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From Portland to Chicago: A New Land of Foodie Dreams

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


The Chicago Theater via Wikimedia CC.

When I was young I imagined Chicago as a cold, crowded city of industry. Everyone shuffled from the factories to the pub, home to sleep in their Section-8 housing and then back to the factory. It was a grimy city of nightmares and gangster movies. Boy, was I wrong.

Sprouting out of the cornfields and stripmalled suburbs of the American heartland, this real-life Gotham looms out of the lakeshore fog, bursting with sexi sushi restaurants and authentic Tuscan bistros, not to mention hundreds of Polish delis.

Chicago doesn’t pulse with the frantic heat of Mumbai’s subway system, nor beckon like the aloof but pleasure-filled streets of Bangkok. Chi-City dances to its own steady, pulsing beat, confident in it’s solid, brown-bricked success. Chicagoans are both fiercely American and fiercely from somewhere else, may that be Greece, Italy, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or Ecuador. Pakistanis live alongside Indians, and Greeks alongside Lebanese, because hey, they use the same grocery stores and beauty parlors. And for such a giant city, people are surprisingly friendly here. While strolling down Lake Michigan’s beachfront, people look you in the eye, unlike colder-shouldered New Yorkers. 

Spending the holidays in Chicago, I was going to spend every spare moment exploring the depths of Chicago’s foodscape. I’d been devouring Lou Malnatti’s deep dish for days, but now I wanted more. My mission was to tour as many delicious ethnic groceries as I could in a day. If all went well, my booty would turn into a show-and-tell three course meal for my Midwestern in-laws. 

My first stop was Devon Avenue, home of Little India. I found glittering sari shops amid the ever present smell of curries heavy with coriander and cumin, wafting out of the Punjabi lunch buffets. Bright signs beckon in every window: Gandhi Electronics! Halal Goat and Lamb!  “Chaalo, chaalo! Let’s go!”  The musical sing-song of Hindi warms my heart. I weave through Indian couples with babies and stuffed shopping carts crowding Patel Foods, as I gleefully stock up on my favorite chaat masala seasoning, fresh methi greens, pomegranates, fresh white ginger and ooh! maybe some okra for grilling... Insider tip: I am told that the new produce arrives on Thursdays (Patel Brothers, 2610 W Devon Avenue) At Farm Fresh International Market two doors down, I find some long lost friends: fresh jackfruits, blood-purifying bitter gourds, even neem and mango leaves, indispensable for Indian Ayurvedic medicines and religious rituals (Farm Fresh International Market, 2626 W Devon Ave). I feast on bhaingan bartha, palaak paneer and sweet gulab jamuns at a corner dhaba. 

On my next stop through Lincoln Square, I popped into a Greek bakery for spinach pies and crumbly, honeyed tea cookies for later. The man behind the counter was so Greek I could barely understand his conseil, “Eat pie today, fresh-fresh!” (Hellas Pastry Shop, 2627 W Lawrence Ave). In Little Vietnam, the to-go Vietnamese deli Nhu Lan beckoned with fresh lemongrass chicken banh mi sandwiches, luscious mango smoothies with boba pearls, crisp papaya salad and fried sesame balls stuffed with sweet bean paste (Nhu Lan Bakery, 2612 W Lawrence Ave). I couldn’t resist a crispy Banh Xeo at Pho Lotus bistro, an aromatic fried crepe stuffed with shrimp and mung bean sprouts. (Pho Lily, 5100 N Broadway St). Nearby at the Middle Eastern bakery Al Khyam, I passed up the wide selection of goat and lamb cuts for fresh pita bread, pomegranate juice and baba ghanoush in a can (who knew?). The place smelled like stale cigarettes and was deserted compared to the crowds of Little India. (Al Khyam Bakery, 4738 N Kedzie Ave.) 

Ten miles down south, I pop into Rich’s, a grimy corner store from the street but an Eastern European treasure trove on the inside: barrels of fat sour pickles and sauerkraut, polish mother-approved kopytka dumplings and mushroom pierogies, and dozens of imported Czech pilsners to wash it down. The Ukrainian staff is smiling and helpful even on this 15 degree day (Rich’s Deli & Liquor, 875 North Western Avenue). In the artsy Mexican borough of Pilsen, El Milagro warms me up with sizzling steak tacos, loaded with cabbage, pico, and refried beans on a fluffy, homemade flour tortilla. You could try their equally delicious chili rellenos, but why? Did I mention that the steak is marinated all day, grilled fresh and melt in your mouth juicy? (El Milagro, 1923 South Blue Island Avenue). Mmm, tacos.... My feet are killing me but there’s only one store left on my list: Caputo & Sons. A megagrocery with wide aisles of international goods all under one roof, I pick up a score on a few lobster tails and a pound of the sweetest tiny clams for steaming (Caputo Fresh Market, 2400 N Harlem Ave). Phew, I barely fit all the loot in my trunk. The Rav4 full and my day complete, I drove back to the ‘burbs for the night. Chicago’s skyline faded into the night fog, lingering now as the Gotham city of my foodie dreams. 

Established in 1837, Chicago is situated on the Trans-Continental railroad line and the Great Lakes, so anything worth buying gets shipped through the Windy City. Sweet Jamaican pineapples? Maryland blue crabs? You got it. Of course, as the third most populous city in the US, Chicagoland burdens its fair share of struggling schools and gang violence. The visible disparities between the sleek red bricked townhomes of Lake Shore Drive and the slum apartments flooding Chicago’s south side weigh heavy on my heart, heavy enough to make me put a rock through a WalMart. But Chicagoans know how to survive. Sure there are food deserts aplenty, but community garden plots and farmers markets are springing up all over too. Here’s to the Second City. 

For more on Chicago’s food scene for cooks, check out The Kitchn’s ‘A Food Lover’s Guide to Chicago.’

An urban farmer and master gardener, Amélie Rousseau writes for fellow explorers and eaters of the plant kingdom. It's a jungle out there.

Banner Photo: Chicago Skyline via Wikimedia CC. 


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