Taste your way through ethnic Chicago

Picture eating octopus ceviche from a martini glass while deep-sea fish watch from above. Other dishes keep coming such as calamari in garlic and white wine and shrimp chipotle quesdadillas.

Dine on seafood in chicago where the restaurant feels like it is near the ocean instead of in the heart of Chicago

Dine on seafood in chicago where the restaurant feels like it is near the ocean instead of in the heart of Chicago

You are in El Barco, a Hispanic seafood restaurant on Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood but you didn’t have to drive. And you are eating while chatting with folks from the suburbs, Michigan and Indiana.

Such was my late morning a couple of Saturdays ago when I took the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture’s first Chicago Neighborhood Tour of the 2012 season.

I know, love and frequently visit Chicago’s museums but taking a neighborhood tour is like taking a vacation. Every couple of years I sign up for the treat so I can savor different ethnic tastes and shops.

All I knew when I signed on was that I had to be at the Chicago Cultural Center to check in by 9:30 a.m., that the tour bus would leave at 10 a.m. and that I would return about 2:30 p.m. Oh, and that I would be sampling dishes I don’t ordinarily try. Our guide and food expert, Evelyn Thompson, explains the neighborhood and ethnic cuisine while on the bus.

The kind of Taste of the Neighborhoods Tour I went on is offered about three times a year. But there are “Taste Of” tours listed that go to specific neighborhoods throughout the Spring through Fall seasons so people can choose their flavors. However, they probably won’t know until the week before the tour, if then, which restaurants they will visit.

Back at El Barco I learn that several of my tour mates have signed up for other neighborhood taste visits this year and have done so in past years.

Barbari, a tiny West Town restaurant, serves homestyle cooking the Mideastern and old European way.

Barbari, a tiny West Town restaurant, serves homestyle cooking the Mideastern and old European way.

Although stuffed, should we say “to the gills” we clamber back on board our comfortable coach to try Barbari, a tiny, cheery, restaurant on West Chicago Avenue known for its healthy food choices.

The chef is of Persian descent and favors Mediterranean and old European dishes. We sample pomegranate soup, eggplant Kashk, a salad Olivia of chicken and potatoes, an arugula pizza and a pom-wich walnut chicken.

Fellow taster Pat Turen, who earlier told me she frequently comes into the city with husband Eero from Villa Park for as many neighborhood tours as they can, stopped by the table.

“I would never have come here on my own and I loved it,” she said, explaining why she and Eero sign up for the tours.

We walk off lunch, actually lunches, with a short hike to a neighborhood dessert spot, Sweet Cakes Bakery on Damen Avenue.  Those who knew to save room gobbled up their samples of the bakery’s famed mini cupcakes which were light and moist, chocolate chip and puffy snickerdoodle type cookies and a terrific almond-soaked Bostock brioche. Others nibbled one item and took the rest to go.

While the pastry chef is busy baking, "Dad" explains that her mini cupcakes even come root beer float style

While the pastry chef is busy baking, "Dad" explains that her mini cupcakes even come root beer float style

Fortunately, the bus driver dropped some of us off at the Metra Station so we didn’t have to walk, or is that waddle, far to get home.

Explore Chicago Neighborhood Tours leaves and returns from the Randolph Street entrance of the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60602, 312-742-1190. Cost is usually $55, seniors and students $50.

Photos by Jodie Jacobs

 

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