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They don’t call it “Uno” for nothing

Deep Dish Spinach PizzaMy sister, Flava Flav, came from L.A. to visit me for the weekend. It being her first time in the Windy City, I felt it my sisterly duty to introduce her to some of Chicago’s signature fare. On the menu: deep dish pizza.

Now, introducing a unique regional dish or cuisine to an inexperienced diner is a fine art. You can’t talk up the food too much before they try it; the food should speak for itself. You also can’t make excuses for unique characteristics of the food or the establishment. Finally, and most importantly, you must take your subject to the eatery that produces the finest example of the dish. And for deep dish pizza, that’s Pizzeria Uno.

Empanada Boy and I first discovered the beauty of Pizzeria Uno (and neighboring Due) when my parents came to town. It’s not that we hadn’t heard of the place— this is arguably one of the most famous restaurants in Chicago, the site where deep dish pizza was invented back in 1943. We were just skeptical that such a tourist phenomenon could actually be good. EB had also tried the inferior pies at one of the Uno franchises in Madison and was disappointed.

We ordered a large spinach pizza and had to bide our time for an hour before a table opened up. We had to wait an extra half hour more once we sat down. I think they make the wait so long because they want you to order more appetizers and drinks, but if you know what’s good for you, you abstain. This is the cake of pizza, and once it comes, it will fill you up quickly.

The spinach pie was worth the wait. The dense, crunchy crust is so rich it tastes more like pastry than bread. In an order that goes against the common assembly of pizza, the crust is covered with the mozzarella and then topped with a layer of sweet, tangy basil tomato sauce with many of the skinned Roma tomatoes still partially intact. Next comes the spinach, which is generously sprinkled with a layer of Parmesan.

After a long day of touring the city and waiting for the pizza, the three of us managed to eat all but one piece. Then it was time to roll ourselves home for a nap. Eating deep dish pizza is not an everyday affair for me, but it is a special treat that reminds me what makes Chicago unique. I think Flava liked the pizza too, which was, in a way, a nod of approval for the city I now call home.

Pizzeria Uno
29 E Ohio St
Chicago, IL 60611

Digging for Gold

Golden Nugget ExteriorUpon finding we had next to nothing in our refrigerator yesterday morning, Empanada Boy and I weighed our options and decided to try the Golden Nugget Pancake House. We have driven by the numerous outposts of this 24-hour chain more times than we can count, but neither of us had ever crossed the threshold.

The inside of the restaurant is uniformly brown and yellow with walls covered with drab wooden slat panels. Faux stained glass windows hang from the ceiling. A long counter filled with regulars lies just inside the door, and beware the sea of comfy-looking booths: these are made of hard grey plastic, ostensible for easier cleaning. Also, like many diners, the menu here is encyclopedic including every traditional breakfast and lunch item imaginable. The restaurant boasts fresh-squeezed orange juice and fruit compotes that have never seen a can. But we all know that is not why you come to a place like this.

Short stack with bacon In short, the reason you come to the Golden Nugget is the pancakes. We ordered a short stack— a pair of immense pancakes, which were remarkably light and fluffy. My normal experience with pancakes is eating about one and a half and then feeling too full of breadiness to continue. These were airy enough to polish off, although EB and I shared them. Bacon came on the side.

EB was craving fried potatoes, so we shared another plate of eggs sunny side up, corned beef hash and some delicious and crispy home fries— more like a hashbrown in my book. The corned beef hash was a little disappointing for me. I found in too mushy and processed. It would have benefitted from more browning, more chunkiness and more spices.

Stick to the pancakes at the Golden Nugget and you cannot go wrong. I look forward to going back and trying the Mexican breakfasts or an omelet. (I might have to share if I order the latter—the omelets are mountainous, made with a four eggs.)

Golden Nugget Pancake House (various locations)
4747 N Ravenswood Ave.
Chicago, 60640

Door County, WI

Empanada Boy and I went to Door County in Northern Wisconsin from Oct. 19 to 22.

I was dreaming of tender boiled whitefish as we drove up on Thursday night with EB’s brother and sister-in-law, Rocky Rococo and Popcorn Princess, and their dog Toshi. It was near midnight when we pulled into the Harbor House Inn, a quaint little bed and breakfast in Gills Rock. The inn’s main office is shaped like a lighthouse.

We slept in the Danish Cottage, which had its own kitchen and two separate apartments. When I got up the next morning and came outside, I saw Green Bay sloshing at its banks just across the main drag.

Waffles with cherries and cream Breakfast at the Harbor House was waffles with slightly sweetened, pitted Door County cherries (a theme for the weekend). I am not usually fond of cherries unless they are fresh off the tree, but these retained a pleasant tartness and had none of the cloying, syrupy, sweetness that I associate with preserved cherries. There were also blueberry muffins and mini cherry scones—more the size and consistency of cookies— which tasted like a stick of butter with some flour wrapped around it. In other words: delicious.

Boil over at White Gull InnDinner that night elucidates my real reasons for wanting to visit Door County: the fish boil. Fish boils are a culinary tradition unique to Northern Wisconsin. About 50 lbs. of whitefish and 150 new potatoes are cooked in a large pot of salted water over an open fire. Throughout the many hours of cooking time, the fish boil master occasionally douses the flames with a splash of kerosene, sending a shock of heat up into the pot. At the very end of the process, with all the diners gathered around, he gives the fire a larger dose. This time it’s enough to send the whole pot up in flames, causing all the water to boil out.

