Friday, October 29, 2010

Candy Capital

Halloween = candy = Chicago. That's right: Chicago is the nation's Candy Capital, home to factories making treats such as Snickers, Lemonheads and Tootsie Rolls.

The sweetness started in the early 1900s, thanks to the city's large immigrant population (bringing their confection recipes from the Old World) and crossroads location (rail and waterway hub to ship the goods). At one time, Brach's chocolates, Peerless peppermints, Fannie May Frango Mints, M&M Mars candy bars, and Wrigley chewing gum perfumed the air. Many have now fizzled or moved production to cheaper locations.

Still, Chicago retains some fine tooth-rotting opportunities:

1. Blommer Chocolate Factory - It wafts the shoot-your-own-mother-in-the-kneecaps-to-get-to-it aroma that permeates the Loop. The company mostly processes chocolate for mega-companies like Nabisco, but there's an outlet store that sells chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate-covered nuts, chocolate drops, and chocolate everything else for cheap.

2. Ferrara Pan Factory - The folks who make Lemonheads, Red Hots, Boston Baked Beans, Orangeheads, Grapeheads and Jawbusters also have a wee outlet store that sells the goods in bulk for a ridiculous $1.50 per pound.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chiclone Remnants

The great 'Chicago Cyclone' blew through yesterday, making the Windy City windier than usual. You probably heard the hype:

•    The storm's barometric pressure was equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane
•    60 mph winds in the city, 20-foot waves on Lake Michigan
•    More ferocious than the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 (admit it: you're humming the Gordon Lightfoot tune right now)
•    Gusty enough to close the Willis Tower (nee Sears Tower) 103rd floor observatory 

That's all nice in theory, but here's how it hit home - literally. An inventory of what the gales of October dropped in my yard:

•    Eureka vacuum cleaner (box only)
•    Neighbor's roses
•    Orange ball
•    White cat (who wouldn't sit for the portrait)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Da Bears

Chicago is swelling with civic pride after last night's football win: Bears 20, Packers 17. The upset has prompted Superfan-esque predictions for the rest of the season, culminating in - that's right - a 2011 Superbowl win!

So let's take this opportunity to revisit not only Ditka's mustache (see photo, right), but also the hyperbole it engenders. Here are some of the Superfans' greatest quotes from Saturday Night Live:

•    Did God create Da Bears, and make them superior to all teams? Or is he simply a huge fan, and Ditka made them superior to all other teams? (A: That's a tough one.)

•    Who would win in a fight, Ditka or God? (A: Trick question - Ditka is God.)

•    What if Da Bears were all 14 inches tall? Now what's your score of today's game? (A: Mini Bears 24, Giants 14.)

•    Bears vs Stephen Douglas in a debate, what do you think? (A: Da Bears!)

Just so you know: Ditka's mustache has its own Facebook page.

We'll leave you with the Superfans' prayer: We thank Ditka, and God, for all they have provided, for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and for the domination enjoyed by a certain team, from a certain town...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Louis Armstrong and the Hardware Store

Jazz buffs often seek out Meyers Ace Hardware store (315 E 35th St) in Bronzeville. Why? Because in the 1920s and 30s the building was the Sunset Cafe, where all the greats gigged. Imagine Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet over by the socket wrenches. Or Earl Hines hammering the piano, down in the plunger aisle. And that was just the house band. Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke all launched their careers at the Sunset.

"We've had people come in and hug the wall posts, saying they wanted to get close to the music," says David Meyers, owner of the store, which has sold supplies here for roughly 50 years. 

While Chicago landmarked the building, there's no hint of its past life - no plaque marking the spot or jazz tchotchkes for sale. But if Meyers is around and not too busy, he'll take you into the back office that was once the stage. The original, red-tinged mural of jazz players splashes across the wall. He'll bring out a box of yellowing news articles about the club and Armstrong's sheet music. He'll tell you about the German musicians who insisted on recording an album right smack in his office. He'll even autograph a plunger for you.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Evel Knieval's Skycycle

Evel Knievel was a stuntman's stuntman. This year marks the 35th anniversary of his Wembley Stadium jump in London, when he revved his Harley and flew over 13 buses. Or tried to. He crashed, broke his back, and told the 90,000 fans there he was done with stunts. The vow didn't last long.

Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson Museum pays homage to Evel with an exhibit from July 10 to Sept 6. See the half-motorcycle, half-rocket “Skycycle” Evel used to leap the Snake River Canyon, along with his red, white and blue leathers and other daredevil memorabilia.

So how many bones did Evel break jumping buses, canyons and shark-filled tanks over the years? Most report say 56, though some estimates go as high as 100.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blackhawks Art

The thing that distinguishes Chicago from its coastal counterparts is this: we're a city that loves and seamlessly merges high culture and earthy pleasures. Is there another metropolis that dresses its Picasso sculpture in local sports team gear? Note the Blackhawks helmet on that metallic beauty.

And what about the Art Institute, revered house of impressionism and trove of a quarter-million works? It plopped 'Hawks gear on the iconic lions flanking the front door.

That was all prior to the 'Hawks winning the Stanley Cup on June 9. Once the team secured the trophy, 2 million Chicagoans showed up for the ticker-tape parade. Check out this video to see a celebration Windy City-style.

Duncan Keith's Teeth

You've probably heard all about it by now, but this tooth-tastic story bears repeating. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith lost 7 teeth after being smacked by a flying puck in the playoff game against San Jose. He may not have smiled, but he did spit and then return to the game to finish off the Sharks.

"I saw a couple fall out and I had one in the back of my throat. I could feel it and coughed it out. A bunch of them disintegrated it felt like," the Trib quote him as saying.

What a bad-ass! Local dentists estimate it'll take two years before Keith gets his pearly whites back in shape if he goes the implant route. Or he could get removable teeth. Until then, he won't be eating corn.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bike Love

Bicycling Magazine recently ranked Chicago as the 10th most bike friendly city in America (Minneapolis, Portland, Boulder and Seattle are top of the heap). The city does have a lot of two-wheeled love, whether its cyclists wielding DIY mallets for bike polo or bundling on another jacket for snow biking. The Chicago Cycling Club sponsors three to four free rides per week, and Chicago Critical Mass takes over downtown the last Friday of every month. Bike the Drive is coming up May 30, when Lake Shore Drive chucks cars in favor of pedal power. Perhaps the best bike idea yet is from the folks at Fork and the Road: tours where you ride from small ethnic restaurant to restaurant, leaving a trail of pierogies, tacos and falafel in your wake.

Rockin' the World Travel Blogosphere

World travel publisher Lonely Planet syndicates this blog and many others from around the globe as part of its Blogsherpa program. Want to know the latest happenings in Kazakhstan? Hidden villages in Bulgaria? Dance parties in Tahiti? How a family volunteers and backpacks its way around the world? We've amalgamated all the blogs here, in one big, bold continent-spanning package. Drop by and expand your horizons.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Guess who's celebrating her 10th birthday? Actually, it's number 67 million and 10, but let's not trifle with technicalities. It's Sue, the Field Museum's beloved T-rex and the largest ever found. She went on display in May 2000.

The 7-ton beauty will blow out her candles May 22 at a big fundraising bash. Then the museum will premiere its new 3-D movie about T-rexes, as well as RoboSue, a new interactive exhibit. To see the whole dino-show, buy an All-Access Pass (adult/child $28/19). Regular admission - which provides viewing of Sue's mighty skeleton, but no movies or special exhibits - costs adult/child $15/10. It's free the 2nd Monday of each month.

Rock on, Sue. You prove being fat and old can still be glamorous.

Boogaloo Unlocked

Remember that 1984 breakdancing film classic Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo? Neither do the kids at Amundsen High School. But that hasn't stopped them from forming their own breakdancing club, the Rebels, who will perform their first gig at Experimental Sound Studio at 3pm Saturday. They're part of a multimedia exhibit by Amundsen students titled Unlocked: Sights and Sounds of a High Schooler's Day that fuses art, sound recordings and more. The exhibit runs through May 16 at ESS in Edgewater.

My teacher-man, Eric Markowitz, is leading the effort, though no, he won't be breakdancing (couldn't get the head-spin down).

Electric Boogaloo tip: look closely for a young Ice-T doing his thang in the background.

