Chicago Holiday Adventures: A Foodie Within

Would you be shocked if I told you I liked to eat? Of course, no vacation would be complete without a few adventures in food. The beauty of this trip was it wasn’t all about eating at fancy restaurants. As a former resident of the windy city, I have a whole list of places that are just off the beaten path. Here are a few highlights of my foodie adventures.

Hot Chocolate: Someone asked me before I started the trip what I was looking the most forward to doing. I immediately said it was to walk the city with a cup of hot chocolate (I don’t drink coffee…and the screaming begins.) The hot chocolate perfectly warmed my hands as I ventured around Millennium Park.

Photo Credit: Hopleaf Bar

Hopleaf Bar: There are many memories involving this pub. So when my very good friends Mary and John suggested meeting there for dinner, I knew it was going to be a great time.

This pub is known for their wide selection of beers and amazing mussels. For us, it was the perfect place to hang and have great conversations without the pressure of being pushed out the door. In fact, our “dinner” lasted a little over 5 hours!

Portillo's Burger

Portillo’s: A quick reading from my Weather Channel iPhone app indicated the day was going to be 8 degrees with a wind chill of -15. I must have been crazy to think it would be an enjoyable experience to explore the city in such frigid conditions. But I was determined to take advantage of every moment in Chicago, no matter how often I had to tighten my scarf.

Don’t even think about ordering a burger at a common fast food chain when there is a Portillo’s around. It is by far one of the best burgers to build a base before venturing around the city. Of course, I had to go all out and order the Double Cheese Burger with Fries and Cheese Sauce. I know, I know. It sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen. But I’m on vacation and it was pretty darn good.

Photo Credit: Mana Food Bar
Photo Credit: Mana Food Bar

Mana Food Bar: In a previous job, I had the opportunity to work with a very talented graphic design/copywriting team that is based in Chicago. We recently reconnected to work on a very important project for my current job, and they have been hugely valuable throughout the process.

Both are hardcore foodies with devotion for the vegan lifestyle. I have always considered myself to be a vegetarian enthusiast so I couldn’t help but meet up with them for a meatless lunch in a hipster part of the city.

A natural assumption of vegetarian/vegan cuisine is that it has no flavor with very little beauty. True to my lunch guests’ suggestion, Mana Food Bar was over-the-top delicious. I couldn’t stop ordering as exquisitely arranged plates of marinated beets with apple, sautéed mushrooms with creamy polenta and rice noodles in a Thai coconut milk broth. My lunch guests giggled when they noticed I was trying to recreate the recipes in my head.

Go Roma

Go Roma: As my friend Deb would say, “I just want a good walk and a nice salad.” I decided to go for a nice walk to see several of my favorite architectural gems.

To kick the walk off right, I stopped by my favorite place for great Panini sandwiches and salads. Go Roma is located a little of the beaten path, but the food and atmosphere was well worth the visit. I opted for a half Tuscan Chicken Salad and a half Chicken Pomodoro Panini. I was pleasantly surprised to see a small pile of shoestring fries on the plate. They certainly didn’t go to waste.

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  • I saw Portillo’s on Foodgawker and I immediately had to see what you had to say! I used to live 5 minutes away from a Portillo’s and now that I’m hundreds of miles away I crave Portillo’s all the time! I don’t think there’s one bad thing at Portillo’s, but the chicago style hot dog is by far the best! And you have to get it with everything because otherwise it’s just a boring old hot dog! Trust me, all the toppings might not sound tasty, but combined it is FANTASTIC!

  • You had me at Portillo’s! I ran across your entry on foodgawker. I am so happy my sister and BIL live in Chicago! Portillo’s is a must on every visit. Every location has service down to a science!

  • You went to Portillo’s and didn’t have a hot dog? Crazy! 🙂
    I’m glad you’ve had a good time in Chicago. I love this place, even when it is 20 below and icy…

  • I was thinking the same thing as Al! They have great hotdogs. And you don’t have to get everything on the dog, just no ketchup. I like mine simple, mustard and a dill pickle spear. Your adventures in Chicago sound like fun and that last dinner sounds delicious!

