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Dining Out

Chicago 2011 Part 1a - Overview

by Michael Chu
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In June 2011, we had the opportunity to visit Chicago for a week. In addition to visiting museums, tourist attractions, and parks, we ate deep dish pizza, toured the Vienna Beef Factory, dined at Rick Bayless's restaurants and the world famous Alinea, and much more. Here's what we did...

For ease of navigation and to keep the page sizes down, I've split the trip report and reviews into multiple pages:
Chicago 2011 Part 1a - Overview (this page)
Chicago 2011 Part 1b - Overview
Chicago 2011 Part 2 - Shui Wah, Santa Anna Bakery
Chicago 2011 Part 3 - Pizzeria Uno, Giordano's
Chicago 2011 Part 4 - Gibson's Bar & Steakhouse
Chicago 2011 Part 5 - Frontera Grill, Xoco
Chicago 2011 Part 6 - Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, Frontera Fresco, Marc Burger
Chicago 2011 Part 7 - Alinea
Chicago 2011 Part 8 - Vienna Beef Factory
Chicago 2011 Part 9 - Girl and the Goat

For transportation, we purchased CTA 7-day passes from the subway station at the airport (and, later, a 1-day pass from Walgreens to cover the eighth day). These passes can be purchases before using, and they keep their full value until their first use (at which time the countdown begins toward expiration).

Segways Parked at Shedd Aquarium
The first thing we did after checking into the hotel was to go on a Segway tour of a few of the popular areas of the city: Lake Michigan, Millenium Park, Grant Park, and some of downtown. We enjoy riding Segways and thought this would be a great way to get a quick overview of the city and let us ride a Segway again. It was a lot of fun and definitely a great start to the week.

First Chicago-style Hot Dog of the Trip
Midway through the tour, we stopped at the Shedd Aquarium to take a bathroom break and admire the view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. We took that opportunity to grab a Chicago-style hot dog from the stand at the base of the steps leading up to the Aquarium.

Pizzeria Uno
For our first real meal in Chicago, we planned on eating at the original Pizzeria Uno location at Ohio St. and Wabash Ave. but when we showed up the lines were quite long and it was about an hour wait for a table. Unfortunately, we were quite hungry and couldn't wait. (As it turns out, the wait probably wouldn't have been as bad as we thought, since you preorder the pizza while you wait so it is ready about the same time as a table becomes ready.) We decided to come back to Pizzeria Uno another night and tried to find something else to eat.

After looking on Google Maps and Yelp and calling a few places, we discovered that wait times would be quite long just about anywhere that was popular and well reviewed. We were walking past a Big Bowl restaurant which had a decent number of people inside but no wait line, so... in we went.

Big Bowl - All Natural Chicken Potstickers
We started off with their All Natural Chicken Potstickers ($5.95) which were pretty decent. In fact, if they had been frozen, then they must have been very high quality as I could not tell.

Big Bowl - Gulf Shrimp Summer Rolls Sample
Next, without asking for it, they brought us a tasting of the Gulf Shrimp Summer Rolls because this was our first time at a Big Bowl and we were wondering how these tasted. They were okay. What was weird was that when we got the bill at the end of the meal, we were charged an additional $1 for something called "1st Timer". Since we could account for everything else on the bill, I can only assume they decided to charge us 50 cents per person for a food sample we never even requested.

Big Bowl - Thai Shrimp Fried Rice
Thai Shrimp Fried Rice ($13.95) was also okay...

Big Bowl - All Natural Chicken Pad Thai was their All Natural Chicken Pad Thai ($12.95).

Big Bowl - All Natural Chicken Dumplings
I was still hungry, so I ordered the All Natural Chicken Dumplings ($5.95).

All in all, the meal at Big Bowl wasn't bad, but it isn't any place that I would recommend.

Chicago Street Garden
While walking back to our hotel, we noticed that on Michigan Avenue (as well as some other streets) there are these small gardens (presumably maintained by the city) lining the streets.

Chicago Chinatown
The next morning, we decided to have dim sum at Shui Wah down in Chinatown. After lunch, we picked up some Chinese pastries for dessert and breakfast for the next few mornings. Click to go to Chicago 2011 Part 2 - Shui Wah, Santa Anna Bakery for details.

