It was the confluence of a few of my favorite things: music, food, booze, and Chicago. Lollapalooza 2006.
Note: this is a blog about food. I don’t normally post about anything other than food. However, this trip to the great city of Chicago was inspired not only by the food of Chicago, but also the music of Lollapalooza. Three guys, going to Chicago, to listen to music, drink beer, and eat. So I’ll include some observations about Lollapalooza as well, and you’ll just have to deal, or close your browser.
Day 1: Newark
Jim, Jim and I had a plan. Arriving in Chicago by 6.30 the day before Lollapalooza was the plan. Dinner at Quartino by 8.30 was the plan. Six quality hours stuck at the Continental President’s Club at Newark airport due to delay was most definitely not the plan. Weather and Continental airlines had different thoughts on our plan, though.
The good thing about the President’s Club when you’re getting delayed for 6 hours is that it’s comfortable, they have internet access, and they have free beer and cheese and crackers.
The bad thing about the President’s Club when you’re getting delayed for six hours is the six hours of free beer and cheese and crackers. You probably have no idea how many packs of cheese and crackers and how many free beers three guys can go through when stuck in a room for six hours. You really have no idea. In fact even I still have no idea.
Somewhere around 20 Heinekens after our initial check-in we finally got on the plane (and waited yet another hour before taking off). Got to the hotel in Chicago by 1 am. So much for salumi, pizza, pasta and Sangiovese at Quartino (although, they do actually serve food until 1 am). But, we had to eat something. And drink something, too.
The hotel desk sent us to a horrible faux-Irish bar that was announcing last call as we walked in. That’s pretty lame. The bartender there suggested the South Loop Club for food and booze. Off we went.
The South Loop Club couldn’t have been more perfect for us, and we adopted it as “home base” for the remainder of the trip. Tunes were pumpin’, people were all over the place, the crowd was diverse and well-behaved, the bartender was a sweetheart, and the wings were excellent. Blue Moon on tap served with the appropriate orange slice (not lemon, please) was icing on the cake. Just what the doctor ordered for a 2:30 am dinner.
Day 2: Beef and Ween
We woke up ready to rock. On the agenda was beef. Italian beef, Chicago style. First up was Al’s on W. Ontario, which would quickly be compared and contrasted with Mr. Beef on Orleans.
We got two sandwiches at Al’s: Beef, wet and spicy, and a combo, wet and spicy. Both were excellent. The giardiniera was exceptional we all thought. The guy behind the counter was chatty and impressed that we knew how to order (I guess we looked like tourists). We sat outside at the tables they have set up there in the parking lot. Very fun indeed.
Off to Mr. Beef, where we were greeted by a surly guy, who looked and acted like he might be named “Al”, but likely wasn’t. He was grumpy and barked at us and told us how much to order, even though we didn’t ask. Maybe that’s part of the shtick. Maybe I’m not a big fan of that particular shtick.
We sat in the very fancy dining room in the back, which is a long white room with a long white picnic table for communal seating. Even with 15 or so people back there, there wasn’t a sound. It was like an operating room. I thought we walked in on something we shouldn’t have. Maybe they were all afraid the “Al” guy would come back and yell at them if they made too much noise.
We got ourselves a beef sandwich, a combo, both spicy, and a hot dog with all the crazy stuff on it. We enjoyed the beef and combo, but liked Al’s giariniera much better. Mr. Beef’s was crunchier and less vinegary and spicy. Jim, Jim and I all agreed that Al’s was the winner.
The walk back to Grant Park for the show was going to be long, so we needed to stop off for some refueling and unloading. O’Leary’s Public House on N. Wells seemed a good a spot as any.
It wasn’t nearly as cool, temperature-wise, as we would have liked. But the bartenders were quite nice, and we had a nice cold beer. Seemed like a decent place with decent people.
Back to Grant Park…
We were all immediately impressed with the organization of this year’s Lollapalooza. Specifically, the near non-existent lines for beer, water, and restrooms.
We were less-impressed with our first choice of bands (at any given time, no less than 4 bands would be playing at the same time at various stages set up around Grant Park). The Eels, as I had remembered them before this particular set, are good. I recalled that song “Novocaine for the Soul”, back from the mid-nineties, that is just brilliant. I guess I figured all of their stuff was like that. But something went horribly wrong between then and now, and the Eels were noisy and not very good. I’m also convinced they blew the PA on that stage. They pushed so much suck through that the thing just couldn’t handle it. This would become apparent 2 days later when the Shins took the same stage and couldn’t be heard from more than 10 feet from the stage. The Eels, and their copious amount suck, it turns out, would ruin it for the Shins.
