One of our favorite hobbies to do while traveling is to eat at great restaurants. Derek loves combing through reviews and vetting menus to uncover gems in the city. I put together the logistics of a day trip in Chicago after Derek picked out our new places to eat. It was a foodie tour planned for the next day as a coincidental opportunity for an adventure.
Our breakfast spot opened at 9:00 am in the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood just four miles west from downtown Chicago. Kasama is a bakery and modern Filipino restaurant from a husband and wife culinary duo, chefs Genie Kwon and Timothy Flores. Food is a symbol of togetherness and coming together in Filipino culture. Kasama translates to “together” in English from Tagalog (a Filipino dialect). The word kasama also means “partner” and as partners, Flores and Kwon wanted to combine forces with their kitchen concepts of Filipino food and French pastries. It is this ethos of coming together that they dreamed of in a neighborhood restaurant with a feeling of warm hospitality when they opened their new restaurant in the summer of 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. This combination of neighborhood charm and quality dishes has led to Kasama being awarded the world’s first Michelin star for a Filipino restaurant in 2022.
After reading the overwhelmingly positive reviews and seeing that Kasama didn’t take reservations, we assumed that they would get busy for breakfast and planned to arrive a half hour before they opened on the Friday before New Year’s Eve. It seemed like a typical residential block with quaint rows of townhouses so we weren’t sure where the restaurant would be as we walked through the neighborhood until we turned the corner to our amazement to see a line of people waiting down the street. Oh, if only we had known and made an earlier start to the day! I’m not sour about the 90 minute wait because it felt like part of the adventure for us to seek out this tucked-away gem that was so highly desired by all the other foodies standing with us on this chilly Chicago morning. Even though our stomachs grumbled, the line moved along and we squeezed our hand warmers to keep our mittens toasty. We knew that this food must really be worth it and we were excited to experience this type of adventure that brought all of these people out to taste Kasama.
The Kasama service was extraordinary! By the time we made it to the front door and set foot in the restaurant, the process was very expedient. Customers walked up to the bakery counter to put in their orders and pay their tab before seating. We were escorted to a table right away sitting just next to those who we had stood in line with us on both sides. The wait staff brought our drinks and banana bread within moments with our breakfast meal just after. The banana bread was unlike any that we’ve ever before tasted. Shaped like a large muffin, it had a crunchy top contrasted with a moist interior embedded with chunks of dark chocolate and just a touch of sugar sprinkled on top. To shake off the cold, I ordered my favorite coffee shop drink, a hot Chai tea latte, to pair with the banana bread that we shared. The tea had the spicy taste of chai and cinnamon with the creamy blend of frothy steamed milk. It was the perfect addition to my Filipino breakfast of garlic rice, longanisa sausage, tocino, and a fried egg. Derek ordered the mushroom adobo that simply had soy braised mushrooms with a fried egg and garlic rice. The portions weren’t American style so we ate just enough sampling each other’s tasty meals feeling completely satisfied.
In an alley layout filled with guests at tables on one side and the bar and kitchen on the other, we were amazed that our entire restaurant experience was less than thirty minutes. While the food service was timely and efficient, the Kasama staff were still warm and inviting without rushing us to leave even though the line outside was still growing. We savored every bite of our food and were on our way by 11:00 am.
Lunch at Chicago Ramen was technically in the suburbs of Des Plaines, IL, roughly 30-50 minutes away from Chicago depending on traffic. We needed a couple hours to digest breakfast so we took our time making our way there with a few pit stops at a ceramics store and board game shop before mustering up the appetite for our midday meal. By the time we were ready to eat, we were circling the strip mall parking lot for a third time outside Chicago Ramen hoping to snag a spot. Seeing no options available, we settled on parking at the high school across the intersection since they were on holiday break and walked the rest of the way. Our glasses fogged up while inhaling the cozy ramen shop aroma as we scribbled our names down on the waitlist. There was only one other party before us but there simply was no room for us to stand by the door so we awaited our opportunity while considering our menu options from the sidewalk outside. The foodie adventure continues!
Chicago Ramen has been reviewed as #1 by the Chicago Tribune in a list for the 12 best bowls of ramen in the Chicagoland area. Run by Japanese chef and Los Angeles restaurateur Kenta Ikehata, Chicago Ramen specializes in tsukemen (“skee-men”) alongside their bowls of miso ramen. Chef Ikehata was trained at Tsujita in Tokyo which was selected as one of the best 10 ramen shops in Tokyo by the readers of Japan Times in 2019. He also partnered with the online marketplace, “Ramenguys” that ships refrigerated authentic ramen to customers so that they can experience restaurant quality meals prepared at home. https://www.facebook.com/chicagoramentky
After a brief wait in the chill outside, we were ready for some comfort food. Derek ordered the white miso ramen made with pork, vegetables, and house made noodles in a delicious miso broth. The ramen was a satisfying meal but Derek admitted that his favorite bowl of ramen still remains at Chef Nakamura’s shop in Lower Manhattan where we ate the Torigara ramen in 2018. While it didn’t surpass the best ramen he’s ever had, Derek quickly finished off his miso ramen with much delight.
