Checked online forecast for the Windy City. Emailed friends about what the temperatures were like. It all revealed that this quick little vacation of mine couldn’t have been planned for a better time. It was unseasonably warm for the Midwest in early November. I wasn’t so sure about Chicago’s idea of “warm” vs. LA’a idea of warm, but when I stepped out on the curb just outside the baggage claim at O’Hare, I realized how much warmer Chicago’s air was than I had expected.
Straight off the plane from L.A.
Just take a look at me
A real good look
I'm all designed up
I've got my lipstick on
My Bucci bag
And my Pradski dress
And I am ready to rock!
I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery as we plodded along the I-90 in a cab headed for downtown. This is a freeway. That’s a billboard. Those are buildings and those over there are houses. That’s a train station. Who are you, Country Mouse? They were familiar sights, thing I see all the time at home, too, but different. The freeway drives differently, the billboards emphasize a whole different lifestyle. The architecture is made up of so much...brick. And there they were again – all those trees. I was trying to take it all in, and at the same time prepare for taking my first step out into the city. By the time I had realized I should take out my notepad and start jotting down thoughts, the cab pulled into the driveway of the hotel.
For some reason, I thought the ride would take longer because when I looked on a map of Chicago, the route from the airport to the hotel downtown passed through quite a few neighborhoods. It’s a patchwork of neighborhoods, just like LA. What I had not thought about was scale. A map of Chicago that fits on the same size sheet of paper as a map of LA is compacted into a lot less ground. Welcome to a real city, LA girl.
The hotel is in the heart of downtown Chicago. After checking in, making all the requisite phone calls to family and friends to let them know that no, no, the plane hadn’t crashed as I expected, yes, I made it to Chicago without OD-ing on sedatives, and no, I didn’t “meet” anyone (huh?), then finally cleaning up, I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to decipher the notes I had made in cuneiform in the previous weeks preparing for my trip. First order of business – my inaugural Chicago dog at Hot Doug’s, as prescribed by Paul and LTH. Just a snack before dinner with friends later in the evening.
Unfortunately, I didn’t plan very well, and should have taken a dog-detour off the freeway from the airport before getting to the hotel in downtown. Hot Doug’s is 6.5 miles away from the hotel, and since I was determined to walk, dammit, because when do I ever get to walk around a city? I asked the concierge for a great hot dog recommendation within walking distance. The pretty young thing tapped away on her keyboard, highlighted the way on a photocopy of a map, drew a large neon green x on the spot and wrote down the name at the top of the sheet in all capital block letters. I felt like I was in 3rd grade. Or a FOB-y tourista. I mean who else gets decked out for dinner and asks the concierge for a hot dog? LOL!
When I made it up to the address on Michigan Avenue that corresponded to the neon green x on my Playskool map, I was at...the mall. I double checked my map. The concierge had recommended a hot dog place in a mall?!? Visions of candy apple red, canary yellow, and royal blue vertical stripes jumping up and down on a lemonade pogo stick flashed before my eyes. I’m not going into a mall on Michigan Avenue for my first real taste of Chicago!! I’m sure that Fluky’s has a great hot dog, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get a food court hot dog. I folded up my Playskool map, put it in my pocket, and just stood there in front of the Nordstrom half-yearly sale, a slight chill running up my spine. Unseasonably warm.
So how do I make myself feel better about having to postpone my dog for another day? Drinks. LOL! I walked up Michigan Avenue and remembered that the PYT concierge had mentioned to stay on Michigan Avenue to shop, but stay away from Michigan Avenue for fun. Rush Street, she had said, has some good bars. I had to think twice because one, she was the one who had led me to a mall food court, and two, she didn’t even look legal, but *shrugs* I certainly wasn’t going to find the kind of kick-back bar I wanted to be in here in the midst of too-early Christmas lights on Rodeo Drive, East.
Everything on Rush jumped out in big bright neon screaming “Tourist, drink here!” I was looking for the exact opposite – something small and non-descript, perhaps with a dark, unmarked door in the alley that only locals would know – a neighborhood place. Thank goodness I was wearing walking shoes because I kept trotting along, unable to identify a single establishment. Rush turned into State Street. We passed a Jewish Deli that I had to capture in digital posterity for Eve. A darling high-end pet store where I bought a gift for a pug friend and her owners in Milwaukee. No bars...I was starting to wonder if a pre-dinner drink was going to go the way of the dogs...then PJ Clarke’s. This is the one.
