Today, I’m taking a break from writing about cooking to talk about another food topic that is near to my heart: cupcakes. New York City, my home city, has an abundance of cupcake bakeries and I have happily sampled my fair share throughout the years.
When my best friend offered the option of taking a cupcake tour of Chicago, I happily jumped on board. Last Friday, we set off on a mission: discover and taste the best cupcakes in the city. We quickly realized that our stomachs couldn’t handle such a lofty goal, so we narrowed our search: find the best cupcakes in Lincoln Park, where most of the best cupcake bakeries, as rated by Yelp, are located. And so…
Stop No. 1: Swirlz Cupcakes
Location: 705 W. Belden, Chicago
Cost: $3 per cupcake
Overall rating: B
Swirlz Cupcakes is a tiny shop located on a side street in Lincoln Park. It only sells cupcakes, but with a menu that changes daily you can easily satisfy your sweet tooth here for weeks on end. Swirlz’s cupcakes are reminiscent of the “celebritized” cupcakes created and popularized by Sprinkles, a chain of high-end cupcake bakeries that started in Los Angeles.
The cupcakes are beautifully decorated and neatly laid out behind the counter for customers to ooh and ahh over. Last Friday, Swirlz was offering ten varieties, with flavors from the classic vanilla buttercream to malted milkshake and Nutella banana. We had the pleasure of sampling the famous Red Velvet cupcake, its most popular flavor, and its Tiramisú cupcake. Both cupcakes looked almost too pretty to eat, but we quickly got over that dilemma.
Since I’m not the biggest fan of Red Velvet cupcakes, I’ll focus on the Tiramisú. The first bite pleasantly surprised me with the airiness of both the cake and frosting. The cake was moist and delicious, and had a wonderful essence of espresso and chocolate flavors. In between the cake and the frosting was a thin layer of chocolate ganache that was also quite delicious. However, the frosting was really what made this cupcake less than heavenly: the texture was sweet in a way that was unappetizing. I didn’t finish the cupcake because the taste just did not do it for me — hence my B rating.
The cost, $3 for a small cupcake, seemed steep. The atmosphere, or lack thereof, also affected my rating. There were only three small tables to sit at, and the ambiance was a little pretentious. But the cupcakes looked absolutely stunning, making Swirlz a worthwhile trip. Stop by if you’re in the area. Maybe sample a cupcake or two. But save room for the next place on my list!
Stop No. 2: Molly’s Cupcakes
Location: 2536 N. Clark St, Chicago
Cost: Between $2 and $4 per cupcake
Overall rating: A+
Molly’s Cupcakes is the kind of place you could easily spend all day at. Opened in December 2007, Molly’s owner and self-taught baker, John Nicolaides, uses the cupcake recipe of Ms. Molly, his teacher from first to third grade. He also sells a delectable array of other desserts, including homemade cookies, pies and ice cream.
Between the building blocks and figure skates decorating the walls, the stack of board games including Pictionary and Connect Four, and the vibrantly colored tables and chairs, entering Molly’s instantly transported back to my elementary school days. Molly’s is homey and friendly, and really encourages you to be a kid again.
Although all of its desserts looked incredible, we decided to only sample its cupcakes since we were, in fact, on a cupcake tour. I tasted its classic chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting and my friend sampled one of their center-filled cupcakes, filled with lemon curd and topped with vanilla buttercream. Both were incredible. The chocolate cake was rich and moist and was perfectly complemented by the sugary, dense vanilla frosting. I’m salivating just writing about it now. I also bought a pumpkin cupcake filled with mascarpone and topped with brown buttercream frosting to go that my roommates devoured.
Overall, what I liked best about Molly’s was the innovative spin it puts on classic cupcakes. Molly’s allows the customer to take control of his or her cupcake, whether by choosing the cake flavor, the icing or toppings such as M&M’s and Gummi Worms to create their own personalized cupcake, or by customizing their cupcake at the sprinkle stations (for a sprinkles enthusiast like myself, I was in awe), or by entering into Molly’s cupcake creation contest to put a cupcake of their own creation on the menu.
Molly’s really takes cupcakes to the next level, all while maintaining a down-to-earth vibe that makes customers come back time and again. Not to mention Molly’s is open until midnight on weekends, which is perfect for its DePaul student clientele. Molly’s is absolutely a must-see. Buy a cupcake or two, grab a board game, listen to the great alternative-rock music playing in the backgrounds, and have a great time being a kid again.
Stop No. 3: Sweet Mandy B’s
Location: 1208 W. Webster Ave, Chicago
Cost: Between $0.75 and $1.95 per cupcake
Overall Rating: A-
A little bit off the beaten path, Sweet Mandy B’s is the kind of old-fashioned bakery that offers a dessert to satisfy any sweet tooth. Decorated in pastel colors and illuminated by adorable tea-cup lights, Sweet Mandy B’s is homey and girly, and made us both want to grab our childhood dolls and throw down a tea party.
The bakery was quite crowded for 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, bustling with well-dressed and beautiful yuppie toddlers and their even more-beautiful and better-dressed yuppie mothers. Unlike Molly’s, college students definitely stuck out at Sweet Mandy B’s.
As for desserts, the bakery definitely hits the mark with its cupcakes, pies, cookies and layer cakes. I ordered the carrot cake cupcake and my friend tried a slice of the apple blueberry pie. Both were really quite delicious, although I actually preferred the pie over the cupcake. I am a huge fan of carrot cake and Sweet Mandy B’s satisfied my craving. The cake was rich, moist and chewy all at once. The cream cheese frosting was good but too sugary. I would have preferred the cake without the icing — hence my A- rating.
Other factors that contributed to my rating was the cake-to-frosting ratio on the cupcakes (I personally like a lot of frosting, so I felt Sweet Mandy B’s skimped out a bit); the absolutely incredible dessert selection, which caused us to deliberate for quite a few minutes before we finally decided on what to order; and atmosphere (we felt a little weird among all of the moms and kids).
So, Northwestern students, I leave you with this: get out of Evanston, get into Chicago, and definitely go get some cupcakes!