Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

Places I ate

Al’s Italian Beef

A Chicago dog and a Little Beef from Al's Italian Beef

What: A mini-chain that serves up unpretentious Chicago classic after unpretentious Chicago classic: Italian beef, Chicago dogs, Polish sausages, and plenty more.

Where: There are a bunch. (Yes, yes—Al’s is a chain. But it’s not available anywhere near NYC, so I’ve decided to let it onto the list. Same goes for a bunch of these other restaurants, actually.)

Allergen info: According to the two Al’s cashiers I spoke to, there are no tree nut (or peanut) products of any sort present at any Al’s location. Plus, their bread, which comes from Gonnella Baking Co., is made in a nut-free facility. Good news all around.

What I ate: A Little Beef, wet—that’s half an Italian beef sandwich, served with extra gravy—and a Chicago dog, plus an order of loaded fries (uh, fries topped with cheddar, bacon, and scallions), plus an order of chili-cheddar fries. (Here, I feel like I ought to make it known that I weigh 100 lbs.)

What I thought: Though the hot dogs were only ever so slightly better than the ones at Portillo’s (scroll down—I ranted a bit), I liked Al’s a whole hell of a lot. In every way, it’s the superior establishment. The beef’s better. The bread’s firmer, the gravy more flavorful. The fries are crisper. And the chili-cheddar fries? Stellar—the stuff of my fantasies, even. Plus, the restaurant itself is way more low-key and humble and all-around pleasant than any Portillo’s I came across. Al’s was cool. Al’s was a relief. If I never ate another Chicago dog, I wouldn’t mind one bit. But I’ll miss those wet, meaty sandwich-messes, and I’m not sure Roll-N-Roaster’s similar-but-differents will fill the void. (Seriously, though: I don’t even want to talk about the loss of the chili-cheddar fries. My search for the NYC version is officially on. Wish me luck.)

alsbeef.com

Bagel Art Café

bagelartcafe.jpg

What: A small, quiet café that serves small, quiet café fare: bagels, coffee, pastries, salads…

Where: 615 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL

Allergen info: With the exception of some almond milk that’s used in a latte, there are no tree nut or peanut products present in Bagel Art’s kitchen. (“It’s pretty intentional,” according to the guy on the phone.) The bagels aren’t made in house, but they do meet my standards; they come from New York Bagel & Bialy, who have assured me via phone that their bagels shouldn’t have any chance to come into contact with nuts.

What I ate: A Lox (lox, scallion cream cheese, tomato, onions, and capers) on an everything bagel, a Loxocado (lox, cream cheese, avocado, tomato) on a plain bagel, and a pickle.

What I thought: The bagels are downright miniature, which would be fine, I think, if they weren’t priced like they were full-size. Still, they’re solid. I’m pretty picky when it comes to bagels, especially when they’re advertised as New York–style, but these, I’ll accept. And while the Loxocado wasn’t something I’d ever reorder—too bland, too boring—the Lox was astonishingly good. (It wasn’t incredible—the salmon was sort of bland, and the cream cheese was just a little worse than Philadelphia-tier—but it did astonish me.) And the pickle was great, too.

bagelartevanston.com

FRÍO Gelato

friogelato.jpg

What: Artisanal argentine gelato, made in a nut-free facility.

Where: 517 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL

Allergen info: The gelato (and sorbet) itself is made in a nut-free facility—which is good enough for me, though I figure I should probably mention that its ingredients aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be free from cross-contamination. Neither the cones nor the toppings contain any nuts, but I didn’t look too far into either’s cross-contamination status, so I just stuck to cups of un-topped gelato.

What I ate: So much. A scoop of queso y miel (cheese and honey), a scoop of dulce de leche (milk caramel), a scoop of frutilla (strawberry), a scoop of sambayón (egg custard with Marsala wine)…

What I thought: I loved it all, obviously. Or almost all of it, at least. The sambayón was way too wine-forward for me, but everything else was rather impressive. The queso y miel was my favorite—it was tangy, with the subtle sweetness of a Greek yogurt—but I liked the deep, rich, toasty dulce de leche almost as much.

friogelato.com

Giordano’s

giordanos.jpg

What: A popular Chicago-based chain that’s known for its cheese-stuffed pizzas, but that serves other Italian-ish food, too.

Where: Every six feet

Allergen info: The only nuts at Giordano’s are the walnuts that go into one of the salads. According to my server, the salads are prepared at their own station, so there isn’t really much chance for the salad walnuts to come into contact with any of the non-salad food.

