My Kind of Town, Chicago is….

I made a number of road trips back to the Midwest this summer and I can assure you that most of those trips weren’t much fun at all. I am very familiar with I-80 between the east coast and Colorado. This particular venture westward was going to be different come hell or high water because it was finally a fun family occasion – the Chicago wedding of my cousin Katy to a very nice guy named Jon. My family went through a trying summer with the death of my mother and this was going to be the fist time that we could all get together to relax and enjoy each other’s company without the specter of a medical disaster hanging over our heads.

That’s a good lookin’ town right there.

When I veered north from I-80 onto I-90 I got my first view of the working class suburbs and billowing smokestacks of Gary and East Chicago and I was struck by the vastness of the three-story towns with their multi-denominational steeples that stretched high above all of the other roof peaks. This was my first visit to Chicago even though I was raised just a state away. When I exited off of the Chicago Skyway onto the Dan Ryan Expressway I let out a war-whoop that shook the mirrors. A lot of times when I am making long solo road trips I will yell and scream like that in order to keep myself awake but this time it was because I had just gotten my first real view of downtown Chicago looming large up ahead. I was elated and I could not wait to explore this Global City that was always close but that I had never ventured into.

The hotel has an interesting texture.

My destination on that first day was the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel on Columbus Avenue and according to my GPS it was right ahead but Chicago was built and rebuilt many times and they used a multi-level roadway system that confounds any newcomers because when you go into those lower levels the bitchy voice from the Garmin will undoubtedly say there is no longer any satellite reception – I was on my own in the underworld. Luckily there was enough signage so I was able to limp my way to the underground garage of the hotel. After I checked in I strolled through the impressive lobby with my huge suitcase past the two-level bar and Italian restaurant to the shimmering gold elevators that took me to the nicest hotel room that I had ever been in. The place was far nicer than any apartment I’ve lived in and I instantly thanked my wife for making the reservations both in my head and publicly on Facebook. I don’t have any pictures of the inside but you can take my word that it was pretty sweet – I felt like I should pour a bucket of money on the bed and roll around in it – I felt rich. I did get a panorama picture of the view from our balcony though but my little blog here cannot handle a photo that is so large but you can see it here if you are my friend – be my friend.

Thank you police for stopping the would be terrorist.

My wife flew in from Dallas soon after my arrival and once we got her luggage settled in the room we made for the hotel bar to plan our night on the town. When I say plan I mean have a few drinks to get the cheeks rosy and then wander out the door to see what kind of trouble we can get into. Chicago is one of the most beautiful cities at night. The building are lit up and the signs for the theatres are vivid and sparkling and you can see the awe in the visitors faces (there were a lot of visitors) as they craned their necks skyward to take everything in – it’s damn near overwhelming. Our wandering only took us as far as a place called Sweetwater Tavern and Grille on Michigan Avenue – little did we know that not far away an idiot want-to-be terrorist was about to set off a fake FBI-provided car bomb– I am so very pleased that it was a fake – nothing ruins a vacation like a car bomb. Our first night was pretty low-key and after a few drinks and some fried cheese curds we headed back to our room to get rested up for the wedding the next day.

The day of the wedding was beautiful and my wife and I awoke early so that we could drive the car out to my cousins so as to avoid paying $50 per night parking in the city. Katy only lives a few miles from downtown so we donned our running gear so we could run back and get a little exercise before the wedding day gluttony kicked in. Chicago is exactly what I like in a western city – there is a lot of modern architecture but what I like most are the buildings and structures that are still around that reflect the rurally connected industrial past of the city. The run back gave us the opportunity to see the gritty parts of the city at a slower pace than driving. I said it then and I will say it now, I would move to Chicago in a heartbeat. I wonder if I would change my mind in the winter – something in my head says yes.

Beautiful

The wedding was held at St. James Cathedral near downtown. The church was gorgeous and it gave me the same feeling that I often get when I walk into the old world European cathedrals  – the eye first goes to the golden brightly lit altar then to the buttressed ceilings that seem to go up forever – even the rowdiest of the young kids was respectful of the vast space. The ceremony was upbeat and the bride and groom looked beautiful and truly in love, something that cannot be faked. Even this old hard-hearted man had a tear in his eye. The service was over in about 45 minutes and of course we had to take a thousand family pictures, which is par for this family’s course. Afterwards we had some time to ourselves to gird our loins for the reception which was being held at the Swissotel, conveniently located right around the corner from our hotel. Naturally we all went to the hotel bar to lubricate.

I absolutely love wedding receptions and this one did not disappoint in the least. The booze was free-flowing and my wife and I were seated at the kids table with the young cousins, which was perfect because we rarely get to see any of these kids anymore. The speeches were given by the best man and the maiden of honor as well as one by my uncle Steve where he addressed the fact that my Ma recently passed and was surely watching the festivities from on high – my sister and I were choked up by the sentiment but we soon recovered and got the party started. I contemplated posting an embarrassing video of all of us dancing but realized that my new blog cannot show video without an upgrade – there is a lot of people who should thank me for this. Speaking of thanks I must convey my deepest appreciation to the bride and groom as well as their families for inviting us to such a fun occasion – it was one of the best times I can remember having in a long time.

