A part of home I’ve missed since moving to the States is having all kinds of food only a bus trip or a train ride away. Each visit to friends and relatives here, I make it a point to find places that serve a slice or two of home. Chicago is one of the wonderful places that I keep returning to.
During my most recent trip to Chicago I visited my favorite eating spots and tried out new ones.
Sun Wah Barbecue is a corner in Chicago I keep returning to for Cantonese style roast duck. There’s several traditional ways to enjoy roast duck (a separate entity from the omnipotent Peking Duck), two of my favorites are it with egg noodles and with fresh, steamed jasmine rice. Add some Chinese style, red-dyed barbecued pork + shrimp dumplings and you’re well on your way to an intense food coma.
Another place I made sure to drop by was Chicago’s branch of Portillos. Portillos is a cafetaria-style eatery, you walk up to a counter, make your order and wait for the friendly staff to shout your number. They serve very good slabs of Baby Back Ribs.
I realize the presentation of the food isn’t exactly inspired or trying very hard (it’s a slab of meat on an aluminum foil) but they’ve got the taste right. The meat’s tender, savory and the barbecue sauce doesn’t overtake the flavor of the ribs. It’s something you shouldn’t have everyday for obvious reasons: you’re mortal and thus susceptible to a heart attack.
It’s served with what they’d like to call side dishes: coleslaw, house salad, macaroni and a piece of bread. I would call that a cavalry. Honestly, I didn’t touch them. The full slab of ribs is always more than enough.
On my last day, we decided to try out a traditional sushi place: Itto Sushi. They’ve been around in Chicago for 24 years and specializes on traditional sushi. Several sources claim that this is the place many go to for some cure to homesickness.
Itto sushi was calm and quiet despite being packed with customers. This is a nice thing to have; for me it’s important to be able to simultaneously enjoy your food and converse with your companions. The only things overheard in Itto Sushi were the anchors of CNN and the sushi chef conversing with his regulars about some guy who caught a giant swordfish with a tiny boat.
They had 30+ appetizers to choose from so I gave in and ordered Kani Motoyaki. It’s king crab meat baked and grilled in a special sauce, covered with a crisp crust. The nice surprise is in finding out how well the crab meat retained its firmness and distinct taste despite being quite densely coated in the sauce.
We ordered Chirashi sets for our entrees; They’re the chef’s choice of sashimi cuts on top of sushi rice. Mine is the Jo-Chirashi, it’s got more fishes and two different types of fish roes. I make it a point to order Chirashi sets at places known to specialize in traditional nigiri sushi.
It’s like playing a good Street Fighter game and not picking Ryu at least even once; you’re missing out on something strong.
I’m honestly more of a fan of traditional sushi instead of fusion rolls. This particular format is wonderful because its focus is in bringing out the flavor of each different type of meat. There’s something manly that I appreciate in that notion.
Another highlight of the day is my indulgent order of Toro, also known as Fatty Tuna. This particular cut is from the tuna’s belly. It’s intensely marbled and thus the consistency is simply inimitable. If you’re a fan of nigiri sushi and have yet to try this particular cut, it’s like never having played Street Fighter 3. You lose.
The generous content of natural fat is what’s holding each slice together. Once you dip it into soya sauce and chew on it, it practically melts in your mouth.
I think if I were to take a very sharp knife and slice out pieces of heaven, this might be what they’d taste like. I hope tunas will never face extinction.