Chicago food specialties
August 22, 2006 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Three Chicago dining specialities

The missus jonson & I will be in Chicago for two days (staying in the heart of the city) in late September, & I really would love to try three things (in addition to a bunch of other stuff on the agenda). Can any native (or former native, or frequent visitor, etc) recommend the following (bonus points for being close to the Magnificent Mile or a stop on the El):

1) The best place to get Frozen Custard
2) The best place to get an Italian Beef sandwich
3) The best (and this is highly subjective) fun funky (ethnic or not) neighborhood to wander through for shopping, cool divey food places, etc.

The list is in order of importance, as Frozen Custard is remarkably important to me!

PS, as thanks in advance, I will tell you that if you ever come to Los Angeles, eat @ Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, try a burger & a Belgian ale from Father's Office on Montana, and go wandering down Abbott Kinney blvd (north of Venice) for funky fun shops & bars.
posted by jonson to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Chicago isn't known for Frozen Custard. You're thinking of Milwaukee, our neighbor to the north. In fact, I can't name a single frozen custard place in the city, although there must be at least one. But if you want good ice cream, try The Penguin.
posted by j-dawg at 9:36 PM on August 22, 2006

Italian Beef: Portillo's. Ask for it hot and wet. They also have really good chocolate cake. There's one in a super touristy area, west of Michigan Ave. Take the Red Line to Grand, walk west to Clark St, walk north to Ontario.
posted by hooray at 9:40 PM on August 22, 2006

Man am I ignorant of the midwest. Really no Frozen Custard in Chicago? Dang. Well, thanks for the Penguin reco!
posted by jonson at 10:04 PM on August 22, 2006

yep, if it's truly the finest frozen custard you seek, Ted Drewes in St. Louis is your ultimate destination.
posted by scody at 10:25 PM on August 22, 2006

I used to love Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park when I lived there.
posted by rockhopper at 10:42 PM on August 22, 2006

Best Italian Beef sandwich is at Al's #1 Italian Beef at 1079 W Taylor.
posted by JakeWalker at 11:04 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

I love Buona Beef, but I understand they're not the best in teh bidness.
posted by evariste at 11:27 PM on August 22, 2006

I notice everyone is steering clear of the best neighborhoods discussion. This is because there are way too many great neighborhoods. My own prejudice is in favor of Lincoln Park/Wrigleyville and Wicker Park.
posted by evariste at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2006

Then in that case, evariste, I think your preference will win! Anything in particular (streets, shops, divebars, coffee houses, comic book stores, music places, etc) that I should look out for in either Lincoln and/or Wicker Park?
posted by jonson at 11:31 PM on August 22, 2006

BTW, I'm gonna go with Al's #1 Italian, since Portillo's is actually a chain. Not that they aren't the best, but if they are, I can always go to the one they just opened in Orange County, 40 miles from where I am now. As for Ted Drewe's, maybe someday, if life drags me to St Louis, at least I'll have delicious custard to look forward to.
posted by jonson at 11:33 PM on August 22, 2006

jonson-damn, where to start? I almost want to tell you to just walk around and stop in everywhere that looks interesting.

Of course you must go to the open-air world-class Lincoln Park Zoo. Check out the Bourgeois Pig cafe as well, and the White Elephant thrift store. L and L Tavern (they have absinthe and cheap beer), Reckless Records, the Alley. Breakfast at Ann Sather?

Just walk around. You'll run into all sorts of amazing places that I can't even remember to tell you about. People are friendly and will suggest things to do and places to go in the neighborhood.
posted by evariste at 11:42 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

You do know about Chicago pizza, right?

If you dont: Lou Malnatti's.
posted by IvyMike at 11:49 PM on August 22, 2006

By the way, for events check the Chicago Reader. Here's a Chicago neighborhood map, and a CTA trip planner. There's also a phone number that you can call to get advice on how to get there from here, but I can't remember it. Also, pick up 7-day unlimited CTA passes if you're going to be taking the El a lot (which I recommend). I think they're 20 bucks.
posted by evariste at 11:51 PM on August 22, 2006

Ah-you're just in Chicago two days. You won't want that 7-day pass then :-)
posted by evariste at 11:52 PM on August 22, 2006

Roadfood is a great place to consult, when you're looking for great places to eat in any town, btw. A Chicago-related thread.
posted by evariste at 12:13 AM on August 23, 2006

Please try a Chicago-style hot dog, even if you don't usually consider yourself a lover of hot dogs. You can expect: a steamed poppyseed bun, a Vienna beef frank, yellow mustard, acid-green relish, onions, cucumber slices, tomatoes, a pickle (on the dog, not on the side), sport peppers (I never understood what made them sporty), and celery salt. Sauerkraut optional. Do not ask for ketchup, which is an abomination and will garner you ridicule.

