A couple weeks ago, my lovely wife and I went to Chicago to visit a pal of mine. He’d suggested several times that we come visit, so we took him up on it. I’d been a few times before, but it was a first for the missus, and we were really looking forward to it.
We had a great time, even though we never landed Chicago-style pizza for my wife. Everywhere we went, people were selling NYC-style pie, and we just didn't make it to Gino's East like we should have. We saw the German submarine that was captured during WWII, a real highlight of the trip, at the Museum of Science and Industry.
The three of us had read Robert Kurson’s great nonfiction book SHADOWDIVERS, about scuba divers who found an unidentified German sub in waters off New Jersey in the early 90s. One of the divers in the book had made repeated trips to Chicago to tour the sub in the museum in order to make mental notes for his multiple dives on the unidentified sub, as fellow divers and friends of his were literally dying while trying to identify the wreck in treacherous waters, 230 feet deep.
Being recreational divers ourselves and big fans of the book, we were in awe of the enormous U-Boat and enjoyed a spirited monologue from one retired submariner who shared his jolly and expletive-ridden story with us. We were bummed that we didn’t make the interior tour, but according to this lively submarine veteran, the tour guides just read from a script and “don’t know their asses from holes in the side of the sub.”
We went to the Chicago History Museum next, and the exhibits on 1920s crime and race relations in the 1960s were powerful. We reached the top of the John Hancock building and checked out the view for the admission price of a couple $8 bottles of Guinness and a $14 martini. This beats paying $20 each to access the “observation deck” that is actually below the bar level, where you don’t even get a drink!
We checked out the historic Billy Goat Tavern underground, and my buddy pissed off a wise guy sitting in a section literally marked “Wise Guys.” We spent too much money at The Goose Island brewery but enjoyed the delicious varieties of IPA and British Bitter.
I heard a guy next to me in a golf outfit tell his family that IPA meant that the beer was “Indiana Pale Ale,” and that it was shipped into Chicago from Indiana. I didn’t say anything.
We made a couple stops for breakfast at the quirky, tasty Earwax Café, where I had possibly the best green tea ever, and my wife had an exceptional fruit smoothie. We visited the Flat Iron bar in Wicker Park and had some sort of lemon-lime and vodka concoction while wandering around and checking out all the great local artwork.
We entered Anish Kapoor’s unique Cloud Gate sculpture downtown, which is locally referred to as “The Bean,” due to its obvious bean shape. It’s composed of 110 tons of polished steel, and walking inside is like entering a warped clown-house of mirrors.
The Puerto Rican festival was going on all week in the Humboldt Park area where we were staying, and we enjoyed listening to the music from our friend’s roof one night as we watched the sunset over the city skyline and sipped a few tasty brews. We walked all over the place and rode several buses and the L.
It was nice to use just public transportation and our feet, getting away from the cars, but the sheer amount of planning and logistic considerations for inner-city travel sometimes seemed overwhelming to a guy who enjoys the ease of getting around in his little college town.
We learned that on the last night we were in the city, about a block from where we were staying, someone was stabbed at the festival, right around the time we were walking between bars. This added to our appreciation of our slow, quiet little borough. Chicago is rad to visit, but I like a tree-to-people ratio that leans heavily in favor of the trees.
Our friend also took us to his place of employment, a unique and fantastic burger joint that I was glad to welcome into my own mental catalog of perfected fleshy deliciousness, the Beef Hall of Legend. Until this trip, only three meals had held esteemed status in my Hall.
These three included the spectacular MEATCAKE that another buddy had made for me as a surprise 30th birthday gift, the exquisite roast that a French friend had cooked when he was visiting last May, and my mom's unbelievable five-meat baked ziti, which she has only made once. Both meals were unparalleled triumphs of their respective genres, and the burger I had at KUMA’S CORNER in Chicago was also a pillar of magnificence in a wide field of burger goodness, easily earning it's place in the Beef Hall of Legend.
Click on that link above and read through their website. It’s fucking awesome. Kuma's names their truly inimitable variety of burgers after metal bands. Their beer selection would make a dedicated homebrewer weep tears of joy. Their beer menu says “Death to Miller and Budweiser...they are over-produced and inferior products that prevent passionate craftsmen from sharing their gifts with us.” Beautiful.
If only people like me could afford to pay for such gifts on a regular basis. They play a non-stop barrage of loud metal—no, you can’t make a request—in their tiny, dark restaurant that seats about thirty people. They have epic fantasy artwork custom-painted and framed across all of the walls. There is an enormous flatscreen television running constantly above the bar—no, they won’t turn on the game—with obscure movies about naked women and samurai. Lots of boobs and decapitations.
Because of or in spite of this intense ambiance, this is THE place to go, and the wait can be up to three hours. The first time we went, we couldn’t even get in, and we were with my buddy who works there. They’ve only been open four years, but the line still goes around the block regularly. Chicago readers of a local paper voted them the best burgers in town, and business seems to have reacted accordingly.
I am told it is common on any given lunch shift to see suburban families, Grandma and the grandkids, white-collar suits, homeless folks and metal dudes with facial tattoos, all at one sitting. Cool as hell.
When we finally got in for a burger one night around 11:30, my “Melvins” burger was served up on an exquisitely toasted pretzel roll and topped with fresh basil, prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato and onion. I had a side of Kuma’s homemade potato chips. The beef was browned slightly but red inside, more rare than I’d usually request, but it was the best burger I’ve ever had, period.
I didn’t even think about the history of the Chicago stockyards, The Jungle or the environmental impact of cattle farming as I enjoyed this seemingly flawless hamburger. Chased with a local IPA with luxuriously floral hops and a bitter aftertaste, I can’t remember a more blissful burger experience, despite the dirty drunk who sat next to my wife and kept harassing us all to drink more.
Thanks for a great trip, D-Ray.