Chicago eats, 2014 edition.

I’ve got a few recent pieces up at, including an early postseason awards preview, a report on a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and a recap of the Under Armour All-American Classic. My last Baseball Tonight podcast as guest host included some great guests, including Bizarre Foods star Andrew Zimmern.

My trip to Chicago for the Under Armour game was, as always, too brief – I was on the ground only about 24 hours, spending seven of them at the ballpark and another eight or so asleep in the hotel (I was so tired I passed out at 11:30, in my clothes, on top of the covers, while trying to read The Magic Mountain). I did get to one new restaurant for lunch, plus revisited an old favorite after the game for a quick dinner.

A friend whose identity shall remain hidden introduced me to a new fried chicken joint in the Avondale neighborhood just west of Wrigley Field called Honey Butter, so named because you get a little cup of soft honey butter that I’m told you’re supposed to smear on the outside of the fried chicken before eating it, and really, who am I to argue with custom? Honey Butter serves boneless breasts and thighs as well as drumsticks (not boneless – that would be difficult), plus a variety of fantastic sides, with a huge emphasis on local, responsible sourcing, including antibiotic-free chicken from a farm in Indiana. (If you want to make one difference in the world based on how you eat, just one simple switch, demand antibiotic-free meat wherever you go.)

The chicken itself was spicy and crispy but still completely moist on the inside; Honey Butter fries at a lower temperature, 315 degrees, to crisp the skin by rendering out more of the fat than a higher temp would, which also helps avoid drying out the exterior part of the meat. As good as the chicken was, however, it was the sides that would send me back to the restaurant: schmaltz mashed potatoes, creamed corn with Thai green curry, roasted garlic grits with scallions and “chicken crust crunchies,” roasted sweet potato salad with cilantro-lime dressing, and kale/cabbage slaw with yogurt-cumin dressing and dried pomegranate arils. The creamed corn was my favorite by far – I would never have thought to mix corn with coconut milk and basil, but the combination was bright and avoided the heaviness I associate with creamed corn. I believe my friend would have voted for the mashed potatoes, another excellent choice, one of which I believe Michael Ruhlman – who wrote an iPad ebook about the fat, one later published as a hardcover – would approve. I’d probably skip the kale salad, especially if they have the collard greens, which weren’t available the day I went.

Honey Butter also serves little half-dollar-sized corn muffins with their meals, a little sweet with an excellent crust all around the exterior, and they offer beer, wine, and cocktails as well. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan your visit accordingly.

When I appeared on First Take the day after the trade deadline, Skip Bayless came to greet me off set beforehand, and the first question he asked me was, “Have you been to my brother’s restaurant?” (I know Skip doesn’t have a great reputation online, but I’ve enjoyed working with him, and I find him to be both friendly and thoughtful when we talk off air.) That was all the prompting I needed, because while I had been to Frontera Grill before, it had been way too long – over five years, in fact, too long to go without visiting one of the most important Mexican restaurants in the country, especially when it was within walking distance of my hotel.

Rick Bayless was a pioneer of authentic, regional Mexican cuisine in the U.S., and remains dedicated to that cause, even bringing his vision to a tortas stand at O’Hare Airport, a setting where you would never expect to find anything of that quality or focus. Frontera, his flagship, offers a number of Mexican dishes you’d more or less recognize, but prepares them with top-notch ingredients and surrounds them with smaller dishes, like street food, that are probably less familiar to American diners. Since it was late and I’d already had a large amount of meat at lunch, I decided to sample a few of those smaller dishes around a serving of ceviche, which was more than a meal’s worth of protein in itself. Their “tropical tuna cocktail,” served in a martini glass, comprises sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna, mixed with a mango salsa and served over a tangy, creamy tomatillo guacamole, with fresh tortilla chips on the side to take the place of utensils. The fish was pristine – I expect no less at this kind of restaurant – but the guacamole was the part I remember most, with enough acidity to balance out the fat of the avocadoes.

For side dishes, I went with the raw jícama salad I posted on Instagram and my Facebook fan page, as well as the callejero-style grilled corn with serrano mayo and cotija. The jícama, tossed with with a chili-lime dressing and served with a little bit of sliced cucumber as well, was shockingly bright and juicy, more than any other jícama I can remember having. It’s served with extra lime wedges, which I thought it needed to bump up the acidity, since jícama itself is more texture than taste. The corn was absolutely ridiculous, sweet and salty and a little spicy with a little acidity from the cheese, decadent with the fat from the cheese and the serrano mayonnaise – the best thing I ate during the visit, even though it’s a dish I’ve had a dozen times at other restaurants.

