Checking out the Chicago food scene

Last blog from my 2016 travel writing class (I promise). Hopefully I’ll make it back to Chicago after the pandemic to find more great food!

Writing craft articles will return next week!

Chicago is known for great food. After a recent visit, I’ve decided it should also be known for incessant honking from impatient drivers, but the label of being a foodie paradise did indeed prove accurate. Staying in downtown Chicago, we had a plethora of dining options within walking distance from our rather lousy hotel (a whole other review in the making!). One of those was Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon.

Despite its name, Belly Up works great as a family restaurant if you’re heading out for an early dinner. After a day of museum hopping, our two kids were starving by 5:30 p.m., which means we beat the crowd and happened to get in before happy hour ended. Bonus on both counts. By the time we were finishing our meal, the dining room was filling up, which indicated it to be a popular night time hangout. So, if you want a quiet family dinner, head over right after work, but if you’re looking for something more energetic, give it a few hours to get going.

Being that we were there at the beginning of the dinner hour, there was no wait to get a table and our server was nearby whenever we needed him without hovering. As traffic picked up during the evening, there was more of a wait, but the staff stayed on top of things even as it got busier. It seemed unlikely it would get too hectic for them to handle, even on a busy night. The kitchen was just as prompt and on task. Our food arrived within twenty minutes of ordering and we never had to wait an absurd amount of time for drinks from the bar as we have at other restaurants.

Speaking of food and drinks, let’s talk menu and prices. While the interior of the restaurant is an upscale, classy version of a hometown barbecue joint, the most expensive, single-person item on the menu was $22 for the full rack of ribs. Appetizers were in the $6-10 range, while the majority of the entrées were $12-18. The only outlier was the Belly Up Platter, a combination of 3 meats, sides, and rolls, priced at $45, but was meant to feed 2-3 people. Accompanying the regular menu was a list of seasonal items to choose from, all within a similar price range to the regular menu.

Drink prices ranged from $4 drafts and bottles to around $12 for some of the specialty items, as well as having happy hour pricing from 3-6 p.m., and then again after 9 o’clock. Belly Up specialized in beers, with a full menu of local, national, and international options. While cocktails were available from the bar, the focus was more on beers than mixed drinks on both the regular and specials menus.

Getting back to the menu, as the name suggests, Belly Up’s main appeal was their barbecue cuisine. Everything from ribs, pulled-pork, brisket, catfish, and burgers graced the menu. Homestyle sides were classed up from the basics, such as Smoked Mac & Cheese with three cheeses and a breadcrumb topping, while still holding on to their classic comfort food appeal. With four people at the table, we had a chance to test out a variety of items from the menu.

The shrimp Po’boy was a little awkward to get your mouth around, given how big it was, but there were no complaints on the taste. The Smoked Mac & Cheese proved to taste as good as it sounded, much to my son’s delight. The smoked brisket was delicious as well, especially when paired with one of the six barbecue sauce choices offered at every table. The only complaint came from one of times from the seasonal menu. The southwestern chicken wrap sounded yummy, but we learned ordering Mexican food in Chicago was not the best idea. The southwestern style chicken wrap was so drenched with a too-sweet sauce it overpowered the other flavors and left the tortilla soggy. Three out of four when it came to the food wasn’t too bad, though.

As far as drinks were concerned, the menu did a great job of describing the flavors and types of each drink so you weren’t guessing at some of the local brews we’d never tried before. The menu was divided up between types of beers, liquors, and ales, and seasonal items were on a separate menu, but still included in the happy hour pricing. If you did have questions about a particular drink, the wait staff was knowledgeable and very helpful.

Belly Up Smokehouse and Saloon is located on South Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, a short walk from Michigan Avenue and many popular attractions in the area. It serves as both a great family restaurant in the early evening and an upscale restaurant/bar later at night. The affordable and largely great tasting menu made it a popular spot for get-togethers with friends or family, whether local or those in town for business or vacation. With attentive yet not overbearing staff who can answer questions when needed, diners can relax and enjoy the hometown atmosphere as they munch on delectable barbecue classics. If you’re looking for a classy hangout with great food and a wide range of drinks, Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon is your place.

Visiting the Chicago Museum Campus

Another old travel blog from a class in 2016. I would love to back and visit again, especially to see another baseball game!

Writing Craft articles will return soon after I finish cleaning up old class blogs.

