Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Road Trip Recap - Part II: We're on a Mission for Dogs

Road Trip Recap: Part I

This place has got everything!
I've said it many times before, road trips to sporting events are the perfect excuses to visit places that I want to see.  Even though I'd been to Chicago before, I was absolutely dying to go back for a number of reasons.  Besides seeing an Original Six matchup on a Saturday night, there were a bunch of places (mostly food related) that I had prioritized on my itinerary.

Now, for those who don't know me well, or at least the non-rabid hockey fan side of me, in my spare time I fancy myself a bit of a foodie.  If I'm not grilling, roasting, sauteing or baking food, chances are I'm either watching sports or cooking shows on TV. And lots of No Reservations as well.  Tony Bourdain's show on the Travel Channel is pretty much my favorite show on TV and has been for quite some time now.

It was, in fact, while watching his episode where he went to Chicago, that I was inspired to redouble my efforts to see a Bruins/Blackhawks game there.  In particular, there was one specific restaurant I made it my personal mission to hit up on my trip, come hell or high water.

So, let's take a look back at my epicurean adventure in the Second City.

Friday Night

After working pretty much a full day (I banged out an hour early to avoid traffic on the Pike), I headed straight to Logan for our flight on Southwest. I got there in pretty decent time so I figured I'd park in the economy lot instead of central parking, saving a bit of cash in doing so.  However, I misread the signage (not an uncommon occurrence amongst travelers to the Boston airport) and ended up parking in the expensive ($24 a day) lot.  It was a small consolation, then, that I managed to get a spot right near the elevators to Terminal E.

Terminal E is best known as the international terminal at Logan. During the afternoon/evening, the terminal often slammed with passengers making their ways to a host of foreign destinations such as London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.  Fortunately, Southwest has it's own separate (domestic) mini-terminal within Terminal E, which means the security lines are usually on the small side.  Heather and I zipped through the line and headed over to the Boston Beer Works to grab a snack and a drink during our wait.  I'm a fan of the Beer Works, having been to their Canal Street and Fenway locations many a time. I ordered a pint of Blueberry Ale, Heather had a Victory Red and we split a cheese pizza as we were not looking at getting a real dinner until 10:00 at the earliest.  The beer was good, the pizza sucked and our bartender/waiter was straight out of central casting as an extra in The Town.

Once we landed at Midway, we hopped a cab into town where we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express at the corner of Wabash and Ontario.  Talk about the world's smallest hotel room!  This thing was a literal shoebox.  But, we weren't here to sit in a room and watch TV all day and it had beds, so we were good.

We then headed out and walked two blocks away to the corner of Grand and State to the Hilton Garden Inn that the rest of the crew was staying in.  It is also the home of one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world - The Weber Grill.

The Weber-Stephen Products company is based in Illinois and has its roots at a Chicago steel fabricator.  When it comes to grilling, Webers are pretty much the only way to go, whether or not you're a gas or charcoal aficionado.  Built well and delivering unparalleled performance, they are well worth the money.  I own 2 Smokey Joes and a Q220 for tailgating and a Genesis E320 for the home.  At the same time, they also put out some wonderful cookbooks, including the two I own: Weber's Big Book of Grilling and Weber's Real Grilling.

Ranch kettles in the kitchen of the Weber Grill
But the company also owns and operates the Weber Grill restaurant.  The premise of the place is that all of the food is cooked not under broilers or cooktops, but on commercial versions of the Weber Ranch Kettle, using real charcoal to add wonderful smokey flavor everything they grill.  I'd been there before, having ordered the BBQ combo plate with brisket, ribs, beans and cornbread.  It was awesome.  It was also a ton of food.  But it was so damn good and the smell of smoke permeating the air only added to the ambiance of the place.

So, we met up with the group and sat down for dinner.  Heather went with the Tuscan brick chicken, a take on the traditional pollo al matttone , served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes that she enjoyed so much that she was contemplating using them as a spa treatment.  I played it somewhat safe, given the late dining hour, going with a half rack of smoked St. Louis style ribs with cornbread and bourbon baked beans.  Being in Chicago, I felt that it was only right to wash it all down with a fine local brew, in this case a Goose Island Matilda, a take on a traditional Belgian pale ale.  It was delicious.

