Popcorn was designated by the Illinois General Assembly as the official snack food of Illinois in 2003—a well-deserved honor. Popularized more than a century ago by pushcart vendors, popcorn in Chicago predates deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, two mayors Daley, and even the Cubs curse. While flavor varieties have ventured in some kooky directions (pickle, banana, and cherry), true Chicago shops stick to the classics (sweet-salty kettle, cheese, and caramel). Recently, we tested a few hometown favorites to find where they hit—or miss.
GARRETT POPCORN SHOP
625 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-943-4200
GOOD POP New location, same routine. The line is still out the door and packed with locals waiting in silent reverence and tourists wondering aloud what all the fuss is about. One bite and you understand: Garrett has kept its decades-old recipe of sweet-sticky proportions for its caramel corn just right—and remains the undisputed champion of flavor.
BAD POP Kernels are air popped, but an overzealous coating of toppings left a puddle of grease in the bottom of the bag. Worse yet, it started leaking through the seams.
KERNEL FABYAN’S GOURMET POPCORN SHOPPE
511 S. Third St., Geneva; 630-232-7151
GOOD POP Quintessential hometown popcorn shop on a picture-perfect street in historic Geneva. Our pick of the five flavors was the warm, fresh Kernel’s Kettle Pop—a melt-in-your-mouth morsel with an ethereal sweet-salty glaze.
BAD POP White Cheddar generally seems like a great idea, but it’s always too salty—and was here, too. Try mixing it with the caramel to balance the flavor.
WELLS STREET POPCORN
2804 N. Clark St.; 773-549-7800
GOOD POP Wells Street, with its peanut-free and tree-nut-free environment, is a haven for the food-allergy crowd. Of all the fresh-popped locations we sampled, it has the cheesiest cheese and the ungreasiest product, and we wanted it to be a favorite, but . . .
BAD POP . . . inconsistent flavors, startling salty patches, and a vague processed taste ruined the party.
THE LITTLE POPCORN STORE
111 1/4 W. Front St., Wheaton; 630-690-7712
GOOD POP This quaint throwback candy store—nudged in a narrow alleyway in downtown Wheaton—pops popcorn fresh as you stand in line. Enthusiastic local kids walk newbies through the process, which involves small bags of popcorn for just 75 cents and nostalgic candy for a nickel. The store is easy to miss: Look for the bright red door.
BAD POP There’s only one flavor—plain, lightly salted.
GARY’S POPPINS POPCORN
available at Fox & Obel, 401 E. Illinois St.; 312-410-7301
GOOD POP Even with a prepackaged disadvantage, the kettle corn hit the spot. “It satisfies all my desires,” one tester commented. “Sweet and salty, light and comforting—just what kettle corn should be.”
BAD POP Not many redeeming qualities in the other flavors we tried. The caramel was too sticky, and white Cheddar jalapeño seemed to have absorbed the flavor of the bag itself. The cheese was cheesier than a Sandra Bullock flick.
Photograph: Anna Knott