Off the El Eats

Off The El Eats: The Chicago French Market

Off-the-el-Eats-300x150It’s hard to get the whole squad together for dinner, but it’s even more difficult to unanimously agree on a place to eat. Narrowing the options to one type of cuisine out of the numerous options in Chicago is another challenge in itself.

When I recently encountered this issue, I asked a group of friends what type of food they wanted. One responded with multiple suggestions, including Spanish, Greek, German and Japanese, and someone else quickly chimed in with, “If you’ve got all of those in one place that’d be sick.”  Then, I realized such a place does exist.

The Chicago French Market (131 N. Clinton St.) connects to the Metra Ogilvie Station and is a short walk off the Clinton Green Line stop. It houses around 30 local vendors, selling everything from fresh produce and groceries to artisan cheese and chocolates. It has many different places to find lunch and dinner (either grab-and-go or freshly made).

Courtesy of Regina Merrill
Courtesy of Regina Merrill

The market is named after the Bensidoun family, the largest market operator in and around Paris since 1953, who operates and manages the space. Despite the name, a wall mural of the Eiffel Tower and the background music heavily featuring French pop-singer Carla Bruni, the food offered at the market is not all French.

When you first enter the market, it can be a little overwhelming. Three aisles of vendors stretch down the hall, which extends about 50 yards. It’s a good plan to walk around and take a look at the different options so you have a good idea of what’s available. Vendors cover a diverse array of selections, including American BBQ, French crêpes, a Kosher deli, a Mexican taqueria, vegan fare and Mediterranean kebabs. Other specialty foods, such as artisan chocolates, cheeses and olive oils, are available as well.

My friends and I each set off on our own and reassembled in the back of the market, which has seating for at least 60 but gets pretty packed during the lunch rush.

Courtesy of frenchmarketchicago.com
Courtesy of frenchmarketchicago.com

I got the chicken pho ($8.95) from Saigon Sisters, a Vietnamese stall that offers bahn mi, bao, stir-fried rice and noodle bowls. The pho was perfect for a chilly Chicago evening. Filled with rice noodles and chicken, the broth had just the right amount of onion and salty flavor. I’ve also had the caramelized chicken rice bowl ($8.75) before, which comes with carrots, cilantro, jalapeños, red peppers and cucumbers — a healthy but filling lunch. The chicken was tender and the sauce was sweet but light without being too goopy.

I’ve visited other vendors as well on previous occasions. Lillie’s Q offers southern BBQ items such as pulled pork and brisket, and it has six types of sauces, including “Carolina gold” and hot and smoky (more of a Memphis-style sauce). I’ve also had the fries from Frietkoten Fries and Beers, which offers Belgian-style cones of crispy fries and 20 different dipping sauces, ranging from truffle mayo to sweet chili ketchup.

The dishes my friends brought back to the table included a lobster B.L.T. from Da Lobsta, pasta and meatballs from Polpetti and a cheese box and baguette from Pastoral. It was fun to see what everyone chose and sample each other’s food — it was like having a picnic, which isn’t something you’d typically be able to enjoy on a February evening in Chicago. My friends liked their food and everyone could get exactly what they wanted.

I love trying something new every time and exploring the diverse options. For a different dining experience that’s good for a big group with mixed tastes, the market is worth a try.

The Chicago French Market is open Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m.-7:30 p.m. and Saturday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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