Given all the travel of the previous day we needed a bit of a lie-in. 9a.m may still seem early to some but when you have a long weekend to explore everything a city has to offer you can’t afford to spend a day sleeping in. We got ready for the day with the plan of staying out exploring all day. After getting ready we headed for the train into the city centre for our Chicago Food Planet Food Tour to start the day. Food tours are a great way to explore the history and famous cuisine of a particular place and despite their sometimes high ticket price I think the quantity of food and the amount of great foodie recommendations you get really makes it worthwhile.
Our first stop and meeting spot of the tour was Lou Malnati’s for the famed Chicago deep dish pizza. The group was varied in age but we were the only international travellers with the rest being from other states such as Rhode Island, Virginia and Colorado. We all congregated in the entrance to Lou’s before sitting down to enjoy a slice of wonderful pizza. We were served the traditional margarita style but the deep dish element meant that this was no ordinary pizza. The crust is baked like an all butter hard pastry and then cheese is sprinkled on top followed by original recipe tomato sauce, unlike a standard pizza its cheese then sauce. It was sublime and a great way to start off the morning. Lou Malnati’s is one of the oldest deep dish shops in Chicago dating back to 1971 and there are now a number scattered around the city. Given the crust is trademarked “Buttercrust” it really is a must visit when in the city.
Our next stop was for a sweet snack – churros from Xoco. The essence of the restaurant is a street food café serving Mexican snacks. Given how tiny it is we waited outside for our churros which are fried and served piping hot with a cinnamon sugar mix and an optional side of dipping chocolate sauce. We were served ours without any sauce but the sweet cinnamon sugar was enough to set these as being pretty fantastic options. It was also really nice to understand a bit about the Mexican heritage of the city. You find good Mexican food in a lot of US cities given it shares a land border and Chicago is no exception. Usually, I am a little hesitant at opting for Mexican as it has developed into Tex-Mex which is not to my taste at all but Xoco is serving up authentically spicy tacos and other interesting street eats and is somewhere I would really like to go back to in order to explore more of the menu.
It was a bit of a walk to our next stop which was nice to break up the eating a little. We took in some of the extraordinary architecture that Chicago is so well known for and our guide Rachel had some fantastic knowledge of the history of the city including the great fire, and how it was rebuilt afterwards. After our stroll we arrived at stop number 3 – Al’s Beef. This place looked a little like a rustic McDonalds. They cleared an eight person table for us and the others just stood. The famous dates back to 1938 when the founder Chris Pacelli started a neighbourhood beef stand in Little Italy and it grew from there. The sandwich is served on soft white bread with lashings of slow cooked beef (which is wet meaning the sandwich has to be consumed pronto) covered in gravy topped with 2 peppers and some chilli sauce and cheese. We each had half of a sandwich which could be topped with extra chilli (this was served on the side to cater to everyone). The chilli really made the sandwich and it was definitely worth the $5 price tag. A definite must try cheap eat in Chicago.
We had a short walk around the corner to what seemed like a games arcade. When we entered all we could see was a bustling food court reminiscent of when you go to a theme park and they have food places crammed with people and loud music. We ventured upstairs to locate a table and sat down to wait for the famous Chicago hot dog. Portillo’s is another Chicago institution and even for those who don’t rate hotdogs I would recommend checking this place out just for the atmosphere. It was really cool. Our hotdogs soon arrived and Rachel explained the set-up which included not one, but seven toppings! These were; mustard, onion, relish, pickle, tomato, peppers and celery salt. It was definitely a taste explosion. I am not a massive hotdog fan but I appreciated the chance to try it Chicago style and for those who are fans, they seemed to go down really well.
We were feeling full at this point and so we headed for another longer stroll back towards Michigan Avenue for our final 2 tastings. The next option was again a snack at the famous Garrett Popcorn. We waited outside away from the queues and Rachel returned with a taster of their most famous Chicago mix – cheese and caramel. At first hearing this I was definitely sceptical. Firstly – cheese popcorn? Secondly, savoury and sweet? I gave it a go and it was actually a really good mix. Americans have a habit of going overboard on sweetness (for me) and while the caramel was delicious I would never have managed more than a few pieces, it was sickly sweet. However, the salty cheese, which I have to admit wasn’t super appetising on its own really cut through the sweetness well. If you are going – definitely have faith in the mix. Neither of the popcorns I would eat alone but together they were a match made in heaven.
Our final stop – just along from Garrett’s was a surprise. We had the opportunity to order cocktails in advance which we both did before arriving at Copper Fox Gastro Pub – inside the Marriott hotel. This gastropub is obviously not a Chicago institution like some of the other stops on the tour but it is a pretty nice end location for the tour. We were served our sweet chocolatey cocktails – a little like a White Russian but more of a brown Russian with the heavy chocolate liqueur. Despite the sweetness it still had a kick and so I ended up with two. The final food was an excellent pairing with the cocktail – a Nutella brownie served warm with a butterscotch whisky sauce. It was the only food item on the tour I wasn’t a fan of but given I don’t really like Nutella or whisky it wasn’t really a surprise. Yasmin loved it and was more than happy to eat mine as well as her own. We stayed to hang out for a bit before making our way downtown to the museum campus.
Our Chicago Pass allowed us access to all of the museums and attractions on the museum campus but we only had the afternoon left to explore so opted for the Field Museum of Natural History. I have to say, this was my favourite of all the museums we visited. In comparison to London, the Field Museum is much smaller and easier to manage visiting. We were lucky as part of our ticket with the Chicago Pass to get extras such as films and special exhibition tickets depending what was on that day. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out with dinosaurs (which were indeed real, much to Yasmin’s shock), a multitude of animal specimens, mummies and creepy crawlies. Given it was a weekend none of the exhibits were too busy which was amazing. There was a bit of a scramble for the iconic picture with Sue the T-rex but otherwise we just wandered around taking everything in. I was able to show Yasmin a lot of the wild animals I have seen on my travels and generally explore new areas of the world I have yet to visit. We finished our trip with a 3D film – Museum Alive set at the natural history museum in London narrated by my idol David Attenborough. It was a lovely relaxing afternoon and the Field Museum is definitely worth a visit.
Given how many times I have visited the US it is surprising to many that I have never seen a live Sports game. Sport is not something I am super interested in and so it has never been on my radar until now. Yasmin, on the other hand absolutely loves sports and so after some research we decided on the Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks basketball pre-season match. It was at home for the bulls so after arriving at the stadium (literally the biggest sporting arena I have ever seen) we had a browse around the official merchandise shop before heading in. After a slight miscommunication with our tickets, we were in and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. There was music blaring out on each floor, DJs mixing tunes, dancers. It felt more like a large-scale club than a sporting event. We picked up some drinks and headed to our seats. They were definitely the cheapest options but we could see perfectly and the atmosphere radiated around the arena so seat choice had little impact on our enjoyment. I can’t say I have a huge knowledge of basketball but it was easy to follow and we were super into I after a few minutes. We headed off at one of the many breaks to pick up food – I opted for a lavish pork patty burger, with pulled pork and bacon served with cheese and chilli and it was phenomenal. Definitely a step-up from the UK’s microwaveable event food. Some more drinks later (these all came in litre cups, because, well America) and the Bull’s won! It was such a fun night with great food, good entertainment and excellent company. For those not sure about whether a sports game is for them I would say give it a go! It’s an experience worth having, even for those not particularly interested in the outcome. When in America, do as the Americans do.
It was really bad rain when we left and after a big of a nightmare ordering an uber and loosing phone battery it took us a lot longer than scheduled to make it home. We got back eventually though and collapsed into bed after a busy but exciting day.