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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!


As ‘Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago’ Hits Shelves, Author Shares Favorite Windy City Picks

Photo courtesy Choose Chicago.

Photo courtesy Choose Chicago.

Last winter, as the polar vortex froze lids to lashes, I was walking miles and miles to eight, 10, sometimes 12 spots a day—hotels, restaurants, shops, museums—in my research for the new Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago. Seriously, my pen regularly froze if I tried to write outside, and I learned to embrace hotel lobbies as a free place to sit and work for an hour or so, unnoticed.

During that time, if Neil and I went out to eat with friends, it was never just dinner. There was always a blues lounge, a jazz club, a gay bar, a craft cocktail spot and a second dinner to tack on to the equation. It was a whirlwind, immersing myself in all that is Chicago.

Today, the fruits of my labor have hit shelves! (Or, at least, Amazon). The guidebook is now available, and I’m officially an author.

In honor of the book’s release, I thought it would be appropriate to write a series of blogs surrounding it. During my research, the most common question I got from friends was “What’s been your favorite?” So today, I’m writing about my favorite Chicago discoveries from guidebook research, places that I’ve recommended time and again to friends and family.

Check back in coming weeks for more fun blogs from this virtual Chicago tour guide. (Note: the content on the Frommer’s website hasn’t been updated to reflect the latest content, so buy the book to be in the know!)

Favorite Chicago Spots from a Frommer’s Guide:

My favorite affordable Chicago hotel: Acme Hotel Company. If this is what a hotel that caters to hipster millennials looks like, I approve. “If Acme were a beer, it would be a Pabst Blue Ribbon,” I wrote in the Frommer’s Guide. This place oozes style, but in a fun, quirky, comfortable way. The nightlight in the bathroom is a lighted pair of lips on the mirror, for example. An art display of mannequins floats in the courtyard outside. Coffee is delivered to your room for free in the morning with no bleary-eyed interaction with staff thanks to the “knock and drop” program. Centrally located, (it’s a short walk from Eataly) Acme has everything you need in a Chicago hotel, plus a sense of hipster jazz hands.

My favorite luxury Chicago hotel: The Langham. “If Downton Abbey was transported in time and place to Chicago, it would be The Langham, where a butler is at your service (if you’re a Langham Club member),” I wrote in the guidebook. This place has a team of eight butlers who will do everything from unpack your clothes to draw you a bath. Wandering around the Langham is like visiting an art museum, with more than 100 works around the property that make you want to speak in a hushed voice. Located in the iconic former IBM building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the rooms are absolutely stunning, with floor-to-ceiling windows, huge bathrooms and décor that feels more like a swanky home than a hotel. A weekend here may well cost the same as a rent/mortgage payment, but if you’re looking for a splurge, you won’t be disappointed (until you go home and realize Jeeves stayed behind).

Restaurant I could eat at seven times a week: Fat Rice. Holy Macau, this place is insane! The food—Macaunese—is phenomenal, and I dream of the squid ink fried rice, the eggplant with peanut, the fat noodle and the veggie curry. One piece of advice: take friends (but keep your party under six, house rules). You’ll want to try everything, but portions are big (and not cheap). More people = more plates.

Sushi that made me realize how good sushi can be: Kai Zan. You know how sometimes, when you’ve been eating a certain food for years, you think you’ve landed on a pretty darn version of that food, only to realize, when you go to a restaurant that does that food perfectly, maybe you never knew how good good can be? That’s how I felt at Kai Zan. This BYOB sushi spot is in Humboldt Park, so it’s a bit of a hike for me, but one bite of their angry crab and I have no complaints.

Swanky drinks in River North/Near North without the obnoxious bro factor: Berkshire Room. Pick a booze, pick a flavor profile, pick a glass, and they’ll customize a drink to your preferences at Berkshire Room. This bar was a revelation to me. It’s upscale enough to feel fancy, but totally comfortable at the same time. And they make a mean Manhattan. It’s in the Acme Hotel, so it’s still at least a little bit of a secret to both tourists and locals, alike.

The tour company to keep on speed dial: Chicago Detours. While doing guidebook research, I took the Loop Interior Architecture walking tour and my mind went kapow from all I learned. Cool stuff—the kind of stuff you don’t find in standard history books, newspapers and some guidebooks. Juicy bits. I was so impressed that a couple of months later, when Neil’s mom was in town, we took another Detours tour that went into Chicago’s skyscraper church, ending with a champagne toast on the pastor’s private balcony overlooking the city (seriously). Then, when his brother and brother’s girlfriend came up, we took the historic bar tour downtown. All were incredible tours, even for us locals who think they know a lot about Chicago.

On Writing. Plus: Blog hop! Showcasing some of my favorite bloggers

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Maureen Jenkins (aka Urban Travel Girl) asked me if I’d participate in a “blog hop.”

