Taste is the only true path to sublime culinary experience, but it often requires listening to the counsel of our stomachs over the impulses of our eyes. Beer-bellied Midwesterners clutch plastic tumblers of Miller Light while gnawing on alligator at Taste of Chicago. Slimy, tentacled squids, once confined to Roman trattorias, are now an American staple served at the ballpark. For those willing to rely on taste and shirk convention, Chicago has a jungle of palate-pleasing options for the culinary adventurer in search of the next calamari.
For a meal that stares back, try the red snapper at El Barco
If you need to take baby steps, start out with a tostada de pulpo, a crunchy corn wafer topped with purple chunks of octopus glistening and swimming in limey cilantro infusion. Once you've gotten past the fear factor with your appetizer, order up the huachinango al mojo de ajo. You'll be staring down a whole deep-fried fish with its crunchy mouth agape, beady fried eyes peeled, and crunchy fins and crispy tail suspended in batter. The tenderest tastiest meat is just behind the cheek. Trust us. Once you dig in to the flaky flesh topped with chopped garlic, white wine and cilantro sauce, you'll be chuckling over a bare fish skeleton wondering why you even balked.
Reduce your cholesterol with bone marrow from Volo
Anyone who's ever braised veal shanks osso-bucco style knows the best part isn't the fall-off-the-bone chunks of meat; it's the velvety butter rich marrow left in the middle of the shank. If you don't want to roast your own, hop over to Roscoe Village's Volo. Golden pepper-flecked crostini that look like billowing sailboat spinnakers are jammed into freshly roasted veal bones and served on a bed of micro-greens. Ask for salt to top the marrow and you'll be presented with a dish of fleur de sel, pink Hawaiian Alaea sea salt and mixed peppercorns. You can commend your bravery as well as your healthfulness: Marrow is a healthy source of protein known to decrease LDL cholesterol.
In the mood for thymus? Try the sweetbreads at Pegasus
Sweetbreads are the poor man's foie gras, and now that duck livers have been outlawed, they're your only option. While not as insanely indulgent, sweetbreads have a similar richness and texture, and the outside is usually seared to a crispy counterpoint or sauteed in a crunchy batter coating. There a hundred different places to get calf sweetbreads in the city, but for a twist, try the glykadia (broiled lamb sweet breads) at Pegasus. Served with a wedge of feta, the lamb sweetbreads are crispy with smoky bits of char on the outside and perfumed with oregano and lemon. You can't do better on price and portion, and you can chomp down while lingering over the city skyline on the restaurant's rooftop deck.
Sample organ meats of any variety at La Sardine
The first rule of sausage is that you should never ask what's in it, but boudin noir, also known as blood sausage, kind of tips its hand with the name. Indeed, pig's blood is the binder, but it's the garlic, pork and the quatre epices (traditional spice mixture of peppers, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger) that you'll taste. Think of it as French kielbasa and you'll be fine. At La Sardine it's served with caramelized granny smith apple, a small green salad and a dollop of spicy Dijon mustard. After a few bites you'll be dreaming of Parisian charcuteries overflowing with ruddy meats. La Sardine also serves calf sweetbreads dusted with bread crumbs and served with creamy macaroni gratin, and tender creamy kidneys in white wine mustard reduction.
The best stomach for your stomach: Pho sure at Hai Yen (Uptown)
Pho (pronounce fuh) is like the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. A good bowl of pho warms the body, soothes during sickness and satisfies the soul, and the bowl of pho dac biet at Hai Yen may change lives. It's a tasty conglomeration of hearty cuts of beef brisket, beef flank, meatballs, bible tripe (cow stomach), tendon, rice noodles and scallions floating in a light beef broth, accompanied by a buffet of fresh-cut sweet basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime, sriracha (garlic chili sauce) and sweet plummy Hoisin that make the bowl zing. Sure it's got tripe and tendon, but that's where the flavor base of the rich sweet broth comes.