A Taste of Chicago: 3 Things That Would Do Well in Houston

Categories: On the Road

Bloody Mary flight over brunch at Bin in Wicker Park.
I recently took a five-day trip to Chicago -- my first vacation in three years -- to revel in the cool weather, the lake breezes, the iconic architecture, the absorbing museums, and, of course, the food.

Chicago's evolution into a culinary destination began 30 years ago with the annual Taste of Chicago food festival and was more or less cemented with the recent news that Michelin (the famous purveyor of dining guides and gold stars...and tires) selected Chicago as an ultra-prestigious Guide Destination. Only two other American cities -- New York and San Francisco -- have been rewarded with this recognition.

Along the way, celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot and -- more recently -- Stephanie Izard have made the city their base of operations with world-famous restaurants like Tru, Alinea, Moto and Schwa.

Of course, I didn't go to any of these restaurants. Perhaps on my next vacation, I'll be able to save up enough money for a $110-per-person meal at Schwa or a three-course prix-fixe menu at Tru for $95. This time, the plane tickets alone nearly did me in.

That's not to say I didn't eat well while I was there. And I fell in love with three things in particular that are familiar to any Chicagoan, but which haven't yet made it to Houston. Below are three culinary concepts that I hope Houston will embrace sooner rather than later.

Salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese in a pistachio vinaigrette and a bowl of shrimp & clams with rosamarina at The Purple Pig.
1. American tapas

Okay, so the idea of "American tapas" sounds incredibly pretentious. At least, that's what I thought before I ate at The Purple Pig. The result of a collaboration between four of Chicago's best chefs and restaurateurs, the Pig's motto is simply "Cheese, Wine and Swine."

One-page menus are binder-clipped to lampshades that hang above communal tables, and you'll quickly find yourself immersed in conversation with the folks on either side of you -- perhaps even sharing their food. It's just that laid back. The average price of the plates is $6 or $7 despite the Magnificent Mile location, and three will easily feed two people, along with a glass of wine off the wide-ranging but very well priced list (you can even get a third of a bottle here). Flavors are a medley of American, Mediterranean and Spanish -- and there is certainly a pronounced emphasis on pig -- but nothing is inaccessible or affected.

It reminded me a bit of the small plate-oriented happy hour that Catalan has started hosting each evening, to great acclaim. An entire restaurant built around this concept in Houston would skyrocket.

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