A Taste of Prague

Prague: Where hotel rooms have chandeliers

Boutique Hotel Constans Prague

You know. Casual.

And tourists fill every square inch of the city.

Gate to Mala Strana

So busy today! I think I saw more tourists today than I’ve seen anywhere else combined.

Also, apparently there was a hockey game? USA vs. Czech and the USA won! Which is only great when I’m not in Prague, trying to take pictures of a beautiful building that no one cares about because there’s a game! on! the! giant! TV!!!

Old Town Square

I couldn’t beat them, so I got a beer and a dog and joined them. Go USA! (sorry Czechs…)

Prague sausage

The time is fast approaching when sausages and beer will lose their appeal. I’m not there yet but I can see it in the distance. How do these Europeans live on a diet of bread, beer and sausages without dying of scurvy? I don’t get it.

I’ve been here only a couple of hours but my favorite thing in Prague so far is the Charles Bridge. It’s part of the old Royal Road, a procession route for newly crowned kings of Bohemia to travel to their castle. Here’s the view off the bridge into the Staré Město, Prague’s Old Town

Staré Město Charles Bridge

The bridge is lined with statues and joins the Old Town and the Mala Strana, the Lesser Town where the castle resides.

Charles Bridge

The sun sets directly over Mala Strana and shines through these gorgeous gates on either side of the bridge

Charles Bridge

So far, Prague is pretty cool. More tomorrow.

Charles Bridge

Goodbye to Chicago

Chicago Skyline

5 days went quick!  And this is my last morning in my favorite city.

A shout out to Lotus Cafe

Lotus Cafe

A tiny place in University Village run by two former UIC students and with the most incredible banh mi sandwiches.

Lotus Cafe 2

Fresh toasty bread, thin buttery pork slices and all that greenery? Incredible. I traveled quite far for that sandwich and it was worth it.

Also to Balena

Balena

Where I had a luscious burrata (in even more luscious light) and conversation with my friend Rob. Balena is right next door to the Royal George Theatre and across the street from the Steppenwolf, making it the perfect pre or post show stop.

I tried Maude’s Liquor Bar, a charming little French place on Randolph Street

Maude's Liquor Bar

It’s a tiny easy to miss place with a dark door that’s not well marked by GPS. The entrance is actually right on Randolph Street by the burger bar.

I met my friend Lisa there and we shared a number of small plates, including mussels, smashed potatoes and this incredibly colorful shaved vegetable salad

Maude's Liquor Bar shaved salad

So delicious! As was the conversation and the company. Lisa is one of my favorite dining companions and I always come away from our conversations thinking more deeply about where I want my life to go.

Up in Roger’s Park I went to Uncommon Ground

Uncommon Ground

A restaurant  committed to operating as green-ly as possible. They have an organic farm on their roof! I ate here with Julian and Kristin, college friends of mine whom I adore. We all started in theatre together and have taken that training in very different directions. It’s remarkable to know people for 20 years, see their lives unfold and enjoy their company even more than I did 20 years ago. I’m lucky with my friends.

And while that’s not all, that’s all you get of Chicago this trip.

Chicago

Bye bye Chi-town. See you in awhile.

New Restaurants in Chicago

I always come to Chicago to eat. I have a running list of places I’ve never been and really should try and then I  also look for what’s new and hot so I can try that too. It was a fair amount of eating this trip but even more time in transit since I stayed way north at my friend’s condo in Andersonville. Sometimes I forget how big this city really is.

But all that traveling was worth it and here are the two new restaurants that made an impression on me this week.

Dove’s Luncheonette

Dove's Luncheonette

The new tex-mex diner from the One Off Hospitality group that includes chef Paul Kahan and restaurants like Big Star, Blackbird and Avec.

Diners are my favorite places to eat uncomplicated food. Breakfast especially. I like sitting at a counter watching short order cooks do their business, the food always arrives hot and fast  and I can get in and get out in 30 minutes for $10. However, when famous chefs open diners they serve complicated expensive food and it usually takes forever to get it.  While I appreciate the homage, the anticipation and immediate popularity of such places combined with the menu prices eliminate all the great elements of the original concept (fast, cheap, unfussy), leaving only the visuals.

A couple of years ago I tried the Little Goat Diner right after it opened. The wait was SO LONG and the food was only ok because there’s hardly any food in the world worth a 2 hour wait. I haven’t been back to Little Goat and I’ve been leery of famous chef diners ever since.

So, imagine my pleasure when the wait at Dove’s Luncheonette was only about 20 minutes on a Saturday around 1pm and the food was really really good!

