Tuesday, August 6, 2013

An Unexpected Star in the Chicago Airport


I read one of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs during my trip to Indianapolis and really enjoyed it. I love memoirs in particular, and when you throw in some talk of good food, I’ll almost always love it.

Reading about the life of a restaurant critic, I thought to myself how lucky I was to be able to eat out every night for a week while traveling and reading the book. She’ll probably inspire me to think differently about the food I’m eating at restaurants and maybe even want to write a review of one of the restaurants, I thought to myself.

I already have a fairly critical approach to eating at restaurants (what I like to call discerning taste). Andrew is probably rolling his eyes as he reads this and thinking well, this is an understatement. The thing about me and restaurants is that I’m a tough audience with high standards. I have what Andrew calls a Star/No Star system. You know how most ratings have a range that gives the recipient of the information a choice as to how low or high they are willing to go? Well, mine doesn’t.

Star = a restaurant that has won me over and I’ll delight in eating at it again. A restaurant that can stand on its own – it could be in any city and still be a star. None of this business about it being so good for such and such of a town. Some towns just don’t have any stars.

No star = a restaurant that has not only not won me over but a restaurant that has committed an unforgivable affront on my extremely high standards.

Overcooked, undercooked, and/or improperly seasoned food? No star.

Poorly planned menu with odd flavors that don’t go together? No star.

Rude or negligent service? No star.

Unpleasant atmosphere? No star. (Although if the food is good, this can be overcome by takeout.)

Just fine food? No star.

Some people, like my husband, are willing to overlook some of these sins and give offending restaurants another chance. I know I’m not the only one who feels the same way. I discovered a kindred spirit in my oldest friend Rosie’s mom, Pat, who has similar discerning tastes and high standards.

I remember once when I was in junior high going to the Dairy Queen with Rosie and her mom. As we sat in the long line at the drive-in (God only knows why we didn’t just park and walk-in. I mean if downtown St. Anthony, Minnesota has one thing, it’s ample parking), we speculated about what could possibly be taking so long to fill the orders of all the folks in front of us. When it was our turn to order, it became clear that the problem was the staff who were having trouble getting the orders straight and actually making any frozen treats. I distinctly remember Pat scoffing, pushing her hair back, and declaring, “Well, it’s the blind leading the blind in there!” No wonder they couldn’t fill our orders!

I haven’t gone back to that Dairy Queen (at least I don’t think I have and certainly not in recent memory. It has to have been at least twenty years since this happened) since this incident. This commitment was made quite a bit easier when my sister worked there for three days while she was in high school. She came home on the third day, told us she had quit, and that she was never eating at a DQ again after seeing how they make their food. I guess she wasn’t blind enough to be cut out for work at the DQ.

Anyway, all this to say, I’ve known from early on that I was not going to put up with shoddy service or sub-par food. As you know, I don’t like to waste a meal, and I have no time or appetite for mediocre food. We like to eat out, and once in a while, Andrew will mention that I should write some restaurant reviews for my blog, and I always respond that I don’t want people to think that I’m some horrible negative nelly jerk face who is impossible to please. Although, I know I’m not impossible to please. I loved the restaurants in Seattle. I loved the restaurants in Paris and Barcelona. If I’m going to write about restaurants, I think it’s best for me to stick with the stars and stay positive around these parts.

I was hoping to find a restaurant in Indianapolis to write about, but I did not love the restaurants in Indianapolis. In fairness to Indianapolis, I was staying downtown, and almost everything was a chain. Surely, there are some wonderful restaurants around Indianapolis if only you venture farther than a mile from your downtown hotel. That was my fault. I did explore what downtown Indianapolis had to offer, and I had some fine meals at two restaurants that are not chains as far as I can tell and two restaurants that were the least chain-y of the chains. Nothing that warranted a star though. A week of restaurant meals and zero stars. I was disappointed.

