Monday, May 3, 2010

24 Hours In Chicago

(The Red Line looking North from Wrigley Field.)

A fun 24 hours knocking about Chicago. Our crew hotel is up in Skokie, which reminds me how very little of Chicago I know, even after all these years and numerous visits. But I always tend to gravitate towards downtown. It's where my favorite places are.

Curiously, a couple recent things from the Food Network played navigator for me on this visit. Susan and I will occasionally record odds and ends on the DVR so we'll have things to watch together (since our tastes are so divergent), and one of these things is Food Network's recent series The Best Thing I Ever Ate. As we've watched the series, we've made a list of places to try if circumstances arise. Lots of these places are in New York, naturally (where the Food Network and all its celebrities are based), but our list contains a few places from Chicago as well.

(Michigan Ave. Southbound. The Allerton is on the left, Gino's just around the corner.)

One of the show's recommendations, from Duff Goldman, I think, is for my beloved Gino's East Pizza (in several locations in Chicago), specifically their sausage patty pizza. I've been going to Gino's for 20+ years, and their spinach pizza (an odd choice for me, but there's just something about it) has been at the top of my personal Favorite Foods list for a long time. It's not the only Gino's pizza I've tried; I've also let Gino's take a crack at the pizza I order everywhere else--mushroom & pineapple--and I've sampled the selections of friends whom I've brought to Gino's. But nothing tops their spinach (just as other people's spinach pizza doesn't quite hit its mark with me). However, I'd never tried this sausage pizza, and what better time than now to see what I've missed? So, a mile walk to the CTA's enigmatic Yellow Line (about which more later), connect to the Red Line and South to downtown.

(Gino's flagship location, at Superior just East of Michigan.)

What makes this sausage pizza different than everyone else's is that Gino's takes a baseball-sized ball of sausage and flattens it in a tortilla press, making a solid disc of meat that covers the entire pizza (minus the crust at the very edge). That means a substantial layer of sausage in every bite. Not only had I not tried it, before the TV show I hadn't even heard of this particular Gino's innovation. When I ordered their "famous sausage" I was asked if I wanted the sausage in the big patty or chunks.

The pie did not disappoint; it was fabulous. Not dethrone-my-spinach fabulous, but very worth the diversion. I think I'm not really a huge fan of meat on a pizza, and this one features meat like a hamburger features beef; there's no getting around it. Given that most people love meat on their pizza, it's readily apparent to me how this sausage pie would put Gino's on the world map of great pizza, and it's certainly something I'll do again (though likely with a spinach or two intervening).

Part of my love of Gino's is surely their amazing polenta crust and the singular way it blends with their sauce and cheese. But I know that a big part of my affection stems from Gino's being a distinctly urban experience, one specific to Chicago. As a lover of the city, this is a small way to feel that the city and I are acquainted, that I'm something (every so slightly) more than a mere passer-thru. The trains downtown and the walk through the crowds past landmarks and shops I've known for a couple decades, there's hardly a better way to spend a beautiful afternoon. Now I've found another food to pine after. I made my way back up to the hotel shortly after dark, overfull and very much at peace with the world.

After such success with the Food Network calling the shots, I vowed to venture out Sunday morning for the next item on my to-try list: the Ann Sather cinnamon roll. This is just what I didn't particularly need as I struggle to diet, but hey, it's on the list (as my wife would say). Again the mile walk to the Yellow Line and over to the Red Line heading South from Howard. I had intended to get off at Belmont, but the train was full of folks in Cubs regalia. My MLB iPhone app confirmed that there was indeed a game today at Wrigley (Cubbies lead 8-2 in the fifth as I write this). So I decided to get off a stop early, at Addison, and look around Wrigley Field.

(Cubs fans on the Yellow Line, headed to Wrigley.)

