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Photo Essay: DIY Marathon, Chicago

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Here’s Neil’s lens to our DIY 26-mile walking marathon.

DIY Marathon: Walking 26.2 Miles in Chicago

Done. 11 hours and 56 minutes later.

(Update! We made the news for our adventure! Read about it here on DNA Info.)

The idea was born in San Francisco. We walked from Hotel Triton in Union Square, where we were staying, to the Mission District, in search of the best taco (La Taqueria, hands down), and then we just kept walking. Neil had upgraded his phone and it came with a pedometer, so it was the first time in all of our travels that we became aware of the miles we covered. By the time we collapsed, exhausted, in to the grass of Golden Gate park, we’d hit 16 miles. Debating between walking the three miles or so back to the hotel or grabbing a cab, we opted for the three, so that we could hit an impressive 19 that day. Realizing that marathon distance was within reach, we decided when we got home to Chicago we should do the same thing in our city, only tack on the additional 7 miles for a clean 26.2. The idea resurfaced with the excitement leading up to the Chicago marathon. Catching a whiff of marathon fever, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and, yesterday, walked 26.2 miles (and a few more steps, if you count the dog walks that preceded and followed). We started from our apartment in Roscoe Village, headed to Halsted and made our way through Boy’s Town, Lincoln Park, the West Loop, Greektown, Little Italy and our southern terminus, Pilsen, where an art walk was going on. We saw some great art, ate some less-than-great Mexican food and headed back north, through West Town (we made a quick visit to Alcala’s Western Wear to check out the vaquero gear), Logan Square, Albany Park, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, Southport and, eventually, home. The conclusion: Holy hell. 26.2 miles is a lot to cover! Even just walking, it hurts! But it was an incredible way to see the city. We’ve explored in the past on bikes and going on jogs, but nothing beats walking to really take everything in. And the fact that we had no exact route to stick to gave us the leeway to peek up alleys, into shops and galleries, check out restaurants (and pie bakeries), admire churches, meander through college and medical campuses and see a dozen vantage points of Willis Tower along the way. First, here are the many faces of Willis:

Here’s Neil’s view on the adventure. And here are some of my own favorites:

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Everything has an end. Only the sausage has two. Auf Wiedersehen Hot Doug’s.

So long, Hot Doug’s! It’s been fun.

You were my first Chicago story (I wrote about you for  Southwest Airline’s Spirit Magazine, before I’d even moved to Chicago).

You were my second piece in the Washington Post.

And you were many a sausage meal along the way. (I still contend that your regular fries are better than the duck fat fries).

We’ll await your second coming.

(Might I suggest starting a marketing company?)

As they say in Germany, Alles hat ein ende nur die Wurst hat zwei. (Everything has an end. Only the sausage has two.)



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A Photo Adventure Through Chicago Gourmet

Let the Gourmet begin!

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How to Prepare for Chicago Gourmet: Advice from the Eating Pros


It’s September 26, the eve of Chicago Gourmet, one of my favorite events of the year.

And so my mind turns to, what else? Our world’s eating elite.

Did I ever tell you about the time I took competitive eating couple Rich LeFevre and his wife, Carlene, to the buffet at Sam’s Town in Las Vegas to do an interview for the Las Vegas Weekly while stuffing our faces? LeFevre’s known for his “praying mantis” style of eating, curling his hands and bouncing around as he stuffs his face. It’s his signature.

He didn’t do that at Sam’s Town, but he did put away some impressive plates-ful, as did Carlene. The meal was ridiculous, fun and incredibly strange, all at once (sadly, the story was lost when the LV Weekly lost most of its archives….and a gazillion of my favorite clips…about a week after I quit my job to freelance. Sigh). Would that all interviews occurred at a Sam’s Town buffet.

In hindsight, the interview was also useful. I still think back to the training tips I got from the LeFevres. They eat pounds and pounds of watermelon to fill up, and stretch those guts like water balloons in preparation for the main event, whether that’s slurping down water-logged hot dog buns while competing against Takeru Kobayashi or just participating in the friendly neighborhood shrimp salad eating contest.

My point? This weekend is Chicago Gourmet, presented by Bon Appetit.

I see it as a kind of Taste of Chicago for the more discerning–and chaos/crowd averse–palate. Some of the best chefs in town will be there: Jimmy Bannos Jr. & Sr. (Purple Pig, Heaven on Seven), Rick Bayless (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco), Gregg Biggers (Cafe des Architectes), Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams), Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG), Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice), Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat/Little Goat), Michael Kornick (MK/Ada St./DMK/Fish Bar), Thomas Lents (Sixteen) and the list goes on and on and on and on, to include mixologists, sommeliers, cooking demos, panel discussions and more.

It is a gastronaut’s lunar landing. Thanksgiving in September, minus the dry turkey, cold mashed potatoes and that nasty NPR cranberry horseradish relish.

To prepare, you’re going to want to download the app (which impresses me year after year). Then, you’re going to want to plan ahead. Like, start stretching those innards, pronto, if you want to make the most of this annual gustatory pilgrimage.

Here’s some advice from the pros, the competitive eaters.

Let the jaw-unhinging begin.

1. Increase your stomach capacity by drinking huge amounts of water. But do it gradually. Competitive eater Yasir Salem told Mental Floss, “You have to go up and up and up,” said the champion cannoli eater. “It’s conditioning. Most people can work their way up to a gallon in a month. A gallon weighs eight pounds. In the majority of contests, we’re not consuming that amount of capacity. Joey Chestnut will consume maybe 5 or 6 pounds. If you do a gallon of water, you’re competitive with most of the eaters.”

