Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Passionate Eater of San Francisco, and for a short while of New Orleans, recently went to Chicago on an exhaustive hunt for Chicago's favorite foods: hot dogs, deep dish pizza and Italian beef dip sandwiches. I recommended a few places to her that I had tried out myself. She reminded me that I was long overdue on my posting as well – one year ago! During that time, I was overwhelmed with work and how I was going to propose to my then-girlfriend-now-wife, Jeni, and just never got around to it. And I also owe the tasty experience to a Chicago-based eating-machine from the future named Erik M. – he runs a site called LTH Forum.
So in May, after scouring the streets of New York for good food within two days, I was on my way to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. With nothing more than a laptop, duffle bag and a well-endowed list of Chicago's finest eateries, I headed in town with freshly cracked knuckles and an empty stomach. I was in Chicago for a shoot and had a few hours to spare before meeting up with my colleagues. 3 hours... hmm. I think I can do 3 places. I headed out by foot towards some places that Erik had listed near my hotel on the North Side of town.
As I walked around, the first thing I thought of was how clean and quiet Chicago was. Streets were swept and even the buildings looked like they just had their Brazilian waxings. It was 11 am and the people had to be tucked into their cubicles. I barely saw any taxis go by! I couldn't complain though because just one week before, it was an offspring-terminating 40 something degrees. According to the people at the hotel, it was a blessing to wear cargo shorts and be oot and aboot.
First on the list was one of three favorite eats of Chicago – pizza. New York pizza vs. Chicago pizza... a constant feud that will go on till the day we die. To be honest with you, the thought of a deep dish pizza PADDED with god knows how many ounces of cheese stops me in my tracks. But it's Chicago, I HAD to try it. Since it was in the area, I went to try Lou Malnati's, a family-owned chain restaurant. I walked in to find quite a few people on their lunch break – most of them at the bar putting down beers. I didn't know what to get so I had the bartender suggest a pizza. Sausage pizza it is! Twenty minutes later, I was still drinking my beer and I didn't have any food. 10 minutes later, I ordered another beer still with no food. Man, this thing better be delicious! I felt like I could run some errands and the pizza would STILL not be ready.
Finally, after 50 minutes, I received my first Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The bartender brought out a steaming black pan with some tongs and set it down. I was taken aback - dough rising on the sides with a chunky, molten-lava tomato sauce. But where was the sausage? Where was the cheese? There seemed to be some hide & seek going on because I didn't see any sausage or cheese. Like a surgeon, I took my knife and started to cut my own slice when I finally saw a piece of sausage. But the weird thing was that it wasn't just a lump, I noticed that it was a LAYER OF SAUSAGE. Whoa. I proceeded with the operation and unveiled cheese underneath the meat. I had no idea that the layers were completely rearranged. I think the best way to describe deep dish pizza is a confused pizza that sort of confused me. I really didn't get it because it was just too much of everything. Too much sauce, too much cheese, too much sausage, too much time. Everything tasted fine and all, but I just couldn't handle more than one slice. Give me chapulines and huitlacoche from Oaxaca, horse sashimi from Japan or snake alcohol from Taiwan instead. I looked over at a man and woman on their third slice and asked for the check. I'm glad I tried it though.
Next, it was time for the second Chicago-favorite, Italian Beef Dip sandwiches. If you're a pedestrian in another city, I suggest reducing the amount of Mapquesting you do because you're bound to attract attention. No one was there to tell me that, as I befriended a young man. Not by choice. I was headed to Mr. Beef for some sandwiches and he decided to join me without an Evite.
Friend: "Hey man, where you going?"
Me: "Mr. Beef."
Friend: "Oh yeah, you should try Portillo's, it's better."
Me: "Okay, I'll do that next."
Friend: "I'll take you there. I'm going that way too."
Me: "Uh okay, sure."
Friend: "Hey, you born here?"
Me: "Yes, why?"
Friend: "Your English is pretty good."
Me: "Thank you."
Normally, I'd be offended, but the ball was in this guy's court. I'm a stranger to the streets of Chicago and walking with my new 6'2" friend. So he goes on and on about how he knows Chicago and pointed out buildings to the left and to the right... blah blah blah. After about 10 minutes of walking, I started to see Mr. Beef at the end of the street. Ok, almost there. Just keep tuning him out. Right when we got to Mr. Beef, his whole demeanor changed. He was no longer the jovial tour guide of Chicago. He told me he had just gotten out of jail not too long ago and was in need of money to get a driver's license. His new threads and jewelry definitely didn't say that though. But I thought I'd help him out anyway.
Friend: "C'mon man. Just a few bucks."
Me: "I have no cash.
Friend: "How you going to eat then?"
Me: "Oh I have enough money to eat. I came here to Chicago just to eat."
Friend: "There's an ATM inside."
Me: "Nope, I can give you half of my Mr. Beef sandwich?"
You should've seen the look on his face – sheer disappointment. He turned around and started walking away. The only thing I could feel was relief but at the same time, concern. Wait a minute... does that mean Mr. Beef sucks???
According to any Chicagoan, there's only one way you should order an IBDS... with hot & sweet peppers and a dip in the pool of au jus. I watched the cook grab a loaf of bread and pull the beef out of a steaming pan. He then carefully tossed in a few chili peppers and wrapped up my sandwich. I unraveled the hot sandwich... smell of sweet bell peppers and beef. And... it wasn't bad... just a bit dry and sparse on the meat. I asked the cook for a small cup of juice and dumped it on the sandwich liberally. There we go. Now it was tasty.
One slice of pizza and a somewhat tasty sandwich, still some room in the oven. So I went to try the other IBDS place that was recommended, Al's #1 Italian Beef. From the outside you wouldn't think much of it but the constant in & out of customers is promising. I was greeted by a nice young man and looking at me, he knew I wasn't from here. At least he wasn't so blunt.
Al's: "You visiting from out of town?"
Me: "Yeah. Here to try what I hear is one of Chicago's best."
Al's: "Well welcome to Chicago. You're in the right place."
Me: "What do I get?"
Al's: "Beef with sweet & hot peppers, dipped."
Me: "There we go."
Al's: "You'll need some fries, too."
Me: "Sounds good."
Contrary to Mr. Beef, there was actually action here. Big sandwich, big fries and big drink – Chicago people going to town without going out of town. I watched the Chicago sandwich routine in action once more. But this time, the guy took it to the next level. After adding the meat and hot & sweet peppers, he grabbed the sandwich with a pair of tongs and baptized my very own sandwich in the holy goodness that is beef juice. It was a beautiful ritual that only a pig like me would appreciate. My sandwich was drenched. I unraveled the parchment paper and grabbed that soggy sandwich. One bite in, and I now understood why Chicagoans stood so proudly behind that juicy sandwich. I don't care much for The Hat or Philipe's and easily put Al's ahead of them all. Next time I go back, I'll definitely do a comparison like Passionate Eater, who passionately gobbled through hot dogs, IBDS and pizza. Finishing the sandwich off, I looked at my wet hands sprinkled with chili seeds and beef crumbs. The guy that took my order looked at me and didn't need to ask whether I enjoyed it or not. He knew.
I walked back and twice I did U-turns back towards Al's but changed my mind because my hotel room didn't have a fridge to store IBDS. Damn. I promised my stomach that I would treat him once more to a tasty IBDS before I left. He said 'you better'.
Thanks for reading. Part Two coming next.