Taste of Chicago

We have arrived for burgers — the kind that people talk about on the Internet long after having wiped the final crumbs from their lips. But we are distracted from the mouth-watering scent of smoke and beef by the hostess, standing with clipboard in hand and pen poised, telling us the wait will be about two hours.

Kuma’s Corner is a popular place. Glimpses at the burgers coming from the coffee-table-sized kitchen are enough to make me pause and then put my name down on the list.

After all, what’s waiting at one more restaurant?

Kuma's Corner - the burger

We’ve already lined up around the block for a hotdog, sipped drinks to pass time while hoping for space at the counter of a trendy hotspot, and waited on a ramp overlooking the dining area of another restaurant, mouths watering as another platter of chicken and waffles was carried by.

Chicagoans, it appears, know what is good, what they like and are willing to wait.

And so will we.

It begins at Hot Doug’s, a hotdog joint well outside of the downtown core, where the faithful begin to line up before the place opens at 10:30 a.m. When my friend, Suzi, and I arrive around 11, the queue snakes out the front door, around the corner of the building and along its brick facade. Inside, every seat is filled.

Hot Doug's

Hot Doug's - waiting

But the delay is productive. The man in front of us, a regular, gives us the low down on what dogs are worth the wait.

For him, the Linguica — a Portuguese pork sausage — will always be the first pick. It’s one of the myriad specials proprietor Doug Sohn has dreamed up for the restaurant featured on TV shows and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, including Bon Appetit and Saveur.

The Linguica is on the menu, along with a curry lamb sausage, a chicken one with cranberry and walnuts and the item I already knew we’d have to try: the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.

This is no ordinary hotdog place.

Hot Doug's - menu I
Hot Doug's - menu II

A side of fries cooked in duck fat — Friday and Saturday only — to go alongside and we were ready to go.

The thick squiggle of saffron aioli and cubed chunks of Iberico cheese played against the spicy sausage flecked with red chili. It was the hands-down winner between the two, although the duck dog with the rich mousse was worth the excursion.

Hot Dogs at Hot Doug's

Sauternes - cross-section

Linguica - cross-section

We would have thanked our lineup buddy for the recommendation, but he vanished after gobbling down his two dogs and disappeared into the sunny afternoon.

Total wait time: 45 minutes

In the daze that often follows a decadent lunch, Suzi and I headed back downtown to wander Millennium Park and admire Cloud Gate — a.k.a. the Bean — the stainless steel sculpture designed by Anish Kapoor that reflects Chicago’s stellar architecture, sunny skies and tourists like a classy funhouse mirror.

The Bean II

The Bean III

The wait for Avec is estimated at an hour, but we’re allowed to give a phone number and we head next door to Meiji, a Japanese influenced restaurant, for a sushi roll appetizer and glass of wine.

Just as we finish up the phone rings and we wander back the 25 steps or so to squeeze into two seats at the counter that runs almost the length of the narrow restaurant.

Avec, a wine bar part of a series of successful restaurants in Paul Kahan’s stable, boasts a menu of homemade charcuterie, flatbreads cooked in the fire-burning oven, tender salads and other items all easily shared.

The decisions are tough, but we settle on the flatbread stuffed with tallegio cheese, a salad comprised mostly of prosciutto and apple, the signature dish of chorizo stuffed dates in a tomato sauce, and another dish or two.

From the counter, we watch the chefs bustle at the two wood-burning ovens and chat with the server who offers up a few nightlife recommendations, while pouring a glass of rose.

The prosciutto salad that mixes the salt of cured ham and sweet apples is a clear winner, but it is the crisp flatbread with its oozing cheese centre that I can’t stop eating.

Total wait time: 60 minutes

At Jam, we wait only 10 minutes for a free table for brunch. We have to chalk it up to good timing because after we sit down, the queue starts to stretch along the half-wall from cash register to front door.

Jam

The grey walls and concrete tables could feel industrial, but instead the air is cosy. From our table we have a clear view into the open concept kitchen — a tiny space that somehow fits at least three people co-ordinating plates and getting them out to patrons quickly and with style.

