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Journal foodie eats her way through magnificent Midwest

By: Loryll Nicolaisen, Journal staff writer
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The Midwest has got it goin’ on. I’m a California girl, born and raised, proud of it, no doubt about it. But sometimes you’ve just got to get out. My boyfriend Chris and I just got back from a 10-day trip to Chicago, and I have to say, the Midwest — during summer months, anyway — is absolutely amazing. There’s so much to do and see, and everyone’s in a great mood, taking full advantage of the sun before heading inside for what I’ve heard is a brutal winter. There’s also all kinds of dining to do, and it feels like we ate our way through a good portion of the Midwest. I could go off about each meal, from our friend Vince’s waffle-making skills to the surprisingly nice variety of food vendors at Lollapalooza, the three-day music festival that started off our trip, but there aren’t enough notches in this literary belt for that adventure. A couple meals really stood out — as did our bellies afterward — for those at the table. Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, is a longstanding tradition — whenever we’re in Chicago, we’ve got to get our pizza pot pies. You order these bad boys by the half- or whole pound, and they come packed with cheese, sauce, mushrooms and pretty much everything you’d want to find on a pizza, baked in a bowl and topped with your choice of white or wheat dough. It was fun to watch, drooling just slightly, as our server came to the table with piping hot pies, proceeding to flip each pot pie onto a plate, revealing a cheesy, wonderful mess. Making this meal even more memorable was the fact that a summer storm system ripped through the city that night, complete with tornado warnings, buckets of rain, booming thunder and intense lightning, but I digress. We were all glad the power didn’t go out at the restaurant. We took a trip within a trip to visit some of Chris’ college friends and also across the “cheese curtain” — the Illinois/Wisconsin state border — to spend a day in Milwaukee with Chris’ parents, who drove down for a visit. We toured the Milwaukee Brewery, and after “Miller Time” it was dinnertime at Mader’s, an old world German restaurant — think dark wood, beer steins, the whole nein yards. There’s no such thing as a light meal on the Mader’s dinner menu. I opted for the Count Esterhazy Schnitzel, a dish of turkey pounded thin, breaded and fried, then topped with a mushroom sauce. Wow, this was good. And heavy. The schnitzel came with spaetzle, this egg noodle/dumpling type thing flavored with a little bit of butter and parsley. We each ordered something different, with Chris’ mom Lynn’s dish winning the award for best variety. The sampler platter, one of Mader’s specials, is like a German one-plate smorgasbord, boasting Sauerbraten (marinated beef in a ginger snap sauce), Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork loin), Wiener Schnitzel (pan-seared pork cutlet), sauerkraut and a potato dumpling. Needless to say, Lynn left Mader’s with lunch for the following day, and we all left with food comas. And, for Chris and I, some of Lynn’s homemade pumpkin bread for the road. Perhaps one of the lightest meals, and one of the most wonderful, was had once we were back in Chicago and ordering like crazy from the menu at Sushi Wabi, a cool restaurant located in the West Loop area. Special sushi rolls carry names like Fire, the Caterpillar, and Dragon. One of the group favorites was the Godzilla, made up of tempura shrimp, avocado, cream cheese, green onion, orange tobiko, chili sauce, spicy mayonnaise and sprinkled with sesame seeds. On the more cooked side of things was the gyu-negima, tasty bites of beef rolled around scallions. Yum! Our Midwestern friends are all fans of Sacramento-favorite (and my personal favorite) Mikuni, and it was fun, and tasty, to try one of their top sushi spots. Between these meals, and many others worth mentioning — a steak and Illinois-grown corn dinner hosted by Chris’ friends Kurt and Rebecca, truffle-oil fries at the Rockit before a birthday cruise on Lake Michigan for three of our friends — we should have been rolled onto the plane back to California. Lots of fun with friends and great food is totally worth working extra hard to burn some of the calories.