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So I already mentioned our afternoon spent in the Hyde Park neighborhood, but I would be really remiss in not covering the awesome lunch we had.

As some of you may know, The Kid also has a chicken wing review blog, which, while it’s not updated currently, has been a big pastime for her and her dad, and she usually won’t turn down a chance to eat some new chicken wings. When we asked my Chicago-dwelling sister, Jen, where we should get some stand-out wings, she led us straight to Harold’s Chicken. (Also called Harold’s Chicken Shack, I gather.)

I didn't take any pictures at Harold's, so here is a sign that may or may not be at the one we visited.

Another bonus to this trip was that when Shaylyn got a chance to cover President Obama’s visit to Marquette earlier this year, she really wanted to ask him where his favorite chicken wings are. We still don’t know the answer to that for sure, but Harold’s is pretty close by to the Obamas’ residence in Hyde Park, and rumor has it that the President had been known to stop in there when he lived in town. (Blame Jen if that’s not true, that’s just what she said.)

So, our visit served to fulfill, at least partly, Shaylyn’s need to answer that question. And if not, she still liked the chicken!

We ordered a good selection among the group, with boneless chicken, wings, white and dark meals all putting in an appearance at the table. Pair that with cold pops, fries and some hot and mild sauces, and all the walking we’d just done, and it was an about perfect lunch. Harold’s fries their chicken simply, with flour and salt and pepper, and simple is good in this case. I’d eat more of that any day. For those who like chicken livers and gizzards, you’re in luck, because unlike a lot of fried chicken places, Harold’s serves those up too.

Mm yum. All that for $3? No complaints here.

The only offputting thing about Harold’s was that the cashier left out several things we ordered, and it was difficult to communicate through the thick glass windows that wall off the kitchen. Typical in urban areas but that doesn’t make it any easier.

There’s nothing fancy about the food, and there’s nothing fancy about the restaurant, but there’s a reason there was a continuous line of take-out customers as we ate. Harold’s Chicken is really good, and really cheap (for us it was right around $3 each) and you can’t ask for a lot more than that.

Afterward, we walked down to see the Obamas’ house, which was quite well posted and patrolled by black SUVs (Secret Service, I suppose), and worked off some of the grease with a stint at a little playground around the corner. (Why are playgrounds away from home always so much better than the ones at home?)

I’m sure there are other great chicken places to eat in Chicagoland — Got any recommendations for us for next time?

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I have a lot more post subjects to write about in Chicago, but I’m going to add in a few from our Traverse City jaunt in between, so the blog isn’t all Chicago all the time. Don’t worry, I have plenty more topics from both trips that should last at least until we go somewhere else 🙂 I’ve been collecting posts as we wander around the U.P., as well. So here’s a peek at one of the discoveries we made down in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

On our recent weekend trip to Traverse City and environs, we had the pleasure of a lazy, rainy drive through the Leelanau Peninsula wine country.

Of course, that was the reason for the business trip: To get more familiar with vintners, chefs and others in the TC area, because one of the publications we work for, Northwest Michigan Second Wave, covers a lot of things happening in those fields, and of interest to those in the food and wine business. If you have ever been to Traverse City, you know food and wine is a major pastime there, and heck, you probably know that even if you haven’t been there.

It appears that fascination with food extends up the more rural and agricultural Leelanau, as we were looking for a nice place to breakfast before heading out to wineries, and found the somewhat aptly named Cedar Rustic Inn, in Cedar. Now, Cedar itself is a nice, very small town, with not much more than a few stores, the inn, and a sprinkling of houses before the countryside gives way to farms and orchards again.

The Cedar Rustic Inn opened in 2006 and was a great stop to eat on the Leelanau Peninsula.

The Cedar Rustic Inn is right next to the Longview Winery tasting room, and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner for those passing through, perhaps on a wine tour.

From the photos in the foyer, the restaurant has been the subject of quite a restoration project, having opened in 2006. In past lives, it’s been a roadhouse, a foundry, a gas station, and a pool hall. Now, it’s run by Chef Aaron Ackley and his wife, Nikki.

We were greeted with friendly service and good coffee, and decided on a late breakfast of pretty traditional fare; bacon, eggs, potatoes, corned beef hash, et al. We were told the breakfast sausage comes from Cedar’s own butcher shop, Pleva Meats, and it certainly lived up to its reputation.

