Chicago Is My Kinda Town

I love Chicago.
Chicago is The Great American City. It’s a city that didn’t turn its back on it’s downtown, which is a modern, vibrant, and a beautiful metropolis marked by the great American invention: skyscrapers.

My favorite place to eat in Chicago is the Big Bowl. It was started by Bruce Cost, who I worked with several years ago as his pastry chef and I literally crave his food. (He’s cooked for me some of the most extraordinary Chinese food I’ve ever had. He’s perhaps the most naturally gifted chef I know.) I made sure to eat there at least once a day, chowing down on Kung Pao Chicken (which bears no resemblance to what’s served at your local Chinese place), slithery chow fun noodles, steamed dumplings stuffed with spicy chicken, and green tea mochi ice cream, a perfect little dessert, wrapped in a paste of rice flour.

I ate well no matter where I went and I met wonderful folks at the Sur La Table stores in Chicago and Naperville. One such wonderful folk-person/local I got to meet was Barrett of Too Many Chefs at the Bongo Room for a modern take on the great American hybrid; Sunday Brunch.
Crammed into this café with several hundred other people, we drank bottomless cups of Joe and I watched in awe as Mrs. Barrett polished off an astounding breakfast of French Toast with Toffee Butter, Creme Anglaise…topped with a scoop of ice cream!

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Later, of course, I paid a visit to the new Hershey chocolate store where I found the world’s largest Hershey’s Kiss….(which looked almost as dangerous as a giant M & M)…

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And there was some, er, yummy looking muffins which I, um, declined to sample…
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And tucked away in the corner of the store were bars of Scharffenberger chocolate, which was recently acquired by Hershey’s. It seems a bit out of place in this emporium of excess.

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I was very sad not to be able to get a bag of Garrett’s caramel corn.
The first time I stopped by, the line snaked out the door, and I said to myself, “No way!”

Then I sauntered around the neighborhood a bit, went to the Apple store, but the craving within me was growing to strong to ignore for a sack of their fabulous warm caramelized popcorn, so I got back in line. I waited 20 minutes, it moved very little, and when I heard the wait was over 2 hours, I decided to skip it and return back to my hotel, sad and empty-handed.

But the next day when I was across the street I noticed there was no line snaking out the door, just the people inside, and I practically got run over by a bus racing to get over there. Unfortunately after another 20 minute wait, I realized the line wasn’t moving this day either (they must employ French civil servants), and left empty-handed.

Coming back to America is always a bit of a culture shock. While I love going into Walgreen’s and finding everything from scrunchies to munchies, you come across something like this…

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…and as hard as I try, I’m unable to write about it.

Where does one begin?

(Long pause of silence)

At the airport, I found a Corner Bakery, which I’ve dubbed, “The Little Bakery That Should“. Scattered throughout America, these convenient ‘bakeries’ serve full meals, as well as coffee drinks and baked goods. Unfortunately the food isn’t very good and the pastries and baked items are sad reminders of what makes a true corner bakery so wonderful: fresh and wholesome treats, baked with pride.

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Just prior to take-off, on my way to Seattle, I spooned up their Swiss Yogurt Cup, which was the only thing on the menu that didn’t make my teeth chatter from excessive sweetness.

Time to put on my polarfleece and Teva’s and head to Seattle and Portland…

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16 comments

  • Having lived in Chicago for over 6+ years I love going back to visit; I get to go a lot because my work takes me there every two months or so. I wish I’d known you were going and I would have made a couple of recommendations but it doesn’t sound like it was a long visit.
    So funny; I have always had the same feeling about Corner Bakery and Chicagoans think it is THE thing. Their coffee isn’t good and it’s punishingly, scorchingly hot; their pastries are nasty and their espresso drinks…well, don’t even get me started.
    There are, though, same great, very “chicago-esque” places to go downtown so next time…
    xo Jennifer

  • Hi, I am a French civil servant.

  • A few notes…

    1. I agree The Big Bowl is a good place for inexpensive reliable Chinese when you are in the midwest.

    2. Did you by chance go to a restaurant called Blackbird? I have to say it may be one of my favorite restaurants in the USA.