I sampled the dessert my server suggested, an almond brown-butter cake with almond-cream cheese frosting, a quenelle of toasted almond ice cream, and some almond crumble scatted over the plate. I’d take a cone of that ice cream to go, and the cake itself was moist and had that nutty flavor of the browned milk solids from the butter (in addition to the flavor of the almonds). I could have done without the frosting, but I’m not a huge fan of cream cheese in any form; the tangy, slightly off flavor I always detect in cream cheese dominated even with all of the sugar and almond flavoring added to the frosting.

I also made a pair of visits to Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Millennium Park location, because their coffees are some of the best I’ve ever sampled. They offer a standard espresso made from their Black Cat blend, but also (for an extra dollar) offer a single-origin espresso that changes daily, which I prefer because I get to sample beans from more regions that way. Just be prepared for a little wait, as it was pretty busy both mornings I was there – a good sign given the proliferation of lesser coffee places that don’t offer this kind of quality or this level of income for the farmers.


  1. Wish I read this before I visited Chicago; love a good fried chicken rec! We ended up going to the Publican and the Purple Pig, two places I’d recommend.

    We tried Intelligentsia Coffee which offered an excellent selection of brews though were kind of pricey. My go-to would be the Greenstreet Coffee Roasters in Philly (where I’m at right now). Have you given that a try? It’s kind of near you and I’m sure they ship. If not, give it a try, especially if you love Intelligentsia.

    Love reading your food recs!

  2. For some reason I never imagined Skip and Rick were brothers. That just blew my mind!
    Ate there once while visitng Chicago, and it was amazing!

  3. I went to Honey Butter a few weeks ago for a Don Julio (yes, the tequila) event and figured you would enjoy it, given how you like fried chicken. I actually liked the kale salad as well as the summer bean salad they served.

    My girlfriend has done a lot of work with Rick Bayless and says he is one of the nicest people in the food industry, so I would imagine Skip would be similar, even if I disagree with his opinions. Rick does have a couple other restaurants in Chicago; Xoco and Topolobampo.

    If you ever need a food rec in Chicago, just let me know. My girlfriend has a long list of them.

  4. @Mark: Purple Pig is outstanding. I’ve had Greenstreet’s coffee because I can buy their beans in the local Whole Foods, but they’re not as fresh as I’d get if I went to their shop (which I’ve driven past, but it’s not super convenient).

  5. Keith, can’t go wrong with Frontera but if you want truly special Mexican/French fusion, travel about 3 miles west on Chicago Ave to a place called Mexique…I lived walking distance in the neighborhood up till last year and that is definitely worth a visit next time you’re in town. The chef is Carlos Gaytan, who’s won numerous personal and restaurant awards.

  6. So I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of cream cheese. I can tolerate it in certain cheesecakes (mostly if the flavor is overpowered by, say, chocolate. But I’ve never liked cream cheese frosting. It’s a terrible thing to do to a perfectly good cake or cinnamon roll. (Not that cake is ever perfectly good when pie exists, of course.)

  7. @Dave: Chef Gaytan was on the most recent season of Top Chef, so I’m very familiar with Mexique. It just wasn’t close to my hotel for a 10 pm dinner.

    @SethH: Nope, not a fan at all. Mascarpone, the Italian equivalent, is much smoother and milder in flavor anyway.

  8. I am in the same boat as Mike C. – it had never occurred to me that they would be brothers.

    Now that they’ve put out the chef list for TC Boston (starting 10/15, so starting 10/16 my Thursdays will once again be brightened by KLaw and Hugh Acheson recaps), are you going to do any scouting of the competitors? Kapnos is really good, and although I’m sure that all competitors do some scouting on what to expect from the ‘process’ of being on TC, but I wonder if working with Mike Isabella will help Chef Pagonis with all the non-cooking stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

  9. If you didn’t go to Hot Dougs, you didn’t go anywhere.

  10. @robert: I wish you could see how much I’m rolling my eyes at this comment.

  11. Keith, thank you for the detailed recommendations. I need to get up to Logan Square to gorge on Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Fat Rice and Kuma’s. Glad you enjoyed your time in Chicago. Cheers.