Examining the menus for lunch and dinner showed that the prices are pretty nice all day, which isn’t always what you get in a heavily tourism-centric area, so that was good to see.

The dinner menu departs a little from traditional American fare, bringing in more global influences, but sticking with coastal Michigan favorites of seafood, fresh fish and local ingredients.

We’ll be  visiting the area again this summer, so do you have any other breakfast, lunch or dinner recommendations? We know there are lots of great places near Traverse City to eat!

The Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago probably isn’t the most popular travel destination around the City of Big Shoulders. It’s a little far away from the main tourist destinations, and while you’ll find lots of great little shops and restaurants, not to mention the best bookstore in the world, there’s no real attraction to the neighborhood if you don’t have a reason to be there.

Thankfully, over the past decade or so, I’ve had plenty of reason to wander around Hyde Park, since my sister first attended University of Chicago and then lived in something like 20 different apartments in the neighborhood before moving north.

So when we were looking for new things to see in Chicago on our recent trip, the Oriental Institute captured our attention quite thoroughly, with a special exhibit on pre-Pharaonic Egypt. If I haven’t explained already, The Kid’s greatest love and source of imaginings is ancient Egypt.

We’ve been to the Field Museum in Chicago many times to see their Egyptian collection, but here was something we hadn’t seen yet, and in a familiar neighborhood besides.

The statue of King Tut at the Oriental Institute came from Luxor, and is rightly described as "colossal".

We rounded up sister Jen and her partner Andrea, and off to the Oriental Institute we went. It’s on the U of C campus, one of many among the university’s historic Gothic structures. Always feels like you’re walking into a church at that school. But the buttressing and high ceilings are practically a structural need at this museum, which boasts some massive stone artifacts from the Middle East.

It turned out these were the highlight of the tour for Shaylyn, who was captivated by the massive statue of Tutankhamun in the Egyptian Gallery of the museum and later on, the shaggy-headed man-bull statues from ancient Persepolis.

This massive stone statue was meant to inspire awe in ancient Persepolis, which it still does in modern-day Chicago.

Andrea and I got far behind to begin with, as the rest of the gang raced around gasping and pointing… We were reading all the texts and labels.

But that didn’t last; there was just too much to see. The museum is small by some standards, but it’s no trouble to spend several hours examining all the collections.

Walking into the Assyrian gallery, there’s a feeling unfamiliar to most modern Westerners. It’s the urge to kneel, to revere, to acknowledge a hand more powerful than yours.

That’s largely due to the recreation of relief sculptures and statues excavated from the throne room of King Sargon II, who reigned in Khorsabad (now northern Iraq) in the 700s, B.C.E. That guy was not messing around when it came to showing off who was king.

Just one note on the Egypt gallery, since we spent the most time in there; the explanation of the different forms of Egyptian writing was awesome. Easily the most clear and imagination-inspiring I’ve read. These docents obviously have a love for their work and take care in doing it.

The entrance admission is technically free, as are guided tour materials, but there are “suggested donation” boxes aplenty, and by the time you’re through looking, you’ll probably give them more than the suggested amount anyway, just because of the sheer impressiveness of the collections and attractive, educational displays.

The museum store boasts lots of kid- and adult-friendly gifts related to Egypt and the Middle East, and there was no way we could get out of there without several spur-of-the-moment purchases; books and jewelry were among our acquisitions.

Have you been to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago? What did you think? Where else would you go?

OK, so there are a lot of by-the-roadside things I wanted to mention, but they don’t fit as a destination or review type blog post. So I’m going to try a different idea, and talk about a day trip of interesting things — like the drive from Green Bay to Chicago (or vice versa),  which isn’t all that far but makes for a good outing if you like to drive, like we do.

There are essentially two ways you can approach the drive, depending on what schedule you’re on and what your traveling preferences are. There’s the traditional, quick-and-dirty route of U.S. 41 (Route 41 for you old-time road trippers), which has the advantage of being a freeway, and all the conveniences that entails. However, be prepared to pay some tolls right around Chicago if you’re going in or out of the city on the freeways.

The sign looks like a relic of road-trip days gone by, but thats part of the charm.

There’s one stop, newly renovated and more fantastically touristy than ever, that you don’t want to miss on this route, and it’s the Mars Cheese Castle near Kenosha, between Chicago and Milwaukee. It’s been welcoming visitors to Wisconsin for decades, and it’s got a shiny new exterior with all the castle-y things like crenellations and battlements (love those words!). If you want to make a whole castle theme out of it, there’s also a White Castle in Kenosha which has always treated us right.

