The Polar Vortex couldn’t stop me from getting my deep-fried high on while in Chicago this past January. In fact, it may have contributed to my appetite—a full belly means a warm Gastronomer.
The first stop on the Chicago feeding frenzy took The Astronomer, Cousin Jackie, and me to Firecakes Donuts.
Opened last spring by Jonathan Fox (President and CEO of 3Sixty Dinning Intelligence and owner of La Madia), Firecakes is a notable player in Chicago’s robust gourmet doughnut scene. The doughnuts made in this teeny 600-square-foot shop use an heirloom recipe that came from Mr. Fox’s wife’s great-grandfather, Billy Hobbs.
After waiting in a painfully cold and winding line at The Doughnut Vault during my last trip to Chicago, it was really great to stroll on in and be served straightaway this evening.
For our pre-dinner “snack,” we selected four doughnuts to share.
First up, a light and lovely cake ring dusted with toasted coconut flakes and prettied with coconut cream ($2.49). This well-balanced creation was my fave pick of the four.
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The Astronomer and I didn’t plan on checking out any of Chef Rick Bayless‘ restaurants while in Chicago because we have plenty of amazing regional Mexican food here in Los Angeles (despite what Señor Bayless believes).
Alas, when hunger pangs hit an hour before take off, I was forced to find a bite to eat inside O’Hare. While the smells emanating from Manchu Wok were damn enticing, my curiosity got the best of me and I lined up for a taste of Tortas Frontera. Lo siento, mi amigo Bill!
In addition to its namesake tortas (griddle-baked Mexican sandwiches with a variety of fillings), Tortas Frontera also dishes up molletes (warm, open-faced sandwiches), guacamole, soups, salads, and a “yogurt bar.” To the right of the kitchen and food preparation area is a full bar with plenty of tequila and margaritas to go around.
The food here is made using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. There’s even a list of all the farmers and purveyors whose fruits, vegetables, and meats are employed by the restaurant prominently on display. I see this kind of name dropping at restaurants all the time, but this was a first for an airport eatery.
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A meal at Chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat was an absolute must on my culinary tour of Chicago. I first tasted her cooking late last year at the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. She prepared a hiramasa crudo with pork belly for an event called “A New American Lunch” and an especially memorable spicy goat curry for the grand tasting. Chef Izard makes the kind of bold and exciting food that I love to eat, and I couldn’t wait to do so on her home turf.
Girl & the Goat has been booked solid ever since it opened two summers ago. I tried and failed to snag a reservation a few weeks before our trip, so our party of four prayed for a miracle when we walked in at dinnertime on a Saturday night.
We were seated sometime past 10 PM and wrapped up our dinner around midnight. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but we rolled with the punches and were rewarded with a stellar feast.
The menu here is divided into three categories: Vegetable, Fish, and Meat, with a separate specials menu full of goat options. The restaurant goes through seven whole goats each week, all of which are grown and raised locally. “Izard,” by the way, is a breed of Pyrenees goat. Hence the chef’s fascination with the animal.
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The Doughnut Vault doesn’t make it easy for doughnut fiends to get their deep-fried high on. The shop is only open for a teeny tiny window starting at 8:30 AM Tuesdays through Fridays and at 9:30 AM on Saturdays. The blue doors slam shut just as soon as the last ring is sold, which is usually an hour or two after opening.
The internet is flooded with sob stories penned by poor saps who were left empty handed at the hands of The Vault. Needless to say, I did not want to add to that dialogue.
The lines haven’t let up since Brendan Sodikoff opened Doughnut Vault over a year ago in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Housed in an old bank vault, the shop sells around 600 doughnuts each day.
Sodikoff, who has spent time in the kitchens of Per Se and Alain Ducasse, also owns and operates a half dozen other eateries in the city including Au Cheval Diner, Bavettes Bar & Boeuf, Curio Chicago, Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar, and Pizzeria Cella. His diverse portfolio of restaurants helps explain how a doughnut shop that barely operates for ten hours a week can be a viable business venture.
Knowing that it might take a few tries to hit the doughnut jackpot, I made sure to pencil in a visit to Doughnut Vault every morning of our trip (See: Appendix I).
My first attempt, at 10:30 AM on Friday morning with my friend Esi, yielded no fruit. The following morning, The Astronomer and I, along with our friends Mike and Kellie, arrived on the scene thirty minutes after the shop opened. The line of eager customers stretched out the door, around the corner, and then some. Things weren’t lookin’ so good for us…
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