    3. The Corner Bakery isn’t that bad. Well. Its not the corner boulangerie in Paris but their main shops do have good breads and some baked goods. The one at the airport is terrible.

  • hi Jennifer: Next time I’m in Chicago, I will plan to spend more time there (instead of staying in my hotel room watching reruns of ‘Saved By The Bell’)!

    Sarah Lou: If you’re a French civil servant, you shouldn’t be reading food blogs at work…

    Richard: Yes, I love the Big Bowl. The food is consistently good with authentic flavors and ingredients.

    But what is up with that Corner Bakery chain? It is so disappointing but has the potential to be very good. It’s so sad…

  • Those cupcakes (if those overly frosted green blobs are indeed cupcakes?!) look absolutely disgusting. Why why why do so many American sweets have to be in technicolor and contain a pound of sugar per bite?

  • We enjoyed breakfast, David. It was great getting a chance to meet you. I hope you’ll let us know when you swing back through next time!

  • But David I am a civil servant, what else am I supposed to do?
    I am just kidding with you and I know you are referring to the French as in France. I am only but a French Canadian.

  • Does the potentially worrying fact that Hersheys have taken over Scharffenberger mean the quality of the chocolate and cocoa powder will take a nose-dive? Grateful your personal view, David, because you are a great mate of John S.

  • Hi David.

    As a native of Portland (I now live in Minneapolis), I can recommend some great little bakeries:

    Pix Patisserie
    (Portland’s version of Pierre Hermé)

    Bakery St. Honoré
    (Fabulous croissants and cannelés!)

    Papa Haydn
    (Terrific cakes, tortes, etc. as well as wonderful food)

    Enjoy Portland! I miss it.

    Janay

  • The French toast. With ice cream. Need. NOW.

    I am quite a fan of things that contain a pound of sugar per bite. I’m also a fan of plain, loaves of good bread. Mmmm…cupcaaake with mysterious coloring additives…

  • Ooh – American sweets – is it any wonder that every other American is vastly overweight? Hope the fog clears in Seattle so you can find Macrina Bakery http://www.macrinabakery.com

  • Ooh, I am so jealous – glad to hear you had fun with Barrett and “Mrs. Barrett”! I have never heard of the Big Bowl (obviously Barrett’s fault) but I’m definitely going to have to try it next time I’m in town!!

    Have fun in Seattle!

  • …sigh… the last time i was in chicago, the bongo room eluded
    me for brunch… alas, i couldn’t get my lazy butt to stand in
    line… pity.

    thanks the report!
    the ulterior epicure.

  • Hi: Next time you’re in Chicago and want to sample Garrett’s popcorn, forget about the Michigan Ave. shop and head to the Loop–there are 2 stores in the Loop, one on State Street just down from the Marshall Field’s and another on Jackson, I believe, they never ever have lines and it’s the same family (not a chain).

    As far as your reverance for Big Bowl, I’m a little surprised. It’s okay, but it’s Americanized Asian dishes, part of a chain. Last time I was there I had the Pho, it had no accopmanying mint, basil, lime or bean sprouts and when I asked for the Thai chili sauce they looked at me like I was crazy, they didn’t have any.

    I suggest you try one of Chicago many authetic places, like the Vietnamese pho houses on Argyle or the Dim Sum spots in Chinatown or the wonderful Korean barbecue joints. All are accessible by public transport. It’s a shame to come all the way to Chicago, one of the most diverse food cities in the country and find yourself eating blander versions from chains (ditto with Corner Bakery which isn’t just bad, it’s expensive too–we call it the Corner Bankruptcy.)

    There are lovely little bakeries dotted all over the place. If you ever come again, e-mail me and I’ll suggest some for you. You can also check out http://www.lthforum.com, Chicago forum for all things food-related.

    Cheers!

    Bonnie

  • Those are some amazing looking cupcakes … what a sugar high they give off by merely looking at them!

  • Aw, Garrett’s popcorn is worth it! When I visited Chicago in the summer, my “tour guide” (a friend of a friend) insisted that we go, even though I wondered how good popcorn could possibly be. It was definitely an experience. Sorry you went three times empty handed!