Ready, Set, Eat!

From the historic South Side to the far-flung northern climes, our writer -- and her taste buds -- go on a nonstop Chicago munchathon.

By the time the key lime martinis arrive and I’ve taken my third ambrosial bite of shrimp Alexander, I realize there’s something liberating about a vacation spent entirely in the pursuit of good food. No lines at museum ticket windows, no skipping lunch to squeeze in one last walking tour.

Chicago tourism officials understand this. That’s why every few months, the city serves up a series of mini-vacation packages dubbed “immersion weekends,” which on this trip meant one thing only: food. For a culinary immersion, imagine a two-day progressive dinner party with the occasional nighttime nap. The trip plumbs the pastiche of local ethnic cuisine and ventures into neighborhoods ranging from elegantly urbane to decidedly urban.

For a flat rate — generally somewhere between $500 and $800 — visitors get a room in a cozy Gold Coast hotel, the jovial company of a dozen other travelers and red-carpet treatment at some of the city’s grandest eateries. Dispensing with the menus, restaurateurs conjure up special immersion weekend repasts, and a minibus shuttles everyone from one meal to the next.

“Get ready to eat — this is going to be pretty nonstop,” Chicago tourism staffer Kathleen Flood warns us jokingly as our party of weekend gastronomes piles onto the bus. It’s Friday evening, and our immersion is just beginning. Already, we’re feeling full after drinks and hors d’oeuvres at Morton’s, The Steakhouse, just south of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. Drenched in butter and white wine sauce, the shrimp Alexander seemed like a feast all by itself.

But the bus rumbles forward, heading south to the evening’s main course at Polo Café and Catering in Bridgeport. One of Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods, Bridgeport has been home to slaughterhouses, both mayors Daley and wave after wave of Irish, German, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. This is where Finley Peter Dunne’s garrulous Mr. Dooley kept his saloon and where the White Sox play baseball.

“It’s a neighborhood with a lot of history,” says Polo Café owner and chef Dave Samber as we dig into plates of butterflied lamb, Angus beef, shrimp scampi and juicy grilled vegetables. Wearing a black apron with a meat thermometer poking out of the pocket, Samber explains that before its rebirth as a restaurant, the café served, by turns, as a confectionery, a silent movie theater, a pickle storage depot and a body shop.

Back downtown an hour and a half later, we’re tucking into hefty wedges of cheesecake dripped with fudge and fruit sauce at Eli’s The Place For Steak. Only when exhaustion catches us do we put down our forks and head back to the hotel.

Day two begins early with a three-hour ethnic grocery tour winding through the city’s Swedish, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Indian neighborhoods, on the upper reaches of Chicago’s North Side. Guided by accomplished foodie and culinary historian Evelyn Thompson, we sample pickled lemons, kefir yogurt (much more tart and robust than the bland, oversweetened stuff you’d usually find on supermarket shelves), shrimp bahn pao and zatar bread. We taste candy made from manna and learn a recipe for hummus. At the expansive Patel Brothers grocery on Devon Ave., we sift through entire walls of dried curry, tamarind, cardamom and turmeric while women robed in brilliant saris shuffle past, filling their carts.

By lunchtime, we’re back in the Loop with napkins in our laps, watching chef Debra Rainey whip up an efficient feast of garlic shrimp linguine, French onion soup and crème brûlée inside Marshall Field’s immaculate demonstration kitchen on State Street.

“You eat with your eyes first,” she says, slicing a red pepper and shaving away its bitter inner pith. Watching Rainey work is like trying to keep up with karate on television: every motion quick and clean, and afterward, impossible to untangle.

For the weekend’s final meal (after a four-hour afternoon snooze), we gather at Vermilion in River North, a sleek Indian-Latin fusion experiment by chef Maneet Chauhan. Waiters crowd the table with tapas appetizers: tamarind shrimp, plantain koftas, Malabar crab cake. When the diminutive and white-smocked Chauhan emerges from the kitchen to greet us, we’re digging into delightfully perplexing entrees such as blackened tamarind ribs and paneer semolina pilaf. Forkfuls of yucca fries and steamed seafood are swapped back and forth across the table; just 24 hours into a foodie adventure of nearly Roman proportions, our group is becoming easy friends.

Which, in a way, surprises me. I’m not usually much for vacationing with a bunch of strangers — the melange includes young parents and retirees, sophisticates and regular folks, lawyers, teachers, a fire chief — but this is fun. A lot of fun. I’m reminded just how thoroughly social eating ought to be.

Finally, dragging our full bellies back out onto the sidewalk, we set out toward Pops for Champagne, a fashionable North Side nightspot and the very last stop on the tour. Atop a small stage behind us, a trio of musicians plays a sprightly jazz tune. With no schedule left to keep, we linger and laugh awhile, like old friends who won’t see each other again for a very long time.

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