Saturday, April 20, 2013

Windy City Birthday

A few weeks ago, I took my wife to Chicago for her birthday. Before we get started, a couple discussion points: Yes, I know that I am more than a few weeks behind on blogging, but things are really lining up for a big spring of awesome posts! Secondly, its kind of crazy to think how cold and snowy it was just a few weeks ago. Now, with that out of the way, here is a little bit more about our awesome 4 day weekend in Chicago!

My wife always does such nice things for my birthday, so I thought that this year I should return the favor. I had a couple Southwest points burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to take her somewhere that we would not have to rent a car. This made Chicago a natural choice; direct flights, the 'L', and the abundance of good places to eat (including food trucks) outweighed the fact that it is a cold weather city. 

We stayed in the Hampton Majestic Theater, right in the loop, so that we could get anywhere that we wanted to go (and we all know that I love Hamptons). It didn't hurt that they had a good view from the workout room, as I was right in the thick of Ironman 70.3 training. We also hoped to get rush lottery tickets to the Tony Award winning musical The Book of Mormon, which was playing in the adjacent Majestic Theater. For those of you unfamiliar with rush tickets and rush lottery tickets: They are a great way for people that enjoy the finer things in life to have them without breaking the bank (as long as you don't mind spending some of your time waiting in line for a chance to buy tickets, sometimes fruitlessly). Broadway rush tickets began when Rent-heads would camp out to buy Rent tickets. Essentially, they put us hardcore people in the front two rows so that they know they will have an enthusiastic crowd. We were lucky enough to get drawn for the opportunity to buy two tickets in our second lottery!

Our first night in town, Thursday, we stopped by a local watering hole for some forgettable mac & cheese and some Goose Island beer on tap. Although we did not plan to ride the Green Line CTA ('L') Line this weekend, it did not stop me from ordering a Goose Island Green Line Pale Ale (call me a fake flagger if you would like). The bartender even gave us free shots of Jameson, so we knew then that it was going to be a great weekend!

Friday, we had a big lunch planned, as the Tamale Spaceship food truck had a stop right by our hotel (which, honestly, also factored into my hotel decision). These guys serve tamales, from a spaceship (truck), while wearing luchador masks; This had "John, you have to try this food" written all over it! I had been looking for an excuse to wear my luchador mask that I picked up the last time we were in Mexico, this seemed like as good of chance as any! Much to my surprise, WYCC (Chicago's local PBS affiliate) was shooting a show (Food on the Go!) at the truck that day (honestly, I had no idea). They thought that I would make for good TV (uh, duh, of course I make for good TV!). I had the roasted beef, roasted pork, and Domino tamales. The roasted beef & roasted pork were great tamales (with even better sauces), the Domino tamale was the subject of Food on the Go! that day, see my thoughts on that (at about the two minute mark of the Tamale Spaceship video) here: 
The Tamale Spaceship on Urbanspoon

After I nearly exploded my stomach by eating so many delicious tamales (and lied down to take a rest) we headed to Flirty Cupcakes for some dessert. We had a 4-pack of the mini cupcakes (including chocolate, coconut, red velvet, and cookies & cream) and a full size Elvis Presley (Chocolate Banana Cupcake with a peanut butter buttercream). All of the cupcakes were good, but the Elvis Presley was by far both of our favorites.
Flirty Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Friday afternoon, we began our tour of tourist spots at the Sears "Don't Call Me Willis" Tower. It's always okay to stop at tourist spots when you are out of town, but you always want to at least avoid looking like a tourist. One way to ensure that you will stick out like a sore thumb is calling the Sears Tower the Willis Tower. We were lucky and got to the top right away (traveling during down seasons helps this as well). We took photos in the ever-scary plexiglass sky boxes that allow you to see all the way down to the street below. I was even able to use the coin operated binoculars to spot a power plant in Michigan City, Indiana that I had done work at a few years ago.