What I ate: A small deep-dish cheese pie and an order of potato fritters.

What I thought: Giordano’s mystified me. People actually take this as pizza? As deep-dish, even? I know I’m not in deep-dish’s target demographic, but fuck, man. This stuff is more Lunchables than pizza. The cheese is bland and gummy; the sauce is somehow both overly sweet and entirely flavorless; the crust is brittle and crumbly and wholly unsatisfying. I’m no Lou Malnati’s fanatic (see below), but Lou Malnati’s absolutely blows Giordano’s out of the water. It’s not even close to close. The stuffed deep-dish looks like an actual joke—in fact, it closely resembles this joke of a pie from one of my favorite episodes of Malcolm in the Middle—but no one at Giordano’s seems to take it as anything but an earnest delicacy. And somehow, it manages to taste even worse than it looks. Wild.

giordanos.com

Jet’s Pizza

A build-your-own pie and a ham-and-cheese Deli Boat from Jet's Pizza

What: Like Domino’s, but (more) Midwestern. And with a few more options, it seems.

Where: All over

Allergen info: Here’s their Special Diets Wizard, which indicates that the only trouble menu item is the croutons. (The Wizard says they contain nuts, but I’d suspect it’s more of a may-contain situation. Of course, I don’t know for sure—I just know that Nutritionix-powered Wizards often display “contains” for “may contain.”)

What I ate: A small build-your-own with (here we go…) hand-tossed crust—”buttered”—and light Alfredo sauce, regular mozzarella, ham, and extra pineapple, And a ham-and-cheese Deli Boat (which is basically just a bunch of shit stuffed into a crust, calzone-style).

What I thought: It doesn’t take a review to reveal that Jet’s makes terrible pizza; I only ended up eating there because there happened to be one about 15 feet from my Airbnb. This place is remarkably similar to Domino’s, and that’s just about all I could think as I ate my meal. Jet’s cheese is cheesier (it has more “actual” cheese flavor—like, the parmesan and mozzarella actually don’t taste alike, which isn’t something I can say of Domino’s), and the crust on the Deli Boats is better than any crust Domino’s sells. But the sauce and the toppings are awful, and whatever it is the folks at Jet’s are spraying on the crust and attempting to pass off as butter doesn’t quite taste—or make my stomach feel—like it’s made for human consumption. (Still, if you go in with zero expectations, or if you’re in the mood for, like, Twilight Zone Domino’s, Jet’s will do.)

jetspizza.com

Lawrence Fish Market

Assorted sushi from Lawrence Fish Market

What: A fish market that happens to serve ridiculously inexpensive (and surprisingly acceptable) takeout-only sushi.

Where: 3914 West Lawrence Avenue, Chicago, IL

Allergen info: There are no nuts in the kitchen, per a phone call I made from the back corner of a Barnes & Noble. The guy sounded pretty confident—and it’s just sushi, anyway—so I’m inclined to believe.

What I ate: Virtually everything—with the exception of the more, uh…involved rolls. A lobster roll, a salmon roll, a negihamachi roll, and then a bunch of sushi, too: squid, white tuna, ebi, salmon, fluke, toro, uni, ikura, inari, yellowtail, and probably some other pieces I’m forgetting, too. (This was over the course of multiple visits, rest assured.)

What I thought: For the price, the fish was actually sort of impressive. Some pieces were great; others were ever-so-slightly on the icky side. That’s what I get for ordering so widely, though. Still, nothing was terrible—this place beats Mika by an enormous margin—and if I lived nearby, I’d surely be a regular. (Lord knows I love to stuff myself full of mediocre sushi. Quality over quantity…except when I’m in the mood for quantity, dammit.) I do wish eating in were an option, though. Takeout sushi’s weird.

No website, but here’s their Yelp.

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria

loumalnatis.jpg

What: A chain of fork-and-knife pizzerias that claim to make “the best deep dish in Chicago.”

Where: Also all over

Allergen info: Here’s their official allergen-information page. (If you’re averse to clicking, the gist is that there aren’t any peanuts or tree nuts in the kitchen.)

What I ate: A lot, because for some perverse reason, I couldn’t stop going. Over the course of my stay, I ate: a deep-dish cheese pie, a deep-dish cheese pie with basil and sliced tomatoes, a deep-dish cheese pie with basil, extra sauce, and onions—all with Buttercrust (which, yes, is a thing)—and a bowl of penne ala Malnati (“cream and Romano cheese folded into our meat sauce”).

