The Best Chicago Food Adventure

Adi Sircar
9 min readSep 12, 2022


I visited Chicago for the 2022 National Restaurant Association Show. In addition to gaining ten pounds in four days, I met 12,000 people, witnessed the future of food, received unsolicited business advice from a bum, and discovered a new passion for food.

Baby Adi was a picky eater. He didn’t like vegetables. He wasted food. He didn’t understand food.

I grew my palate as a teenager. The chefs at the Chinese restaurant I worked at made a traditional dinner every night. I ate feet for the first time (and it wasn’t the last time). I tried sushi — two leftover spicy tuna rolls from a wasteful customer. I ate all kinds of colorful and flavorful vegetables. I brought home crispy beef once after a long shift. My father found out and threw the box in the trash outside. Beef was forbidden in our house. Later that night, I dug it out of the bin, and ate every last piece.

I always empty my plates now. I like all vegetables except for albino broccoli. Food is my adventure.

The absolute best booth at the show was Allen Brothers. I arrived at the convention early on day one and saw a man carrying a giant sword of meat. Picanha. I knew I could trust that man with my life, a valiant knight wearing an apron instead of armor. Each day, I would return again and again to stuff my belly with the finest elements of food in the entire world. Their A5 wagyu was so tasty, I “forgot” to brush my teeth at night. Like a suspicious backpack left on the subway, their caviar exploded in my mouth. I felt like a King every time I got in line at their booth.

Have you ever tried washing only one of your hands? Try it at home. Wash only one hand, using only that hand. Send me a video of you doing it, for accountability purposes (since you’re only using one hand, you can use the other to film it). It takes a hand to wash a hand. This was told to me by John the Bum, a vagrant who started talking to me on the Blue Line, who spent the next 45 minutes spitting wet breadcrumbs on my blazer whilst convincing me to capitalize on the RV & Winnebago delivery business ($4000 in 3 days). I should have given him my leftover naan after our conversation. I was slightly worried I would miss my flight home after getting drinks with Ms. Chicago, so Mr. Bum did a great job of distracting me with a pleasant, if moist, conversation. Fortunately, I Tom Cruised it through the airport and successfully made it to my plane, although by the time I took my seat, I was drenched in both sweat and wet breadcrumbs.

I adore Chinese food. Hence, staying in Chinatown was a genius decision (one of many). I am proud to announce my absolute favorite Chinese restaurant of all time: Szechwan JMC 川渝小厨. It’s a cozy space without distractions — no belly dancers, robot servers, or mimes. Here, the food is the star of the show. I ordered Dry Pot Jumbo Shrimp. I asked for extra spicy. My dinner arrived sizzling hot. It was love at first sight. I knew this was the one, long before the first bite. The thinly sliced potatoes were light summer blankets which tucked the fiery shrimp into bed. The chilies were indeed spicy but not violently so. The Sichuan peppercorn’s numbing effect only fully activated the morning after, when I couldn’t feel my mouth after I woke up. The dry pot passed the color test: golden shrimp, red chilies, green peppers, and white onions. It also passed the texture test: crunchy celery, tender potatoes, and the most delightfully juicy shrimp. Finally, it passed the love test: I am utterly smitten with this dish and it delights me to recommend this to you.

Dry Pot Jumbo Shrimp
Dry Pot Jumbo Shrimp from Szechwan JMC 川渝小厨

I exercised extreme caution when exploring Chinatown’s gift shops. I only brought a backpack with me to Chicago and I fully intended to leave with that same backpack. I explored twelve shops and meticulously compared prices before executing my most prized purchase — a giant conical straw hat. This new hat protected me from the sun and rain but left me exposed to the creatures of the Red Line. It also failed to protect me from strong gusts and eventually flew off my head on my last day in the windy city, forcing me to run down an entire block to fetch it.

My Beloved Bamboo Hat

There was a huge line at a booth that was handing out fresh fried chicken. I overheard the server tell the lucky bald man at the front of the line that the chicken is spicy. Everyone in front of me immediately dispersed, empty handed. I claimed my rightful place at the front of the line and ate the juiciest, most delicious piece of fried chicken in my entire life (until I ate an absolute magical leg and thigh from Gus’s in West Loop, which I will explain in detail later.) How do food professionals, chefs, and enthusiasts live without indulging in spicy food? Fear and intolerance of spicy food restricts the hero’s food journey.

