Geoff's Chicago: A Foodie Escapade

Read more about Jim's Fried Pork Chop sandwich at
Photo courtesy of Jim's Original

Every year, at least a couple of dozen times a year, people ask me where are the must-eat places in Chicago if one wants to experience REAL Chicago food. I'm always more than happy to tell them because those eateries are steeped in tradition, history and happen to be high on my favorites list.

While much is written about Chicago's fine dining establishments, steakhouses, hot dogs, and deep-dish pizza, there are other foods that fly under the radar. They either aren't glamorous enough, not touristy enough or Chicagoans just like to keep it to themselves.

These are many of those places that just happen to be some of my favorites.

1) Jim's Original (1250 S Union Avenue)

This joint is one of the old Maxwell Street establishments, opened in 1939 then in 2001 relocated to make room for the expansion of University of Illinios-Chicago. It's actually just a couple of blocks west of its original location but it lost the ambience of gritty street-food with this cleaned up look. And while Chicago is famous for the Chicago style hot dogs, Jim's is famous as vendor of Chicago style Polish Sausages and pork chop sandwiches. The Maxwell Street sausages are a seasoned kielbasa that's been either deep fried or grilled and topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard. Typically, it is also topped with sport peppers as well. The Maxwell Street Fried Pork Chop sandwich is a bone-in center-cut chop that's grilled and served with grilled onions and mustard, then served on a plain bun. Both sandwiches come with nice greasy fries.

2) Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder Co (2121 North Clark)

Known as a pizza pot pie -- read more about it at
Photo courtesy of Chicago Pizza and Over Grinder Co
Everyone has heard of Chicago Style deep-dish pizza and stuffed pizza. However, Chicago is home to two other pizza styles, one which you can only find in this Lincoln Park facility. For a historical reference, the restaurant is directly across the street from the site of the infamous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre -- now a small parking lot. Unsubstantiated rumor is the Chicago Pizza building was the lookout building used by Al Capone's men. Invented by Albert Beavers, an attorney, the unique pizza is what he called a pizza pot pie. It is prepared with the cheese and ingredients first poured into a deep pan with the crust then draped over the top. After it's baked, it is inverted allowing all the gooey cheesy filling to ooze into the crust. It only comes in two sizes -- 1/2 pound and 1 pound. You will never find as much cheesy gooey deliciousness anywhere else.

3) Italian Fiesta Pizzeria (1919 East 71st Street)

Since 1951, this place has churned out a style of pizza now called Midwest tavern pizza. Unlike the other pizzas Chicago is famous for, this is thin crust particularly noted for the fact it's cut into squares and it's lacking a crispy cracker crust. Indeed, it is baked at a temperature slightly lower than New York thin crust and much lower than Italian cracker crust. You will also notice that the crust itself is heavily seasoned. There are a couple of other locations, but stick with the original because the oven is original and well seasoned; you could throw a newspaper in it and it would come out tasting like pizza! But how did it wind up in such a questionable neighborhood? The South Shore neighborhood was once heavily Italian and Jewish. In fact the neighborhood was home to Fred Goetz and Murphy Humphreys of Capone's Outfit, playwright David Mamet, Larry Ellison in his youth, and most recently Michelle Obama. In fact, Michelle's husband declared Italian Fiesta as his favorite pizza. Through the years, even as the neighborhood saw its crime rate increase, Italian Fiesta has remained as an anchor.

4) Lem's Barbecue (212 East 71st Street)

Chicago owns its own style of barbecue that isn't nearly as heralded as Memphis, Texas, Kansas City or Carolina 'cue. Chicago's was born from the famous Chicago Stock Yards discards and migrant ingenuity. Much like all other barbecue, preparation was determined by the (then) cheap cuts of meats -- the ribs. Back then ribs were the undesirable crap that more affluent whites ignored. Black migrants from the south were more than happy to buy them. The stock yards even gave away the gristly rib tips by the bucketload. Standard smokehouses -- like the ones found in the South and in Europe weren't allowed in Chicago since the 1871 Great Fire. So invention created these odd looking smokers with thick glass and shelves that are referred to as aquarium smokers. To speed up the process the aquarium smokers burn hotter and use wet wood to create lots of steam with the smoke. Thus, the membrane holding the meat breaks down and the result is fall-off-the-bone 'cue that is immediately slathered in tons of barbecue sauce. Featured at Lem's and other south and west side places are ribs, rib tips and hot links. Hot links? Totally not Texas sausage. Chicago hot links are greasier and hotter (with red pepper). They are smoked first, then dropped into a deep fryer much like the Polish sausage (see Jim's Original above). Everything is served atop soggy French fries soaked in barbecue sauce and a couple of slices of Wonder Bread -- which was at one time baked in Chicago. The experience is unique to Chicago and some southern suburbs. Lems is the oldest and best; they have the best rib tips/hot links combo.