Friday, April 30, 2010

365-Day Pub Crawl

We told you he was coming, and we weren't kidding. Marty Wombacher, the New Yorker questing to drink in a different bar every day for one year, has arrived in Chicago.

First stop: Simon's in Andersonville. Who doesn't enjoy a bar marked by a martini-drinking neon fish? See it, as well as all that transpired throughout the evening, at Marty's blog, A Guy Walks into 365 Bars.

Tonight's drinkery: Club Foot in Ukie Village. If you're in the 'hood stop by around 8pm and join the party.

And that picture? That's Marty taking a photo of me taking a photo of him taking a photo. Yes, the bar crawl does very confusing as the night wears on. Just ask Marty about his late-night notes...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Greedy Yellow Fingers

It's that time of year in Chicago, when  tourists descend. The sure place to find them all? Nope, not the Art Institute or Millennium Park. It's Garrett Popcorn (625 N Michigan Ave).

People have passed out, peed in their pants and punched each other while waiting in line here. That's the power of their caramel corn. And cheese corn. Really – that's all they sell. Millions of dollars worth every year. For caramel corn. And cheese corn. And the two mixed. OK, and maybe some plain and buttered flavors too. There’s always a line down the block. You know why? Because it's freakin' addictive. One estimate says Chicagoans down a collective half-million pounds per year. You can tell who's been indulging by the orange-yellow stain on their fingers.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Crown Fountain's Faces

The city has flipped the switch and turned on the water at Crown Fountain, as it does every year around this time. Gotta hand it to the Crown family, who funded Jaume Plensa's Millennium Park waterwork. They didn't even giggle when he mentioned gothic architecture, sports stadiums and dental equipment in the same breath.

The fountain's two screens are sporty Jumbotrons, and they flash a thousand different faces. The people shown are all native Chicagoans, and they agreed to strap into Plensa's special dental chair, where he immobilized their heads for filming. Each mug puckers up and spurts water, just like the gargoyles atop Notre Dame Cathedral. A fresh set of non-puckering faces appears in winter, when the fountain is dry.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hasta La Vista, Dark Lord

The Dark Lord has come and gone, and the only way to get your hands on his 15% chocolatey stout is second-hand. Bottles are selling on Craigslist for $50 to $100 per bottle.

Dark Lord, of course, is Three Floyds Brewery's Russian Imperial Stout - considered one of the best beers on earth - available only one day per year at the northwest Indiana brew house. The festival surrounding the day is mythic, complete with Golden Tickets and metal bands. That event happened April 24.

A bit of good news for those still moping over missed opportunities: starting July 1, Indiana lifts its ban on Sunday microbrew sales. So you can get Three Floyds' wheat ale Gumball Head, mango-hopped Dreadnaught and seasonals like toasty Blackheart (May) on the day of the lord. Though for the Dark Lord, the wait remains a tantalizing 362 days.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Bar a Day (Keeps Sobriety Away)

Marty Wombacher has a liver of steel. Or maybe a liver of sponge. It's sturdy, whatever it is, because Marty floods it with beer and shots daily as he quests to drink at a different New York City bar every night in 2010. That's right - 365 bars in 365 days. So far, so good.

He's at bar number 96 currently. He blogs about each place and gives a review with pix at A Guy Walks into 365 Bars.

He's big in Australia, where The Morning Show aired a piece on him. He's relentless enough to drag his 80-year-old parents out when they came to NYC. And we'll host him here in Chicago when he takes the pub crawl on the road Apr. 29 and 30. We have some special watering holes in mind (to be revealed later), but in the meantime, we're open to suggestions.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Peek into Wrigley Field

I'm over the Game 1 lament - well, not really, but I'm over it enough to attend opening day at Wrigley Field. Say what you want about the team stinking up the place, but the ballpark is a beauty. You've probably heard it ad nauseam: the ivy walls, the hand-operated scoreboard, the neon entrance sign, the retro vibe dating to 1914 (Wrigley is the second-oldest park after Boston's Fenway).

Have a look. The view is from the rooftop across the street. I think Jeff Baker hit the two-run homer.

And FYI: Samardzija's ERA is now 27. Zambrano's is 11.88.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tornado Tutorial

April marks the beginning of tornado season. Forecasters say the nation's mega-wet winter and active jet stream could lead to more twisters than usual this spring.

