Hometown Eats: A Chicago Culinary Tour

Posted by
Andrew Kaplan
Italian Beef Sandwich from Wolfy's in Chicago

rachaelray.com contributing writer Andrew Kaplan recently traveled from New York back to his hometown, the Windy City, to try some local favorites.

Whenever I travel to my hometown of Chicago, I look forward to three things: family, friends and food. Growing up in Chicago, most of my conversations revolved around food, or where the next meal would be consumed. Luckily, I have family and friends to guide me to the newest and tastiest local spots whenever I head home for a visit. 

The night before my arrival, my brother had called to warn me that we would be heading straight over to Vietnamese Town, located around the Broadway/Argyle St. area, as soon as my flight landed in the morning. The plan was to try a Vietnamese sandwich from a little grocer called Ba Le. Sure enough, within minutes of my plane touching down, we were on the way to try Ba Le’s Chinese Pork and BBQ Pork sandwiches. Both were simply dressed with a pickled carrot daikon salad and cilantro. The BBQ pork was tender, flavorful and shredded; the Chinese pork was quite similar, except it had the red tint that traditional Chinese BBQ pork has. All the sandwiches were served on traditional baguettes that were soft on the inside with just the right amount of exterior crunch. And they were all less than $4.00 – what a steal! A pork egg roll and a shrimp cake with a piece of sugar cane running through it completed our meal. For a tasty sandwich that is authentic, yet not a big food risk, Ba Le is your destination of choice. 

(Ba Le Sandwiches and Deli, 5018 N. Broadway Avenue 773-561-4424, www.balechicago.com
 
While waiting for our food at Ba Le, we noticed Sun Wah Bar-B-Que down the street. Known for its Chinese BBQ, Sun Wah has been around for over 20 years and will soon be passed down to the owner’s two daughters, continuing its family-owned tradition. With pork, duck and octopus hanging in the window, it has that same authentic feel of the restaurants you see in Chinatown in New York. We ordered a Peking duck, their specialty, along with some spicy pan-fried spare ribs and BBQ roast pork. The ribs were nothing to write home about, but the duck and the roast pork were both excellent. For a traditional Chinese BBQ experience, I highly recommend Sun Wah. 

(Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, 1134 W.Argyle Street, near Broadway 773-769-1254) 

My first day of eating didn’t stop at Sun Wah! For dinner, we continued the Asian theme and picked up Chinese take-out from Orange Garden Restaurant, near Irving Park and Lincoln. We ordered some traditional Mu Shu Chicken, Hot and Sour Soup, Kung Pao Shrimp, Egg Rolls and Sesame Beef. While the food was delicious though not incredible, Orange Garden has been around for over 80 years – with a run like that, how can you go wrong?!  

(Orange Garden, 1942 W. Irving Park Road 773-525-7479) 


For dinner another night, I headed over to Essence of India, a neighborhood Indian restaurant that has developed a dedicated following over the past few years. This place was a winner. We ordered the Lamb Vindaloo, a braised lamb dish with strong, spicy flavors, and the Tandoori Chicken, which is chicken marinated in yogurt and strong aromatic spices including garam masala, ginger, garlic and cumin. Grilled in a tandoori oven, this dish just bursts with intense flavors. A side of steamed basmati rice and a piece of naan bread rounded out our order. If you are in the Lincoln Square area, be sure to give Essence of India a try. 

(Essence of India, 4601 N.Lincoln Avenue at Wilson 773-506-0002, www.essenceofindiachicago.com

After a few days of consuming many home-cooked holiday meals, I resumed my culinary tour with a trip to Crisp, a fast-casual Korean fried chicken joint. I had heard rave reviews about it and have tried some Korean fried chicken places in New York, so I wanted to see what it was all about and compare for myself. Korean fried chicken is special in that it is cooked twice – the first time renders out most of the fat starts the cooking process, and the second time crisps up the skin into crunchy goodness. I was blown away. In my opinion, the menu has a few too many selections, but if you stick to the basics with the half or whole chicken, which is cut into individual pieces, you’ll be in good shape. I ordered the Plain Jane style, which is their basic fried chicken; some with Seoul Sassy sauce, a light soy ginger-like sauce; and some with Crisp BBQ sauce, which is similar to hoisin sauce. I recommend them all, but for some serious flavor, try the Crisp BBQ. Even with taking it to go, the chicken remained super crispy. 

