Chicago Eats: Part 1 – Portillios, Big Star, Lou Malnati’s & Xoco

Last weekend I went to Chicago with my three best friends and had a pretty fantastic time. Heading into this trip I knew that food wasn’t going to be the main attraction for the weekend. Two of my friends are somewhat picky eaters and they weren’t in the mood to embrace their inner foodie, but we made compromises and made a list of a couple restaurants we wanted to try while we were in town. Being my first visit to Chicago, I had to do some of the touristy eats like Deep Dish pizza, Italian Beef and Chicago Style Hot Dogs. While I’d love to return to Chicago with a lot more cash and really go wild, I think we ended up doing really good on a small budget and limited time frame. This will be part 1 of my food adventures, check back tomorrow for part 2.

The first stop of our Chicago trip was to Portillo’s, a very popular local chain restaurant that was a couple blocks away from where we were staying. We walked inside and I was immediately shocked by the size of the place. It was set up with different stations; one counter for desserts, another for the grill and one for beer/drinks. My friend Mike and I split an Italian Beef sandwich (gallery) and I also ordered a Hot Dog with everything (above), a french fry and a large Fat Tire. The beef on the sandwich was very tender and incredibly messy but they really skimped on the hot peppers. The hot dog was loaded with the traditional Chicago fixings: tomato, pickle, mustard, relish, chopped onions and sport peppers on a poppy seed bun. The actual dog had a nice flavor and a good snap. The fries were pretty standard and our large beers were served in large glass goblets that were almost comical but incredibly cheap at just $5. It was a good start to our weekend and also a really great cheap eats, all together I spent less then $10 for everything.

After a trip to the North Avenue Beach and a couple drinks at Castaways, we made our way back into the city and decided to knock another touristy meal off our list and get some deep dish pizza. Before heading into the city I had asked several people about deep dish recommendations and many told me to try Lou Malnati’s, so that’s where we headed. We originally had planned on ordering our pizza to go and then just eating it back at the apartment, but after noticing the restaurant was nearly empty and talking to the hostess, she set us up in a dining room with sweet leather chairs. The pizza came out and I was a little disappointed, I was expecting some insanely thick pizza but it really wasn’t as ‘deep’ as I thought it would be. We ordered half sausage and half pepperoni and I enjoyed the sweet/chunky sauce and the very large pieces of sausage. The crust was thick and had a really big crunch that slowly won me over as I ate more and more pizza. The experience wasn’t exactly eye opening but was still enjoyable. I’d like to try some other Chicago staples before I made any final judgements about deep dish style pizza.

We caught a Cubs came on Friday and spent some time hanging out in Wrigleyville before taking a bus over to Wicker Park to try Big Star. In the weeks leading up to my Chicago trip, the one restaurant that came up over and over again was Big Star, a cheap taco joint. For some reason I assumed the place was going to be a dive but we quickly realized that it was a very hip hang out and there were a lot of 20 somethings that were dressed to impress. Instead of waiting in a long line to get a table, we decided to order from the “to go” counter and sat at their picnic tables instead. This was another great cheap eats as the tacos were all $3 and absolutely loaded with meat. I ordered the Taco De Panza (pork belly, above), Taco Al Pastor (pork shoulder) and Taco De Pascado (fried tilapia, gallery). It only took about 10 minutes for the food to come out and I destroyed those tacos almost immediately. The pork belly had a great marinade and flavor and was cooked long enough to give them a nice crunchy bite. If I had brought more cash I could have eaten another 3 tacos. My friend Eric ordered a Sonoran Hot Dog (gallery) which was a gigantic hot dog that was wrapped in crispy bacon for $7. I’d love to go back when I have more time and really hang out with some beers, tacos and maybe a couple $3 whiskey shots. Fun fact: Literally across the street is a very cool speakeasy called The Violet Hour that we visited a night later; the inside was very large and had a cool vibe (albeit with uncomfortable chairs). We arrived 30 minutes before closing, so the place was starting to empty out and we got our cocktails right away. If you’re into the cocktail/speakeasy scene, check it out but be prepared to wait a while for a table/drink during peak hours.

I really wanted to visit a Rick Bayless restaurant while we were visiting so we settled on Xoco since it was cheap and could be a quick stop. Luckily we arrived before their major lunch rush, as we got up and left the restaurant there was a long line out the door. We all ordered off the Tortas menu, Mexican sandwiches that were finished in a wood burning oven. I tried the Cochinita Pibil Torta (suckling pig, above) that was topped with achiote, black beans, pickled onion and habanero. The bread was warm and had a great crunch, the pig was a little dry but had a good flavor that was great with the black beans and pickled onion. We also ordered a couple small dishes. The Pickled Pigs Feet Tostada (gallery) were incredibly sour and didn’t have a great flavor or texture which was disappointing. We also ordered the Chicharrones (fried pork rinds, gallery) that were really hard to eat, they literally almost hurt my teeth at times. Besides the unfortunate texture, they were covered in hot sauce, queso añejo and cilanto and some of the softer pieces were awesome.

Check back tomorrow for part two of Chicago Eats where I write about my meals at Publican, Grahamwich, Al’s Beef and Slurping Turtle.

Photo Gallery:

Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on UrbanspoonXOCO on UrbanspoonLou Malnati's Pizzeria on UrbanspoonBig Star on UrbanspoonViolet Hour on Urbanspoon

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