I’d heard about this whole blog hop thing on the blogging circuit, and as I watched it make its way from one blog friend to the next, I was impressed by the momentum I saw chain-linking around the world.

Also, I adore Maureen. We met on a trip to Pamplona, Spain and I am in awe of her travels and her impressive career (check out her bio below and you’ll see why). Plus, knowing that Maureen works a full-time job, while also freelancing and traveling, I knew I had absolutely no excuse not to do a blog hop if she was asking me to do it.

So here we are.

For those who aren’t yet familiar with blog hoppery, here’s the deal. In order to participate, I agreed to recruit three other bloggers to join in and keep the hop going. I’ll be answering a handful of questions about my writing, below. When I’m done bloviating (or would that be blogviating?), you’ll find links to five (yes, five!) blogs. One is Maureen’s, the others belong to four of my favorite bloggers who agreed to keep the hop hopping. (I went above and beyond the requisite three, because why stop at the minimum, right?).

Here are my musings on my muses:

1) What am I working on/writing?

In April, I wrapped up work on my biggest and most challenging project to date: I wrote the Frommer’s Easy Guide to Chicago, which will be out next month (!). It was an enormous amount of work/labor of love, and I’m really proud of the book. I feel like I earned an advanced degree in Chicago studies in the process, as I toured multiple hotels a day (eight was my record) and ate my face off anywhere and everywhere, often sneaking in a double dinner along the way.

Since the book has been put to bed, I’ve been working on all kinds of assignments. Recently, I started writing for the site and am working on a couple of pieces for them on great places to go to college, whether majors matter, etc. In other arenas: Last week, I published a piece on a holistic nursing care facility that’s doing some forward-thinking work in Vermont. In the last few months, I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing for Crain’s (most recently this piece on artisinal ice). I’ve been writing up a storm for a site by GM, called (to wit: Punch is the New Martini in Chicago) and some other clients I have through Contently, including Chevy, a site by Zillow called Hot Pads, and I just wrapped up my first piece for Hemispheres magazine (more on that when it publishes in September) and another super cool travel piece I can’t yet talk about is running soon in the Chicago Tribune. Oh, and I just found out that a piece I wrote recently about a Memphis sno cone stand for the Washington Post ran in New Zealand (I think the editors over there should give me a regular Americana column). And I’ve been working on a couple of books, both of which are ghostwritten, so I can’t go into the details. But I will say that in the future, I’d love to work on more books.

2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

Genre? Ha! I used to think that I had a particular specialty, but that was more than 7 years ago, when I worked on staff at a magazine, and could just about always write about whatever I wanted. And I did! Highlights from my Vegas years included worm-farm schemes, wedding chapel wars, bike-alongs with Mormon missionaries, testing “safe rooms,” hanging out with a pig farmer, embedding myself in Mary Kay cosmetics and the list goes on. Back then, I considered my genre the “freak beat,” because of my love of subcultures and modern anthropology. But all that’s changed since I went off on my own. It’s harder to sell those pieces as a freelancer, so I feel like I’ve channeled my study of humans into food and travel writing, while also working on culture, education and wellness pieces. My true love, though, will always be in-depth profile pieces that examine what makes someone tick.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I think that all writers share a sense of curiosity and our profession allows us to explore that, dignity in tact (for the most part). So many of my stories have started out with an “I wonder if….” “Why does….” kind of conversation. As a writer, I can explore those questions and answer them, while throwing out a cool word like bloviate along the way. A lot of times, I really think that my reporter’s notepad acts as my security blanket, and lets me into parties and situations where I maybe wouldn’t otherwise be. It keeps me removed, but involved at the same time. But most of all, I can always say “it’s for a story” to make myself seem less weird.

4) How does my writing process work?

A lot of writers love the rush of deadlines. I hate that rush. I do everything I can to avoid it and usually turn assignments in considerably early (example: this is supposed to publish Thursday. I’m putting it up on Tuesday. And this is voluntary/fun). I’m a planner, in general, so if an assignment comes my way, I usually start working on it as soon as humanly possible. I do whatever interviews/research/site visits are necessary, and then I close myself into a completely quiet room, shut out the world and write, write, write. Usually, there are interruptions for carbs–chocolate, chips, whatever is in the house. Sometimes I sneak a nap in. Or maybe a run. But when I’m working on a big story or project, I plan ahead and clear my schedule entirely for the day or two–no phone calls, nothing–and plug away.

Looking back at the guidebook writing, the biggest challenge was the immensity of the work at hand. The research, itself, was challenging enough. And then came the writing. We’re talking in the 70,000+ word range. So day after day, week after week, I would work work work work work, and still not feel like I was making any progress, because there was just so much left still to do. But I did it–ahead of schedule, too (by a couple of days). Today, I’m still amazed at how easy it is to write a 1,500- or 2,000-word feature. Prior to the guidebook, it seemed much more overwhelming.