Friday night, we went to the original Billy Goat Tavern. We were extra hungry by the time we found it, because the address is on Michigan Avenue, but it's actually located beneath Michigan Avenue (we probably walked on top of it 4 times before seeing the inconspicuous staircase that leads down to Billy Goat). When we were greeted, we were told that you sit down and order drinks, then you go to the grill and order food. We were also told that "The double (burger) is best, but the triple is better", which kind of makes you scratch your head and kind of oddly makes sense at the same time. My wife and I ordered the Billy Goat Light and Billy Goat Dark (house beers), respectively, we also both had a double cheese burger (they are the best, after all). Both of the beers were nicely carbonated, they were very crisp and refreshing, they complimented the diner style flat burgers very well. The burgers were diner style flat burgers, reminiscent of Town Topic hamburgers (for those Kansas Citians), but on a nice Kaiser roll instead of the standard diner style buttery bun. Very good experience! We will be back here the next time we were in Chicago.
Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday was our lucky day! We started it off by winning the right $25 front row seats to Book of Mormon. Then we went to grab a quick lunch before the show started. Right down the street (about 2 blocks) from the Majestic Theater is Macy's. "I thought you went to go get food, not shopping" you say, I am getting there! This is another one of those "Finer things in life, on the cheap" times. Have you heard of Senor Rick Bayless? If you have, you will want to pay special attention to what I am about to say. If you have not, get out from under that rock and pay special attention to what I am about to say! Rick Bayless owns a few upscale restaurants off of Clark Street, has a TV show, and is a best selling cookbook author. But this is not a trip to Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, or even XOCO, this is a trip to Frontera Fresco in the food court at Macy's. 

Frontera Fresco is the genius of Rick Bayless, for the every man. Stashed just above the shoe floor in Macy's. How do I know what floor is the shoe floor, you ask? See Exhibit A (picture to the right of the previous paragraph). If you are a gastronaut (such as myself) with a wife that you love, that loves to shop, this Macy's is the place for you! Give your wife your credit card and then go glutton yourself on amazing Mexican food! The chips and guac are great (although, as I have stated a million times, is never a reason to go to a restaurant). They have Bohemia, which is my favorite Mexican beer (in a restaurant, my favorite Mexican beer on a beach in Mexico is Modelo Light). The roasted corn and poblano chowder is gigantic, out of this world delicious, and under $4! The grilled steak torta was very good, but paled in comparison to my wife's grilled steak tacos, both highlighted with melted Chihuahua cheese! And as an added bonus, they also display the names of the farms that they source their ingredients from. I cannot say enough about this place!
Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

After we were done stuffing our faces, we waddled back to the Majestic Theater, just in time for the show. SIDE NOTE (for any theater rookies): Do not take photos in the theater, especially of the cast, even more especially if you are in the front row! The lady sitting next to my wife got her iphone confiscated for doing just that (*cough* IDIOT *cough*). They want enthusiastic people in the front row, but act like you have been there before (even if you haven't).

We then took the Red Line to check out Chicago's night sky and have a Lavazza espresso on top of the world, at the Hancock Tower. We had heard that the observation deck at Hancock was better than that at Sears. It was true, believe the hype, Hancock was better. There is an open air sky walk at Hancock, that was somewhat reminiscent of The Top of the Rock (although 30 Rock was much more impressive, obviously). I do, however, do not recommend skipping the Sears Tower, simply because of the history that the Sears Tower offers. 

As if we hadn't eaten enough at this point in the day, we decided to go for the gusto and head over to the Original Genos East. We waited on the line outside, under the chicken roasters, and mingled with the people. Surprisingly enough, at this tourist must-stop, it was predominantly locals that we talked to on the line. FYI: you can go to the bar and get drinks (as long as you are of age) while you're waiting on the line. This night, the line didn't happen to be that long, but by the time we got in, ordered, and received our pizza (as it takes 45min-1hr to cook) we were surprisingly hungry. We got a pitcher of Goose Island 312 (Downtown Chicago area code and wheat beer) and a small cheese and "famous sausage" deep dish pizza, we didn't really have another choice if that was what they were famous for (besides deep dish pizza, of course). The pizza was great and perfectly sized for only two people. The cornmeal crust was out of this world! After all of this food, drink, and excitement, we were about ready to turn in for the night. P.S. Don't forget your marker when you go to Genos, as it is encouraged to write your name on the walls (but please don't write swear words, this is a family establishment).
Original Gino's East on Urbanspoon