What I thought: The pasta’s very, very mediocre (that I finished my entire enormous serving of, mind you). I don’t have many nice things to say about it, but I’d no doubt eat it sometimes if I could have it delivered to my apartment. As for the pizza? I don’t know, man. On the one hand, it’s deep-dish, and I really hate deep-dish. (It’s its own thing, yada yada yada—I know. I don’t care. It’s its own worse thing.) As with all deep-dish, the “crust” hardly exists, and what’s present is rather bland and stiff. The cheese is too chewy, and there’s usually too much of it. Plus, you really do have to eat this stuff with a fork and knife. Wild. But. On the other hand, there’s a reason I couldn’t stop going. I fucking love the sauce. I’m pretty sure it’s just puréed tomato, no bullshit (i.e. sugar) added. Addictive—and still great the next morning, too.

loumalnatis.com

Portillo’s

portillos.jpg

What: A big ol’ chain of counter-service restaurant-oid things that sell Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef, pasta, ribs, and plenty of other jib-jab.

Where: Also-also all over

Allergen info: There are no nuts in the kitchen, save for the almonds and walnuts that go into a few of the salads. But (at the few Portillo’s locations I called, at least) those salads aren’t prepared anywhere near the rest of the food, so those nuts are easy enough to avoid, I’d say. Everything else ought to be safe, then—including the bread, and including the some of the desserts.

What I ate: An Italian beef sandwich (wet, again), a plain hot dog, a Chicago dog, a bowl of baked mostaccioli, some fries, and some onion rings.

What I thought: I like the concept—mile-high beef and greasy sides are two of my favorite things—but the execution’s pretty bullshit, if you ask me. Nothing has any texture. Everything is soggy. Ketchup is the only condiment that’s readily available. I half-liked the half-crisp fries, and I three-quarters-liked my mountain of Italian beef—it was outrageously soggy, and it needed salt pretty desperately, but I did order it more than once—but honesty, nothing else was worth the chew-effort. The baked mostaccioli was frighteningly bad, and the floppy, flavorless hot dogs were an actual embarrassment. But the sandwich…was decent. Just decent. Whatever.

portillos.com

Sweet Maple Café

The Farm Favorite and a bowl of hot cheddar grits from Sweet Maple Café

What: Country-style breakfast and lunch, served out of an unassuming storefront on a quiet, sleepy street.

Where: 1339 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL

Allergen info: The owner’s severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish, so none of the above are present in the kitchen. (The menu advertises a “peanut-free and shellfish-free menu and environment,” and I’m told the same applies to tree nuts, too. I don’t know why tree nuts aren’t mentioned alongside peanuts and shellfish, though. My best guess would be that it’s because there are a few nutty coffee-flavoring syrups on site.) Also: I don’t know anything about the multigrain bread, but I do know that the sourdough, made by D’Amato’s Bakery, is me-friendly. No D’Amato’s breads contain any nuts, and I’m told the bread side and the pastries, etc. side of the bakery are totally separate, so cross-contamination is extremely unlikely. Good enough.

What I ate: An Etruscan (“mozzarella and Fontina cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and black olive tapenade”), a Farm Favorite (“Fontina cheese, crispy bacon, fried egg, fresh green onions and basil”), a bowl of hot cheddar grits, and some drink they were calling a breezer that was made with fresh-squeezed lemonade, strawberry purée, and, uh…something coconutty (I can’t find it on the menu).

What I thought: Sweet Maple Café was probably the restaurant I was saddest to leave. (If Al’s didn’t have those chili-cheese fries, I’d be willing to drop the “probably.”) It’s a humble little place, but the food’s rather good, and I can eat all of it, which never, ever happens. The sandwiches are great—they’re made on real bread, with crust that’s actually crusty (!!!)—and the grits brought me inner peace, if only for a few minutes. Plus, that breezer was awesome. My only complaint was that I didn’t have enough time to try the rest of the menu. I so wish I had access to a place like this here in NYC (and no, Big Daddy’s doesn’t even come close to counting).

sweetmaplecafe.com

Places I missed

Affresco Pizzeria & Lounge

affresco.jpg

What: “Chicken, pizza & Italian food cooked in a wood-fired brick oven & served in a grottolike space.” (I’m going to steal all these descriptions from Google, as I obviously haven’t been to any of these restaurants myself…)

Where: 11 North Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, IL

Allergen info: As the owner’s two daughters are allergic to nuts, Affresco is capable of handling all sorts of allergies. There are no peanuts or tree nuts in the kitchen, and with the exception of some made-elsewhere desserts that aren’t even kept in (or near) the kitchen, everything’s evidently safe for the nut-allergic.