We hustled to the other end of Grant Park to catch the last bit of Panic! At the Disco’s set. Some background: I saw Panic! on one of those late night shows (I TiVo those usually, looking for new music), and for some reason watched it repeatedly. I was strangely drawn to whatever it is that they were doing, though I wasn't sure what it was. Seeing them live, in front of about 20,000 of their fans, they were absolutely fantastic. Very ah-tsee fha-tsee and theatrical. Compelling, I thought. I still have no idea what they're doing.
After I kicked myself for wasting time at the Eels and missing Panic!, we walked over to check out Mute Math. Jimbolina had been talking them up, and from what me and Jimmy heard on the internet, we were not impressed. So much not so that Jim and I made fun of Jimbo for liking them, and we were set to blow them off and send Jimbo all alone. But the three of us checked them out anyway. And boy, were they good. Very very good.
One of the highlights of the Mute Math show was our first (and by no means last) sighting of Beatle Bob. (in red in the below pic)
Beatle Bob, for those of you who don’t know (we didn’t), dances on or near the stage of shows all over the Midwest. He’s famous for being famous and doing that. I have to admit, he’s kinda entertaining, if not just a wee too distracting.
With 3 shows coming up that night, including The Raconteurs, The Violent Femmes, and Ween, and no dinner plans in the making, we decided to get on line for some of the food offered at the show. There were all kindza Chicago specialties at the food tents, including Italian Beef, deep dish pizza, and hot dogs. None of which I suspect were very good.
We split up and I went for what I assumed would be the safest, and that was the meat on a stick.
Meat on a stick almost always beats out meat not on a stick, or not meat on a stick. This meat on a stick was made of chicken, most likely thighs, which were marinated in a slightly sweet and salty concoction. Just what the doctor ordered. The rice was near raw, but we ate it anyway. The meat-on-a-stick place had a big ol’ bottle of Sriracha set out, which is a good thing for sure.
The Raconteurs played well, interspersing their own songs (are they really their “own” though?) with some covers, including the requisite cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” At least 2 other bands did the same. None did it as well as Gnarls Barkley did on day 2, though. I should also mention that Queen covers are apparently big with the kids this year. Big with me too.
The Violent Femmes had what turned out to be the best sound. Their soft, acoustic-based music translated well through the PAs and enormous fields. We heard them while waiting for Ween to take the opposing stage.
Ween, of course, put on a stellar performance. Reading some of the reviews afterwards, it occurred to me that a lot of music journalists don’t get it. I’m not sure how you can not get Ween. I think that they’re extremely getable. In fact, I’d say that as a music journalist, if you don’t get Ween, you’re a dolt.
I gave up the opportunity to go to the brief backstage party with Ween to go back to the hotel to retire. At least that was the plan. After about an hour in the hotel all alone, with Jimmy and Jimbolina backstage calling me and taunting me, I decided it was time for a nightcap. This somehow turned into a trip up to the Hard Rock hotel, where CK One was sponsoring the Lollapalooza after parties. We walked into the after party to hear what didn’t sound like a horrible band. Shocking, as so often these things (most things) come with horrible music.
As we got our first of about 100 rounds of free Peroni, we realized that the band was none other than Mute Math, who we’d seen earlier in the day. Sweating, rocking, kicking complete and utter ass. OH yes, this was going to be a long night.
After a few hours, at what I assume was about 2 am, we figured it was time to grab some dinner. Having no idea where to go, and being close to delirium from hunger, dehydration, lack of sleep, and beer consumption, we got a cab directly to our South Loop Club. It was mobbed. People drinking, talking, smoking out of hookahs. Jimmy traded some words with the door guy who asked for ID. The door guy took it surprisingly well and in stride. Those Chicagoans are nice.
Our server told us that wings would take an hour. So would pizza. We most certainly did not have that kind of time. Heads were nodding. Babbling was commencing. Chaos was setting in. Nachos, cheese sticks, and a chicken sandwich were the only things on the menu that wouldn’t take “an hour”, according to our server. “Bring ‘em,” we said. It would be pointless to describe this food. It simply existed and that was good enough at that point.
