Chicago Eats

So, I just got back from another trip to Chicago, which, of course, means another round of non-stop eating! Really anytime I travel back to the US, I have a list of foods I want to have while there, but with Chicago, the list is always much longer than usual. Maybe it’s the city’s infamous specialties, the wide variety of cultural influences you can find, or the nostalgia-factor, but whatever the reason, to me, Chicago is a foodie’s dream destination! In fact, anytime someone asks me for recommendations when visiting Chicago, I always include a list of specific foods to try, and for this month’s post, I’m going to share my list for anyone else who plans to visit my favorite US city. Warning: this might make you hungry.

Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Chicago has to be the pizza. Specifically, the deep-dish pizza. It is undoubtedly something everyone has to try at least once in their life – it’s like pizza on steroids! It’s baked in a pan to give it that two to three inches of thick buttery crust layered with everything you love about pizza: mounds of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and all the traditional topping options. There is definitely a reason this style of pizza is world famous. And fortunately, thanks globalization (and shipping companies around the world), you don’t necessarily have to be in Chicago to sample the majesty that is Chicago deep-dish. Many of the larger chains will ship these one-of-a-kind, ridiculously heavy pies directly to your door. But which chain should you go with? Oof, that conversation is bound to start an argument with any Chicagoan.

Chicago Thin-Crust Pizza

Another common Chicago argument is deep-dish versus thin-crust pizza. Although Chicago deep-dish pizza clearly enjoys more notoriety, most locals usually prefer thin-crust (me included). There’s just something about a super thin, crispy crust, loaded down with toppings, and always cut into squares (something I once thought universal) that just hits the spot. And if you’re thinking “hey, I’ve had ‘thin-crust’ pizza before at *insert national chain here*”, think again because Chicago thin-crust is fundamentally different and 100% worth trying if you’re ever in the city. Trust me.

Chicago Hotdogs

Another Chicago staple is the Chicago Dog. Traditionally an all-beef hotdog “dragged through the garden” with mustard, sweet pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and sport peppers all atop a steamed, poppyseed bun. I’m honestly not a huge hotdog fan in general, but the quality and uniqueness of Chicago Dogs makes them so much better than what you typically get at a baseball game or backyard BBQ. Just like with Chicago pizza, there are very strong opinions on who makes the best dogs and what can/can’t or should/shouldn’t go on them. Unfortunately, I always add ketchup to mine, which is decidedly very un-Chicagoan. Please, don’t judge me!

Italian Beefs

Alongside pizza and hotdogs, an Italian beef sandwich is another must-have whenever you find yourself in the Windy City. Thinly sliced, seasoned and simmered beef served on squishy bread dipped (or double dipped) in the au jus and topped with giardiniera (a sort of pickled relish), sweet peppers, and/or cheese – it’s an amazing sandwich to be sure. I pretty much always order both a hotdog and a beef because I just cannot decide which I prefer! This is absolutely why I cannot afford to live in the Midwest ever again – my pants would never fit! 

Polish Food

Another thing everyone should try (especially if/when in Chicago) is Polish food. I’m a bit biased here, but I think Polish food is one of the best cuisines in the world, and if you can’t make it to Poland, Chicago is your next best bet for some truly delicious and authentic Polish eats. Kielbasa, kabanosy, pierogi, bigos, gołąbki, placki ziemniaczane, żurek, rosół, and so much more can be found all over Chicago. If you pick the right place, you’ll absolutely feel like you’ve been transported to another country, and you won’t soon forget the homey, delicious dishes that have had a huge cultural influence on Chicago’s food scene.

Bakeries

In addition to all the amazing Chicago-specific restaurants and dishes you can try, I always recommend going to a local bakery as well. With all the immigrant groups that have continued to flow into Chicago throughout its history, the city has been blessed with some of the most amazing breads, pastries, and desserts in the US. Salt sticks are a favorite of mine; my mom loves Italian butter cookies; and my dad always goes straight for the decadent, dark chocolate desserts found at all the Polish bakeries. Unlike your basic grocery store bakery, a lot of these specialties have to be ordered in advance and sometimes only on certain days, so do some homework, get up early, and get the good stuff!

