Chicago: Food tripping at the windy city

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Chicago—home of Bulls and Bears and Cubs and Blackhawks. Best known for tourist attractions like Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier, and Millennium Park, Chicago is one of the more popular cities that Filipino tourists dream of one day exploring. But far beyond the Windy City’s fame for housing the statue which pays homage to Michael Jordan and the location for Oprah Winfrey’s show, Chicago is actually one of the best cities in the United States to visit for a food trip.

When family and friends from the Philippines take a tour around the state of Illinois, downtown Chicago would always be their prime pick for a shopping and dining destination. And right there in the Magnificent mile is one of the top (literally) reasons why: The Signature Room at the 95th at John Hancock Center. Known for its offering of the stunning view of Chicago’s skyline, this “restaurant in the sky” can be considered as one of the places any Pinoy tourist must visit in his lifetime. No one should miss the glass windows (stretching from the wall up to the ceiling) that showcase a 360-degree view of Chicago. From romantic dinner dates to special occasion family dinners, the dining room located at the 95th floor of the John Hancock building offers a seemingly endless variety of meals, drinks, and desserts.

Just recently, we ate at the Signature room again. What continues to fascinate me about this restaurant is how affordable it is considering the great service and exquisite dining they offer. The servers and hostess are all so polite that it truly makes for an enjoyable, complete dining experience. Imagine, you’re not just paying for the good food that will satisfy your taste buds. You also get this incredible view of the city! Talk about value for money. If you’re trying out the restaurant for the first time, I would recommend that you go there during the evening. The view of the skyline is even more magnificent at night (the place is actually very ideal for romantic dates).

At the lunch buffet that day, each entree had several selections that diners can choose from. For the soup, it was either the vegetable and ham soup with cranberry beans and greens or the winter squash bisque. I chose the latter and did not regret it. The flavor of squash blended with the savory taste of ginger, salt, pepper, and cinnamon that were all smoothly swirled in creamy goodness. The carving station offered grilled flank steak (which was exceptionally yummy!), port wine demi glaze. My main meat course was the chicken pot pie, a classic recipe that combined the chicken meat with layers of vegetables (chopped carrots, celery stalks, onions, peas, pepper) as filling. The pie crust is usually cooked with all-purpose flour mixed with butter. For the fish serving, there was tilapia (fish of the day, specifically, was grilled tilapia). Although I was craving for our very own pritong tilapia, it might be too much of a wishful thinking for the native fish recipe to appear on the Signature Room’s buffet table. What they had instead was the seared tilapia with coconut turmeric, pea shoot, cilantro, and radish salad. It tasted much like our local ginataang isda.

If you’re bringing kids with you to lunch and would prefer that they have veggies on the menu, the restaurant will not disappoint you. That day, they offered cauliflower and cheese—a soft fusion of color rather than taste, mixing the light yellow colors and the distinct salty taste of cheese against the rather undetectable taste of the cauliflower. Their salad selections had more variants compared to other stations. You can choose from the vegetarian pasta salad, roasted sweet potato and apple salad, coleslaw, and the shrimp dip with toasted pita bread.

Another restaurant that the Pinoy foodie traveler must definitely try in Chicago is Joy Yee’s Noodles. Describing itself as a Pan-Asian cuisine, this restaurant has several branches all over Illinois. But most notable, of course, is their branch in the University Village in Chicago. They likewise have a Joy Yee Plus Shabu Shabu in China Place, also in Chicago. Other Joy Yee’s branches are in Evanston, Naperville, and Chinatown. The restaurant is a big hit among Filipino visitors (and all other Asian tourists) because its main courses are, of course, close to home. When you’re in the States, you’re bound to eat at diners and fast food places that serve nothing but American food. Soon, you’ll find yourself craving for our staple food. Joy Yee’s takes traditional Asian recipes and throws in creativity and innovation in their specialties.

Each dining experience at Joy Yee’s, although it’s much easily accessible compared to the John Hancock resto because of its affordability and locations, is unique in its own. Every time I go there, I still remember the food I had (and will most likely crave for and order it the next time I visit). Like I said earlier, this is food away from home. It’s like comfort food for me. The last time I ate at Joy Yee’s, I had the baked beef teriyaki – one can never go wrong with this dish. Instead of eating on a plate, you eat the food in a carved bamboo. The beef is so thin and it’s just enough to give you the beefy experience. It melts in your mouth over sweet teriyaki sauce (which was also poured over the rice). My daughter, Erianne Jaden, had the mango fried rice. What Filipino does not like mango? The chicken and mango with the fried rice is a complete meal in itself. Eric had the Thai Red Snapper with sweet and sour sauce – this one is to die for! You can get this in medium or large size. You might want to share this with others, but you can actually eat the whole thing by yourself. It is just so good! The fish is fresh and the meat is soft, but because it is deep fried, the skin is crunchy at the same time. This is an exact reminder of the sweet and sour lapu-lapu that Pinoys usually have during fiestas.

What’s great about Joy Yee’s is how they present their dishes. The way food is served is not only mouth-watering but also refreshing and very appealing to the eyes. Another thing that draws Asians to this place is their Bubble Tea. As familiar as this is to Filipinos back home, this was the first restaurant that served it in Chicago. Their drink menu is endless. They go from honeydew to watermelon balls with Sprite, to using mini “pearls” with their freeze drinks. If you can think up the drink, they probably have it! My daughter even ordered something which probably wasn’t in the menu (watermelon with Sprite). By far, my favorite drinks are green tea freeze with tapioca pearls and the avocado milk tea tapioca. They use fresh fruits – no powders.

We usually take our visiting friends to Joy Yee’s because it’s quickly becoming a landmark for a Chicago culinary pursuit. You can have the experience of Taiwanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean food all in one. As much as home cooked dinners seem to be the most ideal in welcoming guests (where the host family serves native favorites ranging from adobo to inasal), going out to the city still gives Pinoy tourists that unparalleled feeling of experiencing Chicago through taste. It can be something as fancy and expensive as a dinner at the 95th floor of John Hancock Center, or it can be as simple as a nice, sit-down dinner at Joy Yee’s Noodles. Either way, a visit to Chicago only becomes complete if you’ve dared try these restaurants.

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