Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: Big Easy in the Chase Tower
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
A while back Nick did a Standing Room Only review of Big Easy, which is located in the Chase Tower's Urban Market (basically an underground food court in the belly of the beast). But considering how rare Cajun and Creole food is hard to come by as a lunch option, I thought I'd check it out anyway and see how it stacks up.
This review almost didn't happen. As soon as I snapped the photo of the little service counter, a mysterious man in business attire showed up out of thin air to tell me that taking photos within the Chase Tower is strictly forbidden. But like Pee Wee Herman, I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel. Unlike Steve Dolinsky getting kicked out of g.e.b., I was able to whisk away like a ninja under the cover of darkness, draped in Cajun food. Worst ninja ever.
When you're eating Cajun or Creole food, it's almost a sin if you don't order at least a cup of gumbo ($4.00). This is a flavorful chicken and andouille sausage version with no shrimp (that I got, at least), with a perfect amount of rice piled onto it. It's bold and has a deep, meaty, and savory background to it, along with the classic flavors of the holy trinity (onions, bell pepper, celery), and it has a little pinch of cayenne to finish with a building heat. But after a few bites, the salt starts building up. Now, I like my salt, and I realize that this food is salty by nature (Salty By Nature would be a great band name), but if you're watching your sodium intake, this may not be the best option for you.
I also tried the Chicken Creole ($6.50) with a side of Parmesan cheese grits. The tomato-based sauce was about as sweet as ketchup with only the flavor of bell pepper cutting through it. It's served over white rice, which helps tone down the sugar a bit, but the sweetness is a little too much. Unfortunately, the chicken was stringy and somewhat dry, giving me mixed feelings overall. The Parmesan grits, however, were velvety and rich with a pronounced Parmesan taste.
Of course, there is an item with the name "Mardi Gras" in it. The Mardi Gras Étouffée ($6.50 w/one side) is also chicken and andouille sausage-based, much like the gumbo applied with a lighter roux. Too bad it didn't come with any beads, because I am easily persuaded to take off my shirt on any occasion. Flavorwise, it also shares a lot of bell pepper, celery, and onion flavors, much like the other entrees, and for all intents and purposes, the Mardi Gras Étouffée is nearly gumbo, just lightened up a little bit. The macaroni and cheese is fairly standard, and by the time I got it, the cheese was a bit grainy. Otherwise, it's comforting and straightforward, but not something to get excited about.
Here's where I became disappointed. The Jambalaya ($6.50 w/one side) was prohibitively salty. I'm a card-carrying member of the clean plate cub, and I just couldn't do it, regardless of the Korean-mother guilt instilled deeply within my soul. I grew up with salty (sometimes extremely salty) food, and even so, the jambalaya had just too much. However, I'm happy to report that the bitter collard greens were salted appropriately, not stringy or tough, and were balanced out with the right amount of meat to give it a bold flavor.
Overall, I wouldn't say that Big Easy is your best bet in the Chase Tower, considering there's a Rick Bayless food stand in the same cafeteria. The Big Easy portions are somewhat small; I would recommend two sides to get some more calories out of the deal. If salt is a major concern, you may want another option. And something else I noticed: everything we ordered was lukewarm except for the gumbo. If you've had better experiences here, let me know in the comments section, but otherwise, I'll keep hunting for the best lunch out there.
10 S. Dearborn, Chicago IL 60603 (map)
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.