I figured I’d continue my no star streak on my four-hour layover in the Chicago O’Hare airport. I checked the airport directory for the list of restaurants scanning for something that looked interesting. Nothing caught my eye. I texted my sister to see which would be better – Macaroni Grill or Chili’s. She texted back that she thought Macaroni Grill would be the least terrible, and at least they have wine! I sat down at the gate across from Macaroni Grill steeling myself to eat there, when I decided that surely a city the size of Chicago should have something good to eat at its airport, right? I started googling (thank you googly phone!), and I discovered that Rick Bayless had opened a place that was getting good reviews.

I don’t think too much of celebrity chefs in general, and I have a policy to avoid all things celebrity chef. In fairness to Mr. Bayless, I don’t know anything about him specifically, and I wouldn’t have even heard of him except for the fact that a few years ago while in Chicago for a conference, my coworkers dragged me across town to eat at his restaurant. It was fine – no star, mind you – the food was fine and the service was fine, but it wasn’t a memorable meal or even one that was worth schlepping across Chicago in February in the freezing cold. Also, as I type this, I’m remembering that another friend joined us and they wouldn’t let him sit with us because we had only made a reservation for five. With our extra friend we were six, which our table could accommodate, and they wouldn’t let him sit with us. Who does that? No star! Luckily I didn’t remember that detail until just now or I probably wouldn’t have tried Mr. Bayless’ new restaurant and would have been stuck at the Macaroni Grill.

So, the big news is that Tortas Fronteras by Rick Bayless in the Chicago O’Hare airport has received an enthusiastic star! My meal was the best airport food I’ve ever had, but because it received a star, you know it can stand on its own. It’s not just good for airport food, it’s just plain good. Excellent, really. I was wishing that I wasn't traveling alone so I could have someone to exclaim with as I took each bite.

I had the Milanesa Torta - a Mexican griddle-baked sandwich with chicken, black beans, pickled jalapenos, Chihuahua cheese, cilantro crema, avocado and arugula. It was served with a tomatillo cilantro salsa on the side. The sandwich was piping hot with moist chicken and a crunchy crust. The fresh, firm burst of flavor from the jalapenos really pushed this sandwich over the edge for me and left my lips tingling. It is so far above what you can get from other airport food. I was seriously impressed.

Everything on the menu looked really good, and I was so exhausted when I was ordering that I just picked something without paying attention to what was in it. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted at my choice, although everything that other diners around me were eating also looked really good. Not only was the food delicious, but they have a sign listing where all of the ingredients are sourced from - how great is that?

So, there you have it. A star in the Chicago airport! Who knew?


  1. well this made me laugh! star or no stars! lolololol i love it.

    one time an ex-boyfriend made steak for dinner, and he made the mistake of "grilling" it on the george foreman grill. he asked me what i thought of it, and i stupidly told him the truth -- that it tasted like an old shoe. aHAHAHAHHAAHAHHAHAH! it did! horrible! what a way to ruin a good steak!

    my current boyfriend LOVE CHAIN RESTAURANTS. it drives me crazy. chilis! subway! so much of the food is tasteless (hello subway cheese that TASTES LIKE NOTHING AT ALL), and sometimes worse. there are so many restaurants to try. some will disappoint, but every now and again some are surprisingly good. might as well try as many as possible, particularly the ones that don't sound familiar!

    1. That happens to me sometimes too - telling people the harsh truth - just too honest for my own good!
      I totally agree about trying as many restaurants as possible. It's one of my favorite hobbies

  2. Man, Meghan, this had me laughing out loud! Great post! My favorite bits: "Some towns just don't have any stars." "I guess she wasn’t blind enough to be cut out for work at the DQ." "Who does that? No star!" Even though I've given you grief for your star/no star rating system, I do appreciate knowing that when I get a recommendation from you, it is sure to be delicious!

    1. Sometimes I wonder if my standards are too high, but then I find a STAR and I know it's worth pursuing the highest quality food. I just hate a wasted meal, as you know.

      Also, thank you for pointing out your favorite bits!!


Hey, thank you!

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