Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chicago Trip Planner

This is part of the retrospective on pieces I have written in the past that still seems relevant today.  This post was posted on Facebook on October 22, 2008 at 12:17am.  I will edit in the future with some photos that was in a separate Facebook album.

Sitting in front of Gate C32 of Chicago O'Hare Airport. This is likely my last hour in Chicago for a while. 

2008 is my Chicago year ... at least between August to October. Of the last 73 calendar days, I spent 21 days in Chicago! Some of my friends now ask if I am in Toronto or Chicago as the first statement. Even Facebook is pumping out Chicago ads on my home page!

With all the assistance from Sue, Cat & Kristian, I think I got some bearing of the city from my past 3 trips. Chicago has tons of very diverse interesting neighbourhoods to explore. In case you are considering visiting Chicago in the near future, below are some of my memorable moments trotting around these neighbourhoods.

Note: Most neighbourhoods I have listed below are accessible with public transit, if you don't want to deal with the hassle of traffic & rental cars. It does take some time to travel via 'el' (elevated train) & buses, so plan your day accordingly. You can get visitor day passes from the airport or the Water Tower visitor center downtown if you are planning to go to more than 2 neighbourhoods in a day.

Uptown (Red Line Lawrence/Argyle): I spent quite some time in Uptown as this is where Sue so graciously let me bunk at her place. It's an ecletic neighbourhood with lots of beautiful architecture, especially around the intersection of Lawrence & Broadway. I spent a lot of time just staring & admiring the decorative details on buildings like Aragon & Uptown. I had the opportunity to see a Tegan & Sara concert at Riveria, which is a beautiful but run-down theatre. Green Mill, frequented by Al Capone at some point, is in this neighbourhood if you are in the mood for some good jazz in a godfather-time-warp club. (My colleauge Howard does think it has lost part of its charm with the no smoking legislation now.)

Andersonville (Red Line Berwyn): A short walk away from Uptown is the commercial strip in Andersonville along N Clark. There are a lot of interesting independent boutiques like Women & Children First bookstore, Foursided and the large Gethsemane Garden Center. There are also a number of interesting places to eat & drink. My personal favorites include beer at Hopleaf, wine at In Fine Spirits, pastries at Swedish Bakery, cinnamon buns at Ann Sather & coffee at The Coffee Studio. The Middle Eastern food at Reza's is also very good, although I had my Reza's meal at the Oakbrook Terrace location & not Andersonville.

Lincoln Square (Brown Line Western): Lincoln Square is a German heritage area, although it is now very gentrified (like many other neighbourhood). The Chicago Brauhaus is supposed to be a good spot for sipping beer & hanging out, although I did not have the chance to do so. The commercial area is not large but nice to stroll along on a lazy day. Take a walk & have a coffee at The Grind. If you are looking for good brunch, don't miss Over Easy. It is slightly off the main commercial strip, but the Sassy Eggs are worth the travel! Not to be totally over-fed & under-read, make sure you check out the concert schedule at Old Town School of Folk Music. The auditorium is intimate with excellent acoustic. I went to a Latin / South American music performance by a local group called Mosaico. (I must be the only person in the hall that do not know Spanish!) The community atmosphere with the crowd dancing to the music was truly amazing!

Lakeview / Boystown (Red Line Belmont): Lakeview is quite a large area where I went on 3 different occasions - night show in Boystown, dinner/drinks, and baseball game at Wrigley Field. Boystown spans a few blocks, which is quite a bit larger than the Toronto Church Street gay village. I roamed around somewhat "early" in the night, so it does not seem as crowded as a Church Street weekend night. The Center on Halsted is an amazing community center that makes our very own 519 almost looks shabby. When I went to dinner on a separate night, I passed by the store front of my favourite t-shirt place Threadless, and the Intelligensa coffee shop that I unfortunately do not have the pleasure to go to throughout my stay. I did get a chance to eat some very flavourful Korean style fried chicken at Crisp! They mixed up our orders, and we (Sue, Cat, Kristian & I) ended up with 23 pieces of fried chicken of 3 different flavours in front of us! I'm a die-hard Plain Jane fan, while the others enjoy the Crisp BBQ & Seoul Sassy flavours more. It's interesting having Korean pickled vegetables as sides to the fried chicken in addition to the North American traditional coleslaw. After that, we went to Cat's favourite pub Jake's. It may look like a regular neighbourhood bar from the outside, but you can a great selection of domestic & import beer both on tap & in bottles. Nothing beats hanging out with friends on a weekend night at a dog-friendly neighbourhood pub. 

[Note: I have since then visited Intelligensa in the loop & tried their clover coffee.  I must say I was disappointed at the taste of the coffee.  The place is also decorated quite mainstream so not much of an ambiance.]

Wrigley Field (Red Line Addison): Many thanks to Sue for her organization & to Kristian & Cat for accommodating my travel schedule, I managed to take my mom & aunt to see a Cubs game (vs Astros) at the historic Wrigley Field. This is my first time seeing a non Blue Jays MLB game outside of Skydome / Rogers Centre. What a difference it is! The park was packed with 40000+ fans, none too shy to cheer for their beloved cubbies. The atmosphere from the enthusiasm and seeing the sea of fans both inside the park and outside on the rooftop bleachers were breath-taking. Sue brought some tacos from Carmella's to help my tacos craving, and what is a ballpark experience without a famous Chicago dog? (I did cheat & got a bratwurst instead.) Although it was hot & muggy that day, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience! 

[Note: I have since gone back for another cubs game at Wrigley, on a cold sunny day.  This time I had cheese fries & although it's processed food galore, the combo was really tasty!]