Last year, 1156 tornadoes ripped across the country, killing 21 people, according to the Storm Prediction Center. In 2008, more than 1690 tornadoes spun through, causing 126 deaths.

The state with the most twisters isn't Kansas, as you might expect given the hoopla surround Dorothy and her Oz-blown farmhouse. It's not the other "Tornado Alley" states either, so cross Oklahoma and Texas off your list. Florida wins the funnel-cloud prize. And nowhere is immune: tornadoes have whipped all 50 states.

Learn more when America's Weatherman, Tom Skilling, hosts his annual free Tornado Seminar on Saturday, April 10.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Cubs Fan's Lament

Baseball begins, at long last. The Cubs are back in blue. The sun shines, the beer flows. The Cubs bat first in Atlanta, and holy cow! Newcomer Marlon Byrd hits a 3-run homer! It's going to be an awesome season, we're going all the way in 2010!

An inning later, it's all over. Ace pitcher Carlos Zambrano gives up 8 runs. He walks batters, hits batters, serves up a couple meatball home runs, and makes a throwing error.

The season's finished. The Cubs go on to lose 16 to 5.

"Now, now," you're saying. "It's just one game. Cubs fans are such hyperactive, superstitious naysayers."

Please. We know how to read the signs of disaster, including:
  • Our number-one pitcher ($18 mil/yr) now has an ERA of 54.
  • Not so bad, really, considering relief pitcher Jeff Samardzija has an ERA of 108. I thought it was infinity (6 runs divided by 0, as in no outs obtained), but apparently he did strike out one batter.
  • It was the worst Cubs opening game in 126 years. The prior record was set May 1, 1884, when New York clubbed Chicago 15 to 3.
  • With this game, the Cubs enter their 102nd year of World Series futility. It's the longest losing streak in pro sports history.
"Let's just go back to the hotel and cry," Cubs radio announcer Ron Santo said post-game.

Our sentiments exactly.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Burning Similarities

What do March Madness watchers in Chicago and the army of India have in common? Read on for the hot answer.

At Jake Melnick's sports bar, where hoops fans gather in the Windy City, the food of choice is a basket of spicy buffalo wings. At Melnick's, they're sauced with the bhut jolokia (aka ghost chili), which the Guinness Book of Records certified as the hottest pepper on earth. You have to sign a waiver before Melnick's will serve you the nuclear wings. And they arrive alongside a bell - you ring it for a shot of cooling milk, in case the pepper incapacitates your vocal chords.

In northeastern India, where the chili grows, locals have long used it to repel elephants. The Indian army recently announced it would put the pepper in hand grenades to fight terrorists. And, of course, folks use it to spice up their curries.

For reference, the bhut jolokia is 200 times hotter than a jalapeno. Medicinal bonus: some studies say eating super-hot chilis reduces hemorrhoids.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Abe Lincoln: Ass-Kicker

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has hit bookstores with a vengeance. Who knew the Great Emancipator wielded his ax for more than splitting rails?

"I cut Williams' head off... When it fell to the floor, his eyes were black as the shoes he had been polishing. I have not the faintest idea what his crimes were, nor do I care. I care only that there is one less vampire today than there was yesterday."

Yowza! Author Seth Grahame-Smith shows this heretofore unknown side of the 16th prez. When he launched his book tour at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, many historians cried foul. Too bad, because this is awesome stuff. Watch the video below to see for yourself.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Plumbers of St. Patrick's Day

They're at it again, those magical, plunger-wielding gents of the local plumbers' union. They're dying the Chicago River green tomorrow at 10:45am. (The how's and why's are described in this earlier post.)

The St. Pat's Parade queues thereafter. Then the beer drinking commences. Two excellent places to get your Irish on are the Irish American Heritage Center, which has a first-floor pub that opens on Friday and Saturday nights only and fills with oldsters from the Old Country; and Christina's Place, a corner tavern that pours $2 pints of Guinness all day, every day, year round. It's fiddle players and fish-and-chips in the former, karaoke and microwave pizzas in the latter - both fit for the finest of plumbers.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When the Polkaholics Met L'il Wally

What happens when the Polkaholics, Chicago's favorite punk-polka band, meets L'il Wally, old-school polka meister and frequent Lawrence Welk guest? Find out at the documentary premiere of Polkaholics at the Chicago International Movies and Music Fest.