Sunday (or Museum Day, as I will call it) started out with an Argo Tea and a trip to The Bean. Argo Tea offers a long line of delicious, artisan teas (hot, cold, and loose leaf). Chicago is one of only 4 U.S. cities that you can find Argo in, but anyone can order the loose leaf teas online, you will not be disappointed. Our hot teas (POM white tea and ginger honey latte) kept us warm on our walk to Millennium Park, where my wife tried her best to steal The Bean's soul (with her camera) and then push it over.

Next we caught the bus to the Shedd Aquarium, where we had a blast and spent 4-5 hours. We saw Beluga Whales (insert Baby Beluga song from Full House here), sea otters, every fish from Finding Nemo, an awesome tortuga named Nickle, and a sweet exhibit about Jelly Fish, just to name a few.

Turns out that taking in sea creatures all day has a common side effect of increased hunger, trust me, it happened to us. Luckily for us, nestled between Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum was a Chicago hot dog stand. Street food, with local flavour, yes please! The Vienna hot dog, mustard, onions, tomatoes, dill pickle spear, and jalapenos, all on a poppy seed bun, was just what a hungry man needed to get ready to take on a T-Rex (but more on that in a minute).

The Field Museum is home to the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton. This was something that I was very excited to see, as a child that was way into dinosaurs (thanks to Land Before Time). However, after laying my eyes upon this 'large' T-Rex, I could not help but think about how unimposing it looked compared to how I thought that it would look. Looking at SUE (the T-Rex's name), I decided that if I were a caveman (using caveman tools), I would be having some T-Rex for dinner. I know that you are thinking that I have fallen completely off of my rocker right about now, but hear me out. This method requires careful planning and observation of the T-Rex. Step 1: Fashion a very strong, very long spear by whittling down a very strong wood (like oak or walnut). Step 2: Don't get excited about your awesome spear and try to stab it in the ribs of the T-Rex, the ribs are very close together and you may completely miss vital organs this way. Step 3: Watch a T-Rex attack its prey, and time it. Step 4: When you think you have the timing down, piss it off and get it to attack you. It's only method of offense or defense is with its mouth, because it cannot get you with its little T-Rex arms. Step 5: Wait until you can see the soft spot on the roof of the T-Rex's mouth, then stab its brain through the roof of its mouth. Step 6: Eat Awesomeness! Please do keep in mind that Step 5 is key! If you cock-up Step 5, then the T-Rex will be the one Eating Awesomeness.

On our way back to the hotel, from our big day of fish watching and T-Rex assessing, we picked up a Chicago favorite: Al's #1 Italian Beef. Al's is a local chain that isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but what everyone considers the gold standard of Italian Beefs in Chicago. We got the Big Al, "Sweet" and "Dipped", and an order of cheese fries. I enjoyed everything quite a bit, but if my wife were to do it all over again, she would get her Italian Beef un-dipped.

Last, but certainly not least, after taking the Orange Line back to Midway on Monday, we made an obligatory stop at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop that is inside the terminal. Potbelly is our favorite sandwich shop ever! Everything is great, we have never had a bad sandwich there! Tips: Always get everything on your sandwich, whether you think you will like it or not, give it a try. And always get a pickle to go with your sandwich! We will look at flights, when we fly Southwest, and purposefully try to get a layover in Chicago, just so we can have Potbelly. And great news to those of you in Kansas City: Potbelly is opening up a store on The Plaza!
Potbelly Sandwich Works on Urbanspoon

Chicago has to be one of the best airport food cities in America. Between Potbelly at Midway and Tortas Frontera (another Rick Bayless gem) at O'Hare, anyone flying in, out, or through Chicago has it made!

Finally, we made our way back from our awesome weekend, but we will see you again shortly Chicago!

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