We often take the U.S. 41 route, especially if we can time it to hit the wee small hours of morning when you don’t have to worry about traffic, cause it’s just plain faster a lot of the time. High-traffic hours are obviously an exception to this around Chicago.

But, if you’re driving during the day, and prefer lower speed limits and more scenic countryside, do what we did on our most recent trip and take the back way, through Lake County, Illinois. Not too far outside the Chicago suburbs, it suddenly turns all bucolic and pastoral and very lovely. In the right season, you’ll find roadside produce stands or homemade crafts for sale, and in any season, plenty of small towns to fuel up the car and stop for a bite to eat. There are plenty of historic sites to see around there, too.

You can hop back on the highways up around Pleasant Prairie, especially if you have kids in the car — because it’s home to the Jelly Belly Factory, which offers free factory tours, free candy, and a serious gift shop. We didn’t go this time, because we’ve been in the past, but if you haven’t, it’ll soon become a family favorite.

Which way do you like to drive? Or is there another route we missed?

So this is Sam’s guest post on Al’s Italian Beef. He’s been wanting to find a good Italian beef on each of our trips to Chicago, and from this, it sounds like he did 🙂 Enjoy!

I didn’t know much about Italian beef other than what I had witnessed while watching television—but I did know this: I wanted it spicy and I wanted it dripping with au jus.

Thankfully for me, in just my second time ever having a true Chicago Italian beef sandwich, the company I ordered from knew exactly what I meant.

This is Al's, but we ordered delivery 🙂

Big Al’s is as big of an institution in the world of Italian beef as you’re likely to find. They’re known across the country as the place to stop when you’re in Chicago and you’re looking for some traditional fare. Of course, it helps that they’ve had several magazines say that their namesake sandwich is one of the best in the United States. Don’t believe me? Well, check out this article in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Frankly, I’m not so easily swayed. I’ve been a journalist for over a decade and I know the business fairly well. I’ve seen some of these travel writers swoon just because someone is sliding a free plate of eats across the table to them. So, I always think it’s best if I make a judgment for myself. The reason I decided to try Al’s? Well, it’s simple, actually: They delivered to the location I was at when I decided I wanted one.

So Al’s delivered—and in more ways than one. It was almost immediately after the delivery had been placed in my hand that the first whiff of the Italian beef hit my nose. Talk about a heart-warming experience. At that moment, all of my troubles faded from view. I forgot my name even, or the fact that I don’t like cats. I actually shared my beef with my host’s cat, which had promptly awakened at the smell of Al’s and jumped up on the radiator to get a better view of my chomping. I guess she knows a good meal when she sees one, too.

So the cat and I dined. And we enjoyed. And one of us purred, though I can’t be sure which one it was.

Al (or the people who bought the company back in the 70s) sure knows their beef. It was sloppy and runny and so full of juice you might as well been eating a bowl of soup with meat stacked in it and some bread for sopping up the mess. It’s all good though. The cat and I agreed that it was supposed to be that way. Al would have, too. There’s even an official stance when eating one of these bad boys, which you can see here, on the right-hand side of the page.

I had ordered the Big Al, which is a gigantic 8 inches of stacked, thinly sliced beef. You can get them with sweet peppers or hot (I went with the latter) and they come wrapped to protect you if you ordered it wet. You can, of course, order them dry, too, but I don’t understand why you would.

The famous "wet" Italian beef sandwich,

So the sandwich is pretty much everything you could hope for. Super tasty. Super juicy. Super good. The Big Al is just $7, and it’s well worth it, too. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’ll likely find myself another Al’s to chomp down at, maybe this time with some cheddar fries.

In addition to the Big Al, I did also order the Chargrilled Double Italian Sausage sandwich, which comes with two massive Italian sausage links cooked to absolute perfection. I had sweet peppers put on that bad boy.

To be open and honest, I didn’t eat it until hours later when I got back to my hotel room. It was cold and it had been stashed in my parked car for hours. So, when I say that it was the single best Italian sausage I have ever eaten in my life (and I’m a cudighi fanatic, folks), it’s definitely saying great things. I cannot, at all, wait to try one of these piping hot right off the grill. That may be the moment I experience absolute, utter bliss. This thing was filling, too—there was absolutely no need for a midnight snack after that.

