But the restaurant was packed, with a smart-looking crowd that had apparently missed the memo about a recession. An average check at L20 runs $200, and before they called for a wheelbarrow to haul me out the door I had anted up half again as much stuffing myself on poached lobster medallions in bisque and a slab of seared foie gras encased in a cotton-candy nest.
Luckily for my arteries I had spent the day walking, my pedestrian exertions acting as a kind of offset credit against the trillion or so calories I’d consumed. Happily for my wallet I had followed Nagrant’s advice to get lunch at Cemitas Puebla, a taqueria in Humboldt Park.
Spoiled for choice, I could have gorged just as contentedly on the creations of gifted chefs like Chris Pandel at the Bristol, or Robert Levitt at Mado, or Graham Elliot Bowles at his eponymous gallery-district place, where the three-star cooking is taken down a welcome notch by the fact that the staff is dressed in sneakers and jeans. But Chicago, as Nagrant pointed out to me, has the largest Latino population outside California and a taco culture nearly as obsessive as that of L.A.
Cemitas Puebla more than merited the cab ride to the western neighborhood of Humboldt Park, if only to partake of the narrative built into the restaurant’s gestalt. Longing for the singular savor of cooking from his home place, Antonio Zurita—the proprietor, along with his son Tony Anteliz—travels to Puebla every three weeks to buy chipotles for their salsas and marinades. In former days they brought back seeds of the Mexican herb pápalo, which now thrives in their family’s Chicago garden. Local food obsessives have long since sniffed out the Anteliz family and their pita-thick tortillas, their butterflied, breaded pork chops, their salsas flavored with thyme, pineapple, vinegar, and cloves.
“What people don’t realize is that there’s a totally interesting cross-section of cultures in the city,” said Nagrant, whose catholic zeal does not differentiate between lauded top-shelf places like Alinea (for whose cookbook he wrote an essay), Pakistani barbecue joints along Western Avenue, and spots like Spoon Thai, a restaurant located in a nowhere part of town, whose “jungle” curries “are so crazy hot they blow your head off.”
Because the best way to get a sense of Chicago’s interlocking neighborhoods is to walk, I figured I would tap into a free Greeter program, which may seem pitched to an Elderhostel demographic but turns out to be a fine way of seeing the town. This is particularly true when one’s assigned Greeter is an avuncular ham named Marshall Jacobson, retired some years back from a career in the nonprofit sector. When we met downtown on a Saturday morning, Jacobson handed me the keys to the city—or, anyway, a free one-day metro pass—and the two of us set off on a brisk three-hour tour of the architecturally historic Loop and also of Hyde Park, the neighborhood where Barack Obama made his political bones.
Anybody who can move and read a guidebook could probably wander around Chicago as contentedly as we did; you can hardly leave your hotel without bumping into some International Style wonder or well-loved gem of the Prairie School. But for streamlining the itinerary and getting inside the buildings it pays to have someone like Marshall Jacobson by your side. Not a Greeter on earth could be more knowledgeably preoccupied with the subtext of architectural meanings, or so it struck me as Jacobson spouted information with the conviction of Brando doing Stanley Kowalski.
His passion proved contagious, whether for the structural innovations of the 1894 Marquette Building, the Sol LeWitt installation hidden on the exterior wall of a parking garage, or the vast limestone ghosts of Chicago’s fabled mercantile palaces. He even pointed out the brick house on a Hyde Park corner from which young Bobby Franks—the hapless victim of the murderous lovers Leopold and Loeb—set forth on the day he was kidnapped.