Dove's Luncheonette

I had the chili rellenos. They were super light, fried in tempura batter and filled with fresh farmer’s cheese, the texture of ricotta. I had a spicy bloody maria topped with pickled beans to wash it down and naturally fell into conversation with the friendly group of artists seated next to me. Lunch counter seating encourages conversation with strangers.

I’d recommend Dove’s Luncheonette because the food is carefully prepared and quite great, the window seating has a nice view of passing humanity and it’s literally right across the street from the train station. For visitors, I caution you to temper your expectations. It could be a long wait to sit on backless stools and it’s not a place for a big group. Don’t wait more than 30 minutes or you’ll be annoyed and hate the experience.

Up north in Andersonville is Little Bad Wolf, a new bar from the people that formerly owned The Burger Philisophy

Little Bad Wolf

It’s advertised as American food but the menu has a strongly Mexican influence

Little Bad Wolf

Like chips and salsa. Ok arguably, chips and salsa have been coopted by every sports bar in the US so they could conceivably be considered American. And these were good ones, fresh hot chips with great salsa options.

But Elote?

Little Bad Wolf

Creamy spicy corn? That’s Mexican through and through. The tempura battered avocado was a great touch and I loved everything about this, including the cast iron dish. I wasn’t impressed with the chopped salad we ordered, bland and disappointing (albeit gigantic), but I’ve never seen hard root beer on tap so I had to try it. Too sweet for me but quite an alcoholic kick so… beware.

I liked LBW. It’s a cute neighborhood bar and I enjoy the copper and cobalt

Little Bad Wolf

If you go, order the elote.

Tomorrow, a round up of the rest of my brief Chicago visit.

Tacos in Wicker Park

A conversation about the best taco in Chicago will likely end in a throw down. Tacos are popular all over the city from gourmet tacos by world renowned chefs (hi, Rick Bayless) to tiny taco stands attached to grocery stores that have no websites. A veritable wealth of taco options.

However, in any list of the best tacos in the city you’ll find these two places listed:

Antique Taco

Someone referred to Antique Taco as “pintrest-y.” It’s funny cuz it’s true. There’s a carefully cultured farm kitchen preciousness to the decor from the wide wooden tables and wooden stools to the jelly jar glasses and cloth dish towel napkins. For some of you, this is a draw. For the rest of you, just ignore it and order a taco:

Antique Taco

Whoever decided that bacon belonged on a carnitas taco is a genius and I love them, especially when they also added spinach, fresh cotija cheese and a few slices of creamy avocado.The plate was warm, the tortillas were bendy and slightly crunchy and the whole thing cost $8. $10 once I added the mouth puckering mango lemonade agua fresca. It actually took 15 minutes or so for me to get my tacos and the place wasn’t busy but I know that means that they started from scratch and made it to order.  Antique Taco deserves all their accolades. I can’t think of a better lunch in Wicker Park.

But if I want tacos for dinner, I go to Big Star:

Big Star ChicagoBecause this place is always a good time. Big Star is an established restaurant that acts like a food truck, referring to themselves as a “beer-focused, taco-slinging, late-night honky-tonk” offering a to-go window in nice weather and refusing to take credit cards.

Big Star ChicagoBut the food is the real deal because Big Star chefs go back to Old Mexico for their taco inspiration, offering pollo pibil steamed in banana leaves and carrots with mole sauce. Their tacos al pastor include pineapple, the guacamole is creamy with crispy chips and the honky tonk vibe invites groups of people to stay too long, eat too many tacos and perhaps sample a bit too much tequila. Big Star is a night all to itself.

There are a lot of great taco places in Chicago. These two are just the beginning.

Progressive Dinner on Chicago’s Randolph Street

I’m finally out of the Southwest! And in Chicago for a little less than a week, predictably crazed as I try to see all my friends and eat the entire city.

This post is a thursday throw back to 2014 during the polar vortex when the Chicago river looked like this

Chicago River polar vortex

And my friends Corey, Matt, Rob and I did a progressive dinner on Randolph Street along with Cardboard Ryan. I look insane or super excited…

Progressive Dinner Chicago 2014

The original Progressive Dinner group is Corey, Matt, Ryan and me but Ryan couldn’t make Chicago so we created a cardboard cutout o bring along with us so he wouldn’t miss anything. You want an interesting big city experience? Try bringing along a cardboard cutout as a dining companion. Photo ops for days!

I’ve written about Progressive Dinners before and described them as the perfect solution to an excess of restaurant options with a minimum of time. Why eat three courses at one place when you can eat at three places? Or five?

