"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chicago Neighborhood Awards 2011

So a quick note.  We appreciate everybody who's been reading our blog, and keeping up with it despite a two-month absence.  Laura's in the midst of being buried in her thesis.  However, she insisted that I press on and when she can catch up, she will.  So here's an entry that we started back in early January, and even though we're already well into 2012, we still wanted to recap our favorite things from last year's neighborhood trips.  We'll have another entry in a week or two.  So until then, we hope you enjoy our favorites from 2011...

This past year was our first running this blog, and we had an absolute blast doing it.  In just over 12 months, we were able to experience nearly 20 neighborhoods, many of which we’d never set foot in before, let alone spending any amount of time in them.  Over this time we learned a lot about Chicago, its history, its people, its culture.  Few cities in the world can brag of having the amenities that the Windy City boasts.  So here are our first annual awards for our favorite Chicago neighborhood experiences from the past year.

Best Entertainment Venue
Michael's Pick: Redtwist Theatre
Laura’s Pick: The Green Mill (Uptown)

Michael’s Pick: Redtwist Theatre (Edgewater).  I know, I know, how could I pick this over Steppenwolf?  This is nothing against Steppenwolf.  Their shows are top-notch in terms of acting and production value and their offspring is legendary.  But what Redtwist offers is critically acclaimed storefront live theater with unmatched intimacy.  You are literally right on top of the stage during the performance.  Tickets are reasonable too, at $15-$25 apiece.  What they’ve accomplished in Edgewater is the embodiment of performance art, an up-close and personal venue for the everyman featuring 100 minutes of quality entertainment.  Just make sure you go to the bathroom ahead of time.

Honorable Mention – Steppenwolf Theatre Company (Lincoln Park).  Clear to see why this venue has been the genesis of many a great production and acting career.

Laura's Pick: The Green Mill

Best Fast Food
Laura's Pick: Rajun Cajun
Laura’s Pick: Rajun Cajun (Hyde Park)

Michael’s Pick: 90 Miles Cuban Café (Roscoe Village/Hamlin Park).  The beauty of a great meal is that it can take you to a different time and place.  Sometimes it can be the favorite meal your mom or grandma used to make.  Other times it can remind you of another place or experience.  Being one of the few Americans of my generation fortunate enough to have experienced Cuba first-hand, savoring juicy shredded pork and thick starchy plantains brought me back to one of my favorite memories.  The tiny space (seats about eight) and the walls lined with vintage newspaper just adds to the comfy atmosphere.  I cannot wait to get back here.

Honorable Mention – Taste of Lebanon (Andersonville).  That shawarma is addictive stuff.  Like a gyros, but…gasp…way better?  Also, very inexpensive.
Michael's Pick: 90 Miles Cuban Café

Best Brewery Tour
Laura's Pick: Metropolitan Brewing
Laura’s Pick: Metropolitan Brewing (Lincoln Square/Ravenswood)

Michael’s Pick: Half Acre Brewing Company (North Center).  All the brewery tours we went on in the past year were terrific.  While Chicago may have a ways to go before being hailed as the next Portland (well, in terms of craft brewing at least), it’s getting somewhere real fast.  The owner and his crew are young and passionate about their product.  In just a few years, Daisy Cutter has already become a staple on any reputable Chi-town bar’s draught list.  What’s enjoyable about the tour though is interaction with the brewery.  You’re taken up into lofts and down winding staircases.  Half Acre doesn’t have a ton of space and man do they use every square inch available.  It’s quite the product.  Also, for $10 you get to keep the logo pint glass, which is still my favorite of all the tour glasses from Chicago and Wisconsin breweries.  If it wasn’t for the brutal wait to get in (two hours to make sure we could get on the one tour they offer per week), it’d be a perfect set-up.  Still, people don’t wait in lines around the block to get in because the beer sucks.  Half Acre is the real deal and is going to be a leader as the Chicago microbrewing revolution continues.

Honorable Mention – Revolution Brewing (Logan Square).  Speaking of microbrewing revolutions.  These guys make KILLER beer, and the Saturday tour is FREE.  This is just the brewpub, but they are opening a full-fledged brewery in Avondale this year.  Expect to see their product everywhere by 2013.
Michael's Pick: Half Acre Brewing Company

Best Shop/Boutique
Michael's & Laura's Pick: Nazareth Sweets
Laura’s Pick: Nazareth Sweets (Albany Park)

Michael’s Pick: Nazareth Sweets (Albany Park).  This is the one I can’t help but agree with 100%.  In a great pool of shops to choose from, Nazareth Sweets is just an exemplary gem of a bakery.  The prices are good, but the food is even better.  Unbelievable baklava is so flaky and nutty.  The service is incredibly polite and helpful.  This Albany Park institution is well worth the Brown Line ride to Kedzie.

Honorable Mention – Unabridged Bookstore (Lakeview East).  The epitome of why storefront independent businesses are so important.  Comprehensive sections of everything from travel guides to LGBT reading.  Customer service is always helpful.  With on-line retail beginning to eliminate places like the friendly neighborhood bookstore, it’s all the more reason to give patronage to boutiques like this one.

