Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Windy City, Windy Blog - Part 2

Subway kiosk. I liked the style, so I took a shot of it.
Notice similar across the street.

This is part two of my stupefyingly long blog concerning our trip to Chicago. If you haven’t already seen the first part, and you have an hour or two, you could go HERE and read it. Doing so will make me very happy and prove your worth as a human being.


After another nice (free) breakfast at the hotel, we decided to go see about taking a tour. The Chicago Architecture Foundation gives tours by boat, on the Chicago River, of some of the outstanding architecture of the city. We had heard nothing but great reviews of this tour, so it was on our ‘must do’ list.

The cruises were not directly accessible via the El, so I tried to get us as close as possible. After a subway ride, I figured a two-block walk in one direction and then a block or so in another direction. However, when we came up out of the subway, serendipity struck. The world-famous department store, Marshall Fields, loomed in front of us, and MY WIFE very much wanted to go inside and have a look around. She assured me that it contained some interesting architectural features of its own. I was in no hurry, so in we went.

[Marshall Fields photo from THIS SITE. ]

(It’s actually a Macy’s these days, but they’ve had the decency to leave some signage and so forth unmolested and it is readily identified as the former Marshall Fields.)

It was interesting. There is one spot in the store where you can look all the way up to the ceiling some seven or eight stories above. The escalators are all open and situated next to each other in a central area so you can somewhat pretend you’re in an Escher print while riding them.

After having ridden the escalators and looked at the ceiling, we went back outside and started walking towards what I thought was the river. However, between entering the store and exiting it, I had lost my tenuous grip on our bearings. By the time I realized we were walking in the wrong direction, we had gone about a half-mile. When we discovered the mistake, MY WIFE suggested hailing a cab to get us where we wanted to go. Great idea. We did so, and were at the river in a couple of minutes.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the place on the riverbank where the tickets were sold, all tours for the current day had been sold out. I inquired as to the next available booking, and was told that the first tour on Monday morning was open. I purchased two tickets for 9 am the next day, and then we went for a walk on the riverbank.

The Silly Little French Cafe

The Chicago River is a smallish waterway, not too much wider than the Neponset River in Dorchester, if you’re familiar with that - which you probably aren’t – but unlike the Neponset, Chicago’s river has been given a nice walkway with pleasant little spots to sit and ruminate, historical plaques every hundred feet or so, and watercraft traverse it regularly. The only things traversing the Neponset on a regular basis are muskrats, and the finest amenities made available for the public to enjoy are discarded shopping carts.

The south branch of the Chicago River,
with lucky shot of swirly reflection.
It may be the best photo I've ever taken.

A short walk from where we had purchased the tickets was a small French riverbank café. Well, it advertised itself as a French café, although I have no idea why. The menu did include foie gras, so I suppose that might have been the reason. Or maybe it was the lack of service. After we were seated at a table for two, and given menus, our waiter studiously ignored us for twenty minutes. To be fair, he seemed to be somewhat harried, being one of only two servers taking care of perhaps forty patrons, so I won’t badmouth him further. However, we decided our day could be better spent than in waiting to place orders for overpriced food accompanied by slow service, so we left.

The Drawbridge Museum

God always has a reason for bringing you places, even if you think the best you’re going to get out of an experience is having not ridden a boat, not seen any great architecture, not eaten, and also not gotten the beer or wine you desired. On our walk away from the silly French café, we discovered a museum.

In the base of the bridge, at the corner of Wacker and Michigan, there is a drawbridge museum. Admission is free. You enter through a door in the actual bridge itself, and once inside you get to explore the big gears of the drawbridge, are given an education concerning differing types of drawbridges – the one housing the museum is a bascule-trunion, for what that’s worth to you - find out a whole bunch about the history of the river itself, and you climb up inner stairs to finally find yourself on the street level surface of the bridge having enjoyed yourself thoroughly and learned more about drawbridges than 19 out of 20 people you know (unless you tend to hang out with whole bunches of drawbridge attendants, in which case my estimate is probably severely off.)

Hot Dog!

We like to watch The Food Network. From watching many of their shows about Chicago, we had the idea that hot dogs were so ubiquitous in Chicago that you couldn’t swing a cat by the tail without hitting a hot dog vendor (if that’s your idea of fun.) However, even though we had been on the lookout for a Chicago-style hot dog since landing at Midway two days ago, we had yet to encounter a single place where we could purchase one.

