The Road to HIMSS15: Chicago in a nutsh—er, hot dog bun
Chicago is one of the world’s great cities for food, music, sports and architecture – so it would be a crime to spend your entire HIMSS 2015 in America’s largest convention center (like I did on my first visit to Chicago). Right? After all, this is the town that gave us Al Capone, pinball machines, Chess Records, Wilco and the Hostess Twinkie.
We combined our own experiences with those of natives we look up to, such as Bryan Bedell, one of the masterminds behind the Chicago-made Field Notes – which can only be described as the cool, underground version of the Moleskine – to give you a list of ideas for things to do…some of which won’t be found in your daddy’s Michelin Guide.
- Hot Dogs – The city’s take on the hot dog has to be tasted to be believed, accompanied by garishly yellow mustard, neon green relish, a poppy seed bun and celery salt (the unsung heroes) and a slew of odd garnishes like tomatoes, peppers and sliced cucumbers. Says Bedell, “Most any hot dog stand is going to have decent boiled or charred hot dogs, Polish sausage or Italian beef – and most are cheaper than the places Guy Fieri’s been to.” Among the places one can indulge: the Superdawg drive-in, Jimmy’s Red Hot’s and Gene’s & Jude’s (River Grove, IL). You won’t be disappointed, unless of course you’re looking for the legendary Hot Doug’s or First National Frank of Chicago, which have departed the scene.
- Italian Beef – Italian Beef is another longstanding Chicago specialty, and is basically a roast beef sandwich served “wet” or “dry” (dipped in gravy or not), with or without cheese and topped with either “hot” (pickled veggies) or “sweet” (sautéed green peppers) toppings. Folks rave about Johnnie’s Beef (in Elmwood Park, IL, en route to the airport), Al’s Italian Beef (multiple locations) and The Original Mr. Beef.
- Caliente! – While there are excellent Mexican restaurants in Chicago, including the highly-rated Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Bedell says that “you’ll do well at practically any corner Mexican place, which will likely have great, cheap food. Look out for tacos al pastor con cilantro y cebollas (marinated spicy pork on soft corn tortillas with onions and cilantro) sopes, tortas, burritos and chiles rellenos.” Also check out Maxwell Street Market on Sundays, with its array of food stands.
More eats and drinks
- Burger Joints & Delis: With two locations, a motto of “Eat beef. Bang your head.” and disdain for “inferior” brews, Kuma’s Corner provides a unique dining experience (Sample burger: The “White Zombie,” featuring smoked duck bacon, white cheddar, sautéed mushrooms, white truffle aioli and fried shallot). Bari Deli on Grand Ave. has “the best Italian subs and meatball sandwiches I’ve ever had anywhere. It’s crazy right at lunch and they’re only open until mid-afternoon but it’s worth it. They’re well known in certain circles but not touristy at all. You’ll definitely see some real Chicagoans in there.”
- Deep Dish Pizza – In an episode of his show “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain disses Chicago’s signature dish as “a crime against food” and a “Midwestern mutation of a pizza.” Jon Stewart goes one step further on The Daily Show, ranting “This is not pizza! This is tomato soup in a bread bowl!” But one place, Burt’s Place, manages to turn even Bourdain around, to the point where he proclaims its pie “a thing of beauty.” Can Burt’s live up to the hype? Judge for yourself. Or try one of these emporiums: Giordano’s, Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, Pequod’s Pizza, Lou Malnati’s or Gino’s East, all of which boast multiple locations.
- Taverns & Tiki Bars: Bar-wise, stand-outs include Empty Bottle (dive bar, indie music), Quenchers and Three Dots and a Dash (“island fare” and tiki cocktails). In the brewpub category: Revolution Brewing, Half Acre Beer Co. and Map Room. And, if you like a kitsch, early “Mad Men” atmosphere, head to Hala Kahiki (out in River Grove, about halfway between O’Hare and downtown), an original tiki bar from the 1950s. It’s a little run-down but a great place with a cool shop.
- Steak your claim: According to MSLGROUP Boston steakhouse guru Jon Siegal, Benny’s Chop House, the (original) Morton’s and Chicago Chop House are solid choices that won’t disappoint. Others single out Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse as the go-to place. Bedell says if your expense account can’t take those kinds of hits, you “will do just as well at Harry Caray’s, which, against all odds, is pretty classy and great.” He also likes “Golden Steer in Forest Park or Tom’s Steakhouse in Melrose Park, both way out in the burbs with an average clientele age of 75 (no Kobe grass-fed beef here), but they make a good old-fashioned steak with a stiff drink and a relish tray like the old days, make a great place for people-watching, and you’re certainly not gonna find any tourists out there.”
Adventures in Sound
There are many fantastic choices for the music lover visiting Chicago to indulge in their passion. From blues clubs like Buddy Guy’s Legends (conveniently located near McCormick Place) to The Hideout, Schuba’s Tavern, Lincoln Hall and Kingston Mines, where I saw a terrific blues set by Joanna Connor during HIMSS 2009. And if you want to do some shopping for guitars or vintage vinyl, there are lots of choices: Chicago Music Exchange – the greatest guitar/music store ever; Logan Arcade (2410 W. Fullerton) and Logan Hardware Records (2532 W. Fullerton) – a bar with coin-operated games arcade, and just down the street, a record store, with a great selection of new and used vinyl, and in back a room full of vintage pinball machines and video games that are all free to play once you buy something in the shop.
For a lot of U.S. music fans, vinyl’s come back. In some Chicago neighborhoods, it never went away. For the digital or analog music fan, the city offers some solid record-store choices: The Jazz Record Mart – “The World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Record Store”; Reckless Records – Lakeview, Wicker Park and Loop locations. Chock full of new & used LPs, CDs, and DVDs. Originally started in London, in Chicago since 1988; Dusty Groove – This Ukrainian Village record store is one of the best in the country, featuring soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, Latin, rock and reggae.
But hey, if you’re not into all the music and local eats but would rather just focus on healthcare technology even in your downtime, knock yourself out. Of course, you’d be remiss if you skipped the International Museum of Surgical Science, featuring everything from medieval surgical tools to the most up-to-date technology.
See you in Chicago!
Photo Credits: “Chicago Theater” from Flickr user Kevin Dooley; “Chicago Hot Dogs” from Cathy Stanley-Erickson. Used under Creative Commons license. Bottom photo: The author with Chicago landmark Marina Towers in the background.
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