Serious Eats: Chicago

Lunch in the Loop: Pazzo's Express

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.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

Well, now that I'm done giving myself a self-congratulatory pat on the butt, (good game, Dennis, good game), it's back to some serious business. I'm clearly a serious business person. I already covered a fried tilapia sandwich from Pazzo's Express in May, but never covered the rest of the lunch goodies at this little counter.

Pazzo's Express is not to be confused with its fancy-pants counterpart, Pazzo's, in the same beautiful marble courtyard, adorned with palm trees and a fountain. It's so pretty, in fact, that some of my friends got married there a while back. I will forever remember that wedding as the first one where I did a reading, and the priest congratulated me on how well I could read words aloud to a crowd of happy people. True story. Hey, I didn't say it was a good story. In fact, almost all of my stories are terrible, except for that one time I got locked in an ATM vestibule and had to call 911 to get myself out.

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See? I wasn't kidding about the marble and cool fountain in the courtyard. The express counter can be hard to spot from up top, but when you get down to the courtyard level, you'll see it.

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The buffalo chicken pizza ($7.95), the special of the day, is assembled on a pre-made crust, and it easily could have turned into a disaster. Thankfully, the crust is satisfyingly light and chewy with plenty of beautiful air bubbles in the cornicione. The tomato sauce, however, is candy-sweet, which might put some of you off. A generous portion of cubed chicken breast is placed on top, and after it goes through the conveyor belt oven, it's finished with a fresh squirt of vinegary hot sauce. The chicken is dry, which detracts from an otherwise respectable express lunch pizza. They also offer cheese, pepperoni, and sausage pies, too.

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The hummus sandwich ($4.95) is served on pita bread with fresh housemade hummus. If you order it with everything, all they give you is sliced tomatoes and cucumber, which seems sad to me. So my coworker asked for tabouli on top, and voila! A real vegetarian sandwich! High-fives, everyone! I highly recommend you do the same. The parsley and cracked wheat salad adds a grassy vegetable element to the chickpea spread, not to mention some extra substance. With the refreshing cucumber and tomato, it turns into a substantial lunch. The fries are of the thicker cut variety, and are unremarkable. At least they're crispy.

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I'd skip the chicken parmesan sandwich ($6.95) which is just a baked chicken breast with no breading (boo!), marinara, and melted mozzarella. The bread is grilled beautifully, which is welcome attention to detail, but the marinara renders the sandwich soggy and hard to eat after a few bites. The chicken is underseasoned, dry, and boring.

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The cobb salad ($6.90) is also underwhelming—a good cobb salad can make a pretty sturdy lunch, but in this case, it's sort of lacking in everything but the lettuce, chicken and bacon; the other ingredients barely showed up. I realize this is a puzzling configuration in the photo; I asked for the chicken and bacon on the side to accommodate my vegetarian coworker.

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I recommend Pazzo's Express for its wide variety, though some of its options can be a bit dull. However, I do want to point out that while I was looking confused and lost looking over the menu, a helpful patron said, "They'll make whatever you want here, just ask, and they'll make it for you even if it's not on the menu."

Pazzo's Express

311. S. Wacker, Chicago IL 60606 (map)
312-913-1600
pazzos311.com

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.

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