Now, to actually answer the question: Wisconsin is really the place for frozen custard, but there are Culver's frozen custard chain outlets in the Chicago suburbs now. I can't make the link work in this post, but there is a restaurant locator at
posted by chippie at 3:18 AM on August 23, 2006

You might want to post this to Its basically a bunch of Chicago guys who left after getting itn a hissy fit with the management there.

I am sure there are several hundred posts on Italian Beef and Frozen Custard. I have used it as a very helpful resource on my trips out there.

BTW - Its kind of entertaining the number of food forums that have branched out for Chowhound, with new forums being created whenever someone gets a little to absolutist in their control.
posted by JPD at 5:40 AM on August 23, 2006

also recommending Al's for Italian Beef.

and Penguin for sabayon gelato with roasted almonds. No you cannot not order this. Oh and for regular ice cream, Sweet Occasion's. You must read this thread on ice cream shops in lthforum.

Obsessed Chicago foodies hang out on lthforum. you must search it in general.

and Chowhound? dunno, haven't read them in a while. check them out to see if there's still good discussion going on there. (actually, I hate web discussion boards. except for metafilter)

I'm not going to recommend pizza places since my favorite pizza experience has been at Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington DC, not in Chicago. Well, I guess you may want to check out the corn-bread crust style? at Gino's, which is a local (still?) chain.

Oh, and you should look for BBQ in lthforum because there are serious BBQ afficiando's and you'll get some good recommendations.

The lthforum people are nice people, in general, I once met up with one of the guys for a swap -- I gave him a mix cd and he gave me some of his home-made boudin.

Speaking of boudin, oh my fucking goodness, you must try Hot Dougs, not for boudin, but for all manner of encased meats.

But speaking of encased meats, you should find some Polish restaurant to go to!

Chicago is a great food town.

okay, it is morning, I am punchy and babbling. This is like posting while drunk.
posted by bleary at 5:50 AM on August 23, 2006

Ps. The Magnificant Mile? I guess you must visit since it's A Big Deal, but it always feels like a suburb to me.

Well, okay, while you are there go to the Vosges if you love chocolate. Oh, they also make icecream and will probably have some in the shop.

Speaking of chocolate, sometimes you can smell the Brommer's factory while waiting on the platform of the Merchandise Mart stop.

Which reminds me, tangententially, of coffee shops. look up Bean Addiction. good. Intelligentsia too.
posted by bleary at 5:53 AM on August 23, 2006

If you're flying into O'Hare, go to the C terminal, all the way at one end, and get a root beer at Berghoff's.

If you want a relatively inexpensive place for lunch or dinner with a great view and live jazz in the evenings, Bandera is on Michigan Avenue just north of the river on the second floor. Yes, those are rotisserie chickens as you walk in. Yes, they're great. Ask for a table by the window.

If you want famous popcorn worth waiting in line for, go to Garrett's on Michigan ave. Get the mix of caramel, cheese, and butter. Yum.

For outrageous toffee, go to Terry's Toffees on Grand Avenue west of the highway. Worth the drive. It's out of this world and was even in the Oscar giveaway bags last year.

Frozen custard is definitely a Culver's thing. No downtown branches, and I don't think it's amazing or anything. If you want great dessert go to the Grand Luxe Cafe-- on Michigan Avenue by Bandera. It's a chain, I know, but they have the best desserts around.

For good brownies and good breakfast, for that matter, go to Ann Sather's. The cinnamon rolls are good enough and big enough to be a meal. That goes for the brownies, too.

Not exactly what you asked for, but when you start talking about food in Chicago, my little mind starts a-goin'.
posted by orangemiles at 6:18 AM on August 23, 2006

Go to Scooters for frozen custard. It's the only place actually in the city.
posted by sugarfish at 6:21 AM on August 23, 2006

Al's #1 Italian Beef at 1079 W Taylor is the ONLY Italian Beef place. There are no others. If you get there before Labor Day, stop for a frozen lemonade (the watermelon is my fave) at Mario's across the street.

For great ice cream (not frozen custard) head out to Margie's Candies on 1960 N Western Ave. My special favorite is the coconut ice cream with bitter chocolate sauce served in an unreasonably large white clamshell.
posted by answergrape at 6:42 AM on August 23, 2006

I have nothing new to offer except...OH.MY.GOD. The Penguin. There are no words to describe....
posted by jeanmari at 6:50 AM on August 23, 2006

Wow. Now I'm looking forward to the trip more than ever! Thanks, everyone.
posted by jonson at 7:20 AM on August 23, 2006

For beef, go to Al's as has been mentioned a few times (top it off with some italian ice at Marios across the street).