The half rack of St. Louis ribs with cornbread and beans
The ribs were fantastic.  The meat was tender, moist and smokey, literally just about falling off the bones.  The cornbread was the moist, cakey type that I love; not too sweet and full of roasted corn flavor.  But what really makes the meal here are the beans.  As much as I love baked beans (hey, I am a native New Englander, after all). these are some of the best I've ever had.  Loaded with beans, onions and burnt ends (the tips of smoked brisket) in a tangy vinegar and tomato-based sauce, they are to die for.  They have the recipe for them in one of their cookbooks, but I don't ever think I could truly replicate the experience of eating them in that perfect of an environment.

Saturday Morning

Hot Doug's
 The Sausage Superstore & Encased Meat Emporium
As much as I was looking forward to going back to the Weber Grill, there was one place that I was absolutely dying to go to: Hot Doug's.

I first heard about Hot Doug's watching No Reservations.  Bourdain was doing his typical shtick hitting up unpretentious holes in the wall with awesome food (which I love, btw) when he traveled to the Avondale section on the north side of town and found a neighborhood joint.  But this wasn't just any lunch counter. Far from it, in fact.

Chicago is home to some of the biggest names in the cooking world, a veritable who's who of modern gastronomy: Rick Bayless, Grant Achaz and Paul Kahan to name a few.  But I'm going to add Doug Sohn to that list, if he's not there already.

Doug's restaurant is a nondescript brick building on a street corner that has about 15 tables total decked out in bright primary colors and decorated with a variety of kitschy hot dog related paraphernalia and vintage posters. He does one thing and one thing very well: tubular steaks, or as he refers to it "encased meats". In other words, we're talking about hot dogs and sausages.
Doug Sohn, the true sausage king of Chicago
The premise is quite simple: he makes a variety of homemade hot dogs and sausages from scratch, often incorporating many high-end ingredients that you'd expect to find at fancy formal restaurants, and sells them at inexpensive prices.  He has a standard menu of items (with a rotating list of celebrity inspired names) as well as weekly specials featuring the 'game of the week' with game meat (currently wild boar) and the 'celebrity sausage of the week'. The place is only open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 to 4:00.

The city skyline from Navy Pier
Heather and I got up early in the morning to take a quick trip over to Navy Pier.  She wanted to grab a picture of her at the Bob Newhart Statue with Bob decked out in her black and gold scarf.  I had a bit more somber reason. My good friend Dave Gonzalez passed away there in an accident a few years back and I wanted to pay tribute to his memory.  It was a perfect sunny morning and there was a race along the shoreline that was finishing up, but the place was nice and quiet.  I grabbed some pictures of the skyline and the harbor and we hopped a cab back to the Garden Inn to meet up with the Barrys.

Knowing that Hot Doug's was a popular place, we decided that we should probably head out around 9:30 to get there when the place opened.  As it happened, the rest of the 307 crew wanted to make the trek with us as well.  Hey, the more, the merrier.

We got on the red line on the El and headed north to the Belmont stop where we switched over to the #70 bus. We got off at the corner of California and Belmont and made the quarter mile walk down to Hot Doug's.  When we got there around 10:20, the line was about 30 people long.  Fortunately, the sun was out and the building blocked the wind, because it was a good 45 minute wait before we made it inside.

But once we got inside, oh man, it was a revelation.

The menu wall
The first thing you notice is the size of the place - not big at all.  The menu is posted on the wall to your right and you wait in line to place your order with none other than the man himself, Doug.  In the meantime, the waitstaff is clearing tables and setting up seats to accommodate your group in anticipation of your order.  Signs posted make it abundantly clear that patrons are not to grab seats until they place their orders.  And because customers adhere to this, the system works as good, if not better than, any wait service I've ever seen.  I could not believe how efficient it was, really.

Doug is awesome.  A jovial character in his black framed glasses, he greeted us with the sort of genteel banter one would expect by wearing Bruins gear into enemy territory.  But it was all in good fun.

What else is a nice Jewish boy supposed to order?
Being in Chicago, there was no way I wasn't ordering a traditional Chicago style dog, a grilled all beef Vienna frank served on a poppy seed bun topped with onions, neon green relish, mustard, celery salt and a pickle spear.  At $2.00, it was beyond a bargain and tasted like pure Chicago-style comfort food.  I also ordered one of the specials of the week: a curry pork sausage topped spinach raita and crumbled blue cheese and drizzled with honey. Damn, it was fantastic.  The sausage was juicy and well seasoned, with the raita adding a creamy, but light vegetal touch and the honey adding a bit of sweetness. The addition of blue cheese was just gilding the lily.  I was blown away. As for a beverage, being the nice little mensch that I am, there was no way I was going to pass up a can of Dr. Brown's, in this case the diet black cherry (hey, I needed something to offset the damage I was doing with the food).

