Eat Your Way to O'Hare Airport: Where to Feast Near Chicago's Blue Line, Plus 12 Essential Bites
As we've mentioned a few times this month, April is the official start to tourist season in Chicago, and we've marked the occasion by putting together guides to help guests eat as well as possible. So far, we've picked out our favorite places to take out of town guests, visited Ed Debevic's so you don't have to, and had a Serious Eats writer from Boston give an account of her epic eating adventure here last week. Hopefully you've found some good advice along the way. But even if you don't have much time to eat your way through Chicago, there is one route with an incredible number of options, which will also drop you off at the airport.
Let me back up for a second. Chicago is one of the rare cities where it's actually easy to get to the airport on public transportation. Actually, you can get to both O'Hare and Midway on the "L" for the regular fare price of $2.25. For this feature, I decided to take a ride on the Blue Line to O'Hare, tracking the options from the moment you leave the Loop to the point you arrive at your gate (don't worry, I'll get to Midway soon enough).
There are more options than I could have imagined. That's even though I only included places close enough to a Blue Line station to easily hop off for. All were within a half mile of a station, though most were much, much closer than that. In fact, I had so many options, I was able to be truly picky. The only dishes that made my 12 Essential Bites Along Chicago's Blue Line were those that I'd happily show to any out of town guest. Check out this list by clicking on the slideshow, or by visiting the picks below.
But with so many great options, I also decided to go through each stop to show you some other good nearby options, along with a few exceptional places just slightly further away. Needless to say, there are more options than any one man or woman could ever hope to eat in one go. Don't try to prove me wrong. But even if you only pick a place or two, it's kind of impossible to leave Chicago hungry.
View Chicago Eating Tour: Eating Your Way to O'Hare in a larger map
- Three Little Piggy at Silver Palm
- Al Pastor at Tierra Caliente
- Tacos at Big Star
- Hot and Sour Soup at Belly Shack
- Hot Dog at Redhot Ranch
- Adobado Taco at Taqueria Moran
- Pie and/or Biscuits at Bang Bang Pie Shop
- Bagel or Pizza at Reno
- Longman & Eagle
- All-Veal Bratwurst at Mirabell
- Brisket at Smoque
- Tortas Frontera
The Blue Line Stops Between Clark and Lake and O'Hare
The first stop out of the Loop doesn't have as many immediate options as stops to come. Still, there are some options. If you have money to burn and it's a particularly nice evening, Piccolo Sogno serves genuinely great Italian food in one of the best outdoor spaces in Chicago. A little further away is Paramount Room, where you'll find a shockingly good Reuben sandwich.
Now, things get really interesting. Across the street from the Chicago stop you'll find the Silver Palm located in a converted train car. The restaurant serves the Three Little Piggy Sandwich, one of Chicago's very best sandwiches, and perhaps one of the greatest sandwiches anywhere. There's a reason Anthony Bourdain described it as the "apex of the sandwich making art." Make sure to pair the meaty sandwich with a tart and clean flavored margarita. If you only have time for a drink, make your way to The Matchbox next door. There you'll get the same expertly made cocktail (the two have the same owners) in one of the better Chicago neighborhood bars around.
The Matchbox, 770 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60642 (map); 312-666-9292
A few years ago, a stop at the Division Blue Line stop would have meant one thing and one thing only: a carne asada taco at La Pasadita. But the quality has slipped at the mini taco chain, and my favorite location on the east side of the street even closed (there are two others across the street—it's a long story). Anyway, now you'll have trek a little further, but the al pastor taco at Tierra Caliente is worth the effort. Marinated pork is stacked high and cut off in nice, big hunks, making for a truly substantial taco.
Tierra Caliente #1, 1402 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-772-9804
You've probably already heard about Big Star. I even included it in the list of 10 Touristy Spots in Chicago That Are Actually Good, and what I said then is just as true now: "Considering the crowds, Big Star could be forgiven for dishing out sub-par tacos as long as the margaritas kept coming, but the quality, even on the busiest nights, remains shockingly high." Sure, getting a table can be hard on most nights, but if you're in a real hurry, check out the to-go window. If you want to experience one of Chicago's most respected cocktail lounges, just walk across the street to the Violet Hour. There's no sign, and only a light above an unmarked door lets you know the location, but don't worry. Inside is one of the plushest and most beautiful lounges in the country.
