Looking through the photos of our recent family vacation to visit family and friends in Dallas and then romp around Chicago for a few days, I’m struck by how little Taster Tots appropriate material I collected. But the reason is fairly obvious. Because this trip included my sister and her kids, and not our spouses — my parents were with us, thankfully — that meant our group totaled four kids and four adults. Not a terrible ratio, yet still an overwhelming number of small people who demand to eat early and were pooped from jet lag and change-ups in their routines. It was not ideal food and drink-oriented travel by any stretch (definitely no Fearing’s or Alinea), but it wasn’t a complete wash. Anyway, a few recs and a brief rundown of our brilliant move to take a summer vacation in two of America’s hottest July/August spots. And I don’t mean that in the culturally hip sense.
Of course I just found out about the super cute website tiny Dallas today, long after it would have been useful. But our schedule is usually structured around visiting folks, and we don’t have a ton of flexibility. That’s why as luck would have it, the closest restaurant to where our grandfather lives AND our hotel out there on that big ass, alienating Texas LBJ highway is… Benihana. The very first Benihana I ever went to, in fact. This choice for kids is beyond obvious, and isn’t a core reflection of my mission. Yet when it’s A HUNDRED AND FIVE FRIGGIN’ DEGREES outside, and it’s the ONLY place we could walk to without passing out, we could have done much worse. (And still barely advisable to go on foot.) With the faux Japanese pavilion and koi pond providing a relatively charming respite from acres of concrete and generic buildings, a well-priced kids menu, and under $10 lunch combos with lots of food everyone was happy enough with, this was an all-around suburban winner. While Little Tokyo in Los Angeles ’tis not, we got some tricked-out, smoke-pouring-out-of-stacked-onion-rings-on-the-grill bang for our buck. Yup, the onion volcano was almost worth the price of admission alone.
A few other mentions: the Mermaid at Neiman’s in NorthPark, the BEST mall EVER thanks to some distinguished architects and a world class art collection displayed on site, works for a late family lunch when the room empties out. All the better to see the amazing Wiinblad tile work. Paciugo Gelato started in Big D. And The Mint, an Asian fusion restaurant in North Dallas that’s mostly Thai and feels a bit like a hip contemporary hotel lobby, is quite popular so we were lucky and wise to arrive very early. Crossing town for a proper cappuccino at the Pearl Cup was totally worth it, too, also because neighboring We Are 1976 is one of the coolest retail operations I’ve seen in a long time. Serious BBQ will have to wait for someday when the weather cools and we can clock hundreds of miles on a rental car.
Benihana: 7775 Banner Drive, (972) 387-4404
The Mermaid: 400 Northpark Center, (214) 363-8311
Paciugo Gelato: Multiple locations
The Mint: 11617 N. Central Expy # 135, (214) 363-6655
The Pearl Cup: 1900 N. Henderson Ave., Ste. B, (214) 824-9500
In Chicago, that astoundingly beautiful and most compelling of American cities, where my feet ached thanks to my continually archi-tourism hungry eyes, we had a fairly strict separation of eating agendas. This plan worked as long as I made it to Intelligentsia every day. Feed the kids whatever during the day (lunch at the Shedd Aquarium fed those hungry souls just fine), get them down, and then my sister and I would head out for worthwhile meals after. That way we got to sit at the bar at Avec with glasses of rose vinho verde and cava, and eat REAL food, like this lusciously rare hanger steak with summer squash, asparagus, blueberries (a misfire) and rounds of bone marrow.
Or see what Matty, formerly of the Hungry Cat and Varnish, is up to at his new base of operations, the chic and welcoming Perennial Virant, which enlivens a corner in Lincoln Park. Between the Clover Club and Currant Cobbler cocktails, and menu that smartly combines uber-seasonality with pickled and preserved heavily local foods, we were beyond thrilled. And sorry to traffic in regional stereotypes, but everyone we encountered was SO darn nice.
Witnessing a dramatic thunderstorm throw sheets of rain across the Hancock Center while sitting across the street seven stories up in an overpriced hotel restaurant and gazing down on Michigan Avenue is something I’ll always remember. Reuniting with a college friend at Ceres’ Table in Uptown was another needed trip beyond the Magnificent Mile and Loop areas, gorgeous as they are.
I’m still unconvinced that Chicago-style pizza is something I’ll ever crave or understand, but we did stop for a big unruly family meal of “thin” (!) crust pizza at Pizano’s on State Street in the Near North Side. When in Rome… Except when away from Rome and in Chicago, have a signature style pie that doesn’t resemble anything passing for pizza in the Eternal City.
So if an alternate universe were to manifest in which Chicago’s myriad food options suddenly vanished, and visiting the Windy City meant eating nothing but sweet dough piled two inches high, would we do it?
If it included basking in this kind of urban public life…
And gazing at treasures of American architecture.
The answer would still be, yes. Can’t wait for the next visit.
Pizano’s: 864 N State St., (312) 751-1766
Avec: 615 W. Randolph St., (312) 377-2002
Perennial Virant: 1800 N. Lincoln Ave., (312) 981-7070
Ceres’ Table: 4882 N. Clark St., (773) 878-4882
Intelligentsia: 53 E. Randolph St., (312) 920-9332