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Illustration: Jennifer Thermes

There's no food like home

Or is there? We test a few displaced regional specialties to see if they can satisfy the people who grew up with them.


If you know somebody who’s passionate about the food they grew up with, you know how tiring it can be to hear, over and over, how poor the Chicago version of that food is. And if you know any Cincinnatians, buckle up: Cinners, a Cincinnati-style chili parlor, is debuting in Lincoln Square this month, opening a whole new branch of debate. To settle a few of these arguments once and for all, we sent natives to several eateries serving geographic specialties. We learned you can obviously take the eater out of the city…but taking his favorite food with him is a bit more difficult.

#1 New Mexico
Green chile from Zia: A New Mexican Café (340 W Armitage Ave, 773-525-6959)

According to Anders Nilsen, who went to college in New Mexico, the best green chile “should have some heat, but should let you hold it on your tongue long enough to really enjoy it. And the flavor of having been roasted over an open flame should come through clearly.” With those guidelines, Nilsen says that “Zia Café does a reasonable job of translating the general idea.” But reasonable simply doesn’t cut it: “The ‘roastiness’ just isn’t there,” he reported. “And the heat, too, is lacking.”

#2 Tennessee
Memphis dry-rub ribs from Smoque BBQ (3800 N Pulaski Rd, 773-545-7427)

In true Memphian style, Nick Butcher’s first reaction to Smoque’s ribs was: “Wow, the ribs are damn good.” From there, the compliments kept coming. “They were really tender, slow-cooked, smoky but not so much to where it covered up the nice meaty flavor,” he cooed. It wasn’t all heaven, though. “They served barbecue sauce on the side—I thought it was a little too tangy.” Nevertheless, Butcher found that “the whole atmosphere totally reminded me of something back home.”

#3 Philadelphia
The Philly Cheese Steak from Philly’s Best (907 W Belmont Ave, 773-525-7900)

Philadelphia native Daniel Tucker tried two cheese steaks: an “American with” (Philly-speak for an American cheese–topped cheese steak with fried onions) and a “Provolone without.” The American with, he reports, “was salty, dry instead of juicy, and sprinkled with oregano, which gave it a very non-Philly—albeit unique—flavor.” However, “the onions were cooked just right.” The Provolone without? “Even saltier.” Still: “Philly’s Best does make a good sandwich,” but “doesn’t quite manage to deliver the bona fide Philly experience.”

#4 New York
A bagel from New York Bagel (1001 W North Ave, 312-274-1278)

TOC Chill Out editor Danielle Braff, who grew up on the mean streets of Manhattan’s East Village, had “high hopes for the NYC Bagel Deli.” The plain bagel she ordered was “perfectly tanned on the outside, and the inside was slightly sweet and warm. It came straight out of the oven after being boiled, just like they do in New York.” However, whereas a real NYC bagel is “moist, crunchy and soft at the same time,” New York Bagel’s offerings didn’t have that “satisfying crispy exterior and weren’t moist enough.”

#5 Quebec
Poutine from Pizzeria Aroma (1125 W Berwyn Ave, 773-769-4900)

Expecting Canada’s famous (or infamous, depending on your tastes) combination of french fries, cheese curds and gravy, Canadian native Cameron Booth was surprised to encounter “a fairly thin, brothlike beef gravy” on his fries, and mozzarella and Parmesan in place of cheese curds. Plus, the poutine “looked like it had actually been baked a bit”—something a Canadian would never do. “Overall, it felt like a pretty Italianized version,” Booth reports, adding that he doubted this variant would “keep you warm in the cold Quebec winter.”

#6 Maine
A lobster roll from King Café (900 N Michigan Ave, 312-280-6122)

Though they were out of buns when Maine native Tim Bresnahan visited (he had to settle for the lobster salad on greens instead), he found that “for the most part, they nailed the composition of the roll—lots of lobster, with a little bit of accentuating ingredients. The finely minced celery is a classic addition and gives the dish texture and crunch.” There was one fatal mistake, however. “They killed me when they added onion,” Bresnahan says. “Killed me.”

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