There was a time, long ago, when I didn't eat cheesecake. Cheese? In a cake? It sounded awful to me, even gag-worthy.
But then...I ate it. I ate the hell out of it.
photo: Before cheesecake
photo: After cheescake
From that moment on, nothing was ever the same for me—particularly my waistline. Is it true that now I occasionally dream about eating cheesecake after cheesecake only to wake up with a massive hard-on, biting my girlfriend's shoulder? Yes. Is it true that the only scene I liked from the movie "American Pie" was the one where Jason Biggs is boning a pie, and then only because I imagined it was a cheesecake instead? Yes. Yes, it is. Then, of course, there was the time when I told my oldest nephew that I loved cheesecake, to which he said, all indignant-like, "Then why don't you marry it?" Out of the mouth of babes, as they say. It made me ponder, reflect and ultimately realize: I would gladly make an honest woman out of cheesecake if my government would allow it. GLADLY.
But first I had to find the best cheesecake in Chicago suited for the job. And if that meant scouring the city and its finest bakeries to do so, then so be it.
First stop: Sweet Thang
Sweet Thang in Wicker Park is oh, oh, oh so sweet. Entering its scarlet-red confines is like literally walking into a three-dimensional valentine; even the chairs are shaped adorably like hearts! But I didn't come here for heart chairs. I came here for the pumpkin cheesecake. It's like eating perfect, just-baked pumpkin bread—that sweet mix of cinnamon and nutmeg—and creamy, cool cheesecake at the same time! It costs $12 for a 6-inch cake, and while it supposedly serves four to six people, I call bull@#*% because I ate two all by my lonesome.
Chapter Two: Sweet Mandy B's
Sweet Mandy B's is, to quote my girlfriend, "shabby chic." And if Sweet Thang is the interior-decorated equivalent of a valentine, Sweet Mandy B's is a homemade Easter egg, made up of soft yellows, baby blues and the occasional greens and pinks. Unfortunately, cheesecakes (in all the basic flavors—plain, cherry, strawberry, turtle, etc.—and almost entirely undecorated) are not readily available to the general yuppie public of Lincoln Park, but they can be made available upon request (9-inchers start at $20). And boy, do I thoroughly encourage you to request as many of these velvety-smooth, graham-cracker-crusted babies as you can fit inside your stomach. Lucky you, I hear stomachs can get bigger.
Episode III: Alice & Friends Vegetarian Cafe
Let it be known that I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian (and that when I was younger I used to hide pieces of meat inside my vegetarian sister's bread so I could gleefully cackle at her, "Haha, look who's not a vegetarian anymore!"). But Goddamn if those vegans don't make a good dessert or two, be it the soy ice cream I had at last year's Pitchfork Festival or the soy green tea cheesecake ($2.99 per slice) at Alice & Friends. Each sliver is so impossibly soft, so gentle to your tender taste buds; it's like edible silk (the kind that melts in your mouth and begs you not to stop). And though the green tea taste is immediately apparent, it neither overwhelms nor distracts from the reason you eat cheesecake: the cheesecake itself.
Level Four: Bake For Me! (River North) or (South Loop)
I really like yelling at people to bake for me. Usually it doesn't yield any results (I eventually have to break down and beg, which only rarely yields results), but at Bake for Me! that's the whole point. There's little decor here to write home about, save for some pretty terrible modern art, so I'll just stick to the cheesecake instead: It's incredible, moist, rich and delish. A whole 9-inch marble cheesecake costs $18, and can be topped with chocolate, strawberries (for $3) or both. Why not? You only live twice, according to a James Bond movie I once saw.
Fifth Times the Charm: Flourish Bakery Cafe
If "Leave it to Beaver" crossed paths with "Miami Vice," the pastel-heavy Flourish (with decorations circa 1950) would be the result. But more important than the incredibly friendly atmosphere is its incredibly friendly cheesecake ($10.90 and up). And by friendly, I mean heavenly—and by heavenly, I mean delectable. Though the flavors aren't revolutionary (plain, cherry or chocolate—if you want every kind of cheesecake known to man, go to Eli's or the Cheesecake Factory), the cakes are so fresh, you'll wonder if they have a cheesecake tree in the basement somewhere, and then you'll wonder if you can steal it.
In sum: I'm sure you're just dying to know which cheesecake was and is my favorite—and why wouldn't you be? But the truth is they're all so good, I can hardly bring myself to choose between them. See, I've always considered myself a one-woman man, but apparently when it comes to cheesecake, I'm an unabashed polygamist.