As with our discovery of The Drawbridge Museum, however, we went where we wouldn’t have if we knew what we were doing and got a nice surprise as a result. As we later found out, by truly studying a map of the city, we had been going way out of our way to get to certain places. I would plan out routes via the El, thinking I was taking us by the most direct way possible, but, in reality, walking would have taken less time. The reason for this mistaken impression was because Chicago city blocks are rather small in comparison to some other large cities, such as New York. Whereas walking five blocks in New York might take you twenty minutes, five blocks in Chicago will take you about ten.

Anyway, after visiting The Drawbridge Museum, I tried to guide us back to the El. We planned on going for a ride on one of the lines and just enjoying the sights of some neighborhood or another from the elevated rails. I took us a few blocks out of our way and when we re-entered The Loop, one of the first things we saw was a Gold Coast Hot Dog stand. We didn’t expect to have dinner for several hours, so since the hot dogs were right in front of our faces, and we had no idea if we’d find any ever again, we decided to pop in and have one each.

The Chicago-style hot dog, as with so many other things connected with this big city, is a bizarrely large variation upon what you might find in other American cities. You get flat pizza with thin crust everywhere else, but in Chicago you get a three-inch thick creation that is basically lasagna with a crust. You get an 8-ounce fillet mignon elsewhere, but a 10 or 12-ounce one in Chicago. There are more tall buildings here than in any American city outside of New York. And your hot dog comes with half a produce section in the bun.

[Yummy Chicago Hot Dog photo from HERE.]

The Chicago-style hot dog is unique, delicious, and one makes a meal. Any good frankfurter has to start with good meat, and Chicago dogs are made with decent cuts in a natural casing. It is placed in a poppy seed bun, as opposed to the plain buns we were used to seeing at home. And most hometown dogs would stop there, leaving it to the diner to add one or two scrawny condiments, perhaps mustard and relish, and being satisfied with that. Not in Chicago. In The Windy City, they pile on a pickle that’s almost the size of the hot dog; two or three of what they call ‘sport’ peppers, which are medium-hot-spicy and about an inch or two in length; a full tomato wedge or two; yellow mustard; strangely fluorescent green relish; a handful of chopped onions; and a generous sprinkling of celery salt. The combination of flavors explodes in your mouth. The odd thing is that the dog itself doesn’t get lost amid the myriad of additional ingredients. The flavor is enhanced rather than hidden, and we were not disappointed.

The Pink Line

After our gustatory delight, we climbed the stairs to Randolph/Wabash station on the El in The Loop. After a quick consultation of a system map, we decided to take a ride on The Pink Line, out to 54th and Cermak.

(Chicago’s El lines are color-coded. There are Red, Blue, Green, Purple, Yellow, Brown, Orange, and Pink lines. The Red and the Blue are the only two that run 24-hours a day. All of the others shut down around 1am, more or less. The Red and the Blue are also the only two that run via subway through The Loop, all others being elevated.)

[Map of Pink Line from this rather comprehensive CTA-centric site.]

Our choice of the Pink Line for a ride was informed not so much via knowledge, but just because we thought the Pink Line sounded wussy and thus safe. We weren't murdered or anything, but it was probably a bit less safe than we originally thought.

We rode through The Loop and then onto the Pink Line proper. It was an interesting ride, on 25 to 30 foot elevated tracks for most of the journey, although – very odd for public transportation – there were a few grade crossings near the end of the line, cars stopped on the street waiting for us to pass.

(It just occurs to me that I have no idea how that worked with trains that operate via an electrified third rail. Wouldn’t automobiles - not to mention stray animals and children - have far too much chance to electrocute themselves? I’ll ask someone.

Nah, that's too much work. I'll take a guess that there has to be overhead wire at some point, otherwise there would be daily random frying of small animals, children, drunks, and junkies who ran onto the tracks at crossings. We didn't notice any catenary, but we weren't looking for it, either. If anyone knows the answer, feel free to make me more knowledgeable [no small feat.])

UPDATE: Jonathan Belcher gives me the lowdown!

"Hello Jim:

YOUR WIFE had mentioned to me that the two of you were going to Chicago. The trains essentially coast through the crossings. Each individual CTA car is 48-feet long and has a third rail shoe on each side of each of the two trucks. Only one shoe has to be in contact with the third rail for that one car to get 600-volt DC power. So its only a relatively short period of time going through the crossing when none of the four shoes on one car are in contact with the third rail. In a multi-car train, all cars are powered, so even if one car loses power for an extended period (if the train happened to stop with one car right in the dead spot at a crossing), the remaining cars on the train would still be able to draw power and move the train. The accelerator control systems on rapid transit cars in general also make use of low-voltage battery power, so even if the first car of a train came to a dead spot on a crossing, the train operator would still be able to control the power to the motors for the entire train and resume movement when it was clear to proceed.