I decided to try Chicago Ramen’s signature tsukemen dish, a dipping noodle bowl where the noodles and broth are served separately as a deconstructed ramen. The thick ramen noodles are rinsed after cooking so they are cool and slippery to more easily latch onto the liquid when dipped in a concentrated meaty broth. The chicken-vegetable-pork broth that is simmered in miso paste for 40 hours is thick as gravy and steaming hot. Tsukemen is meant to be dunked together so that the paring of cold noodles with a soupy broth balances in temperature and texture.
Regrettably, my first bites were awkward as I clumsily struggled to use the chopsticks in the slippery noodles that I have so easily used when eating ramen in the past. I also had to find the right balance of dipping the noodles so that they were warmed by the broth while also twirling up the saturated vegetables that had floated to the bottom of the bowl. I found the use of the ramen ladle to help tremendously as I scooped up the liquid and twisted my noodles in the ladle to coat them in broth before quickly slurping it up. My insecurity gave way to the rich comforts of the ramen ingredients that warmed me to my core. While unsure with the first impressions, by the time my tummy was full I was savoring every last noodle until they were gone.
Our late lunch did not leave enough time for us to treat ourselves to dessert before the coffee shop closed to taste one of Chef Maya-Camille Broussard’s pies from Justice of the Pies that was on our foodie list. We also needed a little time to digest the ramen before our early dinner reservation so we made our way back downtown to window shop the sights and sounds of Chicago on the eve of New Year’s Eve. Someday we hope to taste a a slice of this pie! Check out her amazing story here: https://www.justiceofthepies.com/about.
In the meantime, we walked down Magnificent Mile to Water Tower Place for a brief glimpse at some of the crazy places buzzing with energy like the LEGO store, American Girl, Harry Potter: Magic at Play, and the 3-story Starbucks roastery where we got lost trying to find the exit. We weren’t interested in shopping anywhere but merely enjoyed the spectacle of these intriguing places.
We might have liked to keep exploring but soon had to make our way on the walk back to dinner at Frontera Grill. Chef Rick Bayless is an award-winning restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality who is famous for his authentic Mexican cuisine. After studying Spanish and Latin American studies as an undergraduate and doing doctoral work in Anthropological Linguistics, Chef Bayless lived and traveled throughout Mexico for years devoted to his research and understanding of regional cuisine.
We’ve been big fans of Frontera Tortas in O’Hare airport for years but had never experienced the full menu of Chef Bayless. The Frontera Grill had two openings for dinner that night either at 5:00 pm or 8:00 pm so we took the earlier reservation. The atmosphere was intimate with beautiful paintings and woodblock prints of colorful Mexican folk art lining the walls. We split a mouth-watering appetizer of guacamole with house made tortilla chips before our main dishes arrived.
Derek ordered Carnes al Carbon para tacos as a make-your-own taco set of corn tortillas with steak, black beans, and salsa. The tacos were absolutely delicious! I thought I would try something completely new so I branched out with Puebla style enchiladas filled with chicken and black beans in a mole poblano sauce. I wanted to like it but I naively had no idea what mole was. Mole must be an acquired taste because I had a strong reaction to the thick texture and complex spices. I didn’t know how to identify what I disliked about it but after many attempts to continue eating, I just couldn’t stomach the strong flavor.
Later I looked up that mole is known to be spicy, smoky, and earthy with a blend of spices, chiles, and chocolate that is stewed over hours. I wanted to finish the dish but the gracious servers asked if I had known what mole was and insisted that I try something else. The Chicken Guacamole Taquitos did not disappoint and we had a wonderful experience. I started to sweat a little when we saw the famous Chef Bayless himself emerge from the kitchen to speak with the guests next to us! I was worried that he would do a round of the dining room and want to know why I didn’t like my dish. While I often find success in experimenting with new food, I also needed to be a little more knowledgeable about what I was ordering. Derek said to me on the way out, “well you know what not to order next time.” Those fears were unwarranted and we left in good spirits.
We finished the foodie tour with a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo Lights to celebrate a wonderful day together. It had been a few years since we had been to the zoo but most of the animals were tucked away for the night except for the monkeys who might never go to sleep!
It was a fun, beautiful night with a romantic vibe as we strolled around the park oohing and ahhing over the colorful lights.
We had such a wonderful time with our foodie tour that we made one more pit stop a couple days later when in town for an errand to have lunch at Calumet Fisheries in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. There are only a few smokehouses left in Illinois and Calumet Fisheries is known for smoking its own seafood with natural wood onsite. They have been a family business for over 65 years with a strict cash only, take-out policy- no seating or bathrooms. A couple locals sporting White Sox caps parked on the street out front to order food just before the bridge on 95th street that was once a film location for the Blues Brothers.
We had a good recommendation from a fellow foodie so we sought out Calumet Fisheries for their shrimp dinner and fried perch with fries. We wanted to eat it hot so we had our meal in the car before driving the rest of the way home. Food is always better when you’re hungry, but this meal was just tasty!
Our foodie tour confirmed that little adventures can happen with spontaneous plans that don’t require us to travel too far to have new experiences.