Chicago: Day Three

In which reach heaven via homemade tostadas... and then we go home.

Our third day in Chicago was really more of a half day, since we had to drive home in the afternoon. Despite having a whole lot left on our respective to-do lists, we couldn’t shake ourselves out of bed early enough to get in anything besides a decent breakfast. We hopped a train and a bus over to our final eating destination, Handlebar.

I may not be a bicyclist, but I seem to be endlessly fond of their dining establishments. Handlebar shares a lot in common with OTB Bicycle Cafe in South Side, a place I used to frequent when working in the South Side Works a few years ago. The focus of both bars is squarely on the cycling lifestyle, whether it be for intensive sport or for everyday getting around town. Unlike OTB’s biking-themed menu, however, the Handlebar leaves the theme to the decor and general philosophy of the establishment.

Both are exceeding vegetarian and vegan friendly, however, something that appealed to James, especially when Anna Sophia gave us a sterling recommendation of the place.

“Huevos Diablos,” she told us. I took it very, very seriously.

Handlebar on Urbanspoon

I was worried that since it was Easter Sunday, all the brunch places would be packed, but I should have figured that Handlebar wouldn’t be attracting too much of the after-church crowd. Not that it isn’t family-friendly. In fact, we spied more than one family eating in the sunlight-drenched main seating area. But luckily for us, the place was far from full and we were sat immediately upon entering.

Like I said before, I took Anna Sophia’s recommendation of the Huevos Diablos very seriously. Despite being in a city as rich in Mexican cuisine as Chicago, I had not eaten a single Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish. I had passed by greasy taco places, dying for something that would surely lead me to a bathroom demise later in the day, but I had not actually gotten my fix.

It proved to be well worth waiting for. The Huevos Diablos at Handlebar might be the most delicious thing I consumed in Chicago. It might be the most delicious thing I’ve consumed all year. The homemade corn tostadas that lay just underneath the eggs over-easy are fluffy, flavorful, and surprisingly light, and they served as a sustainable base for everything on the plate, be it the egg, the beans, or the rice. The chipotle sauce hit all the right notes: Spicy, but not without the slightest tangy sweetness.

On a side note, at an extra two bucks, the avocado might have been a bigger expense than it was worth… but I have to give credit to Handlebar. You’re not paying two bucks for a few meager slices. You’re paying two bucks for an entire half of avocado, and it did serve the dish well, giving a much needed lighter note to the overall heaviness of the meal.

James went for the Vegan Diablos, similar to its non-vegan counterpart, but substituting tofu and seitan chorizo for the eggs. If you were going to opt for the Huevos Diablos but needed something a bit lighter – say, maybe cause you’ve got to bike yourself home – the vegan variation would be an excellent way to go. The tofu was cubed and lightly fried, the seitan was mildly spiced and mixed in with the sauce and tofu. Again, the corn tostadas were the heart of this dish, giving extra substance to the lighter aspects of the meal but not so much so as to be a detriment to the heavy parts, like the black beans.

Our dishes alone could have been more than enough to sustain us for the seven-hour drive back to Pittsburgh, but something on the brunch specials caught my eye: Fried Peanut Butter and Jelly Pies. I don’t know about you, but I can’t ignore something like that. Assured that it was vegan, we decided to share it for dessert.

What to say about this glorious little gem? In a meal that was already cluttered with fantastic food, these little peanut butter and jelly – filled fritters nearly stole the spotlight away from the corn tostadas, an incredible feat considering that we were now contemplating a move to Chicago simply to be closer to those fluffy, crunchy corn pillows.

The fried crunchy shell gave way to warm peanut butter and a sweet, sticky grape jelly. It’s a fantastic idea and was superbly prepared. The crust was sturdy but flakey and soft enough to cut with a fork. The insides were just about what you would expect from a glorified peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and by that I mean delicious. There was just enough powdered sugar to add a little extra sweetness without pushing it over the line.

The environment was so pleasant – softly aglow with natural light, a soundtrack playing at a reasonable volume, mild customer chatter coming from around the restaurant – and our waitress so friendly and unobtrusive, that we lingered for a while, rubbing our full bellies and finishing our coffee. Our last few hours in Chicago were just about spent, and we would have to hit the road soon.

The prospect of home did not seem so much unattractive as premature. Handlebar had us leaving satisfied, but also a little wistful for all the things we hadn’t gotten to do, all the places we still had yet to see.

Something tells me it won’t be long until our next visit to Chicago.

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