There is a danger that people or stray animals can easily walk on to the right-of-way and be electrocuted. I think there have been a few occasions in Chicago over the years where intoxicated individuals have come into contact with the third-rail near a crossing despite abundant warning signs.


Thank you, Jonathan!

As interesting as the ride was, it went through some severely sketchy neighborhoods. I don’t mean that any of the people we saw looked particularly evil, but these were obviously poorer neighborhoods, many of the houses having broken windows, and missing doors or entire back porches, with the houses built literally within one foot of the neighbor’s house, windows and all, so you could open your bedroom window and fairly much reach into your neighbor’s kitchen for a snack. Many stripped and wrecked automobiles were visible, and while some streets appeared as pleasant as any other neighborhood might, there were blocks at a time that wouldn’t have looked totally out of place in a war zone. Graffiti was prevalent in spots, and some businesses had bars on the windows – that sort of thing. We didn’t feel in any imminent danger while riding the train, but even as a long-time veteran of city life, I would have been ready for action if walking some of the streets over which we rode.

The end of the line was at grade level, and in a bit nicer area, so we might have gotten out and explored it a bit if we had seen anything interesting, but the only building of any note was a high school, so we saw no need to leave the station. We walked over to the return platform and boarded a train for the ride back.

(The Pink Line heads out from The Loop in a westerly direction. In general – and I hate to use such generalities, especially when I don’t know from first-hand interaction whether the generalities mostly hold true – the south and west of the city are considered somewhat less safe than the north and the east. I had heard this from a few sources prior to our trip, and heard the same from folks in the city when we told them where we had gone. We both like to see real neighborhoods where people live, so it’s the sort of ride we sometimes prefer, but circumspection might be preferable for others. Use your own best judgment, in other words.)

Texas De Brazil

Have you ever dined at a churrascaria? If you love eating your fellow animals, there’s no better way to spend an evening.

We had been in touch with Joseph – my Godson, introduced in this narrative a day and about 4,900 words ago, I believe – and arranged for him to meet us at our hotel, from which we would take a short walk to a restaurant named Texas De Brazil. I suppose the choice of name has to do with the immediate connotation, in most folk’s minds, of Texas and Brazil as bastions of gluttonous meat eating.

If you’ve never been, here’s how it works. There is no menu. Each patron gets to have as much as he or she wants of whatever is available. There is a large buffet of appetizers, including salad-type items, cold meats, interesting vegetables, fish, soups, rice, beans, and cheeses, among others. Sample a bit of everything, if you wish, and have as many plates as you want. Thus far, it just sounds like a run-of-the-mill all-you-can-eat.

The amazing part begins when you’ve finished your plate or two of deliciousness from the buffet. Each diner is given a card or button, one side red and the other side green. You are given a new plate and instructed to keep the green side of the card turned up, on the tabletop, for as long as you wish to keep receiving meat. Once you’re sated beyond all reason, turn the card to the red side and the servers will stop coming. Don’t worry, though. Should you feel like beginning again – perhaps you belched and found more room – just turn the card to the green side and they’ll bring more meat.

An even more astounding thing is the scope, variety, and choiceness of the meats offered. I'm sure there are some hideous rodizio-style restaurants in the world, but I haven’t been to a bad one yet. A true high-end churrascaria, such as this one, offers as much true choice meat as you could possibly want, with the per person price becoming ridiculously low when you consider what you’ve been able to tuck away in your belly.

The meats are brought to your table on huge skewers, by uniformed staff that seems sincerely saddened when you don’t want to take some of what they have to offer. They bring chicken breast, chicken wrapped in bacon, roast pork, huge lamb chops, tasty sausages, tremendous tenderloin of beef, and as a topper to it all, whole skewers full of 3 or 4 ounce fillets mignon, and then, to top that, fillets wrapped in bacon. And they keep on coming, in various rotations, until you beg them to stop by turning your card over to the red side. At which point your waiter drops by and asks if you’re sure, and is there any specific cut you might like more of, so you tell him you could go for a little more fillet mignon, and he asks if you want the plain one or the one wrapped in bacon, and so that you appear at least a tad non-decadent, you tell him the non-bacon-wrapped one.

Cost for Texas De Brazil, as I recall, was about $70 per person, which included our various drinks. Joseph had three or four cokes, MY WIFE had a couple of glasses of wine, and I had a mojito. We had also ordered bottled water for the table. Exclusive of drinks, maybe $55 each? Very much worth it for the food alone, and the service was impeccable as well. Also, the ambiance was subdued and pleasant. All around, a wonderful dining experience. The fillet mignon I devoured was enough to amortize the cost of all three of our dinners. I highly recommend the place for anyone who isn’t a vegetarian or who wouldn't mind raising his or her cholesterol count by ten points in one sitting.


