Story and photos by Kayte Deioma
I’m a picky eater. I’ll admit it. I eat a wide diversity of cuisines, but there are a lot of particular flavors I don’t like. Nevertheless, I still enjoy trying all kinds of different things, just in case I discover something new and wonderful to eat. It’s also hard to discuss the merits of a particular food if I haven’t tried it. This is what motivated me to join the Tastebud Tours “Flavors” Tour of Chicago this week with my friend and fellow travel writer, Lanora Mueller.
Owner Lynn Jaynes doesn’t go out on every tour (several are simultaneous, so that would be impossible), but he came out to give us a little extra background and history of Tastbud Tours, which he started with his wife Karon after finding himself out of a job. The Chicago offerings have expanded to 4 different tasting tours, and the company now also offers tours in New Orleans.
Our meeting spot was Pizano’s on State Street, not to be confused with the other Pizano’s on East Madison where another tour was departing. Although both restaurants are owned by the Malnati family, this Pizano’s, Rudi’s place, is where Mama comes in every morning and makes the crust and where Oprah has a favorite table in the back room where she can see who’s coming in the front door.
Our first tastes of the day are samples of deep dish and thin crust pizza, one with sausage and one with cheese. It’s my first taste of authentic Chicago deep dish pizza. Guess what. I didn’t like pizza when I came through the door. I still don’t like pizza. But I’m glad I had a chance to try it without risking a meal on it. It’s a great room, with cool wall murals and traditional red checked table cloths, and there’s a good chance I would like some other things on the menu. By the way, the pizza-loving tour guests seemed to enjoy the pizza just fine.
Our guide for the day, Annalynn, led us off down the street following her pizza-paddle Tastebud Tours sign. A zig-zag path down Delaware, Rush and Oak street landed us at Sarah’s Bakery, where we sampled her gooey chocolate fudge brownies, and birthday-girl Debbie received a customized cupcake to go.
Our third culinary experience was one I was looking forward to with both anticipation and trepidation. Downtown Dogs was our destination for the famed Chicago hot dog. We settled in next door at the owner’s other establishment, the Pippin’s pub, and Annalynn distributed our dogs. Since the idea is to taste it the traditional Chicago way, you don’t get a choice of condiments. This hound comes with mustard, onions, colored green relish, hot peppers, a long slice of dill pickle and celery salt on a poppy seed bun.
I dislike mustard intensely, and a dill pickle can ruin just about anything. For that matter, I consider hot dogs a food of last resort. So you might wonder why I even bothered to bring this monstrosity to my lips. But you never know. Sometimes combining a bunch of things I don’t like actually creates something edible. In this case, the hot peppers numbed my taste buds enough that I could actually eat several bites (OK, I ditched the pickle after the first bite), and sort of enjoy the combination of flavors, if only as a novelty. The celery salt is an ingenious touch.
With the primary Chicago food icons behind us, we headed to Heaven on Seven, a bit of New Orleans with Chicago roots. I’ll choose gumbo or jambalaya over a hot dog or pizza every time, so this one was a pretty safe bet for me, and I was not disappointed. There are three outlets for this establishment, created by Chef Jimmy Bannos, a Windy City native who went to culinary school in NOLA and brought his love of Cajun cooking home.
We made our way to the lower level of Michigan Avenue, where there were no trolls under the bridge guarding the landmark Billy Goat Tavern. It was a goat that fell off a truck and wandered in, not a Grimm fairytale that led to the name.
The 1964 reincarnation of the original diner with it’s fluorescent-lit bar still serves coffee for 50 cents in addition to its famous “cheezborgers.” There’s nothing too special about the burger, (although the bun is better than average) but the place is a classic step back in time, and the 50 cent coffee is pretty good.
The final stop on the “Flavors” tour is the historic Allerton Hotel, where the pastry chef creates an original desert for every tour, so you never know what to expect. Our sweet treat was a chocolate/white chocolate mousse, enjoyed in the comfy lounge, where we lingered to rest our feet after an upstairs visit to the Tip Top Tap room which hosted many a famed singer and comedian in an early radio show.
Between the varied tastes, Annalynn regaled us with tales of the landmarks we passed, sharing stories of the Chicago Fire and its few surviving buildings. We also took a peek at the Tea Room and the Gold Coast ballroom at the Drake Hotel.
Fortunately, my pleasure in trying new things trumps my picky taste buds, and I enjoyed all the new experiences and learning the history of Chicago and some of its traditional flavors along the way. It was a great way to get to try a lot of foods I wouldn’t normally order and step outside my taste comfort zone. The rain even held off until we wrapped up the tour, although it came down so suddenly, that Lanora and I ducked back in to Pippins on the way back to the car to escape the deluge.
Tastebuds Tours offers several daytime and evening food tours of Chicago with different themes. For more information and to book a tour, go to tastebudtours.com.