In March, though, Detroit native Jesse Fakhoury opened Lola’s Coney Island at 2858 West Chicago Avenue, because, he said, “I literally wanted to have a Coney.”
Now, homesick Michiganders don’t need to drive 250 miles to eat their state’s most distinctive (and sloppiest) meal. Transplants from all over the Midwest are redefining Chicago — we did, after all, just inaugurate an Ohioan as mayor — and that includes the city’s dining scene.
Last month, we laid out nine foodie road trips to take this summer — excursions to places like Cincinnati and Dearborn where regional delicacies reign. But plenty of Midwestern foods that were once available only in their cities of origin are now available in Chicago: cheese curds, sugar cream pie, pasties, and even the Juicy Lucy. As a connoisseur of Midwestern kitsch and culture, I’ve tried all these foods, and I’m excited to report that you can try them, too — without leaving Chicago.
Where it’s from: Detroit
What it is: A hot dog overlapping the edge of its bun, smothered with chili, onions and mustard. Also known as a Coney dog. The first Coneys, as the diners that serve the dish are known, were opened by Greek and Macedonian immigrants who arrived in Detroit in the early 20th Century, after passing through New York, where they saw hot dog stands on Coney Island. A quick meal for autoworkers beginning or ending a shift, the Coney Island became Detroit’s signature contribution to American fast food.
Where to get it in Chicago: Lola’s Coney Island, 2858 West Chicago Avenue. Lola’s also serves a “Boston float,” which is another Detroit staple, Vernor’s, mixed with vanilla ice cream.
Gooey Butter Cake
Where it’s from: St. Louis
What it is: A pastry invented when an inexperienced baker used sticky butter instead of smooth in a coffee cake. The bakery cut up the resulting concoction into bars, and it became a local hit. Richness warning: the recipe calls for half a cup of butter and an eight-ounce package of cream cheese.
Where to get it in Chicago: Edge of Sweetness, 6034 N. Broadway
Quad Cities Style Pizza
Where it’s from: Davenport, Iowa
What it is: In a QC Style Pizza, brewer’s malt is added to the dough, giving it a sweet, nutty taste. The dough is then hand-tossed to a quarter-inch thickness, so it’s chewy when it comes out of the oven. The sauce is spicy, rather than sweet, and the fennel-spiced pork sausage goes under the cheese. Served in strips, rather than slices.
Where to get it in Chicago: Roots Handmade Pizza, 1924 West Chicago Avenue or 2200 West Lawrence Avenue.
Where they’re from: Wisconsin
What they are: Proof that Wisconsinites will eat any dairy product and any fried food. Cheese curds are misshapen lumps of cheddar in its early stage of development, before it ripens or sharpens. A finger food, curds are ideal for snacking. They’re also called “squeaky cheese,” because the elastic protein strands in the food rub against the enamel of your teeth and create a characteristic squeak. Fried cheese curds (pictured) — curds dipped in batter or sizzled in oil — are eaten at the bar or the county fair. “Curdistan” is another nickname for Wisconsin.
Where to get them in Chicago: Will’s Northwoods Inn, 3030 North Racine Avenue, serves fried cheese curds, but don’t go there on a Sunday in the fall, because it’s a Packers bar.
Sugar Cream Pie
Where it’s from: Indiana
What it is: The official state pie, this custard number sprinkled with nutmeg was introduced by Amish and Shakers often too hard pressed to afford fruit filling. Also known as “Hoosier Pie.”
Where to get it in Chicago: Where else but Hoosier Mama Pie Company, 1618 West Chicago Avenue?
Where it’s from: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, by way of Cornwall, England
What it is: The pasty (pronounced PAST-ee), is the U.P.’s signature delicacy. It was brought to the North Country by the “Cousin Jacks,” Cornish miners who crossed the sea from coal to copper in the 19th Century. Their wives, the Cousin Jennys, wanted them to carry a full meal into the mines, so they invented the pasty, a stew folded into a turnover shell. The original pasties were as complete as frozen dinners. Some even had jam baked into a corner, as dessert. The miners threw away the corners, or “crimps,” not only to avoid arsenic poisoning from their coal-dusted fingers, but to feed the “knockers,” the ghosts living underground.
Where to get it in Chicago: The Red Lion, 4749 North Rockwell Street, offers a “Pasty of the Day,” with rotating fillings.
Where it’s from: Springfield, Illinois
What it is: An open-faced sandwich of ham, turkey or hamburger on two slices of toast, covered with French fries and smothered in cheese sauce. Second only to Abraham Lincoln as a Springfield icon. The “Hangover Horseshoe” at Merry Ann’s diner in Champaign is a popular late-night drunk food for U of I students.
Where to get it in Chicago: 6 Degrees, 1935 North Damen Avenue, offers “The Infamous Horseshoe Sandwich.”
Where it’s from: Springfield, Illinois
What it is: The quintessential Illinois food: a hot dog, representing Chicago, encased in a cornmeal shell, representing corn-growing Downstate. The corn dog was supposedly perfected and popularized at Springfield’s Cozy Dog Drive-In, whose owner discovered the delicacy in Oklahoma, but thought it took too long to prepare. It’s a ubiquitous and essential meal at the State Fair, served at every other booth on the midway.
Where to get it in Chicago: Wolfy’s, 2734 West Peterson Avenue.
Where it’s from: Minneapolis
What it is: A hamburger with a pool of melted cheese in the middle. Matt’s Bar and Grill and the 5-8 Club in Minneapolis have a longstanding dispute over which establishment invented the burger, and even how it’s spelled. According to Matt’s website, “the “Jucy Lucy” was created when a local customer asked for two hamburger patties with a slice of cheese in the middle. Upon biting into this new, molten hot burger, he exclaimed “that’s one juicy Lucy,” and a legend was born. The unusual spelling, according to the bar, resulted from the fact that “customer demand grew so quickly, we forgot to add the ‘i’.”
Where to get it in Chicago: Dusek’s Board and Beer, 1227 West 18th Street, which spells it “Juicy Lucy,” since apparently Matt’s owns the copyright on “Jucy.”