The first commercial popcorn machine was invented here in Chicago and introduced at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. So it’s little surprise that popcorn shops have been popping up in our city ever since. Here are five that are worth a stop-especially on National Popcorn Day (Jan. 19.)
Note: You can never go wrong with the Chicago Mix, a classic invented right in our fair city, but if you’re looking to branch out a little, we have a few new suggestions.
By Elizabeth Diffin
We found some pop stars when it comes to gourmet popcorn in Chicago. Here are five of our favorites.
The Lakeview popcorn shop is a family-run business that dates back to the 1930s, when the popcorn was sold off a cart on Wells Street. They still use some of the same recipes today, and you can even watch batches get mixed up in big copper kettles-just like they did in the olden days.
Number of flavors: 10
Kid pick: Little ones are drawn to the subtly sweet-and-salty Kettle Corn, which has the added bonus of not sticking to their teeth (your dentist will approve!).
Say what?: Bacon cheddar doesn’t sound very exotic-until you taste the pieces of real bacon mixed into the original cheddar flavor.
‘Tis the season: Keep an eye out for Peppermint Kettle Corn when the holidays start to roll around.
Beyond the corn: The larger stores in Oak Park and Downers Grove offer slushies and ice cream and sometimes take a cotton candy machine to special events.
Fun fact: All of the popcorn is peanut, tree-nut and gluten-free. And several flavors-including butter, strangely enough-are lactose-free.
- 2804 N. Clark St.
- (773) 549-7800
Wells Street Popcorn
Located just two blocks from U.S. Cellular Field, this family-owned store has become a staple in the neighborhood since it opened in 2009. In fact, employees say that everyone is treated like family, which was confirmed by our warm reception.
Number of flavors: 15+
Kid pick: The Cheesy BBQ flavor will have your kiddos coming back again and again, since it basically tastes like a popcorn version of potato chips.
Say what?: You’ll be transported to India with East Meets West, a yummy sweet-curry flavor (trust us-it’s better than it sounds!). Or try Wasabi, a potent taste for the bravest of heart.
‘Tis the season: Eggnog Caramel gives you the creamy sweetness of the holiday beverage in popcorn form.
Beyond the corn: The store sells homemade fudge and bulk candies if you really need to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Fun fact: No fake flavors here! The popcorn is locally sourced non-GMO corn and toppings are made with real creamery butter and Wisconsin cheddar cheese.
- 17 W. 35th St.
- (773) 548-7677
Mother Butter’s Popcorn
This store, which just opened in University Center, was already well known to commuters and baseball fans, thanks to smaller locations in Millennium Station and at Wrigley Field. Swing by for a quick taste-samples are always available!
Number of flavors: 18 Kid pick: Kids like to experiment, so they love the fiery Spicy Chipotle and just-like-the-real-thing Pizza.
Say what?: The craziest flavor might come from your imagination. Customers are welcome to offer suggestions for future flavors-which is where they got the idea for the popular Salt & Vinegar variety.
‘Tis the Season: Caramel popcorn gets a holiday makeover with red-and-green drizzle come December.
Beyond the corn: The main site also has a full frozen yogurt bar with 18 flavors and tons of toppings to add.
Fun fact: Due to the zip-top plastic bags the popcorn comes in, the store guarantees its product will stay fresh for 30 days. Plus, each order comes with complimentary wet wipes, meaning you won’t have those orangey stains on everything you own.
- 511 S. State St.
- (312) 360-1200
Chicago Kernel Gourmet Popcorn
This family-owned business has been operating since 1995 and can be found in the Beverly/Morgan Park area. Their freshly popped popcorn is a staple at local school and fundraising events. Best of all? Free 30-minute parking.
Number of flavors: 12
Kid pick: Yet again proving kids’ tolerance for strong flavors, they seem to gravitate toward the spicy Jalapeno flavor.
Say what?: We’d never seen anything like the Cheezy Caramel flavor-unlike the Chicago Mix, where cheddar and caramel exist side-by-side, this is caramel popcorn coated with cheddar cheese topping. Talk about your ultimate sweet-and-salty combo.
‘Tis the Season: Past years have included such treats as chocolate popcorn and honey nut with chocolate and peanut butter drizzle. Stop by and see what surprises they’ve whipped up!
Beyond the corn: A popcorn shop that offers homemade cake? That’s right, six family recipes are offered by-the-slice each day. But get there early, because once the cake’s gone, they don’t bake more.
Fun fact: The popcorn is dry-popped, which means it doesn’t use any oils. That equals less worry for those with nut allergies.
- 11758 S. Western Ave.
- (773) 779-6132
Let’s Get Poppin
Just two blocks from Wrigley Field, this Chicago tradition (established more than 30 years ago) has helped put Chicago-style popcorn on the map. The locations at Midway and O’Hare airports and Union Train Station mean you can have a taste of home even when you’re on the road, and the Soldier Field kiosk guarantees all Bears’ games are sweet-win or lose.
Number of flavors: 8
Kid pick: Although the caramelcorn is a perpetual favorite, kids also love the cheesecorn, which is made with real cheese.
Say what?: Go a little nutty with caramelcorn popcorn mixed with glazed pecans, almonds or cashews.
‘Tis the Season: If you have out-of-town guests for the holidays, order up the triple mix, which includes caramelcorn, cheesecorn and buttery plain. Something for every taste! And come March, the popcorn turns green for St. Paddy’s Day.
Beyond the corn: Popcorn is just one of the many items offered, including cookies, pretzels and candy. And it goes without saying that the nuts-whether chocolate-covered, salted, or plain-are the stars of the show.
Fun fact: Nuts on Clark contracts directly from farmers to get the Monster Mushroom variety of popcorn, larger and rounder than your usual microwave brand.
- 3830 N. Clark St.
- (773) 549-6622
Nuts on Clark