We’ve now had progressive dinners in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco and Zurich. If I were a really responsible blogger I’d have written about all of them. Clearly that hasn’t happened. But over these years of eating and drinking (a lot), we’ve argued (a lot) about how Progressive Dinners actually work and last summer in Zurich we sat down and tried to hammer out Progressive Dinner rules, written very officially on the back of a coaster. The conversation went something like this…

Kaitlyn: first rule is “start early.”

Matt: Second rule is the first course has to be champagne or something sparkly.

Corey: Is there a rule about beverages? Do they have to be alcoholic?

Matt: the first one has to be sparkly.

Ryan: just because we’ve had something sparkly at the last two dinners, doesn’t mean it’s a rule.

Kaitlyn: let’s call it a trend.

Corey: Second rule, one course at each restaurant.

Matt: third rule: one course has to be tapas.

Corey: no it doesn’t, we don’t always have tapas.

Matt: but we mostly have. New Orleans, New York, Chicago…

Ryan: but we don’t have to.

Kaitlyn: Ok, tapas is a trend. Not a rule.

Ryan: Third rule: one person is in charge of each dinner. Not Matt.

Matt: What?!

Ryan: kidding! You can be in charge. As long as there’s something sparkly and some tapas.

Matt: there needs to be a photobooth so we can take pictures.

Kaitlyn: Can we start a new coaster called “Matt’s Trends?”

Ryan: Fourth rule, Matt doesn’t get to make rules.

Don’t you just want to have dinner with us as we eat all night and argue?

Basically the Progressive Dinner rules came down to these:

1. The number of restaurants in a dinner is only limited to how much you can eat in a given night.

2. Chips and salsa is a course and woe betide the dinner planner that omits this course.

3. Every dinner course has to have a drink pairing, sparkly or otherwise.

I will say that walking between restaurants is preferred since there’s so much eating and drinking and I heartily advise that you start early because everything takes longer than you think.

I planned Progressive Dinner Chicago 2014 and picked a series of restaurants on Randolph Street because it’s all very walkable and most of Chicago’s solid fantastic restaurants are centered here right now.

Progressive Dinner Chicago 2014

We started at my favorite cocktail bar in all of Chicago, Aviary

Aviary Chicago

Swanky fancy cocktails with spectacular presentation, like “In the Rocks” where the booze comes inside an ice ball. The server places a slingshot over the top of the glass, one snap of the rubber band and the ice breaks, creating drink on the rocks.

Aviary Chicago

Brilliant. Aviary gets more online chatter than any other cocktail bar in Chicago, with good reason; so I won’t go on and on here but I highly recommend a visit if you’re in Chicago. Make reservations, bring a camera and plan to hang out for awhile. It’s totally worth the time and the money.

RM Champagne Salon was stop #2

RM Champagne Salon

For oysters and sparkly drinks (just for Matt!) as well as lobster deviled eggs, which were divine. Deviled eggs are slowly sliding out of restaurant fashion – overtaken by cauliflower, me thinks – but I’ve enjoyed every creamy spicy sensational bite I’ve had across the nation this past year. Some time on a slow news day I’ll post a deviled egg retrospective. Aren’t you looking forward to that?

Anyway, RM is a cozy brick walled intimate space, perfect for romantic dates… or as course #2 with 4 people and a cardboard cutout. Wherever you might be in life.

Course #3 was supposed to be de cero but… it was closed.

I know. Progressive Dinner fail! And trust me, I’ll never hear the end of it. I neglected to photograph the outrage so you’ll just have to imagine it. Cardboard Ryan got particularly pouty…

Moving on to Course #4, Avec, another of my favorite places in the city

Avec chorizo stuffed dates

The restaurant looks like Ikea designers were cut loose in a closet and instructed to only use blond wood and straight lines, but the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates wrapped in bacon (above) are the stuff of Chicago food legend. Magic spicy sweet crispy roasted bites of heaven. My mouth literally waters as I type. I also highly recommend the whipped brandade with garlic bread, crunchy flat bread with oozy melted salty potatoes that just might change your life.

We drank a lot of wine and my friend Rob joined us

Progressive Dinner Chicago 2014

And then we progressed to course #5, Randolph Street’s piece de resistance Girl and the Goat

Girl and the Goat

Also my favorite Cardboard Ryan photo op of the evening. I’ve written about Girl and the Goat before and I took better pictures then so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that the food is still splendid, reservations are still needed and order the pig face. Really.

Post Girl and the Goat we ran into problems of time with my planned nightcap location, so instead of Maude’s we went to Lone Wolf

Lone Wolf

Where they mix really good brown liquor cocktails and offer a drink called Zombie Dust.

