The seatbelt icon switched off with a ding and a gentle voice announced “it was safe to use approved electronic devices.” My heart fluttered when the flight attendant pulled a mini packet of trail mix and ice filled airline cup of Diet Pepsi from the beverage cart shortly after reaching a proper cruising altitude. Flying at 35,000 feet is one of the few times I’m able to achieve total isolation from the outside world. No phone calls. No text messages. No Facebook status updates. For the next hour and half, I am in total meditative bliss.
Shortly after earning my undergraduate degree, I relocated to Chicago to pursue the life of a hip, young, urban professional. My early 20’s was a perfect time to be in the Windy City. It was a period when prosperity was capitalized and life moved at the speed of progress. I basked in the naivety of my youth and hungered to feast on the flavors this thriving metropolis had to offer. For nearly five years, life was good. Then the employment bubble burst and I made a decision to move to Pittsburgh.
I now found myself hailing a taxi to transport me to the downtown loop, a place I still called “home” even after a three-year hiatus. My goal for this trip was to visit as many beloved neighborhoods and restaurants as I could possibly cram into a five-day itinerary. Rib Fest in Uptown, a stroll through furniture shops in Andersonville and Millennium Park, just off the Mag. Mile, were all listed at the top. The Green City Farmer’s Market, an urban utopia of fresh seasonal produce, was just a quick bus ride from my friend’s apartment in Lincoln Park. Plus, there was sure to be a late-night Chicago dog or two at some point in the week. My adventure would begin in Wrigleyville, however, just off the Addison stop on the Red Line.
The energy radiating from a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field was electric the next morning as I wove through a growing sea of people. Several unforgettable experiences intensified by warm Pabst Blue Ribbon, salty peanuts and a few, too many, hot dogs reminded me this was a sign the game was nearing its final inning. It was not the most ideal neighborhood for someone of my sober stature to be visiting at that particular moment. But, I was a man on a mission to devour the best Thai food I have ever tasted. My gluttonous cravings overpowered all sense of better judgment.
The cheers decreased to a distant hum as I progressed down a small tree-lined street toward Cozy Noodles and Rice. Tucked on the other side of Clark Street where bars and restaurants beckon crowds with large flat screen T.V.’s and beer specials, Cozy is rather unassuming from the outside. A toy robot icon bolted to the brick exterior and a life-sized Betty Boop statue near an outdoor dining area provides only a mere suggestion of the visual explosion inside. The interior décor is playful with a perfect blend of kitsch and nostalgia – an unexpected change from the Zen-like modern designs commonly found in similar restaurants. Every available square inch is covered with decades’ worth of vintage toys, metal signs and other mementos. The table bases were cleverly crafted from old sewing machine legs with the foot pedal still intact. Hundreds of plastic action figures, lined up ready for battle, encased in a foggy acrylic serve as the top of the table. I often wondered if Cozy Noodle was where toys go when left forgotten by distracted children.
I selected a table near the window and memories flooded my mind. From bad dates to hosting out-of-town family visitors, this place was a key fixture while living in Chicago. My server greeted me with deep chocolate brown eyes and a warm smile as if we had been friends for years. She offered a glass of ice cold water, crisp and refreshing after walking in 95 degree heat, while I considered what to order. Even in a city where restaurants are quick to evolve with the latest food trends, Cozy’s menu hasn’t changed much since my last visit and it didn’t take long to make a decision.
Six baby eggrolls were the first to appear from the kitchen by my pleasant server. Precisely wrapped with what could have only been by tiny hands. They were perfectly fried to a crisp golden color with a sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side. Next to arrive. A large plate piled high with ramen noodles – stir-fried with chicken, straw mushrooms, carrots, broccoli and other vegetables. It was the golden color from the ramen and seasonings that served as inspiration for its name. I savored each bite while watching streams of people walk, and sometimes staggered, past the large bank of windows. The game must have ended, and whether the Cubs won or lost, their fans always left bountiful with delight.
The restaurant began to fill as it shifted into the dinner hour. After my plates were cleared and the check paid, I smiled realizing it was time to move on. My belly was full and my heart satisfied. As I stepped back into the heat of the evening sun, nothing was left on my table except a note that simply said, “Thanks for the memories…”