Best Ethnic Restaurant
Michael's Pick: The Little India
Laura’s Pick: Three Happiness (Chinatown/Armour Square)

Michael’s Pick: The Little India (Edgewater).  I could go a dozen different ways on this one, depending on the day.  I’m going to give Little India the bump because I’ve eaten here multiple times and been EXTREMELY satisfied every time.  The storefront nature of the restaurant, right on the strip of the Historic Bryn Mawr District (Bryn Mawr between Broadway and Sheridan), provides a cozy aura with really attentive service.  Lamb madras is exemplary with a thick, spicy, rich sauce coating hearty chunks of boneless lamb meat.  Naan bread is also perfect, lightly crispy, buttery, filling.  Last time we had lunch there you could get away with a full meal, basmati rice, naan, and a side for like $10.  Not sure if that’s still the case, but it’s worth investigating.  Also, they’re signed up with GrubHub, so you can have it delivered if you’re in the general vicinity.

Honorable Mention – Podhalanka (Noble Square/Polish Triangle).  Awesome pierogies right on the Polish Triange.  Sun Wah BBQ (Uptown).  Gotta go back and get that Peking Duck.
Laura's Pick: Three Happiness

Best Piece of Chicago History
Laura's Pick: Chinatown
Laura’s Pick: Chinatown (Chinatown/Armour Square)

Michael’s Pick: Historic Pullman (Pullman).  A museum is one thing, but an entire historic neighborhood?  Historic Pullman is a slice-of-life from another time.  It’s an example of the power of community activism, saving and preserving hundred-year old homes and rowhouses.  While the surrounding neighborhoods don’t have a particularly pristine reputation (fairly or not), historic Pullman maintains a low crime rate compared to the City, and is a testament to the desire of its residents to preserve a crucial part of northern Illinois history.  Every Chicagoan should spend at least a few hours to take a tour of this integral piece of their hometown.

Honorable Mention – The Unity Temple (Oak Park) is a stunning accomplishment in external modesty and internal spiritual beauty.

Michael's Pick: Historic Pullman

Best American Restaurant
Laura's Pick: The Publican
Laura’s Pick: The Publican (West Loop)

Michael’s Pick: Girl and the Goat (West Loop).  It’s not fair that we didn’t have any pictures inside the restaurant when we did our West Loop entry.  Still, trust me, you’ve gotta believe the hype.  Getting a reservation is brutal (we were there on a Sunday night at like 5pm and the place was PACKED), but it’s well worth it. If you can, try as much from the menu as possible.  Like any upscale restaurant, the menu is always changing.  However, if you have the opportunity, try the pig face (not nearly as disgusting as it sounds and actually pretty tasty), and anything resembling pork belly.  Word on the street is that Chef Stephanie Izard will be opening a quick service, more modestly priced version of Girl and the Goat this year (a la Xoco).  Sounds to me like SOMEBODY’S going to have to revisit the West Loop in 2012.

Honorable Mention – Lula Café (Logan Square/Palmer Square).  Incredible brunch.  Expect a wait and a crowded dining room, but it's well worth the time and slight discomfort.

Michael's Pick: Girl & the Goat

Best Bar/Tavern
Laura's Pick: Duke of Perth
 Laura’s Pick: Duke of Perth (Lakeview East)

Michael’s Pick: Hopleaf Bar (Andersonville).  Ugh, any way I can make this a 4-way tie?  Seriously, this city has some GREAT places to drink and socialize, but I have to default to Hopleaf.  First of all, you just can’t beat the selection here.  It’s not enough that they have the best beer selection in Chi-town, but when you boast that you have three different varieties of mead, then you mean business.  When it opens mid-afternoon it only takes a few minutes for the front of the bar to completely fill up.  It’s the definitive spot in Andersonville, one of Chicago’s truly great neighborhoods.  Always laid back, always friendly, always making you want to come back for more.  Local brews, Belgian ales, and anything else you can imagine in a bottle or tap come together in a relaxing atmosphere.  The food is pretty decent too.  Make sure that if you have yet to come here, put it on your “Don’t Miss” list.

Honorable Mention ­– Bar on Buena (Uptown).  Perfectly-sized neighborhood tavern with a great beer list.  Four Moon Tavern (Roscoe Village).  Incredibly friendly/helpful servers in another perfect neighborhood setting.  The Map Room (Bucktown).  The best place for unique beers and shelves of vintage National Geographic magazines.
Michael's Pick: Hopleaf Bar

Neighborhood We’re Dying to Revisit
Laura's Pick: Logan Square/Palmer Square
Laura’s Pick: Logan Square/Palmer Square

Michael’s Pick: Roscoe Village/Hamlin Park.  This pick goes against so much that I love about Chicago: the hustle and bustle, immediate access to the “L”, ethnic diversity.  But it’s not just another slice of suburbia either.  There are unique shops, restaurants, and bars.  There’s an indisputable charm coming from the architecture and tree-lined streets.  It never ceases to amaze me how unfamiliar so many Chicagoans are with Roscoe Village.  Last time we were only able to visit Four Moon Tavern and 90 Miles Cuban Café, so hopefully we’ll be able to bring you more of this wonderful neighborhood in 2012.

Honorable Mention – Bucktown (We don’t care if it’s a hipster haven, the bars and restaurants are awesome and we wanna go back!)  Lincoln Square (SO MUCH MORE on the square and down Lincoln Avenue that needs to be experienced)  Noble Square (Yes, this is the next great restaurant neighborhood in the City, and Chicago Avenue is a great, lively strip)
Michael's Pick: Roscoe Village/Hamlin Park

While we enjoyed every neighborhood, and virtually every spot we visited, certain places stood even taller than others.  The experiences there will not only linger in our memories, but will keep us coming back for more.  We look forward to experiencing more in 2012, and bringing you more neighborhoods, suburbs, and other Chicago-related stuff.

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