In the afternoon, we redeemed the first of our Chicago CityPass tickets. We found the CityPass to be a great way to see several attractions in the city. It comes with admission to Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, the Skydeck (the observation deck of Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower), either Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago, and either John Hancock Observatory or Museum of Science and Industry. Besides the overall discounts on all the tickets, the best thing about CityPass (and other similar attraction packages) is the ability to skip the general admission line at most of the attractions. When we showed up at the Skydeck, the Fast Pass admission line was the same length as the general admission line (there was no one in line), but at the other attractions it really cut down on the wait time.

Willis Tower SkyDeck - View of Chicago River (facing south)
I've been up many skyscrapers before, but somehow the Skydeck at Willis Tower really felt like a new experience for me when I realized that I was looking down at skyscrapers that looked insanely tall when viewed from the ground level.

Willis Tower SkyDeck - View of Lake Michigan and Grant Park

That evening, we returned to Pizzeria Uno (fully prepared for a wait) but we got seated only ten minutes after ordering our pizza. Click to go to Chicago 2011 Part 3 - Pizzeria Uno for the full review.

The Field Museum
We spent the next day at The Field Museum which we found to be an excellent natural history museum. Our passes didn't cover special exhibits, so we paid for access to the Horse and the Whale exhibits which were well worth the extra cost.

Kim & Carlo's Chicago Style Hot Dog Store
For lunch, we stepped outside of the museum and had a few Chicago-style hot dogs from Kim & Carlo's Chicago Style Hot Dog Store at the southeast corner of the museum exterior.

Chicago-style hot dog
We tried both a regular hot dog and a Polish sausage this time and preferred the regular hot dog. The flavor of the Polish sausage is quite a bit stronger and saltier than the hot dog which throws off the balance making the mustard, relish, pickle, tomato, sport peppers, and celery salt feel like background instead of an integral part of the experience.

After a full day at the museum, we returned back to the Magnificent Mile and wandered around until we decided it was time to eat dinner. During the last couple days in Chicago, I had asked various locals what were the food items that were not to be missed. Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, and steak kept coming up. (I found it interesting that the first two were extremely low cost versions of beef while the latter is also beef but at the other end of the price scale. Even a hundred years after Chicago's slaughterhouses are no longer one of their primary industries, beef is still a major part of their culture.) Where should we go for the best steak in Chicago? Two different people mentioned Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse as did Chowhound. So, off to Gibson's we went for what would prove to be yet another disappointing steak dinner. (Why is it that when places boast about their steak, it never seems to be any good?) I elaborate quite a bit on the experience in Chicago 2011 Part 4 - Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse.

Shedd Aquarium
The next day, we went back to Grant Park to the Shedd Aquarium (next door to The Field Museum). This is where the express VIP entry provided by the CityPass tickets helped out the most. We got to stand in a line about twenty feet long inside the building instead of the general admission line (shown to the left) that started at the same counter but went out the doors, down the steps, and almost reached the Chicago-style hot dog stand we bought our first dog from two days ago.

Shedd Aquarium - Chili Dog and View
Although the aquarium has a cafe, we weren't feeling like mediocre "sit down food". Instead, we chose to eat at the Bubble Net Food Court on the lower level which features fried chicken tenders, Italian beef sandwiches, and more hot dogs. (When we eat mediocre food, we prefer it to be food intended to be junk or mediocre.) I opted for the chili dog while Tina had an Italian beef sandwich (which turned out to be the best Italian beef we had during our whole trip; we had another one later in the day at the same food court and it wasn't as flavorful as the first one, so it seems to be pretty hit or miss).

There was an excellent jellyfish special exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium which rivaled one that I saw at the Monterey Bay Aquarium years ago.

Another Jellyfish

Last Jellyfish Picture

Italian Beef
After a full day exploring the aquarium, we went back to the Bubble Net Food Court to refuel with another Italian Beef (the previously mentioned "not as good as the first" sandwich).

View of Grant Park
The view from the Shedd Aquarium of Grant Park and the Chicago skyline is amazing.

This article is continued at Chicago 2011 Part 1b - Overview.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on August 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM
1 comment:(Post a comment)

On March 15, 2012 at 05:14 PM, an anonymous reader said...
You should've tried the Italian Beef at Al's or Portillo's! A food court is not the way to go. Get it hot, sweet, and dipped!

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