After reading an article by Jane and Michael Stern in the July issue of Gourmet magazine about fish boils at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, I decided to make a reservation there. Luckily I called two weeks in advance because one of the three seatings for the evening was already booked solid. Watching the procedure at the White Gull was just as spectacular as it sounds. This place has been open since 1896, and tradition runs deep. The fish boil master performed his duty with a practiced hand, tossing the kerosene with one hand as he expounded on the fish boil process to the crowd of waiting diners. When I asked him how long he’d been doing this he said straight-faced: “Today’s my first day.”

Dinner at the White GullAfter the boil-over we went inside and got in line. Servers gave each diner two fish steaks and three boiled new potatoes. Condiments for fish included a tartar sauce, lemon and melted butter. We carried our plates back to our assigned table where a tangy coleslaw and a variety of sweet, cake-like breads awaited us. An accordionist played in the background as we scarfed down the tender fish. It was incredibly flavorful for having only been cooked with salt. The potatoes took on some of the fish flavor, but they were also remarkably simple in their preparation. This is the kind of basic, hearty food that could only be served in the Midwest.

We all had seconds on fish or potatoes or both. Empanada Boy was a fan of the potatoes. He found himself in a showdown with the last one after the rest of us had finished stuffing ourselves. As it sat there, daring him to finish it off, the waitress thankfully came to clear our plates. Dessert was cherry pie, which I found too sweet and jelly-like in texture. That was probably for the best because there wasn’t much room left in my stomach.

Waitresses in Swedish garbIf the fish boil sounds heavy, it was nothing compared to the traditional Swedish food we ate the next night at Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay. Housed in a quaint cottage-like building with grass growing on the roof (goats graze up there in the warmer months), Al Johnson’s is kitsch to the max. Diners are greeted with a gift shop selling Swedish foods and clothing and waitresses are dressed in traditional Swedish garb. The menu is a mix of hearty Swedish dishes and American classics like burgers and onion rings.

We started off our meal with pickled herring, a favorite of Empanada Boy and myself. Popcorn Princess isn’t a fan of pickled anything, so we ordered some onion rings as well. The pickled herring had that delightful balance of sweet and salty that makes it so addictive. We ate it on limpa bread (Swedish rye) and crackers. My entree was a roast beef hash with large chunks of meat and potato, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by pickled beets. It was tasty but far too much food to eat in a sitting. Empanada Boy tried the gravy-doused Swedish meatballs and Popcorn Princess opted for Atlantic salmon. The biggest surprise was Rocky’s dish, which was billed as a hot pork sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. When it arrived, it looked more like a pork chop with mashed potatoes and gravy, although the waitress assured us that there was bread underneath. The food was satisfying, but excruciatingly heavy and somewhat colorless. Nonetheless, the over-the-top decor, the lively tourist atmosphere and the delightfully unpretentious menu made it all worthwhile.

On our way back to Madison the next day we stopped at Seaquist Orchards Farm Market in Sister Bay. EB and I stocked up on a large frozen tub of those slightly sweetened pitted cherries. He says he plans to make me some waffles with cherries for breakfast next weekend. We also bought dried cherries and some tasty Cortland apples. EB and Popcorn Princess bought bags of popcorn for the ride home.

Further down the road aways we pulled over at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery for a tasting. For the most part these wines were all pretty foul, but I found some redeeming qualities in the tart cherry wine. It was surprisingly true to the fruit and much more palatable than the weak merlots and rieslings. We bought a bottle along with some Wisconsin maple syrup.

Rocky's Vegetable PizzaThe final food stop on this trip is barely worth mentioning. Empanada Boy and Rocky have a nostalgic affection for Rocky Rococo’s pizza (hence Rocky’s name). Rocky pulled off at one on the highway and we got some pizza. Needless to say, I was disappointed. This pizza is on the same rung as a Little Caesar’s in my book— greasy, with cheap ingredients and a flavorless, bready, insubstantial crust. Rocky will have to redeem himself with his next restaurant selection.

Empanada Boy and I returned home feeling full, a feeling that we realized had never left us throughout the entire weekend. Time to get back to the exercise bike so I can enjoy more of those cherry-topped waffles next weekend.

Harbor House Inn
12666 Hwy. 42
Gills Rock, WI 54210

White Gull Inn
4225 Main St.
Fish Creek, WI 54212

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant
700 Bay Shore Drive
Sister Bay, WI 54234

Seaquist Orchards Farm Market
11482 Hwy. 42
Sister Bay, WI 54234

Launtenbach’s Orchard Country Winery
9197 Hwy. 42
Fish Creek, WI 54212

Rocky Rococo (various locations)
2331 Velp Ave.
Green Bay, WI 54303

Welcome from the Mango Lassie

The Mango Lassie is a blog about finding and sampling food that is delicious, unique and distinctive without being expensive. I define expensive as being more than around $12 for an entree. Of course, many of the eateries featured on this blog (i.e. roadside stands, ice cream shops) won’t even serve entrees, but let’s just say, I know expensive when I see it.

In my quest to sample the specialties of as many culinary gems as possible, there is no group more useful, than you, readers, for pointing out new places and suggesting your favorites. So please, feel free to offer up your favorite cheap eats or the ones you’ve always wanted to try. I have no dietary restrictions and will try anything at least once. If I give opinions you don’t agree with, write back and tell me what you think.

Thanks for reading, and happy eating to all.

The Mango Lassie