Top 5 Tastes: Encased Meats, Chicago Eats

While the city's haute dining scene is poppin' off at the moment, on my latest trip to Chicago I largely stuck to tradition, vowing to return and take the gastro route on my next trip.
07/22/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

Spending my formative pre-high school years in Chicago, I've always had a strong connection to the city, and remain close with many dear friends still there. I try to visit frequently and am always well-fed when I do. While the city's haute dining scene is poppin' off at the moment, I largely stuck to tradition, vowing to return and take the gastro route on my next trip. I loved every minute of my visit and had some fantastic snacks along the way. Back in New York, pasta was on the docket because, as you might have imagined, I really like gluten.

1. Chicago-Style Dog --Hot Dougs (Chicago, IL)
Growing up in Chicago, I relished (pun intended) any opportunity to enjoy a hot dog smothered in mustard, ketchup and all the traditional Windy City accoutrements. However, after learning of the oft' sinister components of a traditional street dog, I now generally steer clear, fearing the ingestion of certain unsavory animal parts. Last week, though, I broke my usual rule of dog denial, and my bestie, realizing the need for encased meat post-flight (and post haste), drove us from O'Hare immediately to famed institution Hot Dougs. Ever the traditionalists, we both went for the original Chicago dog in addition to another snausage and some otherwordly cheese fries. With a snappy outer casing and pillowy bun, the basics of the Chicago dog were unbeatable. The mustard and relish combined to form the ultimte tangy super-condiment while the caramelized onions added a rich umami flavor tinged with sweetness. Crunchy freshness appeared in the form of the pickle spear and tomato, while the celery salt deepened all the other flavors and gave a kick of its own. I'm not a fan of American cheese--finding the plasticky taste and texture alarming, to say nothing of the color. However, melted onto perfectly browned fries, and combined with condiments galore, I found the value in our nation's processed fromage of choice. A Chicago dog accompanied by cheese fries: what better way to greet the Mid West?

2. Deviled Eggs--Restaurant Beatrix (Chicago, IL)
A good deviled egg is a thing of utter beauty, and the opportunities for re-invention are endless. At Beatrix, a lovely restaurant in Chicago's River North neighborhood, the eggs expertly towed the line between tradition and innovation. Arriving atop a daub of unctuous pepperoncini aioli, the whites held mounds of a hearty filling -- mayonnaise, yolks and potatoes pureed together with fragrant parsley and chives and a hit of champagne vinegar. Capers, those plump salty jewels, adorned the oval ovo-treats, as did a refreshing duet of parsley and diced celery. The departures from tradition enhanced the classic dish, from the potato's added heft in the filling to the hint of acidic heat and velvety texture of the pepperoncini aioli. Always a delicate lady, I managed to consume my egg half in two bites, savoring the creamy, salty and yoketastic snack slowly and very happily.

3. Steak -- Friend's House (Chicago, IL)
Who doesn't love to be welcomed home with a steak? While the apartment I stayed at in Chicago isn't officially my home, I have spent many wonderful times there, and my hosts feel like family. My first night in Chi-town was spent digging into a summer feast of top sirloin, corn succotash, potato and mixed greens studded with fresh sweet strawberries. Like hot dogs, steak is generally not part of my frequent repertoire, but when a browned, slab of the good stuff is presented before me, I devour it like the red blooded female I am, with frequent dips of steak sauce and a crazed expression of carnivorous ecstasy. Cooked expertly by the lady of the house in a cast iron pan with some light seasonings, the meat was tender and juicy, a clear reminder of why vegtarianism wiill never be the Leah Bhabha way of life.

4. Garrett Popcorn - (Somewhere over Indiana?)
Hungover (sorry mum), nostalgic and already sick of Hemisphere's magazine, I immediately brightened my plane ride by cracking into a bag of Garrett popcorn, a Chicago classic I'd packed specifically for this purpose. It was a mixed bag (literally), containing both caramel and cheese, and its crunchy tastiness was a welcome distraction from the somnolent murmurings of my seat partner. The caramel variety, enrobed in saccharine crunchiness, was an ideal specimen of its kind, and left many a sticky snack for later in between my teeth. Delightfully artificial and brightly hued, the cheese flavor caught me orange handed after every bite, and upon arrival in New York, my chair looked like the scene of a tryst between two Cheetos. As in-flight pretzels and peanuts have gone the way of all other flight perks (ie, vanished), one must bring ones own snacks.

5. Daily Special: Reginette Pasta -- Pastai (New York, NY)
I found myself craving pasta (since my trip to Chicago was clearly an exercise in starvation) and decided to check out this new pasta bar I'd passed many a time. We ordered two pastas and a salad, and were particularly taken by the daily special. Thick frilly-sided strips of homemade pasta known as "reginette" were cooked to the ideal level of al dente; just slightly toothsome and far from soggy. The sauce was a buttery pesto creation, coating each piece of pasta beautifully, and filling the palate with a fragrant earthiness. Roasted summer tomatoes and asparagus moderated the rich sauce with their freshness while parmesan cheese added a salty decadence to the dish. Sliced scallion rounded out the pasta; an added textural component with a flourish of allium flavor. Each bite was a delicious journey through a summer garden, with every component seamlessly harmonizing without renouncing its own flavorful identity. Craving satisfied.