And now, meet my chosen blog hoppers! Check out their fabulous blogs and revisit soon, they’ll be recruiting their own bloggers and answering these same questions.

Maureen Jenkins

Maureen Jenkins_Gran Via in Granada Spain_headshot

Maureen Jenkins is an award-winning writer, freelance Travel and Lifestyles journalist, and global Communications professional who’s visited nearly 35 countries and territories. This citizen of the world also has lived in Florence, Italy, and spent a year living in Samois-sur-Seine, a charming village near Paris. Maureen muses about all things travel-related—whether outside the United States or near her native Chicago—in “TCW Travel Connection,” a blog she writes for Today’s Chicago Woman magazine. A passionate believer in the ability of travel to not only transform the way we see the world, but ourselves, she encourages black women to “live globally through international travel” in her personal blog, During her career, Maureen’s work has appeared in online and print publications including, Luxury Travel, EBONY and Jet Magazines,,
Black Enterprise, Working Mother, Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, Today’s Chicago Woman, The Oregonian, Arizona Republic, and the Charlotte Observer.

Lisa Lubin


Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer and three-time Emmy® -award winning TV producer. She is a travel industry expert and has appeared on WGN-TV and Good Morning America. After more than a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical of sorts which turned into nearly three years traveling and working her way around the world.  She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog,, with photographs, videos, and articles from the road/train/rickshaw/camel.  Her writing and photography has been published by American Way Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, the Malibu Times, Encyclopedia Britannica, Orbitz, and Huffington Post.  Lisa also owns LLmedia, a media & video consulting business. She has spoken about video and journalism at several conferences including the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), the World Travel Market in London, the New York Travel Fest, the Women in Travel Summit, and “Visit Russia” in Yaroslavl.

Katie Morell

Katie Morell headshot-FINAL
Katie Morell is a professional writer with more than 10 years of experience. Based in San Francisco, she writes about a variety of topics ranging from entrepreneurship and general business issues to travel and health. Her background includes working as a Detroit-area crime reporter, political correspondent from Michigan’s capitol and editor at a national business travel magazine. Katie entered the world of freelance writing about five years ago and today writes for USA Today, Hemispheres, American Express OPEN Forum, Consumer’s Digest, Diversity Woman and Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, among others. Her work also includes ghostwriting, blogging for companies and corporate communications. Katie’s first book, Stolen Identity: What Everyone With a Name, Birthdate and Social Security Number Needs to Know Now, was released in July 2014. For more on Katie, visit
Judith Nemes
Judith Nemes is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years experience writing news stories and features for many consumer and business publications including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today’s Green Living Magazine, Michigan Avenue Magazine, Edible Chicago and In recent years, her work has focused on green/environmental issues and urban/corporate sustainability. She also writes abut food, travel, health care, and general business topics. She recently wrote a weekly column online for Crain’s Chicago Business called “Green Scene” that covered the local green economy. She also writes for corporate, trade group, and non-profit publications and has been a ghost blogger for corporate executives. She’s an Adjunct Professor in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago, and a board member and officer of the Association of Women Journalists — Chicago. She received an M.A. in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., and a B.A. at Vassar College. Check out her web site: and follow her on Twitter @JudithNemes and Google+: JudithNemes.
Science of Parenthood Blog (Jessica Ziegler and Norine Dworkin-McDaniel)
Science of Parenthood was created by writer Norine Dworkin-McDaniel and illustrator/web developer Jessica Ziegler. Once upon a time, Norine met Jessica at one of those “it stays in Vegas” holiday parties — which actually sounds a lot more salacious than it actually was. A little while later, Jessica had a kid. Then Norine had a kid. Then Norine began developing a series of science-y/parent-y ain’t-that-the-truth-isms. Then Jessica came in and scribbled all over them. And Science of Parenthood was born. Norine and Jessica are not Nobel Prize-winning scientists … though they play them on the blog. Fortunately, Norine and Jessica are both married to their own adorable geeks, who explain all this science-y stuff to them at those times when recalling the laws of thermodynamics on three hours of sleep is simply too tall an order.

The Unsanctioned Fireworks of Chicago’s Winnemac Park

Winnemac Park Fireworks 2013NealNiemiec

Photo by Neal Niemiec,

It’s that time of year again: the pyromania, the booms, the post-apocalyptic sense of wonder. In other words, the Unsanctioned Fireworks Display at Winnemac Park! This annual tradition of BYOF (bring your own fireworks) will blow you away.

Figuratively, I hope.

It’s far better than anything you’ll ever see, ever, at Navy Pier.

I wrote about it here for the site Drive the District.


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