5) Palmer House (17 East Monroe)

The Palmer House has a long storied history as the oldest hotel at the same site. But for Chicago foodies it is the birthplace of one of the most famous treats in the nation -- the Brownie. For the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 Bertha Palmer requested the hotel's pastry chef to create a small cake-like dessert for women that could fit in box lunches and their purses. The chef came up with the chocolate treat covered in walnuts. You can purchase freshly made brownies using the original recipe at the various restaurants and gift shops in the hotel.

6) Al's Beef (1079 West Taylor)

Back in 1938, Italian resident Al Ferreri took some slow roasted beef sliced it and continued to cook it in its juices before serving it up on an Italian roll with green peppers. Thus was born the Italian beef sandwich. The concept caught on and now you'll find several places that serve it. Al's is the largest seller with stores scattered throughout the city. But this is the original.
Read more about Taurus steak supreme at
Photo courtesy of Taurus Flavors

7) Taurus Flavors (8459 South Stony Island)

While most have at least heard of an Italian Beef, the steak supreme sandwich is mostly popular on Chicago's south side. It kinda like a marriage between a Philly cheese steak and the Italian beef. In 1966 Ed Perkins came up with the idea when he took sliced ribeye steak, chopped it on the griddle with chopped onions. He then topped the still cooking meat mix with American cheese and an Italian roll. After the bun gets soft from the steam of the cooked meat, they flip it, add sweet peppers, tomato and a homemade sweet sauce. The taste is a marvelous sweetmeat that generates long lines everyday. They serve other Hoagys and ice cream, but the steak supreme rules the menu.

8) Margie's Candies (1950 North Western)

There is a little debate on the matter, but facts are facts -- the Chocolate Sundae was invented in the north suburb of Evanston sometime in the 1880s. It was created by soda fountains after the town passed a law forbidding the sale of soda water on Sundays. They simply deleted the soda part and used only the syrup on the ice cream. Margie's is simply the oldest ice cream parlor in the city having opened 90+ years ago. Today, they offer up some of the most decadent sundaes in the country. Many combined with their homemade candies and called terrapins.
Read more about the Rainbow Ice Cream Cone at
Photo courtesy of Rainbow Ice Cream

9) Rainbow Ice Cream (1933 South Western)

Back in 1926 George Sapp -- a auto mechanic and ice cream maker -- opened this shop on the Western edge of the city, serving the signature cone. Today, the flavors remain the same; from bottom to top: Chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (a chocolatey, walnutty blend), pistachio and orange sherbet.

10) Greek Islands (200 South Halsted)

The gyro was not invented in Chicago, it was invented in Greece. But the lamb/beef blend meat was first mass produced here in Chicago and the largest manufacturer -Kronos Meats -- is here in Chicago. There is a little debate as to who came up with the idea to mass produce the meat but most agree that is also called a doner kabob in Greece. The restaurant that took credit for bringing gyros to the masses, Parthenon, abruptly closed in Greek town recently; no problem, Greek Islands serves up perhaps the best in the city with thick garlicky tzatziki sauce and pita bread. Here the dining rooms are big and boisterous with tons of Opa! merriment. Finish with an uber-sweet serving of Baklava. After (or before) dining visit the nearby National Hellenic Museum (333 South Halsted).

Visits to these oft overlooked Chicago originals gets visitors their REAL Chicago Foodie Creds!

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Geoff Burton spent 27 years writing about travel, food and film for publications both in the USA and around the world. His articles have appeared in Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France). His AfroTrek/CinemaTrek, the number three entertainment website in Chicago area.

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