I've flown over Wrigley Field a thousand times in my passenger pilot days, as the localizer course for O'Hare's 22R ILS tracks directly overhead (where I could look out my window and see the players like insects in the outfield), and I've always wanted to go to a game. Alas, it was not to be today, but it was great to finally see the place on the ground. It's a magical place, an old-fashioned ballpark plunked right in the city. There's no parking around the place--there's no open space at all with shops and businesses right up hard against the stadium. There are bars and restaurants and street vendors for a couple blocks all around (and further along the main thoroughfares), and Cubs fans were pouring in from streets in every direction. The Red Line runs directly past the field, bringing train after packed train, and everything was hopping even a couple hours before the first pitch.

I narrowly avoided buying a $30 Cubs hat (my old rummage-sale traveling hat is becoming disgusting), and walked South toward Belmont and one of four Ann Sather establishments in the area.

(Ann Sather's on Belmont.)

I forget which Food Network host recommended these cinnamon rolls, but being a lover of all things sweet and bready they were on my list before the introduction was done. The show said the restaurant makes something like 1,000 of these a day, with two-three times that number on weekends, so they're clearly doing something right. And all for $1.66. Well, I'm here to say it was delicious and I'll be happy to sample them a few more times to see if my initial impressions hold up. They don't redefine what it is to make a great cinnamon roll, but they do the old standard as well as anyone. They're not terribly large, and each one comes with a little cup of powdered-sugar frosting which is a bit too runny to spread but not quite runny enough to drizzle. In all, most worth the adventure.

(My table: a newspaper box. There's no place to eat take-out, which is one of the reasons the restaurant line was so long.)

Add the visit to Wrigley and a couple miles walking around an unfamiliar part of the city, and it adds up to a really, really good day. In fact, any day that starts off on a train just can't be all bad.

(The Diplomat Hotel--free TV! Our next crew hotel perhaps?)

That brings me to the mystery of the Yellow Line. The Yellow Line train is the CTA's shortest train route, having only two stops--Dempster and Howard. The Dempster stop serves the town of Skokie, and Howard is where the Yellow Line connects to the Red and Purple Lines, and hence to the rest of the system. The Times Square / Grand Central Shuttle in New York City is similar in being a single train with only two stops, and it's also NYC's shortest subway at about a mile long. But in that case there are a zillion connections on each end, and it's surely among the MTA's busiest trains. The Yellow Line, by contrast, is only a two-car train and carries a handful of riders, though it runs a zillion times a day, apparently coordinated with every Red Line arrival and departure.

For the life of me I can't figure this line out. It must be at least four miles in length, maybe five, and it appears to run along an existing railroad grade, though apparently only the CTA trains use it now. The routing is such that the train is always along a power line corridor or otherwise in its own right of way, so that during its four mile run it has only three or four road crossings (each with bells and arms like a traditional RR crossing). It's as though the train has been intentionally routed where there are no passengers, so that unless one lived right near the Dempster station you are exactly as though there were no train service at all. Why not run the line a mile or two to the North or South and pick up folks along the way? Or, if the trains are indeed timed to connect with each Red Line train, why not just continue the Red Line on to Dempster and get rid of the whole train and operator? I see there's a CTA maintenance facility along the Yellow Line, which may have something to do with this all. But putting in a whole separate train line to service a single stop is baffling to me. I suppose it's all online somewhere.

I'll just head off to Wikipedia now and do some research...

Next up: Hong Kong!


Dzesika said...

Your photos make Chicago look so beautiful! And ditto your cinnamon roll - I'm currently on a quest to find the best cinnamon roll in Lawrence...

wunelle said...

Take photos! (I'm becoming Mr.-scary-guy-who-photographs-his-food.) I think I need another Ann Sather or two to decide what I REALLY think...

dbackdad said...

Great stuff. Between your pics and Laura's of the Art Institute, I want to hop on a plane right now.

wunelle said...

Hers are very fun pics! I don't know enough about art to know why I like them, but I do! (And especially when Gino's is only a mile or so up Michigan Ave from there; sounds like a perfect day!)