Chicago Report - Sept. 2021

This will be long. Thanks to all who chimed in about where my sister & I should eat this past weekend. Not enough days/stomach real estate, but we did our best. Never had bfast out - usually just snacky stuff in our hotel room and/or leftovers from night before.

First night, unfortunately, we had a terribly disappointing dinner at The Publican. Everything was either meh to inexplicable to just bad. At first we kept thinking it was us, are we just picky, are we spoiled, etc. but no, it was just not good. The menu looked so great, so many things we wanted to try, that we decided to get the Chef’s Tasting. Nine courses. We also ordered half a doz. oysters apart from that to start. they were wonderful.

First course: Hamachi crudo with grapes and marcona almonds in a white gazpacho sauce. Made of grapes and marconas. Fish was nice and fresh, but the dish was too sweet. By “too,” i mean why would this be a sweet dish at all? 2nd: Pork rillettes with plum/plum compote. I loved the bread. The pork was underseasoned but this wasn’t too bad. 3rd: Prosciutto, melons and radicchio. Ok but rather a snooze. My sister said: the 80s called and they want their salad back. 4th: Quail, totally underseasoned, wild rice heavy on CINNAMON, and more grapes. Probably the one meat dish we would not have ordered ala cart. Such a weird combo. 5th: Mussels with some really good sausage (but only FOUR slices) in a pretty bland broth. 6th: Pork belly. What do you expect from pork belly? Sure, there are many different preps, but this wasn’t one I’d ever get again. Long pieces of floppy bacon in some unidentifiable, gloppy sauce, and bitter greens. We didn’t even finish this. Well, we didn’t finish a lot of these, but we didn’t finish PORK BELLY. Enough said. and this WAS something we would have ordered ala carte. 7th: Maybe the best dish. Squashes with a thick yogurt (though too much) and lots of dill. We ate more of this than the others. 8th: Calamari with not enough of some sauce, needed acid, more breading than calamari, and inexplicably, corn. Didn’t finish.

A note on service here: We were at a tiny outside table and had to ask after each course for them to take away the dishes from the last course before they’d put down the new dishes. One course after another, rapid fire! And then there was a 20-30 minute wait for dessert. I don’t even know why we waited. 9th: Profiterole. Tough pastry, some berry sauce painted on, bland corn ice cream, corn, popcorn, and blueberries. Popcorn was hard. We had 2 bites and asked for the check.

Cocktails tasted like they were pre-made. Service was friendly, but again, inefficient. And this was our most expensive meal of the weekend, by almost 3 times as much as anything else. Never again. Don’t understand all the love this place gets. We tried to be understanding about the covid situation - could affect service, etc. But the rest of our meals in Chicago proved that theory wrong. Maybe new owners/chef? It seemed like the chef was just trying things out with no concept of food/flavors. Very odd.

2nd Day: Lunch.
BF and I went to The Purple Pig TWICE when we visited, 5-6 years ago. I didn’t know they’d moved and no longer had outdoor seating :frowning_face: but my sister convinced me it was early enough,11:30, and we were one of only 3 parties when we started, and finished before it got super crowded. FOOD BLEW US AWAY. such a relief! Started with a dish that wasn’t pretty at all but had us moaning, and vied with 3 other dishes this trip for best of the weekend: Beets with toasted pistachios, pistachio butter, whipped feta. Unbelievably good. Fresh, great texture, lovely contrast between the sweet/earthy/salty flavors. Next, roasted marrow bones with the usual - parsley, thinly sliced onion, capers, grilled bread. Fab. 3rd, tuna tartare with a housemade cracker “basket,” avocado, some kind of citrus segments, and truffle oil. Wonderful, light and refreshing. Lastly, which we could not finish and took back to the hotel, a spectacularly tender pork shoulder roast with herb flavors permeating throughout the meat (just a tiny bit salty), crispy lentils, and the creamiest, most buttery mashed potatoes ever, with a fabulous thyme gravy. So much flavor. So happy i took my sister here. Renewed our faith in humanity.