When it comes to a city the size of Chicago, there’s no way to see it all in one trip. Trying will make you miserable. Making the best of your visit to Chicago means making choices. Are you a foodie? A musical fanatic? A history buff? No matter your interests, you’re likely to find plenty of activities to keep you busy. For those who love museums and exhibits, Chicago is your paradise, but be prepared to pace yourself.

Chicago is so thick with museums, there’s a whole section of the lakefront designated as “Museum Campus.” Located in the Michigan Avenue/Lakeshore Drive area, the campus is spread out over the beautiful Grant Park. The Art Institute of Chicago dominates the north end of the campus near Millennium Park, while the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium take up most of the campus on the south end near Northerly Island.

Starting at the north end, the Art Institute of Chicago is a massive building with a massive amount of exhibits. It is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the U.S. Founded in 1879, it has nearly 300,000 permanent works of art, covering a wide variety of styles, as well as various special collections. The AIC has everything from the Thorne Miniature Rooms and a furniture-as-art exhibit to exhibits on architecture and contemporary American classics from artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein. Visiting the AIC can easily be a full day event. However, if you have other plans for the afternoon, it’s easy to pick and choose the exhibits you’re most interested in and save the rest for another time. If you do stay at the museum all day, there are several moderately priced indoor and outdoor café options. Along with food, they also offer a variety of wines, microbrews, and a full bar.

General admission is free for children under 13, but ranges from $14-25 for teens and adults, with out of state visitors paying the highest price. Fast Pass admission is also free for children under 13, but ranges from $29-35 for adults. Or, if you plan to visit several attractions, the CityPASS offers discounted tickets to 5 venues for $82 and $98 (children and adults). The museum is open from 10:30 am to 5 pm, daily, except for Thursday’s when it stays open until 8 pm to accommodate the weekly free admission night for Illinois residents from 5-8 pm.

Heading south across Grant Park, is one of the most popular Museum Campus attractions, Shedd Aquarium. It’s best to plan your visit for the morning in order to avoid waiting in long ticket lines later in the day. The aquarium boasts a wide variety of fun and educational exhibits. During summer months, you can visit the outdoor Stingray Touch pool to pet stingrays, then escape the heat inside while you watch a 4-D movie. Choose between SpongeBob, Coastal Predators, and Prehistoric Sea Monsters to entertain younger visitors.

The amphibian exhibit has a wide variety of exotic frogs, newts, and salamanders, and though labeled as “special,” appears to be a permanent feature and is no more elaborate then the regular exhibits . The “Waters of the World” exhibit is divided into corridors of regional fish exhibits, while “Amazon Rising” is a coral reef habitat where you can watch divers feed and interact with the fish at scheduled times throughout the day. The “Wild Reef” is a 400,000 gallon tank filled with sharks, coral, and tropical fish, but the “Polar Play Zone” is where you can see the recently born baby dolphin and its mother, as well as several beluga whales. The last, largest exhibit is the full-scale “At Home on the Great Lakes” exhibit, which features local environments and fish, while teaching visitors about the ecosystem as they walk through the simulated Great Lakes area.

The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m. Ticket prices for the “Total Experience” package range from $40-$55 for adults and $29-$46 for kids. This includes access to the regular exhibits, special amphibian exhibit, 4-D movie, and the Stingray touch pool. There are tickets available to only access the regular exhibits in the $20-25 range. Shedd Aquarium is also part of the CityPASS. If you end up at the aquarium for the whole day, which is definitely possible, they have a sit-down style restaurant as well as a small deli and cafeteria-style dining on the lower level.

A short walk from the aquarium is The Field Museum, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Of all the Museum Campus attractions, The Field Museum practically requires a full day to enjoy. Whether you visit for half a day or the entire day, arriving early is a must. Long lines begin forming around lunch, so be there at 9 am when they open, and you might be able to see everything by the 5 pm closing time.

Why do you need so much time? The Field Museum houses three huge floors of exhibits, nearly 30 permanent and special exhibits, as well as 3D movies and interactive exhibits for younger children. Whether you want to see mummies, learn about indigenous cultures, study plant entomology, or see the Emperor’s Terracotta Warriors, you’ll have your pick of fascinating exhibits. The best way to approach this large museum is to start with what you are most interested in, rather than beginning at one specific spot and moving through systematically. The exhibits are so large and take so long to get through, you may end up missing out on others you want to see, otherwise.