For neighborhoods, start at the intersection of North/Damen/Milwaukee and pick a direction. You can't go wrong. Also, Clark St, starting at Belmont and going north, you'll find all sorts of cool stuff in the area.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:26 AM on August 23, 2006

Scooter's Frozen Custard (1658 W. Belmont) is excellent. Only thing is, it's not particularly close to the El. I'd recommend taking the Red Line north (toward Howard), getting off at Belmont, then taking the Belmont bus (#77) west. Exit at Lincoln/Ashland, then walk two blocks west.

It's worth the trip. I just went there last weekend. Also, for a special treat, get a Sprecher root beer while you're there. It's not a Chicago thing (it's a Wisconsin thing), but you probably can't get it where you're from.
posted by adrian_h at 7:47 AM on August 23, 2006

Tapas @ cafe iberico was a fascinating ethnic experience. Never had any tapas worth comparing to it anywhere outside of Chicago. I never thought it would happen but after a year in Birmingham UK I am getting jealous of people who have dining options beyond curry.
posted by srboisvert at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2006

Depending upon your interests, you have have fun poking around one of the Chinatowns. Both are available on the red line. The Cermak/Chinatown stop in the south is the older Chinatown, and is a bit touristy, but has some interesting shops. It's down there that I found my first durian.

If you take the red line way up north to Argyle, you'll find New Chinatown, which is much more of a Korean/Vietnamese neighborhood. It's alot more residential and, er, neighborhoody, but has some *great* ethnic eateries.

You should do Belmont and Clark just because it is "the" cool place, but I find it at times a bit overly trendy. Wicker Park is up and coming, has its own share of fun and funky shops, and a bit less of a packaged-cool vibe to it. (This is the North/Damen/Milwaukee area that KevinSkomsvold mentions.)

The one frustration you may find is that the public transport situation to alot of the glitzy tourist areas is a little off. You can't directly get to, say, Navy Pier or the museum penninsula from the El, and the Mag Mile itself is a hike of a few blocks -- which isn't bad, but tourists want everything easy. Your best bet getting to the Mile on the El is probably taking the red line to Grand and walking east. If you want to get to Millenium Park, you can go south from there, or exit the loop at Madison, Randolph or Adams. If you feel like a bit of a walk, I'd suggest you take the Adams stop, walk southeast and see Buckingham Fountain, head north to Millenium Park, and then up Michigan Ave as long as you can stand it. Just remember that if you go north past Chicago (which you will, if you want to see the Hancock Center) you're past all the nearby El stops and will need to walk, or take a bus, back.

While you're in the general area, if you're interested in archictecture, you should head towards Madison and State, which is the 0-point of Chicago's street numbering system and has some of the city's best old skyscrapers, including the original Marshal Fields and Carson Pirie Scott.

Getting long. I'll stop. I'm fairly new to the area, and this is just some of the things I've discovered so far. Have fun!
posted by jammer at 8:25 AM on August 23, 2006

The problem with asking for dining options in Chicago... there are just soooo many.

Personally, when I had a friend in from Miami, I took him to The Weiner's Circle. A genuine Chicago dog and an interesting experience to go along with it.

People really are passionate about their favorites in this city. And chain restaurants (aside from fast-food) in the City proper are almost non-existent. That can't be a bad thing.
posted by ninjew at 8:38 AM on August 23, 2006

al's is good, and maybe their taylor street location is better then most, but i'd recommend mr beef over at 666 Orleans St. Their combos are cool, too. (the best beef, though is Scalia's, purchased at a Jewel deli counter with juice, and then made at home)

for funky neighborhoods: for indian, go north to devon ave, work your way west.

chicago also has a nice chinatown area, also accessable via el. there is a small, but interesting vietnamese community on argyle, too, that might be cool.
posted by lester at 8:39 AM on August 23, 2006

I just had to add to this, if you want Garrett's but don't want the outrageous wait on Michigan Avenue, go to the one at State and Jackson. I've only seen lines there on the holidays.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:54 AM on August 23, 2006

Look, I was born in Milwaukee, and I have to suggest a Very Important Pilgrimage for anyone who truly claims to love frozen custard.

Kopps frozen custard.
There is nothing better. How good is Kopps? Ask anyone in Milwaukee what the Kopps flavor of the day is, and there is a good chance they will know. There is even a sign on the way from the airport that lights up the current flavor.