Counterclockwise: Chicken & spinach chicken sausage,
Thuringer sausage, Curry Pork sausage with spinach
 raita, blue cheese & honey, Chicago Dog, duck fat fries
Heather went with the Norm Crosby: A homemade Thuringer style sausage made with beef, pork and garlic.  She also had one of the other specials: a chicken sausage made with mozzarella and spinach.  She held off on the smoked  provolone and pesto aioli, however, choosing to go the naked route.  She loved it.

Tim and Maureen went with the Thuringer sausages as well and Tricia had the chicken and spinach sausage.  I think they enjoyed them greatly.  Paula and Patty were the lone tube steak holdouts, but they provided good company nonetheless.

But the piece de resistance were the duck fat fries.

Yep, you read that right, fries cooked in duck fat.

The legendary duck fat fries
One of Doug's signature offerings, the fries have reached legendary status along with his famed (or infamous) foie gras and sauternes duck sausage.  He only makes them on Fridays and Saturdays, so when we started to plan our trip in the summer, we knew we were going be able to get them.  For a mere $3.50 you get a heaping mound of fresh cut, perfectly crisp shoestring fries that were not greasy but oh so good.  Sadly, we only put a small dent in the basket as we were pretty stuffed from the meaty goodness the preceeded them.

I can honestly say that this is now one of my favorite dining establishments, ever.  I had high expectations to begin with, but this place blew them out of the water.  Just a fun time all around. I will make it a mission heneforth to return sometime (hopefully in the not too distant future).  Kudos to Doug and his staff, you rock.

Saturday Night

Our culinary exploits continued later in the day as we made our way into the United Center.  Having got to the stadium fairly early, we were afforded the opportunity to take an extended tour of the lower bowl and concourses to peruse the many concession offerings available to us.  Still somewhat full from the bounty at Hot Doug's, I wasn't in dire need of further sustenance, especially considering we had postgame plans for dinner anyways.

It wasn't even a quarter of the way around from gate 2 on Madison when it became readily apparent that this was not the TD Banknorth Garden.  Perhaps it's because the concessions are handled by Levy Restaurants and not Delaware North, but the food variety and quality puts just about anything and everything they serve back home to shame.  Besides a huge number of stand alone bars and lounges spread throughout the arena, there is a variety of food stands that sell everything from standard stadium food (burgers, fries, etc.) to Italian beef sandwiches, carved turkey and roast beef, ribeye steak and pork chop sandwiches and on and on.  Granted, you'll pay a bit for some of the offerings, but given the quality (the stuff looked damn good) and variety, fans would be hard pressed to not at least consider buying stuff like this back on Causeway Street.

Needing a little something to tide me over, nonetheless, I looked around for something along the lines of an appetizer, but I really didn't want fries or a pretzel or anything that I could get anywhere else.  Then I found exactly what I was in search of at the Sweet Baby Rays barbecue stand: fried mac and cheese triangles.

I've seen a bunch of bar menus that have had deep fried mac & cheese balls (a take on the popular arancini), but never have I seen it offered at a sporting venue.  I knew I had to try them.  Battered and deep fried, they were perfectly crisp on the outside and gooey and cheesey on the inside.  I shared them with the crew as we took in warmups from behind the Bruins bench and they were universally loved by all.  They went so fast, I wasn't even able to get a photo of them.

After the game, we made our way back towards the hotels and headed over to Pizzeria Due.  Part of the Unos chain, it was recommended to me by a number of friends who have lived in Chicago.  There was no way I was going to Chicago this time without grabbing some deep dish pizza.  It was around 11:00 and I was starving.  I ordered up a personal barbecue chicken for me and the rest of the crew went with two pies, a plain cheese and a sausage. I also went with a Goose Island 312, a light wheat ale that was perfect with such a heavy meal.

The BBQ chicken pizza at Due
It was everything I had hoped for.  Cheese on top of more cheese, tangy sauce, caramelized onions and tender chicken inside a tender crust.  Everybody seemed to throughly enjoy the food.  I managed to have a bit of the tomato sauce on one of the other pies and it was some of the best I've ever tasted.

Was it the fanciest meal I've had? No.  Was it the best pizza I've had? Nope (Todd English's Figs holds that honor for the time being). But it was exactly what I was looking for and it made me happy.

In all, I fulfilled my mission to hit all the places I had intended on going to, but Chicago being the food Mecca that it is, I was left wanting more.  And dammit, I'm making sure I'm going to get back there, and soon.

Next Up: Part III - Seeing Red, the Madhouse on Madison

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