A Journey to the Midwest and some Odd Discoveries
As a native Californian, I really didn’t know much about the Midwest. When I met some friends in college from Chicago, I began to learn more and more. To give you an idea of how much I didn’t know, the first and most embarrassing fact I learned was that Chicago is nowhere near the east coast. Definitely upset a few Chicagoans with that one...
Last month I finally graduated from college and decided to take a senior trip to the mysterious Midwest. I spent 5 days in South Bend, Indiana, and 4 days in Chicago. Being a true foodie at heart, I strived to make the most of my meals and experience what the Midwest had to offer. Who would’ve guessed that Greek food and a hot pocket-like food called a pizza puff would pique my interest…
🇬🇷 Greeks in the Midwest?
Unknown to me, there is a very large Greek population in the Midwest. Throughout my travels across Chicago, I began to realize that nearly every generic fast-casual and fast-food restaurant had 2 menu items in common: Greek Gyros, and Pizza Puffs.
After about the 8th time I saw these 2 items side-by-side, I asked my Chicago friend about it and he didn’t seem phased at all. He just said, “it’s the true Midwest experience.” I wasn’t complaining, gyros are one of my favorite foods despite not being too common in SoCal. I then made it my goal to get a really good gyro in Chicago’s Greektown during our trip.
Greek Food in Greektown
🇬🇷 Homemade Gyro
📍 Greek Islands - Chicago
It was at the Greektown staple restaurant, Greek Islands, that I had a gyro like never before. The pita was warm and grainy, an indicator it was freshly made. The meat melted in your mouth and was generously portioned. And the sauce was so good, I considered asking for more and eating it by the spoonful. While enjoying the great Greek cuisine, I thought I heard someone speaking Italian. I commented to my friend and he said, “No that’s very obviously Greek you dummy, we are in a Greek restaurant!” Oh yeah... Then I realized I had never heard a person speak Greek before! Most California Greek food certainly did not have employees speaking Greek. I didn’t even really know what Greek sounded like before this point. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time I’d be hearing it on this trip.
Gyro: a Greek dish made from meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. It is typically served wrapped or stuffed in a pita, along with ingredients such as tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce.
🌭 Gyros and Hot Dogs??
After our filling and perspective-changing meal at Greek Islands, I told my friend that I wanted to try at least 1 more gyro while I was in town. He chuckled and said that certainly wouldn’t be a problem since they are sold almost everywhere and boy was he right. Later that day, we visited the home of the Cubs, Wrigley Field. I was set on having a Chicago-style hot dog for my 2nd dinner that night. (yes I eat 2 dinners when I travel!)
The Duality of Man
🇬🇷 Gyro & Chicago-Style Hot Dog
📸 @wrigleyville_dogs & @carlaeatschi
📍 Wrigleyville Dogs - Chicago
In Wrigleyville, we stumbled across a small dive fast food joint selling the sought-after Chicago hot dogs. While in line, I glanced at their menu and saw gyro listed as a main entre alongside burgers and hot dogs. This shocked me because it didn’t even appear to be a Greek restaurant. Then I listened a bit more to the staff in the back kitchen. You guessed it, they were speaking Greek!
I fought back the temptation to get a gyro and stuck to my plan of getting a Chicago dog, but still, it was eye-opening! I was shocked at the true extent of Greek influence in Chicago. It was almost comparable to Mexican influence in SoCal, where random restaurants will add tacos to their menu.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog: A Vienna Beef hot dog topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt.
🍕 What about the Pizza Puffs?
The final morning of my Chicago visit, we went to a Greek restaurant called Dengeo’s for one last gyro. I wanted to try a restaurant that wasn’t made for tourists or in a busy area, so we headed to a suburb of Chicago called Evanston. Since this spot was not in the city center, it was easily the cheapest meal of the trip! For $7.85, I got the most packed and stacked gyro I’ve ever seen. There was not a cubic centimeter in the pita bread that didn’t have the delicious coveted gyro meat and sauce. 🤤
A Loaded Gyro
📍 Dengeo’s - Chicago
As I finished my gyro, I realized my friend had ordered something strange, a pizza puff. I had seen these on the menus of every restaurant we went to, but hadn’t even considered that anyone ordered them. The pizza puff could best be described as a glorified hot pocket. That’s it, it was literally just a big hot pocket.
There was nothing Greek about it and we both began to wonder why. He told me that every pizza puff was definitely the same brand, meaning tons of restaurants all across Chicago serve the same exact pizza puff. We googled and found that a company called Iltaco was the ones supplying all these pizza puffs. Ironically enough, Iltaco is short for Illinois Tamale Company! We assume that either through family or community connections, every place serving gyros eventually added pizza puff to their menu to the point where it was now just a golden standard of Midwest Greek Food.
These sort of local quirks are my favorite part of traveling and eating so I was thrilled to learn about the pizza puff. If you are ever in the Midwest, be sure to have gyro and, if you dare, a pizza puff!