One of my favorite activities in Chicago was going on the Chicago Food Planet Food Tour last Thursday. Over the course of three hours, our group of 11 tourists and 1 tour guide walked to 7 restaurants and shops, sampling specialties and learning about food.
We began our tour at Ashkenaz Jewish Deli in the Gold Coast neighborhood. We built our own Reuben sandwiches using marble rye, Vienna Beef pastrami (the brand is essential!), sauerkraut, cheese and Ashkenaz’s special dressing, which is pink from the beets it contains. I loved the pink dressing. It tasted absolutely delicious.
The Reubens made us thirsty, so we were glad to drink Cranberry Mango Iced Green Tea at our next stop, Tea Gschwendner. This international German tea shop sells high quality bulk tea. While we were sipping our tea, the store manager and tour guide taught us about the differences between different types of tea and how to brew tea so it doesn’t become bitter.
Stop number three—The Spice House—took us to the Old Town neighborhood. As we stepped inside The Spice House we were overwhelmed by the smell of cinnamon, cumin and other spices. After smelling and sampling different spices, we learned about the different types of cinnamon and pepper. Fun Fact: Did you know that ground spices only last 12-18 months, but whole spices can last for 25 years? That’s a good case for buying spices whole and grinding them yourself.
(I forgot to take a photo at Old Town Oil, our next stop, so this photo of The Spice House's back garden will have to do instead.) A couple doors up the street we stopped at Old Town Oil, a shop selling specialty oils and vinegars. We were set loose to mix and match different olive oils and vinegars samples as we pleased. In addition to the standard olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars, we sampled flavored oils and vinegars, such as roasted walnut olive oil, Persian lime olive oil, fig balsamic vinegar and strawberry balsamic vinegar.
The balsamic vinegars were sweet, but the toffee we sampled at The Fudge Pot was even sweeter. Stepping behind the counter to the refrigerated table where the Fudge Pot makes its famed fudge, we talked about how chocolate is made. Though The Fudge Pot doesn’t make their own chocolate, they cast Chicago’s Blommer’s chocolate into fun-shaped molds like cats and airplanes and create other chocolate-covered treats.
A few blocks up the street at Delightful Pastries, a European style bakery. Nodding to Chicago’s large Polish population, we tried pierogis stuffed with potato & cheese and kolachkis, a piece of pastry dough folded over a spoonful of jam. True to the European tradition, the kolachkis were not overly sweet.
Our last stop took us to Bacino’s Pizzeria in the Lincoln Park Neighborhood. We ate their famous Stuffed Spinach Supreme pizza. Remarkably, the hefty slice of pizza wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. In fact, it has been recognized as a heart-healthy pizza because of the skim ricotta, tomatoes and spinach it contains. While it probably isn’t something to indulge in everyday, an occasional slice will make you heart-happy.
My two favorite stops were Ashkenaz Deli and Tea Gschwendner. The Ashkenaz dressing on the Reuben sandwich tasted really delicious, and I loved exploring all the different teas at the tea shop. I didn’t take a Reuben for the road, but we did bring home three types of teas from the tea shop.
If you are visiting Chicago, San Francisco or any big city, I highly recommend going on a food tour. Not only were we able to discover some hidden gems of restaurants and shops, but the wealth of information from our tour guide was invaluable. Sure, we could have looked up the food tour stops and gone to them on our own time, but then we would have missed out on the interesting anecdotes and historical information related to the tour that our guide shared with us.
Go on a food tour! You won’t regret it.