The Spice House, A Chicago Landmark by Alice Zhao

In this installment of our favorite places to visit in Chicago, we bring you The Spice House.

A couple Saturdays ago we had the great fortune of spending the afternoon milling around The Spice House, chatting with Patty Erd, who co-owns the mom and pop chain with her husband Tom. We visited the Old Town location situated in the middle of Old Town with its old world charm that blends perfectly with the neighborhood. The store is tucked in between bars and restaurant with tall trees blocking the sign, but if your GPS cannot locate it, don't worry. As Toucan Sam would say, "follow your nose... it always knows." The sweet and aromatic spices emanating from the shop can be smelled from a short distance. And when you walk in, you are instantly greeted by the exotic smells that take your mind to a foreign land and you can't help but take a second and larger whiff. It is quite the olfactory overload but in a good way.

The Spice House was founded by Patty's parents, Ruth and Bill Penzey, Sr. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1957. Originally the store sold coffee, tea and common spices. But as the years went on, they transitioned from a general store to a strictly spice merchant shop. That is a good thing, explained Patty, as the coffee and tea would take on a flavor of the other spices in the store, which doesn't make for great tasting tea or coffee. Currently, there are 5 Spice House locations.
The Spice House, Old Town Location

The Old Town Spice House location is decorated similar to an old trading post with the exposed brick facade, maps and burlap sacks adorning the walls. It is also the busiest of all the shops. As many as 5 different food tours come through the store each week. The space is modest but it is packed full of rows and rows of spices ranging from your run of the mill spice staples such as black pepper, chili powders and vanilla to the more rare spices like grains of paradise, saffron and molecular gastronomy powders to name a few. With so many spices in house it can be quite over whelming on both the mind and senses. Luckily each spice comes with a sample jar for you to smell or taste. (Just be careful while smelling the chili powder.)

Korean Black Garlic

A painted mural displaying various neighborhood in Chicago. Each neighborhood has its own spice blend to best represent the region. Here we picked up some Little Italy Cheese Mix to sprinkle onto our popcorn.
Aside from spices, The Spice House also sells gourmet salts, snacks like their famous candied ginger and freeze dried corn just to name a few. Some of their newer arrivals includes black garlic and molecular gastronomy powder in small batches. So if you want to recreate Jared's grilled watermelon dish, you can now order all the molecular gastronomy ingredients at The Spice House. The Spice House is also the go-to high quality spice source for many of Chicago's top restaurants and food retailers.

Packaging Spices
When you've finally figured out what you want to purchase, flag down one of the one of the helpful associates who will help bag or jar the spices for you.
We first sat down with Patty and asked what her favorite spice in the whole store is, being surrounded by spices her whole life, she quickly replied with, "Vanilla beans." Vanilla beans are so fragrant and wonderful, yet the food industry saturates our market with fake or weak vanilla flavoring so much that consumers have come to think of vanilla as being a generic flavor. A go to flavoring agent for all things sweet. It is truly a sad day when even Baskin Robins is removing French Vanilla off its flavor list.
In the photos above, Patty is explaining to us the differences in Mexican, Madagascar and Tahitian (right) vanilla beans. Mexican vanilla tends to be a little spicier, Madagascar vanilla is sweeter. The most prized vanilla bean of all is the Tahitian variety. Although shorter, the pod is bigger and packed full of seeds with deep aroma.

Some fun facts about vanilla beans

  1. Vanilla is part of the orchid family
  2. They are the 2nd most expensive spice, right after saffron
  3. It can take 8 years to harvest a vanilla bean, from start to finish
During our personal tour/spice class, Patty was explaining the differences in cinnamon. What we are probably more familiar with when we sprinkle cinnamon in our baked goods is actually called cassia. Anyone else remember this Good Eats episode where Alton Brown explains the difference between cassia and true cinnamon?
Alton Brown's cinnamon bit starts at the 7:22 mark
As Alton Brown and Patty will tell you true cinnamon (ceylon) is much milder in taste in comparison to cassia. Patty easily broke a piece and crushed it with her fingers to show us the dryer bark, which is lower in volatile oils, and also noting that grinding ceylon ends up being a much messier in the process. The cassia variety that most Americans are associated with is spicier and much strong in flavor with a sweetness to it.

Patty being a gracious host brought out the most prized spice in house, the $5,000 per pound Marosa Saffron! For everyday cooking you use only a few grams, so imagine the aromatic intensity from a whole pound of saffron. It was certainly an eye opening experience to see so much saffron at once. She also pointed out that you can tell the quality of the saffron by the amount of yellow threads. The fewer the yellow threads, the better the quality. This bag was pure red. Now I just need to find 4999 more people and we can split this bag.
Pink Peppercorns and Marosa Saffron
If you're like me, and like to make your own blend of pepper, then this is the place to be. They sell different types peppercorn in bulk, so buy as much or as little as you want.
Patty also took us to the backroom where the spices are ground weekly in house and passed through these different sized sieves. We were told the extra spices goes into the food of animals at our local zoos. I can just imagine a lion having a cumin and black peppercorn encrusted steak right about now.

In the hour or so talking with Patty, we really got the sense that she really loves what she does. Not only does she write the spice house blog herself, but Patty personally answers all emails directed toward The Spice House. But her true love is being in the storefront interacting with the customers. Her charm and charisma warms both old and new faces. Although at times it is difficult to reach out to customers with their 5 stores, both Tom and Patty makes an effort each week to oversee each store. Getting to know the customers and thinking of The Spice House employees as family is the reason why the Spice House has managed to stay open and become a landmark in both Chicago and Milwaukee. Additionally, their passion for spices is not only kept within the 5 stores, but they share their knowledge by teaching classes at Kendall College and the Chopping block. Patty is also on the board of Les Dames d'Escoffier. Truthfully, their list of extracurricular activities extends far beyond the reach of this short list- how they find to do it all is really amazing.

Grains of Paradise

We also met Stephen, the store manager of this Old Town location, who showed us the Grains of Paradise, a West African peppercorn with a floral undertone. He himself has become a "spiceologist" where he is responsible for some of the spice blends found at the store. The one he is the most proud of is his "Brisket of Love" blend. He created this special blend to give away as favors at his own wedding. Everyone loved it so much, they decided to sell it at the The Spice House as well!

Stephen showing off his "Brisket of Love"

Our time at The Spice House was pretty incredible and we appreciate all the love and care that Patty and Tom have put into every single aspect of their stores. If you can't make it out to the Old Town location, please check out the other locations around Illinois and Wisconsin, or order online, but I highly recommend visiting in person in order to get the true smell and taste this place has to offer, or at least until the smart developers at Google invent the smell-o-net.
And as an added bonus, check out Patty's debut on Good Eats when Alton Brown visits the Evanston Spice House to talk about buying spices whole, grinding them at home to preserve the flavor for the spice.

Patty Erd makes her appearance at the 0:38 mark

The Spice House

1512 North Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60610-1308
(312) 274-0378