What do you think about when you think about Chicago? Architecture like Cloud Gate (a.k.a The Bean) and Sears Tower, the rush of wind through the urban forest of skyscrapers, or the plethora of sports teams like the Bears or the White Sox? All of the above are amazing in their own right and evocative of the Chicago spirit but without fail, every time someone mentions Chicago our minds go to one thing and one thing only: food.
Anyone who loves to eat can appreciate the variety of iconic Chicagoan dishes on hand such as the hot dog, deep-dish pizza, local beer and the Italian beef sandwich. You can indulge in any number of these delicacies at dozens upon dozens of venues in Chicago and while such a selection can be a great thing, it also begs the question — what is the best place to eat a Chicagoan hot dog, deep-dish pizza, local beer or Italian beef sandwich?
While we were investigating, we came across Chicago Food Planet Tours, who offered the answers to these questions and many more. The company conducts four walking food tours of the city: Gold Coast and Old Town, Lincoln Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park, and Chinatown. Each tour is uniquely suited to the spirit of the neighborhood and includes at least six tastings at different local establishments. For the curious, food driven and lazy among us, who want to eat the best food with as little research as possible, we highly recommend the tours after we spent a day discovering Bucktown and Wicker Park under the guidance of Kent, one of the best and most knowledgeable tour guides either of us has ever encountered.
The tour began at Chicago’s oldest hot dog stand, George’s Hot Dogs, which has been family owned and operated in the same space for the last 67 years. George’s daughter now runs the restaurant with her husband (coincidentally, also named George) and they make everything to order with such fresh ingredients that sometimes locals buy their tomatoes at there!
The famous hot dogs themselves are a combination of the specific ingredients that make up a traditional Chicago hot dog: poppy seed bun, Viennese wiener, chopped white onions and tomatoes, sweet pickled relish and yellow mustard, pickled sport (Serrano) peppers, a dill pickle spear and celery salt. The hot dog is said to have been ‘dragged through the garden’ due to its many toppings and the Chicago Planet Food tour guide goes into rich detail about the history of the iconic dish.
Mindy Segal’s Hot Chocolate Restaurant and Dessert Bar is the next and most popular stop on Chicago Food Planet’s tour. Mindy is an extremely accomplished pastry chef with various accolades that include Chicago Magazine’s Pastry Chef of the Year and the James Beard Award for Best Pastry Chef in 2012, who decided to open the restaurant after 20 years of culinary experience. Her honed skills and genuine passion for all things sweet and delicious combines to create a magnificent menu. The space itself is beautiful in the rustic, industrial way that is trending right now and incorporates various shades of brown to mimic the star of their show: chocolate.
We had two versions of her acclaimed hot chocolate, both on ice because it was a hot day, and even the soy version (Gabrielle is lactose-intolerant) was rich and creamy. They make their own marshmallows in-house and, honestly, we liked them even more than the hot chocolate! If you have time after the tour, we highly recommend returning to try some of their desserts (we suggest the “boxed” passion cheesecake) though their savory offerings are rumored to be fantastic too.
Goddess And Grocer
Debbie Sharpe is food rock star. Born in Australia, having lived in London and traveled all over the world before setting down roots, Debbie made her culinary start with a rock n roll catering company called Eat Your Hearts Out; in this capacity she toured the USA with Paul and Linda McCartney. Her catering company has since transformed into Goddess Rocks! catering and she has expanded by opening Goddess and Grocer, which is an amalgamation of nearly everything to do with food, including catering, grocery, delicatessen and restaurant.
The tour takes you upstairs to the beautiful sitting area where you sample the beautiful wilted kale salad and talk about the local products that Goddess and Grocer sources. Some examples include beer from Revolution Brewery, which is constantly voted best beer in Chicago and flour from Baker Miller.
Dave and Meagan Miller are the former co-owners of Bang Bang Pie who branched off to create their own bakery. They are the only bakery in the country that mill their own flavor and where voted by Zagat in the Top 30 under 30 changing the food industry.
The 2006 World Champion Brew Master is the man behind the beer at Piece, one of the most popular places to eat in Wicker Park. After a tasting of one of their favourite brews, you can indulge in a slice of their White Pizza, a compelling combination of mozzarella, olive oil and garlic.
The atmosphere is very cool and Chicagoans can be found indulging in a beer there from the time they open at 11am until close. The most interesting part of the entire space is the small glass enclosed brewing apparatuses where the magic of beer making is conducted.
This was hands down the best stop for us on the tour. Not only do we love ethnic food, in particular Middle Eastern food, but Sultan’s Market had the kind of authentic charm that is difficult to reproduce. It contains a buffet, a take-out section and beautiful booths to sit in while you taste what has to be the best falafel pita sandwich we have ever tasted.
It is a family run establishment started by May Ramli 12 years ago which is now also co-run with her son, Shadi. The market is a Chicagoan local’s haven for grabbing an inexpensive and delicious meal outside of the touristy scope and trust us when we say, it is well worth a visit.
At this innovative ice cream shop, the sky is the limit. They make your ice cream to order based on dozens of ice cream bases, topping and flavorings. It is an amazing experience, particularly for children, to watch them whip up a batch of your personalized ice cream by using liquid nitrogen.
iCream is not a shop for the indecisive but in case you can’t choose, there are some creations on hand to order from. One of them is That Guy From Florida, which is a combination of cream soda, white chocolate and Nutella. It sounds bizarre but there is a good reason this guy from Florida ordered it every day of his visit in the city; it is delicious.
Our culinary tour of Chicago with Chicago Food Planet was by and far the highlight of our trip and our only regret is that we could not stay to do the other tours! If you are in town and at all curious about the amazing food scene in the Windy City, you should take one of their comprehensive and fun tours.