A few months ago, the lovely people at Chicago Food Planet contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in one of their food tours of Chicago neighborhoods. (Yes. You know. For free. Because I’m maybe a little bit awesome?) I was traveling pretty heavily at the time but the stars finally aligned earlier this month when my cousin was in town, so I kicked his butt into gear for an 11 am showing at the Near North Food Tour.
I immediately wished I had done one of these a year ago when I first arrived back in Chicago. Because our first stop was Ashkenaz, the Jewish deli on Cedar Street in the Gold Coast. We helped ourselves to pastrami on MARBLE RYE — I can’t tell you how excited I was about that rye — along with some sauerkraut. Pretty damn fantastic. (They use Vienna Beef products, just FYI. I don’t hold this against them, but apparently some do because they should be making their own, etc. etc. I say I don’t care as long as it tastes good.)
Anyhow…I’ve missed a good Jewish deli. I’ll be back here.
Next up was Tea Geschwender, another place I’ve been wanting to try. Iced peach Green tea to go, and a generous serving at that. Tea Geschwender had a whole wall of tea kettles at the back of the store, oddly reminicent of the episode of Design Star on HGTV that my cousin and I had watched the night before, where each contestant was given a tea kettle and had to design a room around the kettle. Luckily, there was no such challenge at Tea Geschwender that day, although I was challenged enough by my hangover from the night before. We did learn about the different types of teas and how to brew a proper cup though, which was nice. I’ve promptly forgotten everything, but it all made sense at the time.
Then we did a quick skip up to Old Town, where you could smell The Spice House from a block away. The proprietor gave a great talk on cinnamon — who knew there where so many varieties and that each could taste so different — and my cousin pretended to smoke all the herbs in the back of the shop. (Always classy, that George.) Guests on the tour get coupons to all of the spots visited, so I returned later in the week to pick up a pack of barbecue rubs for my friends Ben & Antonia in London, proud parents of a Big Green Egg. 15% off. Natch.
While we were in Old Town Oil, my cousin made the quickest and most stealth-like purchase of olive oil I’ve ever witnessed. (Tour guests are politely asked not to make any purchases during the tour, as it can slow things down. But as my cousin was only in town for a few days, there wasn’t any time to come back.) He got really excited about all sorts of olive oil here. Kinda crazy to watch. It was like he was doing shots.
You might know I’m not a huge sweets person, but butter toffee — think Skor bars, if you remember them — is one of my weaknesses. This is the tray that greeted us upon entrance to The Fudge Pot, which sources all of its chocolate locally from Chicago’s own Blommer Chocolate Factory, one of the best parts about my bike ride to and from work every day. I only wish that they had given us just one piece each because if they had, well, I wouldn’t have had, um, five.
We made a stop at Delightful Pastries next, but sadly none of my photos turned out. I’ve been chowing on their pierogies non-stop since I found them at the Polish Market on Thursday evenings at the Division Blue Line. Fan-f*cking-tastic. Really. You should try them too.
Our last stop — just before the torrential rain began — was at Bacino’s in Lincoln Park, where we stuffed ourselves silly with spinach stuffed-crust pizza. My cousin sat there morosely at the end of the meal, staring at his empty plate. “I didn’t like that at all,” he said. “I really didn’t like that at all.” I knew how he felt. This was my first slice of Chicago-style pizza in something like seven years, and it was pretty darn good. We left happy. Very very happy.
The Verdict: Chicago Food Planet Tours are an AWESOME way to see Chicago. You get to try a lot of stuff, and you get a bit of history mixed in. For example, on the Near North Tour, you learn all about The Playboy Mansion. In all seriousness though, this was really a great afternoon, for locals and tourists alike. (For the first time ever, thanks to Chicago Food Planet, I walked through the Old Town Triangle. Why the heck haven’t I been through here before??)
The Fine Print: My cousin and I were guests of Chicago Food Planet. As of August 2011, the tour we were on retailed for $45 a person. I accepted this tour because my alternative was to spend all day looking at paint chips at Home Depot, and I had already spent the better portion of Friday at Home Depot, so I needed a break.