Mission to Chicago: Megabus, breakfast bust, Hot Doug’s and Oktoberfest MAC Style
Posted by cmh gourmand on October 2, 2009
By my nature, I am restless. As strong as my need to eat is a passion to travel. While I have roamed around Ohio most of the summer, my addiction is not satiated unless I cross a state line (although I prefer a dateline). My days are multi-tasked to excess. While some people dread a long flight or bus ride, I long for the dead time because I am forced to do just one thing (read, rest or reflect) and I have no control over the trip until arrival. I had reasons to be in Chicago and due to an 11th hour cancellation, I had the time to act on my compulsion.
Columbus native and high school chum, saucissonmac had invited me to his Oktoberfest. In a trip to Chicago last October I missed out on one critical hot dog destination. I have been wanting to take the Megabus to Chicago for years. This was the critical mass of incentives I needed to go, so it came to be.
In an old commercial, a Superbowl winning football player was asked what he was going to do next. His answer, Disney World. At the Food and Wine Affair on September 25th, at about 8:45 pm, I was asked what I was doing later, my answer: “I’m taking the Megabus to Chicago at 10:50 pm, so I better get going”.
I have been on a lot of buses (Intercity, Planet Perth, Feejee Experience, Oz Experience, Wayward Bus, and Contiki, among others) however my last bus experience in the US of A was taking a late night Greyhound from Columbus (having just closed out a Reggaefest at the Ohio Union) to Lewisburg, West Virginia for a funeral. Seems like the kind of thing that would be in an old country song and at times it felt like one. However, I had high hopes for the Megabus and my late night ride.
Megabus works a lot like the defunct Skybus, all bookings are online. One way fares to Chicago vary from $1 to $49 with a 50 cent booking fee. The typical round trip fares I found were between $25 and $39. The bus arrived on time (10:50 pm) at the downtown pick up point. The range of passengers varied from 18 to 80 with a mix of couples, college kids and a gourmand. The bus then made quick stops at OSU, Cincinnati, a McDonalds and Indianapolis with 6 am arrival at Chicago’s Union Station. The bus was about 3/4 full until Indianapolis where I had to give up my extra seat to a French speaking, laptop toting graduate student from Quebec. I could not figure out what took her to Indy but her keyboarding did confirm that the bus had free wi-fi which worked most of the way to Chicago.
So what does one do in Chicago at six in the morning? If you are me, have a cheeseburger and a coke. I was en route to my Windy city respite of choice the Billy Goat Tavern. There are several locations in Chicago, but THE Billy Goat – Mike Royko’s hangout, the place where 3rd shift city workers come in for a beer and sandwich after clocking out is the only one for me. I always feel at home here and never feel like a tourist. I made my way to Michigan Avenue via the Riverwalk and checked out a few sights on the way.
When I arrived it was closed. No sign of life or light inside. This had me perplexed, this is my sure thing. When I can not figure out what to do downtown, this is where I go. I figured I made a mistake on the time, so I gathered three Chicago weekly papers and secured a seat near Millennium Park while I waited. As a bonus I was able to watch chef teams set up for Gourmet Chicago.
After an hour, I headed back and found no sign of life or hamburgers. I asked around and everyone said it should be open. Perhaps the curse of the Billy Goat now applies to the Gourmand, it was time for me to move on.
My next destination was Hot Doug’s, The Encased Meats Emporium and Sausage Superstore. The last two times I was in Chicago the place was closed for vacation. This time I knew they were open. Hot Dougs is hot dog heaven for gourmets and gluttons. The business is famous for Duck Fat Fries and Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Sel Gris. It is also famous for long lines (2 hours) to get in. The place opened at 10:30 am and I was going to beat the line. My game plan also involved going to Johnnies Beef in Elmwood for an Italian Beef and a giant lemon ice (my favorite Chicago meal) as my pre-Oktoberfest snack.
I am a planner. People love to travel with me: great sense of direction, I have maps and can read them, I’ll ask for directions if needed, I tend not to panic. One small error on my part. Hot Dougs is on North California not South California. A ride on the orange line and a 10 minute walk on South California took me to a cement plant. At this point…. my day was not looking so hot. A quick call confirmed my error. I trotted back to the CTA station to pick up the blue line. But, as fate would have it, the blue line was under construction so I had to get off, get on a shuttle and get back on the blue line several stops down the line. (This is where the three people that read this blog, all i Phone users, are gloating over my lack of i Phonedness….). When dealing with adversity, I focus on the mission: Hot Dog at Hot Dougs.
For those of your doing public transit to Hot Dougs. Take the blue line to California. Get off and walk north on North California for 15 minutes or take bus number 52 which has a stop about 20 feet from the front door of Hot Dougs. You will arrive in time to see this.
The people standing in line at Hot Dougs are happy people. They joke, take photos and look at the menu. The line moves along and we all mentally praise the customers that opted for carry out vs. dine in. At one point, a guy drove by, pausing to ask what concert tickets we were waiting in line for. We were waiting for something better, encased meats. As a seasoned traveler I prepared for emergencies and layovers with Gourmet and Saveur to read. I read both while in line (note: Saveur is 4x better than Gourmet). I met a nice couple from New York near the door and we had great conversation about dining. When I reached the entrance, I had to accept the fact that I was not going to Johnnies on this trip. No Italian ice for me. I mourned. I moved on. I ordered.
Hot Doug’s did not disappoint. The small shop is encased in the classic colors of Chicago hot dogs – yellow, red and blue. The service is fast, the food is good and the ambiance is 100% hot dog. Is it worth the wait – yes.
Hot Doug’s was my training for the evening. I arrived right on time (via the blue line, orange line and Metra) to Flossmoor station for a quick transfer to the festivities at Saucisson Mac Manor in gritty Homewood, Illinois.
If you have any interest in encased meats, cooking and the fine art of meat preparation, take a look at saucissonmac. All Oktoberfest meats were hand crafted by the host. He was supported by his fine wife, Bon Femme and his artisan sister in the side dish and baking arenas. Our meal(s) were fit for the Kaiser himself. Coconut cream cream puffs were perfectly crafted and demonstrated that pastry chef training in France is worth every euro and baking burn. I felt very German within an hour.
The original plan had been to crash at Mac Manor and Metra back to Union Station in the morning. However, a few beers, sausages and games of pigs later, my other Chicago based high school chum Josh took me to Naperville and all it has to offer, including a late night taqueria. The next morning, we drove into the city for breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s.
Lou Mitchell’s is a favorite for locals and tourists. The excellent baked goods are fresh and made in house. Service is fast and friendly in this downtown diner landmark. The line stretches long in the morning, but free treats are served while you wait. I discovered that counter seating is first come first serve so that canceled out any wait.
The Megabus stop was a block away. It picked riders up at 11:00 AM (12:00 EST) sharp. The bus was full capacity until Indianapolis then down to 20 people for Columbus with a quick stop at the same McDonald’s as before. I arrived 6:17 PM at OSU having read a book cover to cover on the way. I did a quick stroll across the oval, hopped on a COTA bus and was home before 7:00 PM.