Oh, hell, no.

This is taking me even longer to write up than I thought it might, and I usually don’t blanch at writing 2,000 words in any one sitting. I’ll have to come back and start again tomorrow. I have four more days to tell you about. With luck, I’ll be able to do so by the end of the week.

If you have any brains, you should just go to Chicago yourself and spend a week there. It may end up being quicker than reading about it here.

Soon, with even more Chicago stuff.


Bruce Coltin said...

Chicago is a great American city, and as you know, it is a fantastic walking city. I think you picked the perfect time of year for your trip.

I haven't been back to Chicago for quite a while, and your story makes me want to go the next chance I get.

Craig said...

This is marvelous, Sully.

See, I've been coming/going to Chicago for upwards of 35 years, and I've never seen most of the places you visited in one short week. The Drawbridge Museum was a marvelous find; I'll try to remember to seek it out, next time I get downtown. . .

Sueann said...

OMG!! I am crying uncle!!!! I am so full!! That meat did me in for sure! The saving grace...the mojito!! My favorite drink of all time!!

Michelle H. said...

A satisfying recounting of Day 2. I would belch, but I'm still trying to get over a few names of the city streets. Wacker and Michigan, really, that sounds like a naughty play revue.

I'm stuffed, but I'll turn over my red card to green with your next post of Chicago.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

If you ever give up your day job, you could become a travel or food writer... or a travel and food writer.
...or maybe it's just Chicago?
It is a good walking city and the public transportation is pretty darn good. That's a good thing because there's no way I'd want to drive in that town.

Hilary said...

It sounds like a great time. You and YOUR WIFE are my kind of tourist. You have a general plan but take side roads and discover things along the way. That's the best way to really see a place. I'm looking forward to reading more.

And your Chicago River shot is wonderful.

Pat - Arkansas said...

I really enjoyed this installment! You had me laughing out loud several times; you have a way with words that fits right in with your (sometimes) wacky sense of humor. Thanks!
An almost local (10 miles away) eatery has just added Chicago-style hot dogs to their menu. After seeing your photo and reading your description, I am ready for the possibility of terminal heartburn.
Anyone who is contemplating traveling to Chicago should read your posts. Heck's Fire! --the Chicago Visitor's Bureau should add you to their payroll; you're a wonderful tour guide!

Suldog said...

Coming from you, Hilary, the compliment concerning the river photograph is quite ego-massaging. Thanks!

Daryl said...

LOVE Chicago so I am looking forward to hearing your take .. and next Monday I have a photo posted on my blog just for you!

Daryl said...

Did you walk to the Navy Pier its not far from the place you get the architectural tour boar ...

Anonymous said...

Oh you make me laugh. "Blanching at writing 2,000 words in any one sitting."


And I'm not a hotdog gal, but that dog looked yummy! And I never would have guessed that where Texas Meets Brazil is where heaven is at.

Now I know.


Chris said...

And now you have me craving hot dogs. The Chicago style is great, but nothing beats Nathan's from Coney Island. I can eat those ad infinitum. Or usually ad nauseum.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

It might be quicker, but not NEARLY as fun!!!! That hot dog...oh my gosh. I've gotta have one!! And that Texas Brazil? WOW!! Incredible!!! And you know I have NO problem with LONG posts ;-)) Love it, Jim!!! Welcome home!!! Hugs, Janine

Buck said...

Have you ever dined at a churrascaria?

Short answer: YES. Longer answer: I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. My experiences have been almost exactly as you describe and I left the premises each and every time truly satiated. There may be a bad churrascaria somewhere in this world but I've yet to find it.

Eleonora Baldwin said...

You really did it! I came to check on you, and you indeed went all pink.
The header actually looks better than green, if I have to tell you the truth.

OK, Chicago. My dad is a Winnetkan. And a Cubs fan. I know... shh.

I love this travel itinerary, I'm going to bookmark it and save it as my next guide to the Windy City.

You should contact Lonely Planet and see if they're interested in your material.

Looking forward to more Chicago stuff,

Lola xx

CiCi said...

You have a great way of writing for each of our interests. I have been in Chicago a few times and yet reading your two posts so far I am thoroughly interested.

Pam said...

I loved reading this! It's great to read your take on Chicago. I'm so glad you took the Architectural Boat Tour. It's truly amazing and I hope you got to Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry also.