Day 3: Greek and Pornographers
Jimmy, Jimbolina and I jumped out of bed a little later on day 3, as one might expect (that was a trend that continued throughout the 4 days). It was almost lunch time. And that meant it was time for lunch.
I had been thinking about grass-fed beef since my meal at Craft Steak in NY. Harry Caray’s, as luck might have it, serves grass-fed beef, from the nice people at Tallgrass Beef, if I'm not mistaken. It also has a long bar, so that pretty much met all of my requirements for lunch.
We were very pleased to snag three spots at the somewhat crowded bar. The bartenders were friendly to us tourists, which is always nice. Even the guy carrying the enormous bowl of house-made potato chips slowed down as he walked past to make a joke. A nice way to start the day.
We were also impressed with the antipasto platter which, at about 14 bucks, seemed like an exceptional value.
The burger and grass-fed strip were less-successful. Both were somewhat over-cooked from the m/r we ordered. The steak was certainly good, but didn’t have the herbal notes that I expected from grass-fed beef.
Overall, I thought Harry Caray’s was a fun and tasty place to stop, and I’ll do it again at some point.
The schedule for this day was aggressive: grass-fed beef, Built to Spill, Wolfmother, Gnarls Barkley, The Lips, The New Pornographers, Greektown for some dinner, and then meeting some local friends for a nightcap (and as it turns out, another meal).
I missed Built to Spill and the Lips (but I’m assured the Lips were great, as always), but Wolfmother sated my need for some rock. Wolfmother brought the much-needed rock. I don’t care how derivative they are: they’re having fun and they bring the rock. As a friend of Heather's, from the incredible and lively I Am Fuel, You Are Friends , once said, so perfectly, "Listen to Dimension [a track from Wolfmother's eponymous album] and try not shaking your ass. Go on. I dare you..."
Gnarls Barkley’s crowd was the first of the reeeeally big ones. I do like that “Crazy” song, and I can appreciate some of the other stuff, but it doesn’t translate well when you’re sitting 200 yards from the stage, and what you see on the screen is about 1 second out of time with what you hear screeching through the repeaters set up mid-field.
The New Pornographers seemed very happy to be playing Lollapalooza. As if some sort of honor was bestowed upon them. Personally, I thought Lollapalooza was lucky that the NP’s wanted to play. Their set was excellent (and included Beatle Bob at times). The woman who sings the Nico Case parts was really super. I thought I’d miss Nico, but alas, it was all good.
Enough of that. On to dinner.
I had visited Greek Islands last year with my Chicago consorts Ronnie and Dean. Seemed like a good enough choice for our Greektown excursion.
We arrived at 9 pm, and the place was jumpin’. People were waiting for tables. The bar room, by contrast, was empty. Which is good for me, because bar dining is almost always preferable. Given the choice to wait for a table or sit down at the bar or in the barroom, well, the choice is pretty clear to me. I suppose people have reasons for not making that choice, though. Freaks.
The two bartenders offered a dichotomy in service. The first guy was older and salty and didn’t seem too concerned with us. The second guy was younger and friendly and engaged me in some discussion on Greek wines and beer. I much prefer the latter style.
We ordered enough food for 5 people:
- Flaming saganaki cheese
- Spinach cheese pie
- Hot lima beans in tomato sauce
- Grilled Octopus
- Gyros plate
- Lamb shank
- And, of course, baklava
We three guys couldn’t even do this amount of food justice. And there was no packing the left-overs to go, because we were on our way to meet my friends for some beers somewhere in the middle of someplace. Thank goodness the cab driver knew where we were going.
We started out at Lemmings, on N. Damen Ave. It was pretty decent, with the token drunk girl talking to us for some reason (we referred to her as “ATM,” because she was about as interesting as the ATM machine that we sat next to). We had a coupla champagnes (Miller High Life) here, and headed out. Rating: 3 out of 5.
Off to the Rainbo Club, also on N. Damen, which was packed to the gills with hipsters and about as loud as the Gnarls Barkley set if you were standing in front of the repeaters. Not my bag, necessarily, but we drank some Old Style and had some laughs, from what we could hear. Rating: 2 out of 5.
Fed up with crowds, my friend assured us that he knew a place that would not be crowded. A quick walk down the block and we were there. A polish bar called Zakopane, on W. Division.
Boy was he right. Barely a soul other than us, the jukebox, a pool table (IIRC), and the Zywiec beer, which was so inexpensive it was laughable. This is the place you want to be stuck buying the round. My kinda place. Rating: 5 out of 5.
