A lot, apparently.
My husband had a weekend job in Chicago, so I tagged along for a day of solo eating. 10am call time means we piled into the car at 4am and made the trek north. I haven’t been to Chicago for a long time. There were LOTS of places to get to. And I had 12 hours to do it.
After leaving him to his work, my wheelie bag and I headed down the street to check into the Acme Hotel. Thankfully, they have a lovely coffee bar that was ready to supply me with a LARGE coffee and a scone to get me geared up for the day. After freshening up in the cute rock ‘n’ roll room, I was ready for a serious lunch.
First stop: Xoco
I love Rick Bayless. I love Mexico. I love Xoco. We weren’t able to get here during our last visit, so I made it first on my list this time. Luckily, I got there just before the real lunch rush was starting, because it took me forever to decide. Choriqueso, Albondigas, Pepito? I stood there waffling for about 10 minutes. I had one shot and I had to make it good. I decided to start with the Chicharonnes with Tamazula hot sauce and queso añejo (see above) and the Albondigas torta with Gunthorp Farms pork meatballs, chipotle sauce, black bean spread, queso añejo and cilantro. Let’s talk about these chicharonnes for a second. These are not your average truck stop bag of pork rinds. Huge, fresh, crispy pork rinds, actually lightened by the acidity of the hot sauce and lime. I could have eaten the whole lot of ’em but I am glad I didn’t. The meatballs were by far the best I have ever had in my life. Rick Bayless has made a commitment to sourcing the very best products for his restaurants and that was evident here. They were so porky. They were the porkiest-tasting pork I have ever had. That sandwich made my eyes roll back in my head. I ate it all.
And for this trip, I put on my big girl pants and just whipped out the big camera in the middle of the restaurant to take pics of the food. You think the Instagrammers are annoying? You shoulda seen me. That’s also why this fantastic sandwich looks a bit blurry. I was trying to be serious but not call too much attention to myself and not let my food get completely cold, so in the end, my self-consciousness resulted in a blurry photo. I hope you can still get the gist.
Next stop: The French Market
I remember reading about the French Market when it opened, and I imagined a heaven filled with cheese and pastry. And even pastries filled with cheese. I took an incredibly pleasant walk down Wacker Drive along the Chicago River, saw the signs, opened the doors, got completely confused, turned around, went back outside, came back in, and finally found it. You see, it’s located in the commuter train station, and I entered on the far side of the station. It was desolate, being a Saturday, and it kinda freaked me out. But I persevered, re-entered and finally saw the French Market near the entrance on the other side of the block. It’s a city-worker’s luncheon paradise. Crepes, kosher, candy and ‘cue. Everything is here. I was a bit late for lunch – and too full anyway – but I found my calling in the candy at Lolli and Pops. Beautiful, shiny, colorful chocolates. Rosemary caramel and lavender caramel. Mmmmm….
Next stop: Cocktail (no pics)
The walk back toward the hotel was pleasant, but remember I only slept about 3 hours, so I needed a sit-down. The sign at Bridge House Tavern advertising “Mimosa’s and Bloody Mary’s $5 all day” was all the convincing I needed. I got a nice little table right on the water (you know how I love a bar by the water) and a lovely mimosa just for me. As I watched the tour boats and the privately-owned boats (lucky) pass by, “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds came on the 80’s mix that was playing and all of my John Hughes-inspired high school angst exploded in a moment of overwhelming nostalgia.
But the clock was ticking. And there were cured meats in my future.
Next stop: Eataly
If you know me at all, you know that I am the #1 Midwest advocate for Eataly in NYC. It is all my food dreams come true. Literally. I have dreams about places lined with bins and bins of cheese, chocolate, pastries, buffet tables, etc, and this is it. All Italian. All the time. So you know I had to visit the Chicago outpost. I knew exactly what I wanted, and headed straight for the Piazza and the meat and cheese counter. I ordered the big one. Just for me. Go ahead and stare, I don’t care. Other first-timers were subtly eyeing my Grande Piatto Misto while they perused the menu. “It’s the big one,” I said. “Just get it.” It’s about 6 kinds of charcuterie – proscuitto, speck, cotto, mortadella etc., and five cheeses. With bread and some lovely honey and other accoutrements. The super-nice waiter kept stopping by and checking on me as I savored and people-watched. “Can I take that for you?”, he said at about the halfway point. “No, I’m still working on it,” I said. “Can I take that for you?”, he said, about 3/4 of the way through. “Oh no, I am going to eat it all,” I said. I think he finally got the message. He didn’t think my petite self could do it, I guess. Proved him wrong.
Next stop: Rooftop bar
(You know how I love a bar on a roof.) It was getting to be happy hour and I needed a drink and a view. The Dana Hotel was nearby so I could be at the ready to let my husband into the room after his long workday. The roof patio was modern and accommodating. The wine was meh. But I don’t think people really come here for the wine, now do they?
Final stop: Frontera Grill
The culmination of my pilgrimage. Yes, more Rick Bayless. Twice in one day? I don’t see a problem with it. If you’re going, plan ahead or plan to wait. Very limited reservations taken, weekend dinner waits can be long but it’s worth it. My game is to wait for a seat at the bar, which is what we did. You have to be a bit of a stalker, but who cares. The people giving you dirty looks for standing behind them probably just did the same thing themselves. The menu is always changing. We had shrimp empanadas, goat enchiladas, and I had duck mole with kale. Bliss.
So, how did I feel at the end of the day? Maybe a little uncomfortable. Maybe some Tums in the middle of the night, yes.
But no regrets.