I cannot remember how many gin and tonics or glasses of wine that I drank during the evening but my guess is that it was a lot – a whole bunch if you will – but I am proud of myself for not going out afterwards because I would have missed seeing everyone off at breakfast the next day. Most folks were leaving on a chartered bus the next morning at 10 so once they were safely aboard and medicated with anti-nausea medicine (looking at you Oscar) they were off to Iowa while we were heading back to bed until it was time to get up and seek out some Chicago deep dish pizza.

Giordano's Chicago-style deep dish pizza

Giordano’s Chicago-style deep dish pizza (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A Good Taco is Hard to Find

For the longest time when someone would ask me what my favorite food is I would have probably said that is was something Asian – I even claimed plain white rice as one of my favorite foods and it was served in a gigantic bowl at my high school graduation party along with Pop-Tarts and a six-foot long tuna and bacon sandwich from Subway – Damn that was a good party. If you were to ask me the question of favorite food today I would emphatically say that Mexican food, specifically items packed into corn tortillas, is right where I am at. Living where I do in the northeast there isn’t always the variety and quality of authentic Mexican cooking that one could find south and west of here but if you look in the right spots you will find what you’re looking for.

For four years I was working as an archaeologist out of an office in Olneyville, a largely Hispanic neighborhood of Providence, RI. The neighborhood consists of a lot of old converted mills and workers housing and has a feeling of being a tight community mixed in with straight up street toughness, which gives it a bit of an edge – an edge that makes you quicken your step if you’re caught down there in the evening time. While working in the office in the old converted mill we often got carry-out lunch for our small crew and we would usually get it from the Chinese place around the way or from some specialty shop on Federal Hill or even from the Olneyville New York System Hot Dogs (really good dogs, really good), but one time we were talked into getting tacos from the place pictured below by the then new woman in the office, Alisa.

Behold – The Open Door of Enlightenment

Upon pulling into this place, which is called Taqueria El Taconazo (Taco Lady to us) and is sitting in the parking lot of a flea market behind the American Locomotive Works, I was thinking that maybe we should go somewhere else that doesn’t require a tetanus shot or possibly a concealed weapon and I soon voiced those very concerns but was goaded in by Alisa with promises of good food mixed in with admonitions regarding my startling close-mindedness.  When we walked into the little eating area I was immediately confronted with the fact that we were just standing in a little lean-to attached to an old round-ended travel trailer that hasn’t done any travelling in a very long time. The main compartment of the travel trailer contains the kitchen – a flat top grill, some refrigerators, a small counter, and a small brisk woman named Angelina Villanueva who doesn’t speak much English but is obviously a food wizard. Now even though the place looks a bit ramshackle it is actually quite clean and decorated with Catholic idols and funny Mexican tourist knickknacks. I was pleased to see that it also had all of the appropriate health inspection certificates up to date and on display just inside the  little door at which you give your order. Interestingly enough,  the trailer that contains this little eatery will never again be road-worthy but it is still considered a food truck/cart and is inspected and certified as such.On that first visit I ordered two tacos, a quesadilla, and a mandarin Jarritos and retreated back to the office armed with my food as well as some other items for my fellow workers. We all ate in near silence except for the occasional yummy sound or lamentation about the green salsa being friggin’ hot but once we all finished we agreed that we would have to make a habit of eating there on a regular basis.

Let’s skip ahead to just a few weeks ago – I no longer work in Providence but I needed to run down and buy some cold cuts and cheese from Constantino’s Venda Ravioli (I will post another time about this place but for now I can tell you that it’s just heaven) for a getting-to-know-a-baby party. I figured since I was there I might as well stop and get some goods from the Taco Lady. I arrived after the lunch rush had died down and put in my order – enchiladas rojas.

A meal for a mere pittance.

Look at that stuff up there – look at it! I know the picture looks a little wonky and that is because it is a cellphone pic but it doesn’t take much away from that beautiful plate of yum. The Taco Lady’s enchiladas aren’t like the ones some folks make at home with the bland canned sauce, flour tortillas, and bean and rice filling – nope, these little monsters are filled with seasoned beef, (beef, pork, chicken available) peppers, and onions then topped with queso blanco and a few drizzles of Mexican crema. A small salad and some spicy fried potatoes make a great addition to the meal and if you’re like me you will eat a little of each item in every bite.  I have no idea what spices she uses on the beef nor can I imagine how she creates her enchilada sauce, but what I do know is that she can make some huge flavors come out of a very small work space. Oh, I almost forgot, that meal pictured above, which is made to order with super fresh ingredients, only costs $10.10 and comes with all manner of fresh salsas and additions.

Your choices are few and that is a good thing.

Since I have been going to see the Taco Lady I have tried every flavor of taco, quesadilla, enchilada and even tried her seasonal ceviche – I haven’t been disappointed yet – I cannot say that about too many other restaurants. So, dear reader, the next time you gird your loins and venture to the Providence area take a friend and drive on over to Valley Street Place at 500 Valley Street. Order as much as you can and share the goodness – don’t forget to let me know how you feel about your visit and if you know of other such culinary pearls please feel free to share it with me and the other reader(s).

**author’s note: If you arrive at lunch time you will have to wait for a little while – my suggestion is to arrive at 11:00 or after 13:00

*** This is not a vegetarian restaurant – not anywhere near it. Meat is neat!