It was almost time for dinner number two, and the magical words were uttered from our local guides: tacos (yeah, one word, not plural, I know). Oh yeah, and not crappy tex-mex tacos. A real taqueria. The real deal. Meat with onion and cilantro. And right down the block ta boot. La Pasadita.
Unable to decide between steak, steamed beef, tongue, or con queso, I took the reins and ordered 3 of each. As I was reminded by Jimmy, I’m the only guy he knows who can turn a 10 dollar meal into 40. Tonight was no exception.
My only question is: why no pork or chicken on the menu?
Day 4: Hot dogs and the Reverend
You are assured that by the time we arose from our collective slumber on day 4, it was definitely lunch time. We figured we’d go to Wrigley to take a picture in front of the big sign and try to get in for a hot dog. No luck on the tickets, but we sat at Murphy’s and had some hot dogs, brats, and Bud cans. MMmmmm. Bud cans. Close enough for hand grenades.
Back to Grant Park…
We sat through about 15 minutes of the Shins’ set. The problem was, you couldn’t hear them (as you recall, all of the suck produced by the Eels on the first day must have blown the PA). We all chanted “turn it up, turn it up”, which was fun. Some girl was holding up one shoe, for like, 15 minutes, which led a good portion of the crowd behind her to speculate that the one-shoe-in-the-air thing was the universal sign for “turn it up.” A little while later some guy yells “THE SHOE’S…NOT…WORKING.” We all had some laughs and made some friends while standing there not hearing the Shins.
At this point I’m starting to think about dinner (idle minds and all of that). I wanted another uniquely Chicago experience for our last night. The only thing is, I can only come up with one, and that’s the dreaded deep-dish pizza. I started mentioning Pizzeria Uno, and our new friends overheard us. “No, you have to go to Lou Malnati’s for deep dish. Way better than Uno.” Sounded good to us. (I was later informed by my local friend that this girl must have been smoking crack, because Uno is way better. However, I’m not convinced that anyone in Chicago actually knows good pizza, or good deep dish pizza for that matter.)
Our new friend with the questionable taste in pizza also informed us that the band playing behind the trees, the one we could hear better than the one we were standing in front of, was none other than the great Reverend Horton Heat. Having been a fan since the early 90’s, and a big fan of one of their albums "Liquor in the Front", we eagerly hi-tailed it through the trees to one of the small stages and were treated to one of the best sets of the weekend. The Reverend truly saved us.
After Jimbo and I were saved, we split up again to go to Wilco (Jimmy) and Queens of the Stone Age (me and Jimbo). I couldn’t be bothered with Queens, so I went back to the luxurious Motel 6, or whever we stayed, to relax. That’s about it for the music.
We take a cab to Lou Malnati’s (passing, on the way, Grant Park, and the last set of the night, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band near and dear to my and Jimmy and Jimmy's collective heart, back in '92 at least) and were told it was going to be 45 minutes, and that we could order at that point, as the pizza takes that long to cook. We ordered a “thin crust” with mushrooms and a deep dish with sausage.
Now, I don’t know if it was the exhaustion, our collective mood from being exhausted, or what, but this was some lousy muthereffinpizza. By any standard. The crust was like a rock. Not flaky. Not bread-like in the least. The waitress was busting my balls, which was fun. But even that couldn’t save this dinner. Pretty much a complete failure. Sorry, Chicago, your pizza, most likely, from what we can tell, sucks. Other than that please don’t change a bit.
The only thing that could save this night was beer. So off to Melvin B’s we went to meet family and friends.
Melvin B’s, apparently, boasts one of the only outdoor bars in the area, or so I’m told. I guess I’m used to outdoor bars, so I wasn’t that taken with the place overall, what with the flophouse above it and the so-filthy-you-don’t-want-to-take-your-penis-out restrooms.
We had about one more stop in us, and we ended up at the somewhat generic, but very friendly Butch Mc Guire’s. Lots of beersh on tap and that “Irish” look we all know so well.
It was 2 am and I was still dying for a real Chicago hot dog. My local friend informed me that there was a place right down the block, open til 5 am, serving something close. I had one more meal in me damn it, and it was going to be there.
Those peppers are hot, that pickle is silly, but that was a damned good dog. And with north Jersey being the hot dog capital of the world, I don’t throw that kind of compliment around without meaning it.