A Chicago Tradition - Food Outside of the Trade Show

By Russ Ward

When I go to the various food shows to represent POS Plus, talk with grocers and other retailers and stay in touch with current friends in the business, I like to explore and not just stop off at the typical chain restaurant a stone’s throw from the interstate. Instead, I like to spread my wings a little bit and sample the regional or local cuisine.  This approach has led me to some really rough parts of town but also to some of the best food and friendliest folks you can find.

Recently, while at the Laurel Food show in Covington, Kentucky (across the river from Cincinnati), I visited my usual haunt for a bowl of Skyline Chili, 5-way of course.  It was delicious, but I wanted to expand my horizons and add a new stop on my culinary journey once a show closes down. Not knowing quite where to go, I left the hotel across from the convention center and spotted a sharply dressed valet waiting for his next customer. I asked the college age man where I could get a sandwich or something from a local restaurant that evening. Without hesitation, he pointed me to a bar and grill a couple of blocks down and a couple of blocks over called the Keystone Bar and Grill.  He said I should skip the idea of a sandwich and get the best mac and cheese in town.

Now, let’s be clear, I am not usually abig fan of mac and cheese. As a matter of fact, as a child I hated it and was repulsed at the idea of having to choke down a couple bites and then spread the rest over my plate to fool my mom into thinking that I had eaten the pasty and powdery cheese and squishy noodles. But, I had to listen to the valet and not my experiences of the past, and I was determined to try the mac and cheese.

After a brisk walk I arrived at the Keystone, a rather regular looking neighborhood bar with a brick façade, I sat down and a wonderful smiling waitress asked me for my order. I told her that it was the first time I had ever been there and I would be at her mercy for the right choice, but I was told to get the mac and cheese. I further explained that I was a bit confused and overwhelmed as there were over 9 different selections of mac and cheese on the menu including Lovin’ Spoonfuls, Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield and the B.B. King. She wisely directed me to the B.B. King, a mac and cheese with barbequed chicken and bacon served in a small skillet. It was an awesome choice and the best mac and cheese I have ever had! Kudos to the friendly staff, cooks in the back and the valet who pointed me to the Keystone.

In Chicago (Tinley Park), at the Central Grocers food show, it was an easy choice for dining.  Everyone for years has told me that there was only one place to truly get a “real” Chicago Style Hotdog and that was at Portillo’s. Portillo’s is a Chicago institution serving their brand of hot dog since 1963. Their dogs are buried in condiments and I have always wanted to stop by and experience the best hot dogs that Chicagoland has to offer.  Even though it was a very late lunch and too early for a dinner crowd, the place was still buzzing with activity and the parking lot was pretty full, including five police cars. That is always a good sign when you are looking for a great place to eat. I have never seen a policeman pick poorly when it comes to food.  I walked in to order and my choice was easy; The Jumbo Hot Dog with everything and onion rings. Again, another winner. Thumbs up to the good folks at Portillo’s. You have another lifetime customer.

Before I get complaints, I know that this blog usually focuses on point of sale systems, updates, technical information, new products and tips to retailers and grocers to improve their businesses, but this time I thought I would again spread my wings and write about being on the road at the shows, and share a couple of experiences. Let me know if you approve, or if I am wrong, and there are better places to eat in Chicagoland or Cincinnati.