"Chicken Shish Kaloaf" meatloaf "cupcake." (Emma Slonina/MJ)
Chocolate-raspberry and peanut-butter-Nutella cupcakes from Molly's Bakery. (Emma Slonina/MJ)

BY EMMA SLONINA

It’s not as local as my other picks, but a few-hour trek to Chicago is hardly asking to go to the moon and back. A long weekend in the Windy City is just enough time to get your feet wet (and your mouth watering). Chicago is full of fantastic restaurants, but the surrounding neighborhoods are the really exciting parts. Lincoln Park, in northern Chicago, is an eclectic little neighborhood full of youth, art, food, and life.

The area is utterly walkable, and Clark Street (running southeast, towards Lake Michigan) is an endless corridor of boutiques and eateries. An early morning journey up and down Clark is a good way to plan the day’s activities – and meals.

Challah French toast at Frances' deli - Holla! (Emma Slonina/MJ)

Various cafes caught my eye but we ultimately stopped in at Frances’ Deli for breakfast since we were too hungry to walk any farther and it billed itself as Lincoln Park’s oldest deli. Good enough for us!

They serve breakfast all day and have a massive breakfast menu. Deli favorites, like cheese blintzes and fried matzo, as well as the regulars, like omelets, French toast, and pancakes. I went for the challah French toast, smothered in butter and syrup; light and fluffy, yet totally decadent.

It was so good we went back the next day, ordering corned beef hash (divine) and chocolate chip pancakes (so good, but such a bad idea).

"Chicken Shish Kaloaf" meatloaf "cupcake." (Emma Slonina/MJ)

After visiting a few little gift shops, Lincoln Park itself, and the free petting zoo on Lake Michigan’s shore, we were ready for lunch already. We’d been eyeing up the Meatloaf Bakery as we passed by earlier, and we had to give it a try.

This tiny storefront didn’t just deal in gourmet meatloaf. That would be too boring for Lincoln Park. They deal instead in meatloaf cupcakes. No cake is involved; each individually-portioned meatloaf is baked in a cupcake tin, “frosted” with mashed potatoes, and then garnished with various sauces, herbs, and spices.

We got the “wing and a prayer” meatloaf – a buffalo wing-themed meatloaf with a bleu cheese crust on top of a spicy chicken base – and the “chicken shish” meatloaf – another chicken base with lemon, parsley, and onions, topped with garlic mashed potatoes.

Both were very tasty, but disappointingly dry. The side sauces were absolutely necessary for any moisture. Maybe when they’re freshly baked they’re nice and moist, but once they reheat them for you when you come in, it just saps any juice right out of them. At least it’s a cute idea and they aren’t absolutely inedible.

Parched and looking for a watering hole, we stopped by Noble Tree Coffee and Tea. Three floors of sitting rooms, as well as a front deck with tables and umbrellas. Any place with wooden floors, a fireplace, quirky paintjob, and blackboard menus gets points in my book – for aesthetics, at least.
The coffee and chai tea we ordered came in thick, hefty mugs. No flimsy cardboard nonsense here. Everyone had to clean up after themselves, and board games sat on various tables while groups of college students laughed and talked with each other.

Chicken Rustica at the Basil Leaf Cafe. (Emma Slonina/MJ)

Dinner was an extravagant affair at the Basil Leaf Café. Hot soup, fresh salads, giant platters (not plates – platters) of pasta, and endless baskets of steaming hot garlic bread should have put us into a food coma on the spot. Disgustingly, we managed to box up our leftovers and suddenly feel hungry enough for dessert. Raspberry-cookies-and-cream cheesecake from a bar across the street. I don’t know how we made it back.

Before we left the next day, we indulged in a quick trip to Molly’s Cupcakes, one of half a dozen cupcake shops in the area. I bought a chocolate and raspberry cupcake for myself, and a peanut butter-Nutella cupcake for my sister. Neither survived the train ride home. Yes, I shamefully admit to having eaten my own cupcake and my sister’s cupcake. But I was hungry. And they smelled so good. And who ever has to know…?