Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

5 Foodie Spots in Chicago

Restaurants + Bars Insider Guides
by Alice Driver Dec 13, 2011
Alice Driver fills up on duck fat popcorn, pork belly, and “Odin’s Smoke.”
1. Gourmet Hot Dogs and Duck Fat French Fries at Hot Doug’s

Hot dogs are perhaps one of the most pitiful, neglected foods in the United States. Tiny bits of leftover mystery meat are mashed together and held in place with fat and fillers to create a food that is mostly marketed to unknowing children. As you can tell, I’ve never been a big fan of hot dogs. However, as it turns out, one Chicago foodie has taken on the sorry hot dog and converted it into a gourmet item.

Doug, the owner of Hot Doug’s, was working the counter when I stopped by one afternoon. For $8 I picked up the special, a beer and blue cheese pork hot dog with Guinness mustard and Irish Tipperary cheddar cheese. Doug recommended a portabella mushroom and Swiss cheese pork hot dog with double cream Brie, Chipotle Dijon, and shiitake mushrooms, so I ordered that as well. I briefly considered the “game of the week” hot dog listed beneath a pair of deer antlers on the wall — an alligator dog. However, in the end I couldn’t reconcile alligator with hot dogs.

Had I arrived on Friday or Saturday, I would have had the option to smear my face with duck fat french fries ($3.50).

2. Pork Belly Sandwich and “Ultra” Whole Milk Hot Chocolate at Xoco

The name Xoco means “little sister” in the Aztec language. The restaurant, owned by chef and Food Channel guru Rick Bayless, offers Mexican sandwiches, soups, and hot chocolates, in addition to a seemingly un-Mexican display of chocolate peanut butter cupcakes. Mexican or not, I did buy one.

The restaurant is a tiny, laid-back place with shared-seating tables.

After looking at the menu I knew immediately that I wanted the pork belly torta and an “ultra” organic whole milk hot chocolate. Is it possible to go wrong with pork belly? I sat right next to the kitchen door in hopes of catching a glimpse of Bayless (alas, he never appeared). The fatty pork belly sandwich was divine, and the heavy cream hot chocolate was so rich that after only a few sips, I had a nice mustache and could drink no more.

3. Duck Fat Popcorn at Lush Wine & Spirits West Town

Duck fat popcorn — a complete curiosity, it is one of the new snack items being offered at Lush Wine & Spirits, in addition to truffle oil scrambled eggs on French bread, and the croque-madame — a creamy béchamel and ham egg. Rachel Speckan, the manager of Lush, describes the popcorn as “unctuous.” Yes, happiness can be found in greasy foods.

As I munched on popcorn, I chatted with Mick, one of the owners of Lush. “I’ve never had truffle or truffle oil,” I said wistfully. As if by magic, a few minutes later, scrambled eggs cooked in truffle oil appeared before my eyes. Before calling it a night, I bought a bag of bacon bourbon caramel popcorn. It had me at “bacon” and “bourbon.”

4. Odin’s Smoke at Sepia

Sepia’s bar is full of polished semi-golden wood counters and crystal chandeliers. The host, dressed in a crisp green button-up shirt and a purple tie, pointed me in the direction of a table in front of a large window facing the street. Nearby, two distinguished old ladies with silvery frosted hair and pearls chatted.

I was craving a caipirinha, but looking over the menu “Odin’s smoke” caught my eye. It is made with sombra mezcal, hum, St. Germain, celery bitters, vep chartreuse, and lime. I made a funny face and asked the waitress, “What is hum?” She explained that the ruby liqueur had the aroma of hibiscus with notes of pomegranate. True to her description, my drink was smoky with a hint of hibiscus. Very sexy.

5. A Bourbon Sour at The Violet Hour

The Violet Hour is a speakeasy style bar where bartenders invent drinks on a monthly basis. Given that I am a Kentucky girl, I proudly ordered a bourbon sour. The bartender took about 15 minutes to make my drink. He ran around like a mad scientist with a little dropper of essences that he carefully added to the glass.

“All our bitters are homemade,” he said with a wink. Then he shook the cocktail shaker like a fierce devil. Apparently, each bartender has a signature shake. For the first time, I began to regard drink making as a science and an art. It is not my art, but, oh my, how I appreciate it. * Feature photo: _nickd

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