The name is printed over the front window, but it’s not lit. The only neon lights are in the window, showcasing some of the bar’s offerings and if you had any doubt, now you don’t because PJ Clarke’s tells you in red and blue, “Good Food.” It was already dark outside, so I walked in expecting an eveni
ng Happy Hour crowd at the bar, but the place was pretty empty. Duh. It was still early, not even five o’clock. Even though Daylight Savings applies across the board except to those freaks in Arizona ;) it seems to get darker, earlier in Chicago than LA. A culinary illusion to bring out the dinner in you.
The bar is exactly what I was hoping for – kind of like Cheers, just narrower, deeper and longer to the back, and no Clif nor Norm. Lighting is minimal, relying mostly on the street lamps filtering in from the sidewalk out front, and typical beer neon in the front window and around the bar. One entire side of PJ Clarke’s has high, bar-style tables. Three women in business casual that has been dressed up because they knew they would be hitting a bar after work together were sitting together over beer and smoking. I was absolutely captivated by the sight of them and wanted to take a picture. I could have gotten away with it by pretending to be either an Asian photojournalist, or a tourist, but I chickened out and just stared. Women. Drinking beer. And it wasn’t no sorority Amstel Light in a bottle. The mugs had deep dark beer sucked down through the draft. And they weren’t he-women. They were ladies drinking beer. If some of guy friends had been with me, they would have proposed on the spot. LOL! Of course, they were also smoking, which is just interesting because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen people smoking inside with complete abandon. Sure, K-town turns its head when you light up at the table, as they make an ashtray out of a wet paper napkin. I’ve seen clubbers squat down in the middle of the dancefloor to light up a surreptitious cigarette in the shadows of the disco-lit bump and grind. But it was so weird to see people smoking right out in the open. Well, not weird. Kind of gross, actually.
The actual bar runs along the entire other wall. I almost fell out of my seat when I saw lists of scotches and whiskeys permanently etched into the mirror on the wall behind the bar. Women, beer, and a list of single malt scotches at least a dozen long? Wow. I started light, since it was still early and knew the night would be long ahead. Double citron and soda. Hey, citron is light.
As hearty as a PowerBar Harvest bar is, as delicious as two in-flight Biscoff biscuits are, they aren’t enough to last through to a late meetup with friends, so I looked over PJ Clarke’s menu. I’m Korean and have eaten spicy exotic garlic fermented food my whole life. I live in LA. I could eat sushi every day in a different restaurant for a month if I wanted to. But I have to say, PJ Clarke’s won my heart with their menu because I love all-American bar food. I don’t know why, I don’t know it is about bar food, but I absolutely love it. Burgers, fries, nachos, chicken wings, beer-battered anything. I could eat it everyday. I’d be nine thousand pounds, but I’d be a very happily drunk and well-fed nine thousand pounds. LOL!
Everything looked good, but I wanted something that would give me the most taste bang for the least space-buck, i.e. what could I eat that would satisfy my now totally amped appetite for all-American without ruining dinner later? Beer battered vegetables. The server said that was one of her favorites on the menu, though I suspect that she-as-perky-as-Rachael-Ray says that about everything.
But really, maybe she wasn’t lying because the beer-battered vegetables might possibly be the best beer-battered vegetables I have ever tasted.
Ever. Ever-er. Er.
Do I joke? Do I exaggerate to make a point? No. No. I gush. The vegetables came out picnic style, in a basket lined with kelly green gingham checked paper that was already showing streaks of grease, accompanied by Ranch dressing and marinara sauce, as promised on the menu. It was diffcult to determine what kind of vegetables they were in the dark, so all I could do was...dig in.
The first one, I cheated, because I already knew that the elongated silver dollar shape was zucchini. The batter was so incredibly light, tender, and crisp that it would beat out Japanese tempura batter made with seltzer water any day. The batter coating exploded into steam, a thick slice of zucchini soft enough to bite apart with my teeth instead of slipping out of its batter skin, yet still crisp enough that it maintained the integrity of its zucchini self. Another, this one smaller, rounded, was mushroom. Another, larger, like a miniature golden-fried football, was artichoke. I didn’t even bother with the Ranch and marinara after my first dip. The sauces were fine, but the vegetables were finer, all on their own. I had to order another Citron to slow myself down.
After the check was paid, it was a long, mile-and-a-half walk back to the hotel. Can you believe I walked more than three miles?!?! But it was okay - I wasn't in my Pradski dress and shoes. I was strolling along Michigan Avenue, mildly buzzed on three cocktails, and had just tasted my new all-time favorite beer battered vegetables at PJ Clarke’s.
1204 North State Parkway