You mentioned Marshall Fields; many people, including me are still upset about it being Macy's. The area where you saw the large open space is filled with a humongous tree at Christmas time. It was always a must see every year when it was still Marshall Fields!

Yes, the food servings are huge here. We need every bite for all the snow, ice, wind and cold weather in the winter. Look on my blog side bar for "Chicago style hot dogs." That neon relish is usually called nuclear relish. It really glows, right?

There are so many great restaurants in the city; I could go on and on. I hope you got to Harry Caray's. That's a fun place and he was there most days way back when.

It is a great walking city and truly easy to get around in as long as you stay in the Loop! Now if they could just straighten out the politics...

Looking forward to more!

Angela Christensen said...

If you could see me in person, my presence would make crystal clear on its own that I LOVE food. Since you can't, here's partial proof: my absolute favorite city in which I don't live, but to which I have had to travel on business, is Chicago. Hot dog vendor or central American meat restaurant: you just don't get a bad meal in this town. And here's the other thing: as a Southerner I sometimes find the cities on the east coast somewhat daunting because the people are Big City People, with Big City Sensibilities. But Chicagoans are essentially Midwesterners, with a native friendliness that falls somewhere between Southerners and Canadians. Loved it. Keep 'em coming. Oh, and kudos on whoring out your header...what a great idea.

Jackie said...

I love your photo of the south branch of the Chicago River..a lot!..AND...I am just as taken with your photograph of the metro exit. I enlarged it...It is beautiful!!!
The food...oh my goodness. I see that the trip would have been "Danger, Will Robinson" for me...because I would have eaten and eaten...and enjoyed!! The Drawbridge Museum would have interested me a great deal. I love to see how things work...
..And regarding your ride on the Pink Line...THIS line cracked me up, "We weren't murdered or anything." Thank goodness!!!
I am vacationing with you through your blog...loving every moment...!!!

Cricket said...

As you know, for me "out west" means anything west of 495, like Worcester. Love your travelogue. That dog looks mighty tasty. I am a huge fan of the hot dog... really. I'll have to find some poppy seed rolls and try one that way.

What kind of pickle? Dill?

Funny too about the churrascaria. I have a GC right now to one. Went to one years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, right down to the chicken hearts, which were surprisingly good, considering.

Would you like to try an Offal Offal today, sir?

Though, as usual, it was the pork that sent me to carnivore heaven.

Great stuff, my swell pal.

Suldog said...

Cricket - Yes, a dill pickle wedge. I was truly amazed at how well all of it worked together. Of course, it's basically a hot dog sub, so...

Ruth and Glen said...

Oh boy, we're familiar with the neighborhood that the Pink Line runs through. Yikes! We're usually stuck in rush hour traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290)

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Mmmm, bacon...

Gotta say the pickle in the bun was the deal breaker for me. I'm kind of a pickle purist & prefer them freestanding so I can gobble the vinegary goodness down last.

I have heard stories about the 'hood near the ball park from those who used to live in Illinois/Indiana...glad to see you arrived home safely and without incident, have heard its very bad.

lime said...

that restaurant sounds like it's argentinian style. i've had the pleasure and yes, they are a carnivore's delight!

Karen said...

If That Silly Little French Cafe had gotten with it, they'd be famous (or infamous) by now with mention on your blog :) Somehow I don't think there is a churrascaria in North Central Montana, but after reading your account and looking at their website, I *have* to go! Thanks for the nice tour... onto Part 3!

Jeni said...

A cousin of mine and her then husband took me to a restaurant such as you described here once. That was in the Alexandria, VA area and yes, the food was fantastic and there was a never-ending variety of it too! I was in 7th heaven, for sure! I think they told me it was an Argentinian restaurant if I'm not mistaken. Now, mentioning that to me in this post and reading about that has made me hungry but I have nothing near like those offerings available in my fridge right now -no will I ever I daresay!

Anonymous said...

I've eaten at Brazilian restaurants in Las Vegas and Atlanta and I've invented a word to describe them: They're Meat-tastic!
Great post!

Shrinky said...

That is a wonderfully swirly reflection shot up there! I'm guessing you arrived home double your original body weight than when you left? Shame about the silly French Cafe, but that hotdog sure looks to have made up for it. You and THE WIFE certainly know how to pack a lot into a day!

LuluRN said...

We left the French Cafe too because of the snottiness of the waiters (they must have dropped one after Labor Day) and the dullness of the menu. If you walked a bit further in the other direction under the bridge you would have found a great Irish pub place on the river. Fabulous burgers! But you would not have come across the hot dog place so.... Good info for next trip!