Chicago Chow: Intelligentsia Coffee & Frango Chocolates

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Intelligentsia Coffee
53 E. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60601
Web: Intelligentsia Coffee
Phone: 312.920.9332
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"Today Frango is the inspiration behind everything from cocoas and liqueurs to cheesecake and ice cream, all sold at the former Marshall Field's - Macy's - on State Street."

Why would we walk 10 blocks past the Starbucks in our Chicago hotel's lobby for a cup of coffee? Or bypass the hotel's first-floor restaurant to explore the city's culinary scene? The answer is obvious: the taste. We could easily make a cup of instant coffee or order room service every day, but restricting our intake to what's convenient would be a mistake. Especially in Chicago. This mightn't be a city of foodies, but it's a city for foodies, a place where best of class restaurants either start or have outposts, and a destination not just for celebratory food festivals but for celebration in general. It was Chicago, years ago, where we first tried Fogo de Chao, a destination-quality Brazilian steakhouse in a city known for its name brand American steakhouses; it is Chicago, now, where we sampled the relatively young Intelligentsia Coffee and the comparatively old Frango Chocolates. They are the subject of the first of a four-part look at Chicago dining.

Intelligentsia Coffee mightn't make the best coffee we've ever had - it's very close, with Seattle's Vivace and Washington D.C.'s Peregrine are a little better in our book - but it is quite possibly the best small coffee shop chain we've visited. It has the right story, a just-married couple starting an independent coffee shop together and achieving success, and the right marketing, complete with a smart name, a cool winged logo, neat cups and coffee bags, and storefronts that have been designed to match the look of their surroundings rather than merely copying a stale template.

More important is the fact that Intelligentsia has the right concept: actively selecting and roasting excellent coffees, using famous single-cup Clover machines to prep all the drinks. Think of a drip coffee you like, then imagine how it would taste if it was obviously fresh, without char. That's how Intelligentsia's standard cup of coffee tastes. The lattes have the right level of foam and natural sweetness. Mochas are made with gourmet Varlhona chocolate. And the teas - the Chai and Moroccan Mint we tried iced - were strong enough in natural flavor that sugar wasn't necessary to enjoy them.

We liked Intelligentsia's drinks enough to come back three times over the course of a four-day visit, sampling little additional bits of the menu every time we did, and there were only a couple of consistent issues: like the Varlhona chocolate, the standard pick-of-the-day coffee leaned a little towards sour, a taste that some gourmets may appreciate but others may not, and the foam levels were a little low on the cappuccinos. That said, if we lived here, or in Los Angeles where there are now two Intelligentsia locations, we'd make plenty of time to explore the store's coffee options in greater depth; it wouldn't be a surprise to see this little chain spread further over time.

Intelligentsia Coffee on Urbanspoon

Chocolates are sometimes regional, and sometimes generational; Frango is a prime example. The sight of this word in the basement level of a Macy's store in downtown Chicago was enough to excite one of us - the familiar one - as we passed through, and a friendly employee took notice, offering an impromptu history lesson in these Midwestern and Pacific Northwestern chocolates. What is a Frango? Since 1927, the word has referred to a mint meltaway - a chocolate-coated mint buttercreme truffle - but today, there are multiple flavors of Frangos, including toffee and salted caramel versions, dark chocolate and milk chocolate mints, fruit flavors, and seasonals such as a candy cane chocolate. It turns out that this brand is famous enough in certain places that people have freaked out when circumstances have threatened its continued production; today, chocolate tours stop at Macy's to spotlight the candies, and we saw one going through when we revisited the store to buy a few boxes.

The Frango mint candy was invented in 1927 at Seattle department store Frederick & Nelson's, which inspired the candy's name, and later arrived in Chicago after Marshall Field's acquired Frederick & Nelson's in 1929. The chocolates remained popular over the years, occasionally inspiring legal controversies, and in 2005, Macy's bought Marshall Field's. Today Frango is twice removed from its original owners, still extremely popular in Chicago, and the inspiration behind everything from Frango cocoas and liqueurs to licensed cheesecake and ice cream, all sold at the former Marshall Field's store - now Macy's - on State Street. Macy's also sells some of the products online.

Are the Frango chocolates miraculous in some way? No. They're just good truffle-like candies with high butter fat content. The mint meltaways are dense yet smooth as can be, while the toffee ones are a little crunchy in the center, and the caramel ones last for two or three times as long due to their thick, chewy cores. They mightn't be precisely the same as chocolates you'd find at any local candy shop, but they're close enough that many people wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Yet as the brand's Wikipedia entry indicates, they're a fascinating example of just how excited people can be over a local specialty, and how long that specialty can persist - even in the face of changing times, tastes, and owners. We'll be enjoying our boxes for as long as they last around here.

Frango Cafe on Urbanspoon

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