The Violet Hour, 1520 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-252-1500; theviolethour.com
If you can only make one stop, and you're mostly after cheap eats, it's hard to think of a better place to get off the train than the Western Blue Line station. Though far from picturesque, here you'll find two essential restaurants, plus a third that is only a half mile away. Belly Shack is located underneath the train stop, making a quick visit incredibly easy. The only hard part is trying to settle on what to eat. All of the sandwiches are worth a look, and if they happen to be on the menu, don't pass up the wings. But if I had to choose one dish to recommend, it would have to be the hot and sour soup, which is basically a cross between a Chinese hot and sour soup and Mexican pozole. At Western you'll also find one of our very best hot dogs at Redhot Ranch, even if it doesn't match your preconceived notion of a Chicago-style hot dog. You won't find the classic, dragged-through-the-garden version here. Instead, Redhot Ranch specializes in the Depression Dog, a barebones version, which is actually quite popular around town.
Redhot Ranch, 2072 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-878-9898
Further Afield: If you don't mind the half mile walk, make your way for Honey 1 BBQ, where you'll find one of my favorite rib tip and hot link combos. Also, check out our 14 Cheap Eats We Love in Chicago's Bucktown.
Located across the street from the entrance to the California Blue Line, Taqueria Moran is one of the better old school taquerias I've found. While not everything works, the restaurant does has one unquestionably awesome offering: the adobado tacos. Less than a quarter mile south, Bang Bang Pie Shop (as the name suggests) serves some exceptional pies, which you should get paired with a cup of the joint's robust coffee. But the buttery, yet still light biscuits make this place a true destination. Of course, the free jam and butter help tremendously.
Taqueria Moran, 2226 North California Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-235-2663
If you're looking to meet up with friends and share a drink or two, Logan Square offers the best range of sit-down restaurant close to the train. Where to begin? Well, step off the Blue Line, and you'll find Reno waiting for you on the corner. What you get totally depends on what time of day you stop by. In the morning go for the bagels, while get the pizza at night. Also across the street is Longman & Eagle. Just about everything the Michelin-starred saloon (honestly, there are rooms upstairs) does is worth devouring. Plus, where else can you get a wild boar sloppy joe?
I could go on and on, but here are a few other places that are very close. If you're in more of a wine and Mediterranean small plates mood, Telegraph is your spot. Cocktail geeks need to try Billy Sunday. Lula Cafe might be the most Chicago-y place to brunch in Chicago, while Jam has breakfast covered all day.
The immediate restaurant options drop off dramatically at Belmont. Your best nearby option is the tiny stand inside the awesome Korean market, Joong Boo, though I'm not sure if it's quite a destination.
Further Afield: What the Belmont stop does offer is a reasonable way to get to Kuma's Corner and Hot Doug's in Avondale. Since both are over a half mile west, neither is anywhere close enough to make the main list, but you can either walk or take the 77 bus from this point.
At first, I didn't think there were any options at this stop, but then I remembered Mirabell, an old school German restaurant. Here you'll encounter what our old sausage expert, Blake Royer, called "quietly the best traditional bratwurst I've ever eaten."
Further Afield: Located three-quaters of a mile away, Chief O'Neill's is the rare Irish pub that is actually Irish. From the traditional music to the great list of Irish whiskies, this is a cool trek to make.
It may surprise some, but Chicago has a serious barbecue scene. If you have the time to really delve in, check out this guide. If you're rushed, one of the best options happens to be right off the Irving Park Blue Line. Smoque is the kind of place with a four page manifesto, and that passion is evident in all of the smoked meats. Honestly, it's hard to pick a favorite. What I do know is that you won't find a better brisket in the metropolitan area.
I wouldn't call it a destination, but the very good Parse's Red Hots is one of the rare stands that serves a hot dog not made by either Vienna Beef or Red Hot Chicago. The beef and pork blend is made specially for them and is best topped with chili.
By this point, the area stops being pedestrian friendly. In fact, just walking south to the first intersection is over half a mile.
Chain restaurants as far as the eye can see!
The Blue Line ends at O'Hare, but even if you failed to stop at any of the previous stops, you still have one serious option. That is, if you're lucky enough to fly in or out of Terminal 1 or 3. If you are, then you're basically contractually obligated as a Serious Eater to stop at Tortas Frontera. The quick-service torta joint is a great way to experience Rick Bayless's restaurant empire for cheap. I'm definitely not the only one to recommend a stop. Kenji had this to say about the chorizo and egg torta: "Not only was this the finest bit of food I've had at an airport, it sits proudly in the upper echelon of breakfast tortas I've had anywhere."