When people ask me where I’m from, I always answer “uh, Chicago.” The “uh” is important here; it signals to the person asking (and frankly, also serves as a reminder to myself) that I’m from Chicagoland, but not the city itself. Despite growing up in a suburb that bordered Chicago, I seldom went into the city as a kid. When I did, it was because we were going to Chinatown to eat dim sum on New Year’s Day. Ironically, when I moved halfway across the country for college, I explored a lot more of Chicago during breaks and extended weekends. If I miss anything about being in college, it’s the amount of time and flexibility and time I had to fly between LGA and ORD.
Recently, I realized that I haven’t been to Chicago alone as an adult. Any time that I was in the city, it was always with friends or family, or for work. So I decided to take advantage of my extended Thanksgiving visit to my parents and spend a day by myself in Chicago. I debated on hitting up my favorite spots since I only had a day, but I felt it would be more fun to check out some places that I’ve never been to instead.
Coffee and Reading at The Wormhole Coffee
OK, I definitely cheated a little with this start to the day. I’ve been to The Wormhole’s original coffee shop in Wicker Park, but I’m giving myself a pass to go to their new location since I haven’t been to this one. Wormhole 2 is also in Wicker Park, one stop down on the Blue Line from its sister store.
In my opinion, all the coffee here is good. However, I come here for one thing and that thing is the Koopa Troopa. It’s one of those love-at-first-sip kind of drinks, and to me it is The Latte. Koopa Troopa is a peanut butter and chocolate latte; you can think of it as a velvety smooth drinkable Reeses’ peanut butter cup with a bit of coffee for the caffeine boost. It’s sweet but not overwhelmingly so and a very cozy drink. I’ve actually only had this drink in the wintertime, so I felt it was fitting to get one again at Wormhole 2. It’s just as good as I remember it, and it’s perfect for enjoying with a good book.
Although not as cozy as the original location, the interior of Wormhole 2 is much more spacious with 90s style decor and an upside-down Mirthmobile on the ceiling. The theme is very fitting, given that the other Wormhole shop has 80s motifs, including the customer-favorite DeLorean time machine. Sitting at Wormhole 2 reminded me of the times I read textbooks I hated at Wormhole 1 and made me pretty grateful to be reading something I like while having my coffee. I’m currently reading Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong for a book club at work and made some headway on the reading here, and I was also able to do a bit of reflective writing after a few chapters.
Brunch at Boonie Foods
After trying Filipino food from Bad for Business and AmBoy Eats, I was very interested in tasting more Filipino dishes. Luckily, I found a relatively new Filipino food business in the loop area! Started by Chef Joseph Fontelera in 2020, Boonie Foods started as a pop up before moving to the current food hall location downtown. After reading some rave reviews from customers and their recent feature in Chicago Magazine, I knew this was where I wanted to go for lunch. Boonie Foods is located in Revival Food Hall, along with other great businesses like Minahasa, LaShuk Street Food, and Danke. Revival has a welcoming and clean atmosphere and is very popular with the work lunch crowd.
Boonie Foods has a straightforward menu that centers around silog or garlic rice plates that have a meat dish and a side dish. Their description of Sisig is “best thing you’ll eat,” and I think that whenever you see that kind of line on a menu, you have to get that item and judge for yourself. I ordered their sisig with a side of mushroom adobo salad, which came with the garlic rice, a fried egg, and some seasoned aioli on top. The food comes in a paper takeout box which I appreciate, and when opening the box, the only appropriate way to describe the reaction is “wow.”
I’ve never had sisig before coming to Boonie Foods. While I’m not sure whether it’s the best thing I’ll ever eat—there are just so many things to taste in the world—I can confidently say that this ranks in my favorite things that I’ve eaten this year. The pork is rich and savory, and it was a familiar yet new flavor profile for me. I can’t tell you exactly what is in the seasoning, but there is a great balance of saltiness and smokiness. The garlic rice is incredibly buttery and soaks up the sauce, though I would honestly be happy to eat the rice on its own as well. I would definitely recommend getting the mushroom adobo salad or the pickled papaya as your side, because as tasty as sisig is, I think having something acidic is perfect for something as rich as this meal.
Photo Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
I chose to go to the Museum of Contemporary Photography because I wanted to see a smaller collection of art and because I was interested in seeing photos rather than other art mediums. MoCP is a museum by Columbia College Chicago, and they have thought-provoking exhibitions that rotate every few months. The current exhibition is American Epidemic: Guns in America featuring the work of nine artists who examine the role of guns in violence, systemic racism, and the police force.
