Once labeled the “Second City,” the city of Chicago remains one of the most thrilling and most frequented travel destinations for Arkansans…and to any food enthusiast looking for a new, exciting experience in dining, clearly, this city is second to none. You set foot off the plane and you feel the opportunities are endless…and the culinary pleasures are almost limitless. How does one even begin to plan an eating schedule during a short stay in a city of this size and quality? The task is daunting and darn near overwhelming. This was the dilemma I faced as I prepared for a weekend in the Windy City. But I asked around, and several of my fellow Arkansas foodies chimed in with their favorites. In the end, it was a weekend full of delicious bites, and without a doubt, one of most memorable city food tours I’ve ever been a part of. Here’s my five best bites from my foodfest in Chicago:
Everything I ate at Belly Shack: I’ve never kept it secret that I have a soft spot for Korean food. And frankly, there just isn’t enough of it in Arkansas. But America, as a whole, is slowly starting to embrace this cuisine with increasing enthusiasm…and I expect Arkansas is not too far behind. Folks like Belly Shack owner, Bill Kim, are making Korean food more approachable and familiar to any who are less familiar with its many unique flavors, textures, and preparations. Belly Shack serves a form of Asian-Latino fusion, two styles that seem to be made for each other, and they’re producing some of the most interesting and exciting bites of food I sampled on the trip. Essentially everything I shoved into my mouth was a joy to eat. I would have loved to sample every morsel on the menu, but time and stomach space would not allow. What should you look forward to? Try the “Belly Dog” topped with egg noodles and pickled papaya or the Meatball Sandwich with red Thai curry marinara and Asian coleslaw. Be sure to pair anything you order with their fantastic fries, spiced with togarashi (a Japanese chili powder) with a side of curry mayonnaise. They’ve got soft serve, too, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t sample the vanilla with Vietnamese cinnamon and caramel.
Banana Biscoff pocket at Stan’s Donuts: As one steps off the platform of the Blue Line’s Damen stop, you are quickly greeted by the warm neon glow of a sign announcing Stan’s Donut Shop. Stan’s actually hails from southern California, but Chicagoans have definitely embraced this exemplary donut shop as their own. There’s several options you’ll really enjoy wrapping your lips around at Stan’s (they’re well known for their peanut butter and banana pocket), but it’s this banana and Biscoff filled creation that caused our group to hit up Stan’s three times in three days. Ripe banana and a creamy spread of ground Biscoff cookies shoved inside a soft, hot, spectacular donut. Life does not get much more pleasurable than this, my friends.
Small plates at Purple Pig: It was the most often recommended restaurant I came across when asking around for options. We expected it to be busy, but we did not expect a 3.5 hour wait. But wait we did, and of course, expectations after such a wait were exceedingly high. In truth, I worried there was no way this place could live up to such hype and hysteria…but it did. The Purple Pig deserves all the praise it’s received, providing me with one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten. They serve everything in small, sharable-sized plates, allowing our group of five to sample our way through a good number of their most popular dishes. Every one of them was excellent but a few really stood out, dishes actually worth the aforementioned wait. These included the shaved brussels sprouts with pecorino, parmigiano, and lemon; the salt and vinegar fried beef tendon (which are reminiscent of a very light, mouth-melting pork rind); sliced pig’s ear with crispy kale, pickled cherry peppers and fried egg; and (my personal favorite) the pork neck bone gravy with ricotta which gets smeared all over toasted bread. Do not miss this place.
The taco window at Big Star Taco: Wandering the streets of Chicago all night can be hard work, and when you’re in a rush or not interested in waiting over an hour for a table, a pick-up taco window can be a godsend. But these aren’t any old tacos, they’re constructed and assembled by one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Getting a seat a Big Star is not always easy, wait times are often over an hour during peak eating periods. But impatient diners can simply wander on over to their adjacent window, pick up a few to-go, and still get that same high-quality eating experience those other folks are hungrily waiting in line for. Be sure to get on the “Tacos de Panza” with crispy, braised pork bells, tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco or the “Tacos de Chorizo Verde” with chorizo, poblanos, serranos, pumpkin and sesame seeds, potato, and queso.
Churros with chocolate dipping sauce at XOCO: It’s definitely one of the quickest and simplest ways to get your “Rick Bayless” experience while in Chicago. This now legendary chef is constantly popping up on nearly every network on television, has authored a number of books on authentic Mexican cooking, and can be seen or read about anywhere there’s a serious discussion about Mexican food in America. XOCO is his more casual outlet, specializing primarily in exceptional tortas, but I found the sweet, chewy house-made churros made the most lasting impression on me. They’re hot and covered in sugar and cinnamon, and they come paired with their house made chocolate sauce, made from beans they grind themselves at the restaurant.