21 August 2010

Garrett Popcorn, Chicago

A few days after I arrived in Chicago I realised something was amiss. People seemed to be eating something from the same patterned brown paper bags. It was subtle initially; I barely noticed the first person, who was nonchalantly waiting at the bus stop, bag in hand, munching. But sure enough, the more I paid attention, the more people I would see snacking on what I could now clearly see was popcorn. I was intrigued - was this some mysterious brown paper bag-popcorn chomping cult?

A simple web search would reveal that the popcorn (and bags) originate from a place called Garrett Popcorn. I've never really given popcorn much thought before this, but for a shop to specialise solely in popcorn you'd expect it to be pretty special, and indeed it is. The history of Garrett goes back to 1949 when the first store opened in Chicago's Loop. Today Garrett has nine shops across Chicago and one in New York. I paid a visit to my closest branch just off North Michigan Avenue, and from about a block away I could start to smell the sweet, buttery smell of freshly popped popcorn wafting through the breeze. Upon arrival I was greeted by a queue that looped twice inside the shop and stretched for a good 15 yards in the tropical summer heat outside.

Garrett's "Chicago Mix" Popcorn
I hate queues. I mean I really, really hate waiting. But such was my curiosity that I battled it out to place my order at the counter inside some half an hour later. Garrett's popcorn is air-popped in small batches in each shop; no oils or fats are used in the popping process at all, and they even grow their own corn. The end result is large, perfectly cooked popcorn that is crisp and light, with none of those annoying unpopped kernels that wreak havoc on your fillings. This popcorn is then served plain or blended with natural flavourings, whose ingredients are, as ever, a closely guarded secret. In total Garrett offers four varieties of popcorn: plain, buttery, caramel (with cashews, macadamias, or pecans), and cheese. I opted for their bestselling "Chicago Mix" (apparently a favourite of Oprah), which is a blend of the cheese and caramel flavoured popcorns.

The flavours were amazing, and it was as addictive as crack. Hands down the best popcorn I have tasted, but I suspected it would be before I even took one bite. The cheese popcorn is made using fresh melted cheddar that lends it a quite a sharp bite. It was a world away from the powdered cheesiness of, say, Cheetos or Wotsits. Meanwhile the caramel popcorn was encased in a gossamer thin layer of sugar that had a smooth, buttery taste - a bit like the topping of a crème brûlée. I couldn't wait to bring it back to my hotel and it was wonderful to eat the warm popcorn straight from the bag. I'm not convinced that mixing these two popcorn flavours together works though; I would have preferred to have them separately. Also, mistakenly, I had bought a large bag that Mrs. Nibbler and I weren't able to finish, and by the next day it had lost its freshness and bounce, entailing another trip to Garrett for another crispy, cheesy hit. But if popcorn is your thing (or even if it isn't) then a trip to Garrett is a fantastic and delicious cure for a sudden attack of the munchies.

Garrett Popcorn
625 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611

Garrett Popcorn Shops on Urbanspoon

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