Delis

Similar to its incredible bakeries, Chicago’s delis are another thing you have to check out while in the city. Whether you want to get some cured sausages, delicatessen lunchmeat, or a sandwich the size of your head, a deli should be on your list. They have such an old-school, bustling community vibe (yes, even in the suburbs), and the prices are almost as amazing as the quality. Jewish delis in particular are so worth the trip because it’s really an experience as well as an incredible meal – just be sure you know what you want before you step up to order, like a lot of major cities, locals can be a bit impatient with the out-of-towners! 

Chicago Mix Popcorn

Another famous Chicago treat that is making itself known even outside the city, is Chicago Mix Popcorn. A mix of sweet, buttery caramel popcorn and salty, tangy cheese popcorn seems like a strange combination, but somehow it works amazingly well and is super addicting. One of the most famous brands of Chicago Mix is Garrett’s, which has been around since the 1940s and is marketed as “gourmet popcorn” (so you know it has to be good). But you probably don’t have to find a Garrett’s to get the good stuff anymore – most grocery stores nationwide sell a version of the “Mix” in the chip aisle. 

Fannie May Chocolates

And finally, a little dessert…another thing I absolutely always make time for when in Chicago is a trip to Fannie May. A confectionary founded in 1902, Fannie May has a plethora of chocolates and candies that are so unique, I travel thousands of miles to buy and transport them so my friends living abroad can also experience their exquisiteness. If I had to recommend just one thing to try from Fannie May, it would have to be the Mint Meltaways (even the most anti-mint people usually enjoy these perfectly balanced, creamy bites of chocolate). I literally have to ration them after a trip to Chicago! But even if mint isn’t your thing, they have a wide-variety of other truffles, caramels, and any other chocolate-dipped creation you can possibly imagine.

There you have it: my must-have list when it comes to Chicago eats. In my somewhat biased opinion, Chicago is a such great city to visit for a huge number of reasons, but if you’re a food-driven traveler (like I am), it absolutely has to be on your bucket list. So, I suggest you start planning your trip to the Windy city now, and just be sure to bring your stretchy pants with you!

Eating Our Way Through Japan

65236266_10219876348007410_8640123801704595456_n
Ready to eat!

Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:

66271034_10219993577538075_7184087707486781440_n
Omurice

Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.

Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!

 

66420800_10220036629254341_455494389980987392_n
Okonomiyaki

All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.

Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!

65562402_10219950657305096_65712999628800_n
Gyudon with rice and miso

Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!

 

Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.

65880138_10219968805798797_4649990778746044416_n
Ramen and kimchi

Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!

Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!

Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.

65964404_10219968809518890_6778885542000984064_n
Train food perfection

66071469_10219977302851218_9029728372548173824_n
Famous cheesecake

Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.

66951125_10220050715606491_1333121448830566400_n
Haven’t had enough!

Other Snacks and Experiences:

Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori

KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar

Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat

Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones

Goyza – Japanese fried dumplings

Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)

Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything

Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes

Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku

Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup

A Taste of Poland

It’s time for the topic you’ve all been waiting for: Polish food! One of the best things about travelling, living abroad, and life, in general, is the food, and I’m happy to say that even after seven months, we are still loving everything Poland is dishing out. I wish I could send everyone reading this a heaping plate of pierogi or some spicy kabanosy to sample, but as that’s just not possible, we’ll have to make do with the power of description.

Fruit/veggie market

The first thing that must be mentioned when talking about Poland’s food is their produce. It is honestly head and shoulders above what we usually get in the US. Not only is it much cheaper and overall tastier, but it’s everywhere! Good quality produce in Poland can be found at any of the large chains (like Auchan or Real), at pop-up stands in the cities or on rural roadsides, and sometimes even in a local parking lot, out of the trunk of someone’s car. This availability, of course, comes with the season, which is part of why the produce is so good. It’s extremely fresh (mostly grown locally) and only ever includes what’s currently in season. When we arrived in Poland, apples were everywhere (in fact, on one of our first days here, we offered a lady our seat on a bus, and as a thank you, she gave us each an apple). After the apples, came an influx of pumpkins and squash, then the potato section expanded, and now we’re rolling in berries and green veggies.