(Crisp, 2940 N. Broadway, 877-693-8653
www.crisponline.com

Later on that night, my brother and I had a craving for some thin crust pizza. Unlike in New York, you can choose from several types of pizza in Chicago: thin crust, deep dish and stuffed, to name a few. We decided to go with a recommendation of a friend and ordered some thin crust from Giordano’s Pizza, a long-time Chicago institution. We got half sausage (only) and half sausage, mushroom and onion combo. It was a good, solid pizza filled with a hefty amount of toppings. Giordano’s Pizza will certainly satisfy most pizza cravings.  

(Giordano’s, 1040 W.Belmont Avenue 773-327-1200 www.giordanos.com - Multiple Locations)  

The next day, my brother and I went for brunch at Tweet, a cozy and friendly little restaurant in Andersonville that is only open for breakfast and lunch. My brother tried the Glen’s Savory Sandwich, thoroughly enjoying its organic egg whites scrambled with mushrooms and jalapeños, chipotle sauce, spinach and black beans. I had the David Sharpe’s Omelet, named for a local artist and Tweet breakfast regular. The omelet had asparagus, shallots and Swiss cheese and was served with very crispy shredded hash browns along with a fruit cup. It’s good to know that these friendly, neighborhood establishments still exist and this one is well worth a visit.  

(Tweet, 5020 N. Sheridan Road 773-728-5576 www.tweet.biz)  

For dinner, I picked up Panes Bread Café sandwiches. Panes is a little café that serves big-time sandwiches on homemade bread with fresh ingredients. We tried a bunch: the Pompazo, which features spicy chicken breast, homemade pesto, tomato and provolone cheese. We also got the Chicken Club, which is your basic club with cheddar, bacon, avocado and mayo. Next was the Oaxacan Pork, which is marinated pork loin, caramelized onions, spicy mayo and roasted red peppers. Last was the Our Spicy Philly, which is roast beef, onion, bell pepper, mushroom, ranchero sauce and farmer cheese on tomato bread. Most sandwiches are around $5 – that’s one heck of a deal for some of my favorite sandwiches in Chicago! 

(Panes Bread Café, 3002 N. Sheffield Avenue 773-665-0972) 

As my time in Chicago was winding down, I had to be sure that I included another special stop. I’m a huge fan of Buffalo wings, and Buffalo Joe’s is the king of all chicken wings. Their main location is on the north side in Evanston, but I picked up my order from the Rogers Park location, which is closer to the city. The wings are small – able to be eaten with one hand – flavorful and crispy. We ordered up a pan of spicy chicken wings, settled down in front of the TV and watched the Chicago Bears game. These are wings that are not to be missed. 

(Buffalo Joe’s, 1849 W. Howard Street 773-764-7300 – Multiple Locations) 

On my last day, I decided to try two authentic taco joints that I had heard a lot about. I knew that I was meeting my brother for a final lunch at the famous Wolfy’s on Peterson, so my plan was to order one taco, take a bite and head to the second place. My first stop was to La Pasadita. La Pasadita is unique in that they have three locations all within one block of each other – I suppose that competition with yourself is the best kind! I ordered their steak taco and savored the flavor of the skirt steak, then went on to Carniceria Leon, a local Mexican grocer. Head to the back of Leon and you’ll find a small counter with authentic al pastor, steak tacos and more. I ordered one steak taco and one taco al pastor, took one bite and wrapped the rest up to go. Leon hit the spot. Authentic meat, seasonings, cooking technique and best of all…made with love.  

(La Pasadita - Ashland, 1132 N. Ashland Avenue 773-384-6537
www.pasadita.com)

(Carniceria Leon, 1402 N. Ashland Avenue 773-772-9804) 


Having succeeded in my two-bite taco run, I met my brother and headed up to Wolfy’s on Peterson Avenue. Wolfy’s has been around for over 40 years. We sampled a variety of items from the menu, starting with the Chicago-style Italian Beef. Chicago’s Italian Beef is thinly sliced roast beef cooked in a blend of seasonings and left to soak up the flavors of the natural juices, or au jus. Unlike most restaurants, Wolfy’s makes their own Italian Beef along with their own giardinera (pickled vegetables). We also tried the cheeseburger with grilled onions, a basic cheeseburger enhanced by a fantastic char flavor from being cooked on a real charcoal grill. We somehow found room to split an order of fries and both tried a classic Chicago-style hot dog on a poppyseed bun. While there are hundreds of places in Chicago serving similar fare to Wolfy’s, this institution has been doing it just right since 1967. What a fitting way to end my Chicago culinary adventure with this classic hometown lunch! 

(Wolfy’s, 2734 W.Peterson Avenue 773-743-0207)