Why I didn’t go: I don’t know. It’s a little expensive, and I was worried it’d suck, I guess. Plus, I was going to have to try a pizza, but my compulsive Lou Malnati’s visits had me perpetually pizza’d out.

affrescopizzeria.com. Photos: left, right.

All Aboard Diner

allaboard.jpg

What: “Whimsical, train-themed diner serving burgers & wraps, plus soups, salads & other eats.” (“Eats”? Really? Though I don’t have a good replacement. I did use “jib-jab” [????] above, so maybe I should shut up. “And other grub”? Gross. “And other tidbits”? Worse. “And more” squicks me out less, at least.)

Where: 1510B 75th Street, Downers Grove, IL

Allergen info: They market themselves as a “peanut and allergy conscious environment,” and when I called to ask, I was told that applies to tree nuts, too. They don’t cook with nuts, and nothing they sell contains any actual nuts, but the guy on the phone was quick to tell me that the products they don’t make themselves (Blue Bunny ice cream, Otis Spunkmeyer brownies, etc.) might contain trace amounts. Still, they’ll let you leaf through a nutrition-and-ingredients binder, and they have Divvies desserts, too.

Why I didn’t go: It’s train-themed—like, toy trains bring your food out—and while I might whine like a child, I’m 21 years old.

allaboarddiner.com. Photos: left, right.

Furious Spoon

Two bowls of ramen from Furious Spoon

What: “Japanese ramen soup is offered with creative toppings & sides in a simple space with a patio.” (God, some of these descriptions are atrocious.)

Where: 1571 North Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL; 2410 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL; 1316 West 18th Street, Chicago, IL

Allergen info: No nuts on the menu. Simple.

Why I didn’t go: It was way too goddamn hot for ramen. Wasn’t going to happen. (Plus, spice-fetish menus turn me off. But I would’ve gotten over it and gone anyway if it hadn’t been so outrageously sunny-hot out.)

furiousramen.com. Photos: left, right.

Nutphree’s Bakery

nutphrees.jpg

What: “Specialty bakeshop offering custom cakes, cookies & cupcakes prepared without peanuts or tree nuts.” (No gripes here!)

Where: 480 Lively Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL

Allergen info: Here’s their about page, which includes a rather impressive allergen statement.

Why I didn’t goWithout a car, Nutphree’s is sort of tough to get to—and I don’t even like cupcakes, so I figured spending $25 on a Lyft would probably end up being a mistake. I told myself I’d instead make a point of picking up some of their cupcakes at Mariano’s, but I never got around to that, either. Oops.

nutphrees.com. Photos: left, right.

Sharko’s BBQ

sharkosbbq.jpg

What: “Rustic Americana decor & communal tables feature at this contemporary BBQ spot with outdoor seats.” (Good to know?)

Where: 4931 IL-59, Naperville, IL

Allergen info: According to their FAQ, there are no nuts or nut oils in anything on the menu. (No idea about the breads, though. They don’t look too scary, but you never know until you ask, and I obviously haven’t asked.)

Why I didn’t go: It would’ve taken me three hours (and way too many train-dollars) to get there! As much as I wanted to go, it just wasn’t going to happen.

sharkosbbq.com. Photos.

Wells Street Popcorn

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What: “Old-fashioned shop supplying tins & canisters of popcorn in flavors like caramel & cheddar.” (Like caramel and cheddar, but not caramel or cheddar. [No, I can’t help myself.])

Where: 2804 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL; 1119 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL; 5124 Main Street, Downer Grove, IL

Allergen info: According to their website, all Wells Street kitchens are entirely nut-, peanut-, and gluten-free.

Why I didn’t go: I kept telling myself I would, but it never ended up aligning with whatever it was I was up to, and I just couldn’t convince myself to go much out of my way for popcorn. But I did pick up a bag of Wells Street popcorn at a grocery store, so I can safely say that it’s straight-up excellent, and I imagine it’d only be better straight from the source. (Naturally, I chose the Chicago mix—that’s caramel and cheddar—and I loved every last kernel.)

wellsstreetpopcorn.com. Photos: left, right.

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