2nd Dinner: Virtue, in Hyde Park, recommended by a friend’s friend who lives in Chicago. Excellent. Southern food, all wonderful. Sat outside on a gorgeous night. First, biscuits with pimento cheese - biscuits were more savory scone-like, but light and flavorful, and the pimento cheese was like I’ve never had pimento cheese before - so fluffy and the pepper flavor stood out. And, vying for best dish of the weekend: fried green tomatoes with shrimp and a remoulade that i almost licked off the plate. We then split a seafood etouffee over buttery “geechee” grits - those grits were cheesy goodness, the seafood all very fresh and perfectly cooked. Lastly, melty mac & cheese with a baked cheese top. all to die for, but we couldn’t finish the etouffee and biscuits/cheese and took them back to the hotel.

2nd day drinks:

Later that night we wanted cocktails with a view and found the rooftop Z Bar in the Peninsula Hotel, right near our much less ritzy Allerton Warwick. Very bougie, very $$$, but lovely views and hey, this was our first vacay in almost 2 years.

Z Bar - Rooftop cocktails

3rd day lunch: Portillo’s for a Chicago hot dog and Italian beef sandwich, both of which we split. Both super tasty, though they messed up both orders. The beef was really nothing to look at but had great flavor, but they forgot my peppers, and then my giardiniera sauce. And they also forgot the day-glo relish on the dog!! WTF? i had them add it after the fact. No pics because you’ve all seen that dog and again, the beef was really very homely. By the end of the trip we so wished we’d gotten another dog somewhere… next time.

3rd day, cocktails:

We found a great bar - Matchbox - serving outside right near a museum (Intuit) we’d gone to and had pisco sours and sidecars, sitting on their air conditioned patio.

Matchbox - Sidecar
Matchbox - Pisco Sour

3rd dinner: Bar Sotano, Rick Bayless’ daughter’s place. Another winner. I was not wowed by Topalobampo last time we were here, but we loved just about everything here. My sister got the famous mango/chamoy with Espolon tequila in a plastic bag, i got a very good Negroni made with their own proprietary mezcal and herby vermouth, to start. We split raw oysters with sour orange mignonette and topped with smoky salsa negra, and then green adobo broiled oysters. Next, the kampachi tlayudita. the fish was cured with a recado negro, and served on a blue corn tortilla with smashed avo and salsa. the fish was a little hard to discern with all the other textures. Next, elotes-style corn ribs - fun and tasty. Next, we split 3 tacos: Arabe, with slow-cooked lamb, fried chicken marinated in Oaxacan pasilla & garlic, and cauliflower al pastor. The first two were great, the third meh, as the cauliflower was so highly seasoned it didn’t taste like cauli and the pineapple overwhelmed it too. And lastly, carnitas taquitos ahogados, in a spicy tomato sauce with pickled vegetables. Next to the lamb, probably my favorite. i finished up with a “tacos al pastor” cocktail made with mezcal supposedly infused with the flavor of chorizo, and roasted pineapple, but sadly, i couldn’t discern any chorizo at all. still, a refreshing drink. I’d come back here as there is a lot more on the menu to try.

Bar Sotano - mango chamoy cocktail in bag
Bar Sotano - Poleo Negroni
Bar Sotano - raw oysters

Not even two blocks from there we stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of Jose Andres’ new restaurant Jaleo (only 2 mos old here). Tapas! After dinner snack? Hell yes! We were stuffed but that did not stop us from getting a seat at the almost empty bar and having a “snack” of the richest, most garlicky gambas al ajillo, and a lovely cheese (which i forgot to take a pic of) - Queso Massimo de Rey Silo - with sherried dried apricots, toasted marconas, and a wonderful bread flown in half baked from Spain and finished at the restaurant. Cocktails and cava too. Perfect ending to the night! Our bartender/servers were super fun & friendly, ad we vowed to come back the next night.