Be assured it will involve jaunty accordions and Wally classics like Hot Pants and In Heaven There is No Beer (that's why we drink it here). Wally died a few years ago, but not before racking up 17 gold and 4 platinum records and a personal blessing from Pope John Paul, who said "God will reward you for all your hard work."

The swinging begins at the Cultural Center at 8pm tonight.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Podhalanka: Cheap Eat of the Day

This restaurant pick is in honor of Pulaski Day. It's a Chicago public holiday held the first Monday in March to honor Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, a mustachioed Pole who trained the cavalry.

We can only presume Pulaski liked pierogies, and if he was around today he'd tie up his horse at Podhalanka (1549 W. Division St.). Of all the Polish restaurants in town - and there are many, since Chicago has the largest Polish population outside the mother country - Podhalanka ranks among the most authentic.

It's like entering your grandma's kitchen in Krakow circa 1984. There's a bar with red vinyl seats and tables with green vinyl placemats. A picture of Pope John Paul hangs on the wall. The Polish staff take your order, and soon heaping portions of dill-flecked white borscht, tender ribs, crispy potato pancakes, and fat pierogies come out. You'll need a nap by the time they clear the plates.

Main dishes cost $4-9. The restaurant is open 9am-8pm Mon-Sat, 10am-7pm Sun.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Get Smart at Beer School

Graduate with honors in English Ales or Belgian Brews at the Map Room's Beer School. Greg Brown, brewmaster at Mickey Finn's in suburban Libertyville, teaches the monthly class. This Saturday's lesson is devoted to swirling, smelling, and sipping Belgian beers.

Knowledgeable hop-heads know you can't just turn up on Saturday. You've got to buy a ticket - in person and in cash - sometime during the preceding five days. The class seats 40 people and costs $25.

On a budget? The Map Room also hosts "International Night" every Tuesday at 7pm, and provides free chow from local ethnic eateries - say, Vietnamese pho, Polish pierogi, or Cuban sandwiches - as long as you buy two drinks from the 200-strong global brewski list.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chicago Cheap Eats: New App

Hungry? Broke? The new app, Chicago Cheap Eats, can fix the problem. It'll point you to the city's best donuts, haute dogs, tortas, masala dosas, deep-dish pizzas and much more to stuff your face, typically for under $10.

Yours truly wrote the app. It's available for the iPhone/iPod Touch. Click here to go to the iTunes store, where 99 cents gets you 70+ restaurants of bargain-priced foodie goodness.

The company - Sutro Media - offers other swell travel apps, too, including the low-down on Boston (by Kim Grant) and Las Vegas (by Sara Benson).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don Pedro: Cheap Eat of the Day

When you see the neon pink pigs in the window, you've found Don Pedro Carnitas. A machete-wielding gentleman greets you at the front counter, ready to hack off your pork pieces. He wraps the thick chunks with onion and cilantro into a fresh tortilla (the Del Ray factory is a few doors down the road), and you take the taco to the no-frills tables in back and squeeze on lime juice and tomatillo salsa. Delicioso! The restaurant also serves birria (spicy goat stew), brain tacos and chicharrones (seasoned, deep fried pork skin) among its meaty arsenal.

Don Pedro's juicy mecca is at 1113 W. 18th St. in Pilsen. Open 6am-6pm Mon-Fri, 5am-5pm Sat, 5am-3pm Sun. Tacos $1.50, cash only. Weekends are packed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hot Tunes from Haiti

Caribbean tip of the day: donate $5 or more to Partners in Health, a nonprofit that has been working in Haiti for 20+ years, and receive a killer mix of Haitian music from NY-based DJ Chuck Wild. Just forward him your receipt (this applies to any PIH donations made since the earthquake), and he'll send you a download of old-school Kompa and other classic sounds pulled from his crates. Here's the link.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poor Abandoned Blog: I'm Sorry

No love for the past 9 months. Sorry, blog. But we are coming up to Valentine's Day, so I'll try to make amends.

In the meantime, here's a video of Chicago's 12.9 inches of snow today. This is the honeymoon stage, before it becomes a slushy, dirty, dog-wee'ed mess: