Tracks and snacks

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It happens every weekday, sometime around 5:01 p.m.: the collective shuffling of feet as thousands of commuters board trains from Chicago and head for suburbia and beyond. With the smell of dinner only in their minds, commuters face rides that can seem to take forever . . . and ever. A bagel from the morning's meeting that's stuffed in a briefcase has lost its appeal. So has the half-eaten pasta primavera from lunch in the Tupperware container.

Fear not, lovers of gastronomy, because there is decent food in and around Chicago's four main commuter stations. We tasted, noshed and sipped our way around the train stations to find the 19 best dishes that are easy to carry home, fast to order, don't require a fork and knife (eat on the train!) and are wholly delicious.

Ogilvie Transportation Center
Because this station shares real estate with the Citicorp Center, it benefits from the enormous food court at the building's base. Many of the few dozen vendors stay open late -- good news for commuters logging overtime.

Lobster bisque at Soupbox: $4.95 after tax (regular portion)
Time in line: 1 min.
Closes: 9:30 p.m.
Warm your soul with this highly caloric but highly delicious soup. Pureed lobster is mixed with cream and tomato paste, plus a splash of white wine to give it some oomph. Even the wafting steam is delicious. The bisque is so rich and transcendent, you momentarily close your eyes and sigh.

Garlic pretzel and lemonade at Auntie Anne's Pretzels: $4.50 after tax
Time in line: 1 min.
Closes: 7:30 p.m.
Imagine, for a moment, heading to a steakhouse on an empty stomach and noshing on a million garlic bread knots. Try as you might, you can't stop. That same feeling of absolute submission can be found here, with the buttery, warm, crispy garlic pretzels made on-site and oven-baked. Pair that with the sweeter-than-tart Old-Fashioned Lemonade, and you have an inexpensive and addictive snack-to-go.

Honey mustard grilled chicken-breast sandwich at Robinson's: $4.72 after tax
Time in line: 6 mins.
Closes: 6 p.m.
As the name suggests, ribs are #1 at Robinson's #1 Ribs. But meaty slabs of bone-in pork equal sticky fingers and sauce on your lips, and that's not meant for consumption on-the-go. Might we suggest a neater alternative: the honey mustard grilled chicken breast sandwich. The chicken is freshly grilled (real char marks!) and the sauce strikes the right balance between sharp, tangy mustard and honey. Lettuce, tomato, red onions on a kaiser bun round out the sandwich. (There's also a location at Union Station, though it doesn't have this sandwich.)

Cabo shrimp burrito at Burrito Beach: $6.60 after tax
Time in line: 5 mins.
Closes: 9 p.m.
The sea is in view from Burrito Beach, the Chicago-based Mexican eatery, with its new Cabo Shrimp Burrito. While we understand seafood is expensive and that the cook scrimped on the shrimp (eight pieces, no more, no less), we appreciate this healthier-than-steak burrito alternative. And it's not bad--bold, plump, slightly spicy shrimp grilled on the spot, with the usual assortment of rice, beans, veggies, cheese and salsa verde.

Union Station
The food court here is concentrated in the building east of Canal Street and gets especially busy around lunchtime. Fortunately, the lines are short by 5 p.m., but watch out for the throngs heading toward the train platforms.

Kid's pack at Krispy Kreme: $2.74 after tax
Time in line: 3 mins.
Closes: 8 p.m.
Quite possibly the best deal we found, though you may have to say, "Oh, I'm getting this for my niece." Check this out: six doughnut holes from Krispy Kreme (you can mix and match, though I like glazed and blueberry), a bottle of milk with a crazy straw, crayons, a coloring sheet, plus a Krispy Kreme chef's hat. Two bucks and change, and you've still got room for dinner. Brilliant.

Grilled portobello mushroom sandwich at Boston Blackie's: $7.71 after tax
Time in line: 13 mins.
Closes: 9 p.m.
Smack between Union and Ogilvie stations is this venerable bar and grill, where the staff is reminded with signs that "you are serving Chicago's best burgers." For a change, try the mushroom sandwich, with the portobello 'shroom marinated in balsamic vinegar, then stacked high on dark rye bread with provolone cheese, red peppers, a honkin' beefsteak tomato and eggplant slice. It is indeed a behemoth. Call ahead, as this will take a bit of time to make.

Taylor Street sub at Nino Panino's: $6.05 after tax
Time in line: 2 mins.
Closes: 8 p.m.
The best-selling sandwich here is the Taylor Street sub, a nod to how molto Italiano the ingredients are: mortadella, salami, pepperoni. Many folks like this sub toasted, and you should too. After the mayo, the mustard, the tomatoes, onions and lettuce, it's pretty hard to screw this one up. It's just plain good.

Fresh Albacore tuna sandwich at Gold Coast Dogs: $4.95 after tax
Time in line: 2 mins.
Closes: 7:30 p.m.
Leave the Chicago-style dogs and Cheddar char whatever to the lightweights. Real Chicagoans get the tuna sandwich on whole-wheat bread (even a Zagat restaurant guide years ago praised this version). What makes it great is its classic simplicity. A thick smattering of tuna and mayo, with your choice of veggie accoutrements, between two bread slices. One dill pickle to the side. Carry out and eat.

Anything on a toothpick at Kelly's Cajun Grill: free
Time in line: seconds
Closes: 8 p.m.
Any commuter who frequents Union Station is familiar with the refrain, "Yummy yummy right here!" It comes from Kelly's Cajun Grill, which gives away sample bourbon chicken and lemon chicken on toothpicks at all hours of the day. Though they try, there's not much authentic N'awlins cooking here that Paul Prudhomme would endorse. But we do appreciate the workers' enthusiasm for giving away free samples.

Millenium Station
The recently renovated station, also known as Randolph Street Station (Randolph Street and Beaubien Court), has few dining options within its terminal. The Prudential Plaza connected next door, as well as on Michigan Avenue, offers wider and tastier choices.

Essn Sparkling Fruit Drinks at Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea: $1.41 after tax
Time in line: 1 minute
Closes: 9 p.m.
We found these cool little cans of sparkling juices (250 ml) at the Intelligentsia behind the Cultural Center and just west of the station. With just the right kind of fizziness, we nominate our two favorite flavors: Minneola Tangerine (also known as a tangelo, a "mash-up" of grapefruit and tangerines) and Blood Orange and Cranberry (a sweeter, more robust orange flavor with the tartness of cranberries). And the price, for this touristy part of town, is not ridiculous.

Chicken deluxe sandwich at Popeye's Chicken: $3.96 after tax
Time in line: 6 minutes
Closes: 9 p.m.
There are times near the end of the workday when our stomachs rumble, and we want nothing more than those crispy and spicy Popeye's fried chicken wings, and maybe a cold one. A far less messier and portable alternative is the Spicy Chicken Deluxe Sandwich (also comes in tame, you wuss). It delivers that familiar so-crisp-it's-nearly-crunchy chicken in fillet breast form, with lettuce, tomato, spicy mayo on a great, crusty toasted bun. Find this Popeye's a block and a half northwest of the station on Wabash.

Chicken egg roll at Panda Express: $1.42 after tax
Time in line: 1 minute
Closes: 6 p.m.
You can quibble about ol' Panda's authenticity, but the chicken egg roll is quite good. Filled with chicken, cabbage, mushrooms, carrots and green onions, these egg rolls are thick and crispy with a black-peppery taste that lingers. Those yellow packets of sweet plum sauce or whatever it is seem gratuitous.

Gianduia gelato at Caffe Rom: $2.15 after tax (one scoop)
Time in line: 1 minute
Closes: 4:30 p.m.
Those hoping to scratch that gelato itch (like ice cream, but denser) can find it at Caffe Rom inside the adjacent Prudential Plaza, the first of what owners say will be many branches in Chicago. Among their best offering is the gianduia, a classic Italian flavor made from rich chocolate and hazelnut. Grab a scoop to go -- though the cup will likely be empty by the time you reach the platform.

Falafel sandwich with hummus at Brian's Juice Bar and Deli: $4.63 after tax
Time in line: 2 minutes
Closes: 7 p.m.
Vegetarians take notice. Though this longtime sandwich shop and juice maker serves up shawarmas and meatball subs like nobody's business, one of their perennial best sellers remains their fabulous falafel sandwich with hummus. They start with a thick layer of humus, then add those crispy chick-pea balls mixed with diced tomatoes and cucumbers in a tahini sauce. It's topped with lettuce and wrapped in a pita. This deli is steps away from the station's Michigan Avenue/Lake Street entrance.

LaSalle Street Station
Because it's near the Chicago Board of Trade, most restaurants around this station close by mid-afternoon. As for inside the station, there's a place that sells chips and beer, and that's about it for food. Walk around the corner to Jackson Boulevard or Wells Street for a plethora of delis and chain eateries.

Big Jack's PB and J at Potbelly Sandwich Works:$4.29 after tax
Time in line: 3 minutes
Closes: 7 p.m.
There's a place in New York's West Village that sells nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. Until we get something like that in Chicago, we'll leave it to Potbelly, across from the Chicago Board of Trade and north of the station, for our reminiscences. Their formula could not be simpler: Start with toasted bread, add creamy peanut butter, then grape jam. Fold and eat like a giddy 6-year-old.

Skribeye at Skrine Chops: $10.85 after tax
Time in line: 8 minutes
Closes: 3 p.m.
Before Steve Skrine went into the restaurant biz full time, he worked at the nearby Chicago Board of Trade and was famous for the grilled pork chops he served at his annual Christmas party. While the city should thank him for those juicy center-cut chops, we give even bigger thumbs up to the Skribeye Sandwich: a grilled beef rib eye with a healthy dollop of bleu cheese mashed potatoes. As one co-worker who took a bite exclaimed, "this is crazy good." Located just west and steps from the station.

Chicken mole burrito at Qdoba: $6.27 after tax
Time in line: 1 minute
Closes: 7 p.m.
There's plenty going on inside these tortillas. Like at most burrito joints, you get the base of rice, beans, salsa, cheese and veggies. This one has grilled chicken, with a ladle of rich and viscous brown mole sauce slathered on top. It's hard to differentiate flavors, but the sum of the parts is pretty darn delicious. Qdoba is on the corner of Wells and Jackson.

Dakkochi (two pieces) at Korean Express: $3.28 after tax
Time in line: 1 minute
Closes: 5 p.m.
Advertised as "Chicago's very first Korean fast food restaurant" (some on Lawrence Avenue might dispute this), Korean Express, across the street from Qdoba, has these traditional chicken kebabs called Dakkochi. Sticky sweet chicken cubes are skewered with onions and green peppers for a spicy quick bite on the run.

Watermelon and cantaloupe Joijuice at The Fruit Factory: $4.35 after tax (medium size)
Time in line: 3 minutes
Closes: 5 p.m.
This neat little independent juice bar just north of the station makes "JoiJuice." So what is it? It's juice. Nothing too fancy -- just take fresh fruits and blend them into an icy slush. The counter folks will offer juicing suggestions, but let us offer one combination to momentarily remind of us warmer days: watermelon and cantaloupe. The summer breeze ... makes me feel fine.

Originally published on November 16, 2006 by the Chicago Tribune.

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