Because of onerous city regulations, Chicago has failed to develop much of a food truck scene. These laws, which severely restrict where food trucks can operate, deprive aspiring chefs of a first rung on the ladder up to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and they deprive residents of the sort of vibrant street-food culture found in Portland and Los Angeles.
Chicago has responded by developing indoor food halls, starting with the delightful French Market, which opened in 2009 under the train tracks of Ogilvie Transportation Center. Since then, Eataly opened in the city, along with several other notable food halls. I’m most excited about the food hall planned by Time Out, set to open in the West Loop sometime later this year. The Time Out food hall in Lisbon was great fun to visit, and I hope the Chicago iteration will live up to that example.
In the meantime, I found three food halls downtown that all make fine stops for a fast lunch. Most of the stalls offer meal-size portions, alas, making it more difficult to graze unless you bring friends.
Set in the heart of the Loop, this stylish food hall opened in 2016 with 15 “fast-casual” stalls. I liked its airy industrial-chic décor and ample, mostly communal seating, but note that it gets busy with lunching office workers starting around noon. The disadvantage of arriving earlier, of course, is that it feels less appropriate to visit the attractive cocktail bar. We passed it by, heading instead for Brown Bag Seafood Co., which provided us with some crunchy and moist curried fish cakes atop sautéed fresh vegetables. I also enjoyed the creative tacos from Antique Taco Chiquito, notably the decadent pork carnitas taco with avocado and bacon, and the lighter, zestier chicken taco with yogurt, jalapeño and pickled onion. Lito’s Empanadas also merits a stop for its flavorful, non-greasy empanadas with classic fillings, served at just the right temperature. But it was The Fat Shallot’s BLT that really dazzled. Between two pieces of challah toast came a giant pile of flawless bacon leavened with arugula, tomato, avocado and truffle aioli. For dessert, HotChocolate Bakery has tempting cookies, bars and doughnuts (the s’more cookie, sandwiched with caramel cream, was especially good).
Revival Food Hall
125 S. Clark Street
This smaller food hall opened in the summer of 2018 on the northern edge of the Loop, in a very Chicago location bounded by the river and the L tracks. This market was my least favorite of the three, because despite its many windows, it felt a bit claustrophobic. Though we sometimes had to squeeze through groups of people to move around, we never had trouble finding seats. First, we split some toothsome pierogi — one filled with purple potato and goat cheese, the other with “chicken pot pie” — from The Chow Bros., followed by some delectable ’nduja- and mozzarella-filled arancini from Tempesta Market. Also delicious was Pork & Mindy’s Bao to the Pork sandwich, with rich pulled pork shoulder, sweet-sour Asian plum sauce, tangy pickled daikon and carrot, and a spicy-cool relish of jalapeño and cucumber, all piled on a steamed bao-style bun. Even better was the double cheeseburger at Grand Central Bar, with two beef patties served in a soft and savory bacon-spiked bun. Service at the bar was slow and perfunctory, but I did like the fresh and vegetal Al(oe) Capone cocktail made with rye, Chareau aloe liqueur, lemon and sugar. Its dill note worked beautifully with that burger. The doughnuts we had for dessert from neighboring Firecakes weren’t worth the calories, unfortunately.
Wells Street Market
205 West Wacker Drive, #100. Tel. (312) 614-4176
Chicago’s newest food hall is in many ways its best. On the northern end of Michigan Avenue in the high-end mall below the Four Seasons hotel, Aster Hall makes for an ideal shopping break. Rather than order at each food stall separately, here patrons can order from any (or all) of the 16 stalls using touch screens. We arrived right at lunchtime, which meant a wait of eight minutes in line to place our orders (staff are on hand to pass out menus and assist with using the touch screens if necessary). We then split up to wait for our orders in the two separate sets of food stalls. Once we’d assembled everything, we took it one floor up to a plush ’70s-inspired lounge filled with tables and cushy sofas. I had no intention of making the same mistake I did at Revival Food Hall, and I ordered a cocktail from the waiter who came by: a citrusy and deep Lion’s Tail, mixed with bourbon, allspice dram and lime. My favorite food item was again the burger, this time a simple, superlative cheeseburger from Small Cheval (sister restaurant to critically acclaimed Au Cheval). Some truffle-Parmesan waffle fries from The Rotisserie were an excellent accompaniment. If you’re not in the mood for a burger, some tacos from Al Pastor Tacos No. 2 might be just the thing. I enjoyed the bright elote-like filling of the poblano-and-sweet-corn taco, and the al pastor taco had a delicious achiote note. We also indulged in a little garganelli with pesto from Lil’ Boots. The pasta wouldn’t pass muster in Italy — the sauce came piled on top — but I did like that the garganelli wasn’t overcooked. Some sesame-infused seaweed salad from Sushi Station helped cut all the richness. I only wish we’d left room for one of the gorgeous desserts from The Chocolate Bar.
900 North Michigan Avenue, Level 5 (lounge on Level 6).