And you are in luck. Monday is the most hallowed of all flavors - Macadamia Nut - a flavor Kopps is rumored to actually lose money on. Go!!!!
posted by blahblahblah at 8:58 AM on August 23, 2006

Just wanted to second the mention of Devon street--our "little India"--as a really fun place to wander around. It's got great food, ranging from fancy restaurants to counter-service, cool music stores, neat clothing shops, &c.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 10:39 AM on August 23, 2006

Italian beef is a very subjective thing, so I will instead point you to an excellent compilation of the "Great Italian Beef Places of Chicago" and a discussion on a local Chicago foodie site about the best beef in Chicago.

And for funky neighborhood, that is a very simple answer: Wicker Park. That site is a bit corny, but it is by far the best neighborhood in Chicago to find cool shops, interesting art galleries, young people, new restaurants and good music, which is what I imagine you meant by "funky." Check out all the places on Damen, Milwaukee, North and Division.

If you're looking for something to do while you're around there, pick up a copy of the excellent Chicago Reader.
posted by atomly at 11:12 AM on August 23, 2006

If you go to Clark/Belmont you can visit Punkin' Donuts and The Alley. There's an Ann Sather's on Belmont, if you need a food excuse to go there.

but for breakfast, my favorite place is Tweets Let's Eat weekend brunch. but it's very busy. You'd have to go via the Red Line and get off at Berwyn or Argyle iirc.
posted by bleary at 11:50 AM on August 23, 2006

Scooter's Frozen Custard (1658 W. Belmont) is excellent. Only thing is, it's not particularly close to the El. I'd recommend taking the Red Line north (toward Howard), getting off at Belmont, then taking the Belmont bus (#77) west. Exit at Lincoln/Ashland, then walk two blocks west.

Actually, it's a short walk from the Paulina stop on the Brown Line: walk south on Paulina (across the diagonal of Lincoln Ave.) to Belmont, and you're right there. Easy!

Wicker Park is a good neighborhood to wander in -- or if you want to get ethnic, I'd suggest West Rogers Park, specifically the strip of Devon Avenue between Oakley and California. It's a sort of Little India, and the destination of choice for Southeast Asians throughout the region.
posted by me3dia at 1:35 PM on August 23, 2006

Scooter's Frozen Custard (1658 W. Belmont) is excellent. Only thing is, it's not particularly close to the El. I'd recommend taking the Red Line north (toward Howard), getting off at Belmont, then taking the Belmont bus (#77) west. Exit at Lincoln/Ashland, then walk two blocks west.
Actually, it's a short walk from the Paulina stop on the Brown Line: walk south on Paulina (across the diagonal of Lincoln Ave.) to Belmont, and you're right there. Easy!

Wicker Park is a good neighborhood to wander in -- or if you want to get ethnic, I'd suggest West Rogers Park, specifically the strip of Devon Avenue between Oakley and California. It's a sort of Little India, and the destination of choice for Southeast Asians throughout the region.
posted by me3dia at 1:35 PM on August 23, 2006

me3dia: Aha! Great catch on Paulina -- my bad.
posted by adrian_h at 1:49 PM on August 23, 2006

Throwing in my vote for Scooter's too! And they always have special flavors of the week. Also, it's walkable to the Southport area, which is a great place to walk around with cute shops and fun bars. There's the Musicbox theater there that shows loads of black and white films, and Southport lanes is also there if you like bowling!
posted by orangskye at 7:42 PM on August 23, 2006

If you go to The Wiener's Circle, go at 2 am. That is the best time to go. It's just not the same during the day.

For brunch, Tre Kronor up on Foster in North Park kicks Ann Sather's a** up Clark Street and down. No contest. Not only is the food incredible, you can visit The Sweden Shop at the same time and get your design*sponge fix.
posted by jeanmari at 7:48 PM on August 23, 2006

So I got to this Q late... but I've gotta recco italian ice... because no one on here has done so yet... there is a place on Taylor street across from (I think) the Al's beef, that is a great sidewalk stand with Italian ice that will make you stomp your foot and growl a little bit because it is so good. Especially on a hot day.

Also, this might not seem too Chicago and might not seem like anything given your West Coast proximity; but there is fantastic Mexican food in Chicago, as well... try walking around in Pilsen on the near southwest side... or check some of the reviews at burritophile for really good tacos / burritos (I consider this type cuisine to be perfectly on par with other chicago legends like beefs and dogs.)
posted by cusack at 3:12 PM on August 24, 2006

er... KevinSkomsvold mentioned it. Mario's for Italian Ice.
posted by cusack at 3:14 PM on August 24, 2006

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