The Field Museum is open every day of the year, except Christmas. Ticket prices range from $26 to $38 (children/adults) for the All-Access pass, which includes all regular and special exhibits, and one 3D movie. The Discovery pass does not include a movie, and ranges from $22-31. The Field Museum is also part of the CityPASS, and general admission is free to ASTC museum members. If you get hungry during your visit, stop by The Field Bistro for cafe-style lunch items.

Rounding out the attractions on Museum Campus is the Adler Planetarium. While Adler Planetarium is quite a bit smaller than the rest of the attractions in the area, it still offers an assortment of shows and exhibits. “Planet Nine” is their current featured movie, an discussion on the exploration for a new ninth planet, and is offered alongside a handful of classic planetarium “night sky” shows and short films. If you want a completely retro planetarium experience, Adler is home of the oldest planetarium, the Atwood Sphere, built in 1913 by Charles Atwood. The dome is a 15-foot metal sphere that rotates around 8 seated guests once the platform is raised inside. The tiny lightbulbs situated around the inside of the dome show the constellations, which haven’t changed since 1913 when it was built.

The rest of the planetarium exhibits showcase NASA programs and moon landings, astronomy, how the universe formed, and a large collection of modern and ancient telescopes. There are also several interactive exhibits, the “Community Design Lab” and “Planet Explorers”, both of which are geared toward younger children. While the range of exhibits and shows is impressive for a planetarium, this is typically only a half-day or less outing. If you want to finish off a morning visit with lunch, Café Galileo’s is onsite with soups, salads, sandwiches, and drinks.

Adler Planetarium is open from 9:30 am to 6 pm, and is also part of the CityPASS. Non CityPass Holders can purchase general admission (no shows included) for $8 and $12 for children/adults. The Basic Pass includes 1 show and all the regular exhibits for $20-25. If you want to try everything the planetarium has to offer, you’ll need the Anytime All Access pass for $30/35, which includes all regular exhibits, the Atwood Sphere, and unlimited shows. General admission is free for ASTC museum members, with the option to add on shows for a fee.

Chicago’s Museum Campus offers a little bit of everything when it comes to exhibits, entertainment, and education. For those who prefer not to eat at the attractions, head into Grant Park for a variety of food vendors, or back to one of many the Michigan Avenue restaurants. When you need a break from touring, stop and enjoy Buckingham Fountain in the heart of Grant Park, or the 12th Street Beach on Northerly Island. Wherever you choose to start or end your visit to Museum Campus, take your time and enjoy everything it has to offer.

Same Place, Different Me

This is a post I wrote in 2016 for a travel writing class. I’m finally getting around to cleaning up of blogs for classes and wanted to repost this one here. It’s a look back at what was going on in my head a year after leaving the religion I grew up in. My early writing style was influenced by my upbringing and it has changed a lot in the last six years.

I’ll be back to posting writing craft article in a few weeks!

I have been to Salt Lake City maybe two dozen times in my life. Growing up Mormon, it’s a place that is always in the back of your mind, where the early saints migrated to after being evicted from multiple states for various reasons. It’s the place members of the church believe God chose for them to seek refuge and build up Zion. It is the epicenter of everything that is Mormonism. Visiting Salt Lake as a child, teen, and even as recently as a few years ago with my own family, always held familiarity mixed with a somewhat unexplainable sense of excitement. It was God’s chosen place, after all.

Previous trips to Salt Lake were filled with walking Temple Square and taking pictures of the 223 foot tall granite temple, which took 40 years to build and is regarded as a testament of God’s power and authority. Visiting meant seeing exhibits at the Church Museum, watching the pin drop presentation in the acoustically impressive Tabernacle building, and touring the massive Conference Center, which cost “a lot of money” to build, as the tour guide put it.

Mixed in with religious sites would be trips to the mid-sized amusement park, Lagoon, or the so-so water park, Seven Peaks, which always inspires one of our kids to say that the names of these two places really should be switched in order to make more sense. I am not a shopper by any means, so we tend to avoid malls, even the new, expensive, controversial City Creek Center located just off Temple Square, and ultimately funded by donations from church members, which is what makes it a hot topic for many people.

Having visited so many times, and grown up in a culture regarded by outsiders as strange—at the very least—making another stop in Salt Lake City while my husband attended a training seminar for work should have been just more of the same. And I suppose it was, because the city hasn’t changed much since our last visit. It was the experience that changed, the perspective. My perspective.

