Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chicago, 2008 - The Tasty, Windy City Part One

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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.

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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.

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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???

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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.

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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.

Check out Passionate Eater's posting on Italian Beef Dip Sandwiches, deep dish pizzas and also an old school posting on the first time meeting her and her husband.

13 comments:

Kung Food Panda said...

Good write up bro. I've been thinking of a trip to Chicago either late this year or next year. I'll def add Al's on my list to try!

WeezerMonkey said...

Fun story with the Mr. Beef guy.

I hope you went to Wiener's Circle and ordered a chocolate milkshake or at least got cussed out a little.

Courtney Craig said...

You disappoint me with this post :-( Why no in-depth research about the Chicago style pizza in advance? You wouldn't have been surprised by the layering, you would have expected the excess of cheese & the layered sausage (which can be done as balls of sausage if specially requested, by the way). And everyone knows 1-1.5 pieces is all you'll need. It's so good...when it hits the lips...it's so good!

H. C. said...

Glad to read over you tasting your way through some Windy City classics...

...wished I hadn't read it now (so hungry and lunch is still so far away!)

jase said...

I went to that Al's in my chicago visit last year and ran out of time to go around the corner to Mr. Beef. Sounds like I made the right choice to hit Al's first.

There is a Portillo's in Buena Park. Get the beef and cheese on a croissant there instead of the regular italian beef. That was recommended to me by a chicago native on my trip. It was a good reco. Tasted good even after a full dinner.

EatTravelEat said...

Great post! I like the detailed shot of the Lou Malnatis pizza. It is interesting how different places do their Chicago style pizza differently! The pizza you had doesn't even look similar to BJ's Chicago Style Pizza.

The story of the 6'2 person and you is very interesting; I would never had the might to be like the person to talk to you and then ask for money!

Passionate Eater said...

Dang, I would have taken you up on your offer for 1/2 a Mr. Beef sandwich! Thank you so much for you excellent recommendations EDNBM, you made Chicago delicious!

And yes, there are two Portillo's in So Cal! Next time I visit, we should hit one of them up!!

Finally, "ugh." I can't believe those "good English" comments still are being thrown around in a place like Chicago. You should have said, "No speak English" the moment he asked for money! Ha!

One Food Guy said...

I'll take a NY slice any day over the deep dish pizza train wreck they serve in Chicago!

I definitely have to get back to Chicago on my own terms, I did not make it to any of the places that I wanted to when I was there last month on business.

erik said...

Dylan, that's a great blog entry, and I'm already looking forward to your next installment, but we should be clear: I don't "run" LTHForum. I never did. I *was* one of the founding members, yes, but I retired from moderating right around the time that the forum managed to gain real traction. [I then stayed on to contribute for a few years, but I retired even in that capacity a couple years back.] And, yes, you are right about my provenance, i.e., the Future, but I really wish that you'd kept that a secret.

Courtney Craig said...

EatTravelEat - BJ's isn't even close to what REAL Chicago-style pizza is!

eatdrinknbmerry said...

KFPanda, hey man. Dude it's a great time there. Two more postings on the way.

SugarRayMonkey, I didn't know about Wiener's Circle! I love getting cussed out!

Courtney, I will keep that in mind next. For me, I think thin slices work better than one big piece. Did Will Farrell say that when he tried a Chicago pizza? haha.

H.C., thanks.

Jase, I actually just read that Portillo's is now in Buena Park. Is it packed there?

ETE, I vaguely remember seeing BJ's pizza.

PEater, haha. Portillo's sounds like a great idea. Last time I was at a gas station by LAX, this guy was approaching me fast and I just didn't want to deal with him. I just yelled "HUH!? No engrish!" and he said "oh sorry sir, sorry!" And life was back to normal.

OFG, I'm with you on that. Where did you end up eating?

Erik from The Future, thank you. I wasn't clear on the LTH affiliation but wanted to at least credit you on your contributions to them. Blackbird & Avec are next!

cf said...

Yeah, I like the blog but I have to admit this is weak. You gotta check out www.lthforum.com if you want to know what is up with Chicago food. Portillo's and not Hot Doug's? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I usually lurk but I absolutely had to comment since Chicago's my hometown. I moved to L.A. a five years ago and I used to make myself ill yearning for Chicago pizza--any type of Chicago pizza--before finally going native and learning to enjoy the awesome Angelino food. (It helped that I moved from SFV to K-town and also *discovered* SGV.)

And Lou Malnati's doesn't have sh** on Giordano's!

At Giordano's, my favorite is actually a mushroom pizza, or a spinach pizza. Single veggie toppings work really well on deep dish / stuffed since they have such meaty cheese. I still get a sausage and pepper when I'm splitting with others, but maybe that's something only a real Chicagoan can handle. ;-)

Giordano's stuffed pizzas have a thin, pastry-like buttery crust that is completely different from Malnati's, which I've always likened to eating a bland, spongy brick.

Or you might like Chicago-style thin crust, it's way better than NY's: crispy and usually cut into rectangles.

I look forward to your Part 2, in which I assume you tried some hot dogs and polish sausages. I hope you got to try Indian food as well, the plethora of Indian food in Chicago is stunning.

But definitely, if you go back, you should try other pizza places: Giordano's, Uno, Due, Gino's East, Eduardo's--they're all better than Malnati's in my opinion.

(P.S. to one commenter: BJ's is not Chicago-style, if you like it, fine, but please don't compare it to real Chicago pizza. It's a socal chain for a reason.)

-NineCircles

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