2. “Build a bat-cave inside yourself.” Steakbelly, who wears a kilt and is regarded for his haggis-eating ability (three pounds, six minutes) told Gizmodo that you need to create your own internal food lair. “Choose low calorie, high fiber foods as the bulk of your training regimen, like 5 or 6 heads of romaine lettuce, or a few pounds of cabbage. Once you have eaten your fill, start drinking water so that the cabbage swells and stretches your stomach further. Go lay down and catch up on Honey Boo-Boo till you feel better.”

3. It’s all in your head. In everyday life, eating fulfills a caveman-like purpose. Hunger pang? Chew, grunt, chew. For competitive eaters, eating, it seems, fulfills a different caveman-like response: fool body into consuming all of mastodon to impress Jane, make crowd of monkey scream. To master this art, competitive eater Matt ‘Megatoad’ Stonie, who once ate 268 gyoza in 10 minutes, told Thrillist it’s mind over matter. “It really comes down to two things. Mentally, you have to disregard any notion that you’ve built up about eating. People put stuff in their mouth, chew, and then swallow. If you want to eat competitively, you’ve just gotta focus on swallowing.”

With that, good luck, grasshoppers. See you at Millennium Park, appetite in tact.

A Chicago Taco Crawl with a Taco Historian

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on Chicago’s creative taco scene for Chicago Sun-Times, and, in the process, got to speak with taco historian (well, technically food historian, but when else will I ever get a chance to say taco historian?) Jeffrey Pilcher, who literally wrote the book on tacos when he penned Taco Planet: A Global History of Mexican Food.

We had a fun talk, and Jeffrey, who was living in Minneapolis at the time (he’s now in depressingly taco-free Toronto), mentioned he had a trip to Chicago coming up. I told him to email when he’s in town and we can talk taco. Which led to today’s all-out taco adventure.

Where better to take a taco historian than Pilsen?

We start at Carnitas Uruapan, where we’re greeted by fabulously violent-against-swine counter art.

Carnitas Uruapan art

As luck would have it, there was a camera crew from the Travel Channel inside, filming steaming plates of carnitas for an upcoming show. It made me proud for picking this place to introduce to the likes of a taco historian. (See? Snuck it in there again).

Carnitas Uruapan film crew

We ordered a the “Carnitas Value Meal”: a half pound of carnitas, a stack of tortillas, a pile of chicharrons, two salsas and jalapenos….for $5.99. We split it, and had we not restrained ourselves (Jeffrey packed up about one-third of the order to take for dinner), that $6 meal would have been enough for both of us. The carnitas were fantastic. Moist, tender and perfectly suited to a combination of the salsas. Moving to Pilsen to be closer to this place (and save on groceries and eating out) admittedly crossed my mind.

Carnitas Uruapan Chicharron


Carnitas Uruapan Carnitas

Then, we wandered along 18th street, digesting, and Jeffrey filled me in on his latest adventures: he’s writing a book on beer (we’ll have to do a beer tour the next visit). We arrived at Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan, another small spot that smelled, appropriately, of goat. The menu consisted, appropriately, of goat, including goat head, goat liver and other goat bits. Jeffrey ordered a birria consomme for us to share (“could you add a little head?” he asked), and the server soon delivered the steaming bowl of soup along with onions and habanero peppers and a stack of tortillas. We were both impressed by the consommé which was rich and soothing, the kind of dish that doesn’t make you dread winter so much, knowing you can return and eat this kind of thing to warm up. I’m not a connoisseur of goat, but I must say I quite enjoyed the meaty pieces in the soup. Even the head bits. Cost: $8. (!). And Jeffrey tossed the remaining consommé in with the carnitas.

Birreria Goat Consume

Last stop: Carnitas Don Pedro, a few more blocks up 18th Street. Here, Jeffrey had a brief conversation with our waitress in Spanish, explaining that he’s from Canada, where there are no tacos, so he’s getting his fill here (something along those lines). I patted myself on the back for getting the gist of what he said in Spanish, and then ordered “Una agua, por favor.” Jeffrey glanced over the small menu and went with an order of nopales and a small carnitas platter. ” With skin.” The nopales were great, and a welcome change after two meat courses, but the carnitas were my least favorite of the bunch–thick, dry and lacking in flavor. The skin, which Jeffrey was hoping would be nice and crisp, was a kind of unwieldy gordo y grasa glop on the plate. Still, this place was more crowded than any of the others we visited, so they must be doing something right! Cost: $17.

Filled up from our earlier adventures–and not in love with the food–we had a heap of leftovers here. I’m guessing Jeffrey will have enough for dinner and possibly enough to share with the entire taco-deprived city of Toronto.

Hasta la proxima, Profesor Taco!

Carnitas Don Pedro Meal






Talking About Chicago with the Frommers


Last week I was invited on “The Travel Show” radio program/podcast by the first family of travel: Arthur and Pauline Frommer. We talked about my latest guidebook, Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago, which was released in August. It was a hoot. If you want to listen in, you’ll learn fun facts about the latest on the Chicago food scene, skyscraper wars, Hemingway and more. I’m on the second hour of the program at 20 minutes in.

Haven’t see the book yet? Buy one on Amazon! At $10, it costs less than lunch!



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