Spicy Fried Chicken (I didn’t eat all of these)

I went to a concert at Radius Chicago. I had no idea who any of the performers were when I got the ticket, but I wanted to go because of the venue. I had a hunch that Radius had adequate light and sound setup from the pictures and videos I saw. Those are two of my core values: light and sound. I walked about fifteen minutes from my Chinatown hotel and got in the back of the line of about twenty people. I arrived shortly before nine. A tiny man with sunglasses complimented my hat. He became my temporary friend for the duration of the show. The short line made me question if I picked the right Friday night extracurricular. After about thirty minutes, the music started playing. I could feel it in my organs. Soon after, they started letting people in. The visceral base and dazzling lights were exactly what I signed up for. The dance floor was sparse at first so I hung out at the front. Slowly and steadily, people started trickling in and the floor got packed just before midnight. I would occasionally escape to refill my water bottle in the bathroom sink. I was definitely the most hydrated person in the building. I noticed the VIP sections had a significantly lower energy atmosphere to them. It was as if they were afraid to dance or jump or have fun. I even took a quick nap in one of the VIP couches. Energy is so important. We’re not at the symphony orchestra (more on that later), you’re allowed to move!

Radius Chicago

Gao’s Kabob is a good place for a light snack. But if you asked me the first time I went, I would have given you a completely different answer. Gao’s skewers are reasonably priced, well seasoned, and yummy. Unfortunately, they take far too long. After waiting more than an hour during my first visit, I left. I absolutely could not afford to miss Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben — not even for a skewer of chicken hearts. My advice: call ahead of time, and order earlier in the day. They run out of a lot of the good skewers by sunset.

Chicken Hearts, Chicken Wing, and Beef Tendon from Gao’s Kabob

Modern Chinese Cookbook (MCCB) is a lovely place to dine at. My plate was spicy, tender, delicious, and beautiful. Many people misinterpret it as a Michelin-star restaurant. It is not! It’s a Michelin Guide restaurant. Still a good find and worth a visit. I largely avoided the many popular dumpling restaurants because of my preconceived notions on dumplings. While they do taste good, they are rather boring! I didn’t want to take the chance on a potentially average momo. Did I miss out?

Mei Zhou Special Short Ribs from MCCB

Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben was quite the performance. I sat at the terrace, which let me peer over the shoulders of the talented Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The encore performance by Kirill Gerstein kept me at the edge of my seat. I violently interrogated three elderly volunteer ushers during the intermission. I absolutely had to know what song he played! After gallons of waterboarding, none of them could tell me the name. Turns out, all I had to do was check the website after the weekend and to my delight, the mystery song was revealed — Waltz in A-Flat Major, Op. 42 by Chopin.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Jiang Niu BBQ House was the first place I ate in Chicago. My flight landed in the morning which gave me a few hours to develop an appetite before I devoured everything inside this Chinese-Korean fusion BBQ restaurant. I learned of this restaurant from Mikey Chen, a food enthusiast and vlogger, whom I trust dearly with my tastebuds. After I checked into my Chinatown hotel, I explored a few giftshops, walked through Ping Tom Memorial Park, and then made my way to Jiang Niu. The robot waiter visited my table to deliver new plates of meat and seafood. Wonderful service. How much would you tip a robot server?

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken was a total surprise for me. I was walking aimlessly in West Loop when I read their sign. World Famous? Chicken worth dying for? I figured I’d test out their hypothesis with my taste buds. This was the only restaurant I went to spontaneously — following my nose. I skipped out on the nonsense — no beans, no coleslaw, just chicken. I will not pollute my stomach. As my basket arrived, my mouth watered. I drooled into my lap. I could tell it was going to be amazing. After I took a picture, for accountability purposes, I tore off the top layer of the crispy skin and revealed the juiciest fried chicken I have ever seen in my entire life. I folded the skin up and took my first bite. Sensational. The crunch, the seasoning, the juice, the richness of the dark meat flavor. This was the best fried chicken I have ever eaten in my entire life. And I’ve been eating fried chicken all my life.

Leg and Thigh from Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

I feared I wouldn’t enjoy regular food after returning from my culinary pilgrimage in Chicago. How could I ever settle for something I found on the shelf at a grocery store or my local regular Chinese restaurant? I was worried I wouldn’t be able to cook anymore because nothing I ever make would compare. Will I ever taste something that makes me feel the way I did those four fateful days of my life?

Chicago food lit a fire inside my heart, kind of like the one in 1871. Luckily, it didn’t make regular food taste like boiled cardboard or burnt wood. I simply discovered something new to chase after. I hope this story made you hungry. Now go dine at a great restaurant! And tell me all about it!