Jaleo- Cava & cocktail
Jaleo - gambas al ajillo

4th day lunch: 5 Rabanitos - Remember I said I probably wouldn’t want Mexican in Chicago because we’re in California and especially because my neighborhood is full of Mexican/Latin food? Well, if you ever hear me say that again please tell me to STFU, give me a swift kick, and remind me of 5 Rabanitos. We split the ceviche verde with shrimp, cukes, avocado, jicama, onion, and radishes - super fresh and light, and the broth was incredibly flavorful without being spicy (i added one of their salsas to each bite of mine, which was also not super hot but very smoky.) Fresh, homemade tortilla chips were hot and crispy. We also split two tacos: carnitas and cochinito pibil. I’d asked for the “cabrito” taco, but our server misheard me, and probably a good thing as my sister doesn’t like goat. The carnitas turned out to be really delicious, very tender and succulent. Lastly, we split the pescado al-pibil, Yucatan style. SO FREAKING GOOD. Very tender fish with black beans in a fantastic achiote sauce. One of those dishes you want to tip the plate up to your lips. While the neighborhood (Pilsen) is very much like my own here in SF, I’d come back just for this place alone.

4th day, snack. We stopped at The Smith hours later to have some bubbly and oysters, then went back to the hotel for a nap.

The Smith - oysters & bubbles

4th dinner: Jaleo
As promised, we returned here for dinner. Again, got good seats at the end of the bar, and all the windows, floor to ceiling, were wide open. Our lovely servers were in attendance again and just as charming. We started with cava and then my sister got a clara - a drink she’d loved in Barcelona - beer and lemon soda, while i had the Inside Out - Yzaguirre Rojo vermouth, Torres 10 brandy, Old Forester bourbon, bitters. Yzaguirre is one of my favorites, and this drink took me right back to Barcelona. We shared the gambas Zahara - head-on shrimp in garlic and olive oil - better to me even than the previous night’s because you get to suck the heads. Next, fuet y picos - a hard pork sausage from Spain served in a cone with little Spanish breadsticks. Next, amazingly beautiful Don Bocarte anchoas from the Bay of Biscay with pan amb tomaquet - delicate anchovies that weren’t super salty but went perfectly with the tomato toasts. Another top of the list for us. And last, a very typical dish of butifarra and alubias blancas with alioli. Butifarra is one of my favorite Spanish sausages - it’s always juicy and mild, and i love the pure porkiness of it. And here, the beans were crispy - a very nice touch to a rich dish. I so wish Sr. Andres would open one of these in San Francisco.

Jaleo - Clara
Jaleo - Yzaguirre Aperitif

Last day lunch: Parson’s Chicken & Fish - friend’s friend (same guy who recommended Virtue) also pointed us to this place, in Lincoln Park neighborhood. Such an inviting place! All open air, with a patio and a wide-open garage-like interior, playing bad 70s music and serving some of the best fried fish i’ve ever had, with certainly the best tartar sauce (housemade) I’ve had. my sister got the chicken (a leg and a thigh), which, while the meat inside was very flavorful and juicy, was fried too dark for her taste. I had to admit, they’d gone a bit overboard, but that didn’t stop us. Didn’t stop us from ordering oysters there too, and a second order of fried fish, along with our margaritas, her beer, and my last glass of a Portuguese, slightly effervescent white. This place was quite a jog (we took a Lyft) but I’d go back for sure. That’s the problem with this city, so many places I’d go back to, but sooooo many new ones to try!

Parsons - margaritas

Airport: Frontera chicken milanesa torta. We split this with our last glasses of cava on the trip. Torta had good flavor and not dry, for chicken breast. All they had at the airport Frontera were tortas, though.

Frontera Grill - Milanesa torta

In between all this eating we managed 4 museums and the Aquarium (a superspreader event if I ever saw one. Shudder), the always splendid architectural river cruise, Millenium Park, enjoying the rowdy and very vociferous Mexican Independence Day celebrations, and just walking through the neighborhoods. Wowed as I was the first time by the kindness of the people, as was my sister.

Thanks for all that gave their input and suggestions! i truly did look at all your responses and read and researched.

We can’t wait to go back.


Epic! Thank you for sharing. I appreciate that you included what you and your sister didn’t enjoy as well as everything that was great.

So happy that you had a lovely trip.

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Epic indeed! What a fabulous trip and thanks so much for taking the time to write up such a comprehensive report!