Just over a year ago, my husband and I, along with our two children, left Mormonism. For someone who grew up believing they were part of God’s chosen people and would one day be exalted if they stayed faithful enough long enough, leaving Mormonism isn’t just about giving up a religious creed and gaining more free time on the weekend. It’s leaving behind a culture, a world view, a guide on how to live your life and raise your children. Sometimes, it also often means losing community, friends, and possibly even family.

Being back in Salt Lake, as an ex-Mormon, is what changed the experience. Suddenly, we weren’t part of the culture we grew up in anymore. We were outsiders, experiencing a city in a new way. Scheduled to be there for a week, I was faced with entertaining the kids while my husband was in class, without all the usual stops at church-related sights. I knew there had to be more to do in a city that size, but I had never bothered to look beyond the usual. Now, it was either a week of boredom, or rediscover a city I thought I knew.

The simplest things became new experiences. Dining choices multiplied, because we probably wouldn’t have opting for somewhere like Squatters Pub Brewery on previous trips, since we didn’t drink and had pretty strong views against alcohol in general. When friends my husband worked with, who were also in town for the training, texted to see if we wanted to go out for drinks one evening, a year ago that would have ended in an awkward refusal that, to us at least, would have felt judgmental no matter how we tried to phrase it. This trip, I was surprised to realize Salt Lake has a thriving night scene, with everything from classy whiskey bars and microbreweries, to dive bars and pool halls.

And the people who frequented these places? They were perfectly normal. Not the sad, lost people who had been demonized in church lessons on temperance during youth meetings. We met a lady from Ireland who had raised her son on her own, sent him off to college in Europe so he could experience part of where his family came from, was successful in her career, and proud of her life so far. She held her own beliefs about religion, found Mormons interesting to live amongst, but respected everyone’s right to live their lives how they saw fit—something Mormons have a very difficult time doing. Non-members are people to be pitied, as a Mormon, because they don’t have the truth. Yet, most of our closest friends have always been non-members, and as we’ve expanded our circle, there’s no pity, no judgement, no press to show them the right way. We’re still figuring out what that is ourselves, like most people. Whether or not you drink alcohol on occasion has very little to do with your moral superiority.

For as much as modern Mormons are known for never drinking alcohol, there’s a reason Salt Lake has Whiskey Street and a plethora of downtown bars named with creative Mormon puns. Early church leaders drank, smoked, and had beards—which are no longer allowed to be worn by men in church leadership positions, for vague, absurd reasons having something to do with an intense dislike of hippies in the seventies. Much of what Mormonism is today is a far cry from what it was in its early days, and somehow Salt Lake City serves as an unwitting portrait of both the old religion and its modernized cousin.

As trivial as new places to eat might seem to some, wardrobe might seem equally minor, yet it was another factor in seeing a new side of the city. People not familiar with the Salt Lake area think it’s brimming with Mormons. In actuality, only about forty percent of the city’s population are active members of the church. I knew this before, a fact kept somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, when sorting through the suitcase looking for something to wear, I found myself worrying about sticking out.

It was hot during our trip, right around the same time Phoenix was suffering through one-hundred-twenty degree days. We also planned to walk most places, because finding parking can be a pain and I never carry change for meters. When we left Mormonism, we stopped wearing the traditional undergarments that didn’t allow for sleeveless tops or anything that hit above the knee. Over the hot summer I had been spending as much time as possible in summer dresses, tank tops, and shorts. That was fine at home or on vacation in Chicago, but in Salt Lake? In the mecca of Mormonism? I felt self-conscious walking out of the hotel in any of these types of clothes, but it was really, really hot.

My insecurity all but vanished after a few blocks of walking toward the local small, but fun, planetarium. No one was staring. Not a single person gave me a look of disappointment or disgust. No one even cared. In fact, most every woman I saw had on shorts or an above-the-knee skirt, sleeveless blouses or spaghetti straps. It was hot, and the majority of people living in Salt Lake have nothing to do with the religion, its requirements, or its constraints. They’re simply trying not to sweat through their shirts on their way to the street car station, or walking a kitten on a leash (I wish I had gotten a picture of that, but it seemed rude), or enjoying lunch with friends in an air conditioned restaurant that may or may not serve wine alongside their sandwiches. The liquor laws in Utah are very weird, so who knows.

