What We Ate: The Polar Vortex and Chicago Deep Dish

Traveling with family is difficult enough, but add a polar vortex to the mix and its a recipe for bad food decisions. It’s also the perfect conditions for fortuitous accidents.

I flew out to Chicago just as the temperature started creeping into the negatives. I know, bad timing, but no one warned me that shit was going to get real when I booked this trip several months ago.

Let me set the stage. I recently lost 100 pounds, so I’m one of those people who sits huddled in a chair wrapped in a blanket while everyone else is shedding layers and whining about the heat. Hey, it’s my house and if I want to set the thermostat to 80°F, it’s my business. And the power company’s. Anyway. When I stepped out into the Chicago air, the wind chill felt like an angry, cold fire ripping into my exposed ankles. That’s when I realized: I don’t know cold.

North Chicago

The first night in town we drove to North Chicago where we planned to spend a few days seeing my nephew after he graduated from Navy boot camp. I talked my mom out of McDonalds in favor of a local Mexican joint in the only strip mall in town. We literally raced from the car to the door, shouting in shock as we grabbed the metal door handle. We found a seat far as from the door as we could, but it’s a tiny store, so every seat is near the door.

The street tacos were nice, bolstered by the fact that my last meal was airline nuts and a beef stick squirreled away in my carry-on. The beef tongue was buttery and the chorizo had a nice spice to it. I don’t know, my taste buds were frozen. It could have been Spam tacos (note to self, Spam tacos?) and I would have been happy.

Day 2

For our next meal, I lost the battle for foodies everywhere and we ended up at Chili’s, mostly because a massive storm was blowing in and it was on the highway that led to our hotel. The nice thing about Chili’s is that it tastes the same no matter where you are, so you can count on a consistent meal. I didn’t say good, I said consistent. I personally find the food to be boring. It makes me itch to go into their kitchen and start improvising, because they know how to nail the fat+sugar+salt combo, but they can’t take risks with their food.

I mention it, though, because after we finished our meal (I got the buffalo chicken salad), someone anonymously paid for it all to thank my nephew for serving our country. Let me repeat that. Someone paid for four strangers, including appetizers and dessert, out of the kindness of their hearts.

I write about and edit the news for a living, and sometimes it starts to feel like everyone has hunkered down into their silos and kindness to strangers is a thing we only see on ’50s sitcom reruns. I get upset some days thinking about how we approach one another in this political climate. I’ve been told by my family that I’m the only good liberal they’ve ever known. Think about that for a minute.

So politics aside, good people are still out there. This kind person reminded me of that.

Day 3

Our last day in North Chicago ended at Full Moon Family Restaurant. Let’s just say it made me long for Chili’s.

I got the chicken parmesan – complete with canned parmesan – and it reminded me of the days when the school lunch was below its usual standards because the head lunch lady was out sick. I can’t even talk about the salad that started the meal. I’m not against iceberg lettuce as a concept, but I am against browning iceberg lettuce served up with sweet, gelatinous ranch dressing. Avoid.

Chicago

Our first day in Chicago, we popped into Chinatown.

We ate at the first restaurant we came to that was A: open and B: heated. Sometimes rash food decisions work out and sometimes they don’t. This worked out. I drown myself in warm tea and eel cooked in the wok. It was delicious. The eel was meaty and tender with toothsome pieces of mushroom and peppers. The owner was kind enough to brew us a second pot of tea when we returned to get warm after wandering the streets for a few minutes.

I’m not a shopper, but the bright colors and heating kept drawing me into the shops.

Day 2

The next day, my mom and I braved the Miracle Mile. Well, half of it, anyway. We ate at the Capitol Grille on St. Clair Street. The salmon had a delicate crisp around a flaky pink center that almost made up for the food mistakes of the past few days. The warm, pillowy bread was the stuff of dreams.

For dessert, we grabbed Garrett Popcorn’s famous cheese and caramel mix and made an ill-advised dash to take a snap with the Cloud Gate. The nice part of vacationing in sub-zero temps is that you get the tourist spots all to yourself.

The bad part is that all your vacation photos show you with a rictus grin on your face that belies the pain that your ankles are in thanks to your stupid packing decisions.

A freezing human next to the Chicago bean

Day 3

Our last day in Chicago gave us -20°F and a windchill that took it down to -55°F. I can’t begin to describe what those temperatures feel like. Even growing up in Utah, where winter could get cold, this wasn’t within my frame of reference. It’s like describing water to someone on Mars. It hurt. It felt like the air was trying to kill me. It felt like a million icy claws scratching at my skin.

So we decided that the only solution was deep dish. Everyone we spoke to recommended Lou Malnati’s, which I take with a grain of salt. Everyone recommends Voodoo Donuts in Portland and I could personally go the rest of my life without eating another kitschy glazed.

Lou Malnati’s was worth the hype. The crust was cracker-crisp on the oustide, but warm and doughy in the center. We ate the classic, which has layers of tomatoes and wide, thin slices of saugage, topped with cheese so gooey it can stretch from one of the room to the other. It was, and I say this with the burn of the windchill still on my wrists, worth the cold.

Our last night ended in the hotel restaurant. Lucky for us, the Mercat a la planxa in The Blackstone is delicious. Bacon wrapped dates with a blue cheese sauce warmed my tummy as we took a cab to Hamilton.

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