I am deeply saddened by your experience at The Publican - my sister and I loved every bite we had there - total mystery. But you sure made up for it with all the other fabulous eats! Apart from the shellfish (allergy) I wanted every single thing you had. And dang, I really wanted those shrimp too!


That’s my old neighborhood. I wanted to suggest to you to check it out but didn’t because I knew you are in the Mission and, thus, requested “no Mexican.” The old neighborhood has changed a lot since I lived there back in the late 90s early 2000’s - a textbook story of gentrification. I remember the number of fancy cars parked on the street began to increase just as I moved out. But I’m thrilled that good food can still be had - 5 Rabanitos sounds awesome. I need to head out to Chicago soon to visit one of my closest/oldest friends and her new house…and eat at places like 5 Rabanitos.

Gawd, I sound like such a curmudgeon. Fantastic travelogue, as usual. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

PS Your sister and her Radiohead shirt looks like someone I’d hang out with.


i was SO SAD - we so wanted to love The Publican! And I’ve eaten with you, dear, on many occasions - you would have been baffled too. I have to think it’s not the same chef.


The Mission is actually more gentrified than Pilsen, but we also went to Little Village and that was more like the old Mission District.


Indeed, the food you described sounded baffling. So sad! And what a waste of limited opportunity!

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Thanks for a great report. I’m really glad things improved after your first meal.
I’ve never been to Chicago, but it’s someplace I’ve always wanted to visit. Someday!


Thanks for the report back. We are going in early November.

It’s been years since we ate at Publican but removing from the list. Added Jaleo recently only because its my son’s birthday and he said his favorite bite of food ever was the olive at Loquito. The olive is the famous liquid olive that Jose Andres has been doing forever. But great to hear that the rest of the food was good.

We have a Portillos in the OC and its meh. I’m sure it will be better in the homeland. We had pegged Mr Beef or Al’s Beef for our fix.

We’re coming from SoCal so I hear this. We were planning on trying out Xoco or Toplabampo since we’ve never been. Maybe we will add his daughter’s restaurant. 5 Rabinitos looks great but out of the way for us.


I had an Al’s Italian Beef last time i was here and loved it - better than Portillo’s. so, you may want to stick with your plan…

Jaleo is more straightforward Spanish fare - nothing as molecular gastronomy-ish as the olive you’re describing. but really excellent! I’d never heard of Loquita - in Santa Barbara, no? it looks great. If i’m ever down south, i’d totally check it out.

I will just say, though i think i’m in the minority, Topolobampo paled in comparison to what I could get at the time in San Francisco for crudos/ceviche etc. Took a chance on Bar Sotano and were very happy. and yes, 5 Rabinitos was a Lyft ride for us, but I wanted to try places in new neighborhoods this time. At least in SF, we don’t have a ton of just plain old school Mexican restaurants - there are a couple, but mostly we have taquerias, and a lot of them.


Never been to Chicago, and will probably never get there. But if we do go some day, you will be our guide.


Thanks will probably stick to Al’s then.

Yes Loquito is in Santa Barbara and its excellent. Love the patio and they had great drinks which seems like you’d appreciate given your Chicago pics. The liquid olive is the only molecular gastronomy as well and then standard tapas fare but very well done.

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aw sad… why never? too many other places on the list?


and just to complicate things…

haha - the pic of the Portillo’s sandwich on this link looks WAY better than mine did, even minus the peppers. here:

(and yes, i was blasphemous and added some mozz.)


We don’t know anyone there, but we have friends and relatives in other places.

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Chicago is the Midwest equivalent of NYC and LA.
Everyone should visit at least once, especially if you like art, architecture, and food.


I’m sure you’re right. But there are limits of time, money, and strength. And right now we can’t travel to most places anyway.


Great report, thanks for sharing! Looks like you ate very well. Too bad about the Publican, I had a good dinner there but it was a few years ago.

Maybe a Maxwell Street Polish next time?


Current menu doesn’t seem to list famous pork rinds. Oy.


Leaving out memorable food possibilities, a big Oh yeah.

Art: One stop alone for iconic Hopper, Wood, Seurat, Caillebotte, Monet, Cassatt, on and on and on

NYC and LA architecture pale in comparison; and Columbus, Indiana isn’t such a long drive.