Many of the photos in the exhibition have long, detailed captions that flesh out the story of individuals and scenes present in the images. I am not an artist nor am I a journalist, so while I can’t really speak on anything from those perspectives, I will say that the exhibition was incredibly insightful and emotional. One collection that stood out to me was Nancy Floyd’s She’s Got a Gun which shows young and old women between 1993 and 2008 with their firearms, along with excerpts of their interviews on their relationship to guns. Another piece that stood out was “Untitled” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a work that is a stack of large sheets of printed paper with the details of 460 deaths by guns during just one week in May 1989. “Untitled” is made with single sheets of paper so that observers are able to take one sheet with them.
MoCP is a fairly small museum, and it takes about 30 minutes to see everything. American Epidemic: Guns in America is on until February 22nd, and Beautiful Diaspora / You Are Not the Lesser Part will be on starting March 3rd. I will definitely return to MoCP the next time I get to spend time in Chicago.
Browsing Turned Shopping at Exile in Bookville
This bookshop is tucked away in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, so it’s easy to miss if you don’t catch the sign at the building entrance. It’s a relatively small bookstore, but it’s one of the most colorful and well-arranged ones I’ve seen, not to mention the good view from the second floor! Exile in Bookville has a whole room dedicated to fiction and a wall of 33 ⅓ books, each of which are about a music album. There’s a decent selection of sale books as well. Overall, the shop has the warmth of a bookstore but the coolness of an old-school record shop.
I went in with the intention of browsing, but it’s always hard for me to walk away without a new book in hand. I bought Go Home!, an anthology of Asian writers works (because I was swayed by one of the included titles is called “Mothers, Lock Your Daughters Up Because They Are Terrifying). I also bought a vintage postcard of the Railway Exchange. Exile in Bookville carries a collection of old, but well-preserved, postcards featuring mostly Chicago buildings and sights. Some of them have writing on them—mine is from someone named Ted to someone named Marie in 1909. It was really cool to have the postcard and see the Railway Exchange building just a block away!
Pit Stop: Christkindl Market
I stopped by Christkindl Market to see if there was anything new, but they just had their classic German snacks and Christmas-themed shops. Though I skipped out on it this time, the thing to do here is to get gluhwein in the annual holiday mug and drink it in the frigid outdoor air!
Okonomiyaki Dinner at Gaijin
It was super exciting to find out there is a restaurant in Chicago that specializes in okonomiyaki. The only time I’ve had okonomiyaki at a restaurant has been at Kenka in East Village, and frankly, all of us in NYC know you go to Kenka for the cheap drinks and mysteriously dark interior rather than the food. Gaijin features three types of Japanese pancakes: Osaka-style okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and negiyaki. They also have specials including tonkatsu on Tuesdays, as well as a lineup of kakigori.
Gaijin has what I think is a lovely story behind it. The restaurant is described as a love letter from Chef and owner Paul Virant to his wife Jennifer. Jennifer introduced Paul to okonomiyaki, something she had really enjoyed during her studies in Japan. I also appreciate that the name Gaijin, which means “outsider” or “foreigner” in Japanese, was chosen because to quote Chef Paul, “what it’s saying is that I’m not trying to do it any better. We just love the country, and we love the food.” The food here isn’t completely traditional, but I felt that the chef and owners did their research and respected the origins of the food.
I ordered the Gaijin Toki Highball, a draft whiskey cocktail, and the Osaka-style okonomiyaki with tempura shrimp. I debated between the Osaka-style and Hiroshima-style…but in the end the toppings won me over. The server recommended adding on crispy rice to my okonomiyaki, and it turned out to be a terrific choice! I thought they would sprinkle some crispy rice on top, however the rice was used as a crunchy base layer for the pancake. The okonomiyaki was really delicious—a little bit sweet, a little bit savory, a little bit creamy. There were a variety of textures as well, including the crunch from the rice, the smoothness from the pancake itself, and the chew from the creole butter corn. I thought there was a generous helping of shrimp as well, and the highball was a perfect refreshing pairing to the meal.
I actually enjoyed my meal so much that I ordered another Osaka-style okonomiyaki to-go to share with my family! Aside from the food, the service was also amazing—if Midwestern hospitality were a thing, this place would be an example of it. From the greetings to the cooks asking how my meal was to the owner coming out to say hi, everyone was super friendly. The atmosphere at Gaijin is also great for any crowd; it’s spacious enough for family dinners, and the chef’s counter and bar are perfect for solo diners like myself. I would say this would also be a good date spot: cool enough to impress your date but also brightly lit enough to see their face.
After taking a day to further explore Chicago on my own, I have a lot more appreciation for the city and everything it offers. For personal reasons, it was important for me to be able to go downtown alone and to some degree, I think I reclaimed that experience for myself. It was a jam-packed day, but when I got on the train to head back to the suburbs, I felt rested and happy. I’m excited to come back again, whether it’s on my own, with family, or with friends!