The fact was, nearly every person I passed was oblivious to the fact that I was wearing a blue plaid skirt that hit above my knees and was paired with a black tank top. As a youth in the Mormon Church, you’re constantly reminded that the world is watching you, looking to you as an example, a candle on the hill meant to light the way for others. That kind of language makes you feel special, encourages you to be obedient, lead your wayward friends toward true happiness. Stepping outside that culture and experiencing the rest of the world has shown me over and over that Mormonism is the sole focus of only the people living inside that bubble. The rest of the world is content to blaze their own path toward happiness and success.

Finding our own path, in regards to staying entertained that week, led us to all kinds of places I’d never been to before, like The Leonardo museum.

My kids’ interest in children’s museums has been steadily falling over the past few years, but The Leo was different. Everything was interactive, from molding Claymation people to record on little movie screens, to using your body to make prismatic rainbow reflections. What stuck out to me the most, however, was a temporary exhibit on indigent people. Told through portraits and written stories, visitors could see into the lives of people who had ended up in a situation of homelessness for various reasons. The point of the exhibit was to break down stereotypes, and it had me and my kids fascinated.

I’m of big fan of podcasts like “This American Life” and “Beautiful/Anonymous” because I love hearing people’s stories, epic or everyday. This exhibit struck me, not only because of this, but because on our walk to the museum I kept noticing signs around downtown asking people not to give money to the homeless. Salt Lake does have a high population of indigents (around 14,000 in 2015), and while I understand the reasons behind asking people to give money to local shelters and services rather than directly to the people, I also saw this city in a new light than I ever had before.

The Mormon Church receives millions of dollars in donations from members every year, yet only a small percentage is actually put toward philanthropic ventures. Most goes toward payroll, church schools, and real estate. As we walked back from The Leo with a statistic on my mind that most homeless people only need shelter and help for about two weeks in order to get back on their feet, I saw those same signs and considered how my own viewpoints had changed.

A year before, I would have agreed with commonly held ideals of my former faith that most of these people had landed themselves in these situations through their own choices, and a handout would only enable them. Give money to the church instead, and they would take care of the rest, led by God’s influence. I grew up with hardline concepts of choice and accountability, of a person needing to succeed on their own and not make excuses for failure. Salvation comes through acts, not grace. Leaving Mormonism blurred the lines between what I once thought was black and white.

The stories from the museum kept going through my mind as we walked back to the hotel, one in particular of a couple who had been addicted to drugs and living on the streets for years, yet made the difficult decision to turn their lives around. An elderly woman the man had once known agreed to take them both in while they tried to get clean, and they spent years working their way up from odd jobs for neighbors to regular landscaping work, amending wrongs they had committed the best they could along the way, even when it meant jail time.

I kept thinking about that story, wondering how it might have been different if the elderly woman had turned them away and told them to ask a shelter for a bed instead. Yes, shelters and services meant to help indigent are good places to contribute time and money, but sometimes a single individual can be the best force for change if we’re willing to see the world and the people in it a little more clearly, a little less blurred by our own limited experiences and what we think we know to be right.

Culture is a strange thing. How you see it and experience it has so much to do with what side of the line you stand on: insider or outsider. A trip I’ve made dozens of times in my life provided me with a view of both what it was like to experience a culture I was well acquainted with from a completely new viewpoint as an outsider, as well as see the world outside Mormonism from a clearer perspective. The culture you grow up with is always a part of you.  Stepping outside of it, experiencing new cultures, new places, new viewpoints, it doesn’t erase what you started with, but rather adds to it, allowing you to see, know, and understand more than you could have before.

Time for Some Homework

Recently (this week, in fact) I’ve officially gone back to college!

2016-03-29 18.34.38.jpgOriginally, I intended to get my bachelor’s degree in English, but there were some issues with that plan and now I’m working on a degree in Communication-Media Studies with a minor in English. Getting my degree will allow me to teach more classes at our local community college, so here I go!

This summer I’m taking a Technical Writing class that is way more intense than I was expecting, and a Travel Writing class which is awesome.

Why am I sharing this?

Both classes understandably have homework, and since it’s writing related and I like sharing things I learn about writing with my readers, I’ll be posting some of my homework pieces here on my blog. Some for feedback, some for fun. So when you see posts about how to sew a French seam or why the Spruce Tree House is closed at Mesa Verde National Park, that’s why.

If you feel prompted to offer feedback, please do! There’s always room to learn more, and comments from readers are just as valuable to me as comments from classmates and instructors.

Have a great summer!