  • Portillo’s is famous for their hot dogs and Italian beef. It even has a hot dog in their logo, as pictured on your fries box. You got a burger?!

    • Al: I agree they are famous for their hot dogs. I have to admit I am not a fan of hot dogs in general. The burger sounded so good at the time. It really hit the spot.

  • Let me know the next time your in Chicago – we should have lunch! I am an hour train ride away – love having Chicago in my back yard.

    Did you happen upon the French Market at the train station??!!

  • I love Chicago! My favorite city. The food is good but the city is great! I was there for about year while I was in the Navy. One day I hope to go back for a visit! There was a pizza place my friends and I would always go to but I can’t remember the name now. Thanks for sharing. I have a lot of great memories there.

  • Amanda: I know exactly which Portillo’s you are talking about. It is true how they take the orders in advance of you pulling up. I’m amazed at how many employees they have and how efficient the restaurants can make the food.

    Mary: I really think you will like Mana Food Bar as a lunch stop. Expect to order several items, since they are “vegetarian” sizes. 🙂

    Jessica: Thanks so much. I really like the pictures too.

    Camille: I agree with the coffee people looking down on me ordering hot chocolate. Sometimes its as if they don’t know how to make it because it’s not the norm. It’s really comforting isn’t it?

    Heather: I HATE Chicago hot dogs. I don’t understand why someone would want all that stuff on time. I would have almost hurled the dog back at him too! 🙂

  • You know… I have been back in Chicago now for about 4.5 months and I can more then easily get to Portillo’s… why have I not?!?!?! Just seeing the fry box got my mouth watering. I know where I am going on Monday whilst I wrap up my holiday shopping. Which reminds me. I went to Wrigley Hot dogs (may be off on the name it is on Clark by, well Wrigley…) when I got back and ordered a hot dog with everything. SINCE WHEN in Chicago did a HOT DOG with everything include ketchup. I almost hurled it back at him! Have fun in Chicago!!!

  • Hot chocolate high five! I don’t drink coffee either, and while I do drink tea, for some reason I’m very rarely inclined to buy it out at a coffee place. Hot chocolate, on the other hand…

    P.S., how annoying is it when the very people selling it to you want to look at you like you’re ordering a kids’ drink? How less frivolous is one of those princessy coffees with a bunch of flavour shots and a million different options? I’ll take my simple, delicious hot chocolate any day.

  • …good times…good times….Thanks Cory! – we’re going to put Mana Food Bar on our ever expanding list of places to go and the next time you’re in town Kuma’s is non-negotiable no matter the wait or the boot in the arse to get out if you’re done eating!

  • My husband works in Schaumburg, which is a northwest suburb of Chicago. There is a Portillo’s there that is out of control insanely busy. They have a drive through, it’s in a mini-mall type area. The line goes forever but it constantly moves. They have 2-3 people outside taking orders while you are in your car waiting in line. There are others that take your money then when you get to the window they hand you your food and you are outta there. It’s truly an amazing sight to behold. I heard that in their first year they made enough money to pay off the business loan and just rake in the cash daily.

    There’s a great article on the success of Richard Portillo here

    Here’s a quote about the drive thru phenomenon:

    “While the dining rooms were attractive and scrupulously clean, the drive-in windows were high-tech. Once lines had started curving around buildings and into streets, Portillo pioneered the use of placing order-takers outside with headsets. This allowed orders to go into the kitchen more quickly and kept the lines moving at a faster clip. As Portillo had commented to Restaurants & Institutions (May 29, 1989) magazine, “There are 256 ways to dress a hot dog, so operationally, it can be a nightmare.”

    Amazing stuff!

  • OMG…they both look like the best heart attacks ever!! It’s probably a good thing cafeteria food doesn’t look like that. Our poor college stomachs would have more to worry about than warm beer.