Amuse Bouche

The eggs benny with crisped pork belly and beet hollandaise is almost art with the black-salt-topped eggs and bright pink smear of sauce. The braised pork cheeks are not quite as attractive, but meaty and tender.

Eggs Benny at Jam

Steaming coffee

Total wait time: 10 minutes

The next morning, the waiting is a little more tedious as we join an almost two-hour line at Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. It is a Sunday, after church, and the view of gorgeous hats sprinkled among patrons at the tables is beautiful but not enough to take our minds off the time we have to kill.

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles

Trays of hot waffles and crisp-skinned chicken passing almost under our noses seemed to only prolong the wait.

The first bite made it almost seem worthwhile. Apart, the fried chicken and waffles drizzled with maple syrup were good. Together they were a revelation. The hot, crisp chicken and the sweet tender waffles combined to become something better. Salt and sweet and crisp and soft. If I could have polished off the plate, I would have.

Chicken and Waffles

Total wait time: Two hours

We work it off by wandering the Art Institute of Chicago where I gaze, just as they did in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, at Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. I’m hypnotized by the pointillism, though that could be a soporific side-effect of breakfast.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

But by the last day, my patience for waiting has waned.

There is one final stop before the flight home: a burger joint that has received rave reviews online.

Kuma's Corner - Exterior

It’s a takes-no-guff place that has posted rules on its website, including no reservations, no music requests and “We will not ‘put on the game, bro.’ ”

When the hostess tells us the wait could be up to 2 ½ hours, we are prepared. And we’re learning. We put down our names and then head back out to hail a cab to take us to a nearby neighbourhood where we can window shop.

About 90 minutes later we’re back at the restaurant, hungrier than ever and only 20 minutes away from being seated at a tiny table near the equally tiny kitchen where staff are pumping out burgers like a machine.

Kuma's Corner Interior

Next to us, two young men are tackling the macaroni and cheese platter — a behemoth portion of pasta that can be topped with just about anything: prosciutto, caramelized onions, peas, sweet corn.

I, however, have eyes only for the burger and the two-hour wait has sharpened that craving, so I’m quick to decide on the “famous Kuma burger,” adorned with bacon, cheese and fried egg.

The patty alone is almost a softball of meat, slightly flattened. With the egg, cheese and bacon atop, this burger is a force to be reckoned with. When I attempt to cut it, the steak knife is buried to the hilt in the centre of the burger.

Kuma's Corner II

That first bite makes the wait dissolve into a distant memory.

The crisp waffle fries push it even further away.

Leftovers in hand — which will serve well as an inflight meal — we push out into the sunny afternoon.

There is nothing left to wait for, except the next trip back.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald’s Travel section. For more articles, visit CalgaryHerald.com/travel/index.html.

  4 comments for “Taste of Chicago

  1. Rachel
    June 23, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Hot Doug’s is by far my favorite place to eat. I lived in Chicago for a little more than a year between undergrad and law school and I ate their every chance I got. I’ve never had one bad thing to eat there and Doug is so nice and also very helpful if you’re not sure what to get.

    Kuma’s is also great. But it wasn’t always as popular as it is now. The kids who actually listen to hardcore or metal music used to be the ones going to there. Most everyone eating there would be heavily tattooed. Now you go in and it’s a 2 hour wait due to yuppies and tourists and now none of my friends who used to frequent kuma’s want to even go anymore. It’s a shame because when I’m in town I always want to go but my friends never want to wait. It seems they’re “over it.” But, luckily for Kuma’s it doesn’t seem like that’s affecting their business too much.

  2. June 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Omg, omg, omg. I’d never really had any reason to go to Chicago until this blog entry. You had me at the first photo with the waffle fries…

  3. Katie
    June 29, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Julie and I didn’t make it to Avec this weekend, but it’s definitely on the list for the next Chicago visit. In the meantime, I’ll be busy practicing my pool game… Great to meet you!

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