Lincoln Park (Red Line Fullerton): If you are in Chicago in the summer, make a point to visit the Lincoln Park Green City Market on a Saturday. It is quite a large green market with all sorts of fresh local produce. It is right beside the zoo and the beach if you want to take a walk to enjoy some nature. Taking the free trolley from the el station is a good way to see the neighbourhood. I went on another occasion to the Apollo Theatre to watch Baby Wants Candy improv. It was very funny, particularly the improv rap. Before the show, I got some nice Japanese food at Ringo. Everyone knows I am a BIG fan of sticky rice related products. I am so happy to find mochi yaki at Ringo!

Logan Square / Bucktown / Wicker Park (Blue Line Damen/Western): This area is a nice shopping area with mostly smaller label shops. There is one area on Damen that has a few brand name stores like Marc Jacobs, Club Monaco & LeSportSac. Don't miss the Kidrobot Pirate store until Dec 2008, and the Boring Store along Milwakee! I especially love the concept of the Boring Store - I wish I can some day run such a fun yet meaninful operation. If you are hungry while in this area, you are in luck for some truly unique ethnic foods. My favourite is the jibarito at Borinquen Restaurant in the nearby Humbolt Park. If you know me, you know how I love plantains. Combine that with juicy tender steak and I am converted to this Chicago delicacy! If you are still hungry after that, consider getting a Middle Eastern influenced burrito-looking pita-esque "taco" at Cemitas Puebla. I did not have their famous cemitas but I was drooling when they were served to the next table. For the less adventurous of ethnic foods, brunch at Lula's over at Logan Square a few blocks down is a good choice. 

[Note: I went back to try the cemitas & I really love it!  The 3 different salsa / hot sauces provided were all exception, although my favourite would be the one with some smoky adobo sauce.]

Loop: The best way to see the amazing architecture around the loop is on an architectural boat tour. Loop art tour is another interesting way to visit some of the famous buildings and art pieces, including the Bean & the Fritzker Pavilion at Millenium Park. I was lucky enough to catch the opening of the jazz festival playing at the Fritzker Pavilion. The acoustic was great for an outdoor venue, and the atmosphere of people having a nice picnic while enjoying top notch jazz music made it one of the best jazz experience I have had. I was also lucky enough to see the Jeff Koons' exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art during my stay. Even though the Art Institute was under expansion, it took me over an hour to walk through the exhibits. Nighthawks seems to be the pick of my colleagues; I like it too, along with Van Gogh's The Drinkers and Irish Question. I did not do much shopping along the Magnificent Mile - My biggest shopping spree was getting bacon chocolate (yes you heard that right!) and sugar free fire hot chocolate bars at Vosges.

[Note: Forgot to mention a great steak dinner at the original Morton's.  Enjoyable & less pretentious than I imagined.  Of course it helps when someone else is picking up the tab!]

Pilsen (Pink Line 18th Street): I am a BIG fan of Mexican food. For my first trip, Kristian helped organize a taco trot around town. One of the stops is to savour some juicy carnitas in Pilsen at Carnitas Uruapan. Get a pound to share with a crowd, and you will find yourself in pork heaven! To walk off some of that, check out the National Museum of Mexican Art in the neighbourhood. Or roam around to shop for a pinata. If you are there on a warm sunny day, be sure to get distracted by the paleta guy on your way. The flavour choices can be overwhelming for a paleta newbie - nudge nudge for coconut, mango & tamarind depending on how full you are at the time.

Chinatown (Red Line Cermak): Coming from the densely Chinese populated Toronto, the Chinatown in Chicago seems very quiet and old school in comparison. It is predominantly centred around restaurants & grocery stores, although I have been told the quality of Chinese food is not really comparable with that in Toronto. If you come to this area, don't forget to check out the nice park where the water taxis dock. For those who have lived in Hong Kong, this is one of the few neighbourhoods in North America you can find people having the HK style iron gates on their front door instead of a storm door!

University of Chicago / Hyde Park (Green Line Garfield then bus to near E 57th St/University): If you are interested in historical architecture or just seeing one of the top education institution in US with alumni like Friedman, have a stroll around the U of C campus. Check out the Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House while you are there. And maybe get a coffee or ice cream at Bonjour Bakery, where Obama goes to eat. (At least according to the servers' t-shirts, he does.)

Special Mentions: As a foodie, there are a few other memorable food places that may not be as easily accessible by el, but worth checking out if you have a car. First one is Hot Doug's, a specialty hot dog place. I had their kangaroo sausage, crawfish/pork sausage & the Marty Allen along with duck fat fries, all very tasty. Beware of their long line up and short operation hours so budget plenty of time to enjoy your dogs. Another 2 places I want to mention are all up in Arlington Heights, a suburbia neighbourhood north of Chicago. There seems to be a concentration of Japanese people in this area. I stumbled upon a great Japanese izakaya restaurant called Kurumaya. They made the most wonderful garlic fried rice that I have never had elsewhere. Their hand drawn menu was unique & was quite entertaining and educational to read through. Mitsuwa is a large Japanese department store close by. I used to frequent Mitsuwa in Costa Mesa when I worked there. This one has the same familiar layout. I was very happy to pick up some nice sake while there. 

[Note: I have since then accumulated a few more Chicago fav chow - Lou Malnati's deep dish pizza, Portillo's Italian beef sandwich (which apparently is also a Chicago invention like jibaritos), and Superdawg Chicago dog & onion chips.  There is also a large Korean population in Niles - I was quite impressed with the H Mart in the area but have not yet had a chance to try any Korean food yet.]

Enjoy the windy city!

1 comment:

  1. i love this! Thanks for the list I can plan my 3-day trip a bit better.