Jazzed-up hot dogs, deep-dish pizza and any product with chef Rick Bayless’ thumbprint are among the foods that make Chicago famous. Add wiener schnitzel from the Berghoff, burgers from the Billy Goat Tavern, “da pork chop” from Ditka’s and pastas from Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia.
This is Chicago cuisine that – for the average tourist – tends to eclipse the many longstanding, lower-profile and high-quality ethnic eateries in the 70-plus neighborhoods away from downtown. Consider this glimpse of just two.
Along Western Avenue, Chicago’s longest street, are 14 neighborhoods that are big on industrial and ethnic blends. Driving the 23.5-mile thoroughfare is a good way to see a cross-section of what the city offers.
Long a treasure to residents of the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, also known as Little Italy, is Italian Superior Bakery, where racks fill with tomato bread on Saturdays, sausage bread on Sundays and the fat filone (weighing up to three pounds per loaf) every day.
Up to 300 pounds of bread can bake at once in a brick oven that is 10 feet wide and 15 feet deep. In bakery cases are 18-by-26-inch sheets of pizza bread (sold by the slice), chocolate-striped taralles (sweet breads with lemon and vanilla flavoring), many versions of biscotti and other treats.
The Masi family of Italy, near Naples, for 71 years stuck to Old World recipes and hand-rolled dough – techniques that were labor-intensive, and that made them all the more precious as time went on. When baker Frank Masi’s retirement threatened to end the era, brothers who were longtime customers intervened.
So since 2008 Angelo and Jake Saccameno have operated the business with the same culinary integrity as their predecessor. Frank Masi still lives upstairs and “still comes out to check the bread and make sure it’s OK,” says Angelo, who says he gladly traded white-collar work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to bake for a living.
Italian Superior Bakery, 933 S. Western Ave., is a short walk from the “Western” stop on the Blue Line of Chicago’s rapid transit system. For more: www.italiansuperiorbakery.com, 312-733-5092.
Five miles southeast, the Golden Dragon fortune cookie factory on South Archer Street is an unofficial boundary for Chicago’s Chinatown, the second largest in the nation (after New York City’s). Wander Chinatown Square (venture within the area’s bronze gates) and you’ll also encounter Hong Kong Noodle Company.
Chef Tony Hu came to Chicago in 1993 to work at a Chinese restaurant on Michigan Avenue. Today he operates Lao You Ju, whose specialty is nuevo Chinese cuisine in Chinatown, and he is an ardent ambassador for the food and culture of his homeland.
The result is international accolades for food quality, ethnic authenticity and the effective execution of spiciness. “The best authentic Chinese food,” declares Zagat, the worldwide guide to restaurant reviews.
Translation of the restaurant name, Lao You Ju, is “where good friends come together.” On the vibrant walls is a culinary history of various Chinese dynasties, and Tony returns to China every September for inspiration and reconnections.
His lunch-dinner menu invites customers to indulge in Chinese cuisine through nibbles of unpredictable tapas. Dried chili chicken in a noodle bowl is one specialty. Smoked tea duck and cumin-dusted beef skewers are others. Braised pigeon, stir-fried frog and spicy pork kidney are among the more adventurous choices.
Lao You Ju, 2002 S. Wentworth Ave., is near the “Chinatown” stop on the Red Line. For more: www.tonygourmetgroup.com, 312-225-7818. The chef operates four other Chicago-area restaurants.
For more about Chicago’s Chinatown businesses: www.chicagochinatown.org, 312-326-5320. Guided walking tours are possible. The area’s 2012 Lunar New Year Parade, at 1 p.m. Jan. 29, celebrates the Year of the Dragon.
A terrific way to get acquainted with Chicago’s neighborhoods is through Chicago Neighborhood Tours, arranged by the city’s Office of Tourism and Culture.
These group tours, by bus and foot, last four or 4.5 hours and are guided by experts in whatever topic – such as churches, an ethnic group, cemeteries, a neighborhood, art or history – is emphasized.
In the mix this year are at least 12 new tours, including “Hops and Barley: Pubs and Microbreweries,” “The Great Migration: African American Heritage,” “Out and Proud: LGBT Chicago,” “STRIKE! Chicago Labor History” and “Historic Hotels of Chicago.”
Some tours are seasonal. Several of the new tours involve food samplings and are spin-offs of the former “Neighborhood Sampling” outings that would hit capacity weeks ahead of schedule.
For details, call 312-742-1190 or go to www.explorechicago.org and search for “neighborhood tours.” The cost for adults is $35-55; all tours leave from the Chicago Cultural Center downtown.