Vacation Report 6: Chicago Food versus California Cuisine

So I’m pretty sure I have mentioned this before, but prior to our vacation to my sweet, home Chicago, I essentially starved myself for the months preceding so that I could eat whatever I wanted without worrying about returning to California in a hefty bag (for lack of any fitting clothing). While here, though, I realized that I actually eat better and weigh less when eating in the Midwest for a few reasons, though: (1) I don’t eat many sweets; and (2) I don’t indulge in emotional eating to make myself feel better about how unhappy I am in California.

While on this trip, I’ve made it a point to ask more about what makes food in the Midwest so much better. And unlike in California – where asking a question of your waiter or cook is a recipe for looks of annoyance and a pithy response like “it’s in the sauce,” many of the people I’ve asked have indulged me in my inquiry.

Chicago Food: Delis

In Chicagoland area, you have a lot more locally owned restaurants or local franchises that you won’t find in other areas. Sure, there are a lot of your run-of-the-mill Subways and Taco Bells, but right next door you almost always have a local and just-as-cheap alternative.

One thing that is amazing about the Chicagoland area is the deli meat. In California, I often notice that the deli meat is sliced thick and often “smothered” in something to make it a thick, meaty experience. In Chicago, though, it’s usually sliced very thin, which bodes for a lighter and more satisfying experience. Jason’s Deli is by far my favorite local spot for a sandwich or wrap.

Chicago Food: Flavorful

Another thing I have realized about Chicago food, is it is often about the flavor. I would argue that a lot of the food we eat in California is flavorful, but often the emphasis is not placed on the synthesis of flavors or enhancing the natural flavor of the food, itself. In particular, meat is not usually enhanced quite in the way that it is done in the Midwest, and I am sure this is in large part due to the fact that so much of the meat you eat in the Midwest is local.

The pizza is more flavorful as well, which is what makes it so popular. In California we use dry milk and bitter sauce. In the Midwest, though, emphasis is placed on the flavor of the crust and the sauce to eliminate those dry and bitter elements.

Now I rarely eat red meat, but when I am visiting home I do indulge in a little. Particularly noteworthy was the meatball sandwich I had a few days after arriving – it was (by far) one of the greatest sandwiches I have ever eaten.

Chicago Food: Fluffy

As I mentioned above about the deli meat, Chicago food is often sliced thin and fluffy-like. It goes beyond just the deli meat, though. The pizza almost never has gobs of cheese on it, which I find is a big problem with food in California – too much cheese. And while I would never recommend actually eating the food at White Castle, the shakes are another great example of the fluffiness of the cuisine in the Midwest. Whereas at In N’ Out on the west coast we have very thick, heavy shakes, the milkshakes at White Castle are so fluffy you can taste the bits of whipped air.

Chicago Food: More Interactive

Something else we don’t realize on the west coast is that our food is not terribly interactive. Oftentimes, you have little input in what goes in your food. You can request something to be “minus this” or “add that,” but then you get a lot of attitude and it is usually done wrong anyway.

In Chicago, though, your food is more interactive. You get to know who is cooking it – whether it be a restaurant owner, a waiter, or a friend or family member. You have more input and more options as well. Just the other day, we went to an Asian fusion place in the city and were able to head to their stir fry bar to select every piece of our meal. There are not many places in California that such an option exists, except (of course) your own home.

As a result of this, I have come to one conclusion – something I knew all along, but that was reiterated on this great trip home:

Chicago Food: Amazing

California Cuisine: Crap

Need I say more?


  1. The Confluent Kitchen

    It really all depends on what you’re eating. I’ve been to both places and have seriously enjoyed food from both places. I think, as far as the whole ‘organic farm fresh’ type angle goes, California wins just by virtue of being able to grow things year round. Less travel time for the awesome. Chicago slaughters California in any type of Italian food, and in cheap diner food and homestyle type stuff.

    So, yeah. I think it really all depends on what you like to eat.

  2. lostnchina

    Aren’t the portions wayyyy huger in Chicago as well? Like, you could put your face in a dish of pasta and still have room for your hands? (Not that I’ve ever done this, oh no!)

    1. Heather Christena Schmidt

      It depends on where you are and what you order. My favorite places are smaller portions than I normally receive in California. You don’t need a lot if the meal is tasty 🙂

      I would pay for a picture of face-in-plate-of-pasta hahaha

  3. gkorula

    This is a real eye opener. I thought that in America you get everything, everywhere and lots of it (so i’m told) So i’m surprised by your take on the crap food in California. But if Man Vs Food is anything to go by, then most food in America is pretty greasy… I’ve only transited in the US, stayed overnight in Atlanta and went to an IHOP (it was a toss up between that a liquor store cos they were the only things open so late) Asked for a salad, (i needed something fresh and green after that stale airplane air) and the waitress asked me if I wanted it fried…Salad, fried? Really? I was glad that i was just transiting….

  4. Chris Sheridan

    Any way that you can move back to Chicago permanently? Cause forgive me if I’m out of line for saying this, but reading between the lines here, your issues with living in CA go way beyond just the food, and I mean that in a genuinely compassionate way. If there is any way to get out of CA and back to Chicago, you should do it.

    1. Heather Christena Schmidt

      Yes, I would really like to move back permanently. You are right, there is a lot “between the lines” that I don’t even try to infuse in there. Sadly I think these are pipe dreams right now…

  5. journeyofjordannaeast

    I’ve never been to Chicago, but I’m from NYC and I lived in Cali for a year. So basically I’m saying I could write the same blog post about how Cali food is crap and NY food is amazing…except for the part about it being all healthy and stuff, lol

    1. Heather Christena Schmidt

      I don’t actually think that Chicago food is healthy though, actually it’s not. But I eat healthier simply because I’m not emotionally eating. Maybe it’s that I eat less, which could be considered healthy. I don’t know hahaha. You should write the post about NYC and Cali …

      1. journeyofjordannaeast

        Hmm, maybe I’ll start something up and store the post for a rainy day!

  6. The “ME” Project

    Can I “Like” your blog and still respectfully disagree? Well, I guess that wouldn’t really be fair, though, since I haven’t ever eaten in Chicago. Maybe it’s because I’m a born and bred California girl, and I’m just being bristly…but it makes sense to me that you would prefer the food where you are from. It’s HOME! Nothing compares to that!

    1. Heather Christena Schmidt

      Yes, you can, but you are right you can’t necessarily disagree having not eaten in Chicago. 😉 That said, I think that since I judge food by the standard of what I was raised on I then have the problems I do with California cuisine. You are correct … nothing compares to home!!

      1. The “ME” Project

        I read your book yesterday-hilarious! I only wish it had been longer. Great job!

      2. Heather Christena Schmidt


  7. Frugalistablog

    Glad you are back!! Despite the crappy food you had to come home to. Come to Seattle. We eat pretty fine up here too.

    1. Heather Christena Schmidt

      Seattle food is pretty spectacular, in fact the only time I ever ate fish in my life was when visiting my mom in Olympia over the 8 years she lived there. I’m not home yet, though!! Not back until Friday..

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