After Lone Wolf it had already been a long evening of drinks and hilarity so why we felt like we needed yet another nightcap is beyond me. I think it was Cardboard Ryan’s idea

Berkshire Room

But it was the Berkshire Room, conveniently situated in the bottom floor of our hotel. I guess that made a demented drunken amount of sense. Plus Cardboard Ryan never passes up a photo op with a pretty girl. I’m gonna say that one nightcap was probably enough and it was good we were already home by that point.

6 hours, 6 courses, 4 humans and 1 cardboard cutout. And so concluded Progressive Dinner Chicago 2014 on Randolph Street! Long night, great eats and some of the best company anywhere.

Matt and Cardboard Ryan

More Chicago tomorrow!

 

 

Tucson’s Best New Restaurant

The Coronet in Tucson

I don’t come to Tucson to eat rustic European cuisine at a brasserie style restaurant. It somewhat shocks me that there is such a place here, and that it’s popular, and that the food is good AND that the location and restaurant interior are so perfectly on point! But that just proves that my ideas about Tucson cuisine are badly out of date because The Coronet has worked some serious magic and created a cozy bistro that fits in perfectly right at the junction of downtown and 4th Ave.

The Coronet in Tucson

The Coronado Hotel building dates back to 1928. Chef owners Sally Kane and Gregor Kretschmann took over the restaurant space in 2013 and opened The Coronet last year. The original windows are gorgeous and the rest of the interior blends Mission tile floors, Victorian stained glass and furnishings collected from all manner of far-flung places on Craigslist. This eclectic blend of European influences inside an old adobe building brings the Spanish style of Old Tucson into the funky setting of 4th ave. and makes it all work. Sally Kane said she wanted to create a café like you would find in any major city and she’s succeeded well because The Coronet feels true to the desert spirit but the food is definitely 21st century.

The Coronet in Tucson My friend Eric and I had cocktails and we tried the sardines, the pate and the cheese plate. All the food was beautifully presented, the cocktails weren’t too sweet or too pretentious and our server was both knowledgeable and attentive, sometimes a rare combination in Tucson. Of all the food, I least loved the pate de campagne, which I expected to be mostly meat but instead had layers of vegetables and seemed more like a terrine. But that was a fault of expectations I think, and not the actual dish.

The Coronet is completely delightful. It looks good, it feels good and it tastes good. Tucson food lovers, this is the place you’ve been waiting for. I hope you get a lot more like it.

Breakfast Around Las Vegas

There isn’t much between Arizona and Elko Nevada except for Vegas. However, I really really don’t like Vegas. Too loud, too noisy, too much artificiality and distraction. Can’t handle it, even for breakfast. So, if, like me, you find yourself on a road trip through the infinite empty roadways of Nevada and you need eggs and bacon, here’s where you should go instead of Sin City.

Omelet House in Henderson

The Omelet House in Henderson Nevada isn’t much to look at outside. Or even inside, for that matter. It’s got a local Denny’s kinda feel to it with big booths, round tables and industrial carpeting. But the food is really surprisingly great

Omelet House in Henderson

And there’s so much of it you won’t know what to do with yourself. That omelet, hilariously, is called the “health nut” and I’m guessing it had 8 eggs with zucchini, mushrooms and swiss cheese. There were a lot more eggs than filling but since I could only eat half of it, I was ok with that. The potatoes were light and crispy crunchy like potato chips and the pumpkin bread was homemade and spectacular. Plus the whole shebang cost about $11, which in Nevada is about 20 seconds with a slot machine. I’d recommend the Omelet House if you have a big love for breakfast or a big family with big appetites.

World Famous Coffee Cup Cafe

Slightly further from Vegas, The Coffee Cup Cafe in Boulder City is World Famous. It says so on their T-shirts. And all those people you see in that picture are waiting for a table.  Some places are famous because of hype and TV coverage and some are famous because they serve really fantastic food and their service is top notch. Coffee Cup is both. It’s been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, their food is outstanding and their servers are cute-as-buttons college girls that handle incredibly busy shifts with smiles.

World Famous Coffee Cup Cafe

I had a basic breakfast and the bacon was thick cut and peppered, the browns were crispy and the toast was also thick cut homemade sourdough. Had I tried to get a table at 9am on a Sunday, I think I might have waited 45 minutes. But I slid in and sat at the breakfast bar and had eaten and gone in 45 minutes.

Coffee Cup deserves the hype. Go check it out. Either sit at the breakfast bar or try to get a table in the shade outside and maybe have a mimosa while you’re waiting.

So, clearly I lied because I had one more Nevada post in me. But this is it. Promise.

Tomorrow is Arizona and Route 66. See you then…