grace’s class took a field trip behind the seafood counter earlier this year. She excitedly asked us if we saw the whole fish with eyes and the little squid.
- I tweeted that Mariano’s should come to Mason City. They said they’d, “pass my interest along.” I hope they are serious.
After wandering through Mariano’s, we explored Greektown.
- Lunch at Mr. Greek Gyros: Gyros the size of fetuses, lots of tzatziki, and practically a whole onion’s worth of slices (which I like). The boys ordered combos which came with a large bag full of french fry planks. I’m glad I skipped the combo. One gyro was big enough to tide me over well into the evening.
- Brian also took us to Artopolis Bakery. We were too full to try their pastries, but Jake got a strong, Greek Coffee.
We met some of our old Fargo friends at Revolution Brewpub in Logan Square.
- Loud and busy. Service was friendly.
- This may be heresy, but I prefer light, cheap beer in bottles. Even though I was in a brewery, I chose the cocktail with absinthe because, well, absinthe. Jake enjoyed trying the tap beers.
- Calamari was fine and I appreciated that it was not greasy. However, the barley-feta salad was weirdly the most compelling thing on the plate.
- I was surprised when the side salad was only $3. It was generously sized and full of cherry tomatoes, carrot curls and cucumber. Not a limp lettuce leaf in sight. Perfectly dressed with house vinaigrette.
- Our favorite food was the Farm Burger topped with spinach, roasted beet, horseradish cream & a fried egg. The burger was cooked medium-rare as requested and juicy. We loved the combination of burger + beet. My friend who lived in Australia told us that burgers topped with egg and beets are more common there. I hope we see this combination more often.
Thanks Dahlen family for opening your home to us and showing us some of your favorite places!
Stay tuned for Part II. I’ll tell you about the unique bed and breakfast we stayed at in Lincoln Park and our first experience dining in a Ghanaian restaurant.
It sounds like you had an amazing time! I love smoked fish but I have yet to try smoked shrimp, I guess I have to add it to the list. I’m glad you had the chance to experience Mariano’s, it’s one of my all time favorite grocery stores! I can’t wait to hear what you did next!
We had such a great time. I’ve never seen smoked shrimp until I saw that Anthony Bourdain No Reservations episode. It was fun to learn they lived close to the fishery.