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.
It's been a strange summer. Since I've been unemployed for, well, all of it, I've been trying to keep busy. I mentioned a while back that I had tried out to be an extra for Transformers 4, which is currently filming here in Chicago. I got called into a wardrobe fitting, they dressed me up like Bill Cosby (let's play find Korean Bill Cosby in that link, making a really weird face), and had me show up at a movie set designed to look like Hong Kong. We spent two whole days running away from imaginary robots, but they did flip a bunch of very real cars while we dodged an assload of actual explosions, sparks, and dirt bombs.
It was exhausting, it paid minimum wage, but they fed and watered us very well while we played grown-up make-believe. When it was over, I realized one thing: I'm extremely out of shape. So for this week's Lunch in the Loop. I decided to hit up a healthier option—Mixed Greens, a salad, sandwich, and pizza restaurant on Lake Street.
While I'm puzzled by the way they spelled Thee Chicago Cobb Salad ($7.95), there's really not much more to be surprised about other than that. It's your typical busy blend of romaine, chicken, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, bacon, and blue cheese dressing. The best Cobb salads are crisp, cold, refreshing, and hearty at the same time. But Mixed Greens version falls flat. It's overdressed, causing the lettuce to wilt almost immediately, and the summer vegetables don't scream freshness, which is a shame, since most of these vegetables are in season now. Don't laugh at me, I know that a Cobb salad isn't exactly diet food, but, you can't blame this little man for trying.
If you're going to call one of your dishes "famous," you better bring the noise. The Famous Salmon Caesar Salad ($7.95) is sort of stretching the concept of the Caesar. Instead of romaine, they use mixed greens, and add cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and use salmon as a healthy protein. They do add parmesan and croutons, but it's really just a salad with Caesar dressing. Again, the salad is overdressed, wilting the delicate greens almost immediately, and the vegetables are missing that vibrant summer punch. The salmon is dry and totally unsalted.
What surprises me, however, are the paninis. The Chicago Philly Panini ($7.95) is grilled perfectly, with that coveted thin crackly toasted crust on the exterior. It's filled with thinly cut sirloin (ribeye would still be better), onions, mushrooms, Merkt's cheddar spread, and a piquillo pepper aioli. There's almost more onions than meat, so you may want to ask them to take it easy on those and ask for extra Merkt's, as the default portion is barely there. I also secretly think it's hilarious that it's called a Chicago Philly, because apparently naming a sandwich after only one city just isn't enough.
Mama's Meatball Panini ($7.95) is some serious business. It's featured on the same well-pressed bread as all the other panini, but it's stuffed with sliced meatballs, lots of mozzarella and provolone, smoked tomato mayo, and it comes with a little cup of vodka sauce on the side. It's surprisingly spicy, with more than enough cheese to glue the whole thing together. While the meatballs are a bit on the spongy side, you won't notice too much; the satisfaction is really about the entire package as a whole. The creamy tomato vodka sauce adds a welcome layer of acid (you might want an extra container if you're a serial dipper).
Well, I guess my attempt to eat healthier might have been somewhat of a disaster, but hey, I'll blame it on the calories I burned dodging the imaginary robots. I can start saying my dietary choices are for an upcoming role. You know, the kind of role where I play an unemployed man-child looking for healthier things to eat.
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.