Of course, not all things were perfectly pleasant with Al’s. The soda I ordered was super watery and so full of ice I was surprised they actually fit any soda in there. Thankfully I had ordered two, because I wouldn’t have made it through a single Big Al’s without them.

And, another painful moment, was the price tag with the delivery charge tacked on. Yeah, I know, it’s Chicago and things tend to be pricier, but I ordered $18 worth of food and ended up paying $26—without a tip. So, lesson learned here: I’ll be eating in at Al’s for now on.

In the end, I cannot break my own rule of trying new foods and new places when I’m on the road, but that doesn’t mean I can’t go back to Al’s in between fresh, new stops. And, believe me, the taste alone is worth trying to squeeze them into my schedule.

What’s your favorite place for Italian beef? Is it even in Chicago? Tell us more so we can eat more! 🙂

Hey all,

Just a quick post to let you know where we are at this weekend. Sam and I are on a business trip to Traverse City, which so far has been great — I’ve never been down here before and it’s really lovely.

So, I’m still catching up on posting stuff from Milwaukee and Chicago last week, but I’ll have some Traverse City-area posts coming soon too 🙂 After that I don’t think we’re going anywhere for a month or so, so I should be able to catch up!

Traverse City means cherries!

Any great recommendations while we’re here? Restaurants? Sights to see? I’ve noticed not much tourist stuff is open yet cause well, it’s really not very spring-like weather yet.

May, I’m told, is spectacular here with all the cherry blossoms. Maybe another year 🙂 It’s OK for now cause we are here to explore the wineries instead!

Wow, I’ve written two feature stories and five news briefs so far today. It’s like I’m still working at a newspaper! Yeahhh… That’s a not-fun thought.

But anyway, I think I still have the wherewithal to get another blog posty done.  I haven’t talked about any of the magnificent restaurants we visited yet, and the very first one must be Sashimi Sashimi in Evanston, Ill.

Me, eating sushi. What else did you think I'd be doing at a sushi place?

We chose it basically because it was right around the corner from my sister’s work, and we were hungry and had some time to kill while we waited for Andrea to arrive on the train.

So glad we did! Sashimi Sashimi serves fresh, made-to-order sushi and sashimi (I’m sure you couldn’t guess that from the name…) I hadn’t had sushi in a restaurant ever before, although Sam made it at home for me. So it was something new.

It’s small, definitely angled toward the walk-in, take-out lunch crowd, but we pushed a couple of tables together and ate in.

There’s an order form system where you mark down what you want from a checklist and hand it to the staff, which probably cuts down on both confusion and questions.

Shaylyn got some fresh edamame to snack on, and Jen and I split a lunch combo of the California rolls (here they’re made with crab, avocado and cucumber) and the shiitake mushroom rolls, which were nicely substantial. The combo came with fresh ginger, wasabi, miso soup and a ginger-dressing salad, and you’d really have to be hungry to eat all that, so it was good that we split. $7.50 for the lunch meal, BTW.

We also had a lychee-green tea smoothie with tapioca pearls, as you can see in Shaylyn’s photo. (She really liked taking pictures of everything.)

Lychee smoothie and edamame, by Shaylyn

Sam got the special, which was advertised as “Must Try.” So he did, and kindly shared with the rest of us, cause it was really, really, tasty.  It was called Sumo Gigantor Meal or something along those lines… Oh ok, it was called the Sumo Godzilla. Probably more apropos.

The Sumo Godzilla. We were so excited to eat this we forgot to take a photo first, so some is missing...

It was $12.95 and was 10 pieces of this perfect, huge sushi roll. There was shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber, scallions and cream cheese, tempura crunch, wasabi and spicy mayo, all topped in a sweet-spicy sauce I found out later was eel sauce. It was AWESOME! Definitely something to split with a friend though, there was a lot of food there.

Sashimi Sashimi is located at 640 Church Street in Evanston, right on the corner of Orrington and Church, and is not to be confused with the other Japanese restaurant kitty-corner from it. That’s probably a perfectly good place to eat too, but I wouldn’t know personally.

If you live in Chicago, they do deliver, and take online orders, for which I recall there was a nice discount promotion at the time 🙂

Ever been to Sashimi Sashimi? How was it? Do you have a favorite sushi place?

And… stay tuned, cause the next blog is a guest blog from The Driver, a.k.a. Sam, a.k.a The Real Foodie in the household 🙂