I always forget that East Coast-style culture is a mere five-hour drive from here because we have Chicago. Geography is a technicality. In Chicago, you get your “coast” (waves high enough to surf), your fashion (more gladiator sandals than you’d find in Pat Benatar’s garage) and, most importantly, your food (Chicago’s pizza will always win out over New York’s).
Last weekend, my family and I road-tripped it to Chicago and checked out some of the best restaurants the city had to offer, from the best margaritas in the country to the best pizza in the world.
One of our first stops was chef Rick Bayless’ restaurant, Frontera. There’s nothing like margaritas and salsa at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning; it makes you feel like you’re in Texas.
Because I’m not a fan of tequila, I opted for Frontera’s Mango Mojito, served street-vendor style with a mango and chili garnish. Its sweet pulp, fresh crushed mint and Cachaca (pure white Brazilian rum) woke me up.
Day of the dead folk art lined the pastel walls, entertaining us with marionettes of happy skeletons and surrealist paintings of butchered pigs wearing beatific smiles and levitating towards the divine. The guacamole came fast, with just a touch of garlic and a lovely addition of sun-dried tomatoes that sweetened the deal.
I ordered Enchiladas de Mole Poblano ($14.75), homemade tortillas rolled around free-range chicken and Frontera’s famous mole sauce. Containing at least 40 ingredients, this mole had no overwhelming chocolate undertones and was subtle and rustic with a touch of honey. Because the chicken was free-range, its taste was strong enough to be a presence that perfectly complemented the sauce.
According to USA Today, Nacional 27 offers one of the best margaritas in the country. Unfortunately, it took us 25 minutes to find out. We waited, feasting on plantain chips at a circular booth that faced a shiny dance floor and a Gothic candelabra that burned in the background.
My mother remarked that it reminded her of a prom, but with no people. (We were one of only three full tables in the restaurant.) Music that can only be described as Heroin Chic Folk, paired with occasional Latino dance mixes, serenaded us through loud surround-sound speakers.
We asked our server once, then three more times, to please turn down the music, which never happened. But when we finally got our drinks, we all agreed they were well worth the pain.
Strong enough to alleviate a nervous breakdown, the House Margarita ($16) with cazadores reposado, bacardi anejo and Grand Marnier made for a happy family-photo moment.
But better than the margarita was that night’s special, a Pomegranate martini with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, rum and habanero pepper, the most brilliant I’ve ever had. Though glowing from the margarita, we frowned at the check: $78 for four drinks and gaucamole.
Waiting outside of Gino’s East of Chicago, a pizza place, isn’t entirely unlike waiting outside of some Mary Kate- and-Ashley-Olsen-like club in New York. It’s not that there are any famous people at Gino’s, it’s just that they make you feel like they’re coming.
The velvet ropes, the long line at 6 on a Friday night and a bouncer who scanned us up and down made us feel like we should have worn shorter skirts in order to get served pizza. But once inside, the service was friendly and the pizza was worth it.
Try the Four-Cheese ($19.95), deep-dish and very doughy but not swimming in butter, and the Vegetarian ($27.95), loaded with fresh spring veggies and drenched in an oregano-rich sauce.
CONTACT HEATHER SMITH: [email protected]