The Slow Food Guide to Chicago
by Kelly Gibson & Portia Belloc Lowndes

Reviewed by John Shulman

There is nothing slow about the “Slow Food Movement” started in 1986 by Carlo Petrini in Florence, Italy. It has spread around the (primarily western) world as rapidly as good gossip, now having supporters in 122 countries. With food icons like Alice Waters in their corner, this contrarion movement to fast food, genetically and chemically modified food, and the swallow-gulp-and-run attitude took off like a shot with a concerned consumer population ready for a new direction but harkening back to an old one.

I read this book on a recent flight to Chicago for what I usually refer to as my semi-annual “Saturated Fat Tour” of the windy city. I expected it to be the usual summary of Chicago restaurants broken down into Italian, French, and so on. But this is thankfully so much more comprehensive, well organized, and also well written, by authors Kelly Gibson and Portia Belloc Lowndes, both of whom are long-time Chicago residents and know the ethnic and neighborhood options as well as the expected upscale haunts.

The back cover has a color photo of Vee-Vee’s, one of the African food trucks that serves mainly Nigerian stews and is usually parked across the street from the fancy Fairmont Hotel. I liked this, as it conveyed a message to the “should I buy this book” shopper that this book has character! The book’s title will tend to lead one to assume it will have a “4-star restaurant, organic only” bias, but the yellow Vee-Vee’s truck on the back will force you to give it another look.

I grew up in Chicago and am familiar with its food cravings, and the authors do service to the local specialties of hot dog stands, Italian beef vendors, steak houses, and pizza parlors, both stuffed and deep dish, over which (whose style is better) wars have been fought. There is even a section on the best French fries, which “must” accompany hot dogs, and with yellow mustard, never ketchup, lest you be thrown out of the Wiener’s Circle on North Clark, where badinage with the customers is part of the experience at this prototypical Chicago “joint.”

A “joint” is a positive Chicago description of a gutsy, owner-run spot where pretensions are nonexistent, where the grub is cheap and good, and where, regardless of your given name, you will be called pal or honey or buddy. The authors do a great job of covering these usually overlooked places. How else would you know about the large eastern European population and their representative restaurants, markets, and festivals?

Fine-dining restaurants are also given their due with Charlie Trotter’s emphasis on quality ingredients and imaginative presentations, with Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue serving classic Italian food with an extensive wine list and amazing view. Lincoln Park has its French-themed Ambria in the beautiful Belden-Stratford Hotel across from the zoo, and shooting up to Hyde Park near the University of Chicago is La Petit Folie on East 55th Street, which elegantly focuses on menus from the French countryside. There is more robust fare available at spots like Brasserie Jo and Bistro 110 both near Michigan Avenue, which is called “The Miracle Mile” in “Chicagoese.”

Ethnic neighborhood restaurants are given full attention, including usable maps of areas such as Little Italy, Greek town, China town and the north side’s Devon Avenue, which has become an East Indian food lover’s paradise. Each of these sections is highlighted with a “Notable” summary in which the best choices in the area are discussed.

A discussion of Chicago restaurants would be criminally lacking without a serious inclusion of steak houses. Think of Chicago and think of steak, and in this “city of big shoulders” it is a passion. Everyone has their favorite, and extensive coverage is given to the more well-known places like Gibson’s on Rush Street, the newish Keefer’s, which offers a fuller menu then most traditional steak houses, and in their “Notable” section is Club Gene & Georgetti on North Franklin where I have been eating with my father since I was a kid. Although the authors found the steak here “somehow lacking in flavor,” they concede that it still remains one of the most popular places in the city, perhaps because of its history and well-heeled clientele.

This book is divided into three main areas: Cuisines; Special Food & Nightlife; and Food Shops, Markets & Producers, and it’s the last of these three that makes this almost more of a food and travel review then strictly a traditional food guide.

This section exposes seafood and meat markets, farmers markets, as well as ice cream shops and bakeries that are unique to Chicago and have spawned such famous culinary gems as Cracker Jacks (originally Jax), Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix, Tootsie Rolls, and, yes, worth repeating, deep dish pizza. And, of course, Chicago is the home of Vienna Beef, the ubiquitous hot dog.

As a carnivore who lives in California, where foie gras production will be outlawed in 2012, you just have to love a town where, as I did on this last visit to Keefer’s, you can still devour a medium-rare fillet mignon, preceded by a slab of that soon-to-be-taboo foie gras!

Kelly Gibson and Portia Belloc Lowndes, The Slow Food Guide to Chicago, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004. ISBN: 1-931498-61-X. $20.00.

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