The quality of produce is very important to Poles because most everything they eat is made from scratch using these ingredients. I’ve mentioned before how grocery shopping in Poland has made me feel more like a lazy American than anything else, and this is exactly why. In the US, I buy soup in a can, croutons in a box, cookie dough in a tube, sauce in a jar, and the list goes on. In Poland people prefer to make all of the components themselves. This is why you’ll hear people raving about the mushroom soup their mom makes when they’re sick, or the ketchup their grandpa made when they were a kid. Every family, every person has a slightly different way of making even the most traditional of Polish dishes.

A traditional żurek

The idea of “traditional dishes” is actually a bit difficult to nail down for Americans. Many of our most “patriotic” dishes are not truly from the US. It’s extremely hard to justify the saying “as American as apple pie” when every culture has a version of apple pie! (For example, in Poland it’s called szarlotka, and it’s delicious). However, Poland is quite a few years older than the US and definitely has some dishes that are both nationally and internationally known, such as: żurek (a sour rye soup), bigos (a stew of sauerkraut and meat), pierogi (dumplings usually stuffed with potatoes), naleśniki (thin, stuffed, savory pancakes), rosół (chicken noodle soup with carrots, generally served on Sundays), kiełbasa (which the generic word for sausage of which there are many, many types – trust me, I can’t list them all without losing a few of you), kopytka (my favorite little potato nugget-dumplings), and surówka (a variety of coleslaw blends) just to name a few.

Chicken caprese with kopytka

While it’s true that cooking at home is the norm in Poland, rest assured they also like to eat out on occasion. Restaurants are quite popular in Polish cities; however, in the smaller towns the options are very limited. Luckily for us, lazy Americans, we live in Łódź (one of the largest cities in the country), and have a huge variety of restaurants to choose from. Just like in the US there are “fast food” restaurants such as McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, North Fish, Döner Kebab, and Solo Pizza. There are also a few of what I would consider “casual dining” restaurants like Greenway (vegetarian cuisine), Mañana (the Polish version of Chipotle – minus the bacteria), and a unique variety of pay-by-weight restaurants. These pay-by-weight places are all around Poland and at first glance look like buffets, but instead of all-you-can-eat, it’s something like 3 żółty (less than a dollar) per 100 grams of food. I particularly like these places 1) because I’m a picky eater and 2) because it allows me to try a tiny bit of everything without fear. Also worth mentioning are the milk bars (bary mleczne) of Poland. These are restaurants leftover from Communist times that look and function like cafeterias. The most authentic milk bars serve mainly dairy-based dishes (hence “milk”) and do not serve dishes with meat, as meat was rationed on and off during the height of milk bar popularity.

Naleśniki with surówka

However, if you come to Poland for the food (and really, why wouldn’t you?) you’ll want to eat at a true restaurant, a sit-down, atmospheric event. In Łódź alone, you can find restaurants that specialize in Bulgarian, Ukrainian, French, American, Mexican and many other national cuisines, but by far, the best restaurants are the Polish ones. Generally, you start your meal with a plate of pickles, bread and lard, and finish with a shot of liquor. Ah, Poland! Another specialty in Polish restaurants is the soup. In most restaurants, many types of soup are offered and are often the reason people return to a given restaurant again and again – you’ve gotta try them all! However, if you’re not into “rustic food”, Poland also boasts some of the most incredible, modern eateries I’ve ever experienced. There is certainly no lack of good food in Poland, no matter what your style or taste.

There’s even a solid option for those days when you don’t want to get out of bed. In Poland, delivery, like all things food-related, is quite cheap. There are the obvious Chinese and pizza options, but in Łódź there are also companies like Pyszne and Pizza Portal, which after you order online, will go to any participating restaurant, pick up the food, and deliver it to your doorstep. This is how I’ve eaten hot wings and bacon cheeseburgers in bed – don’t judge.

Okay, are we all sufficiently hungry now? I really hope that I’ve made each of you consider Poland as your next vacation destination because if you aren’t traveling for food, then you aren’t fully living. Come see me in Poland and smacznego (bon appétit)!