Eating Chicago: The Classics

Chicago is a food city if there ever was one, and we did our best to bite into the biggest slice possible.  We still have a lot to say about some of the best -and worst- dining experiences on our anniversary trip, despite the fact that our reviews have been somewhat delayed by hours spent in hospital waiting rooms, both veterinary and orthopaedic.  However, hopefully the worst is behind us now and we can stop being so maudlin and get back to talking about food. Because man, this was a hell of a month.  Never being one for superstition, I reject the notion that bad things come in threes, and think that two big ones are just plenty for now….fingers crossed, knocking on wood, and clicking my heels three times as I type that. I have also never been able to resist hedging the odds.

But Chicago!!!  So far, we have shared with you our experiences eating haute dogs at Hot Doug’s, flavour tripping with miracle berries, cocktails with a view, and the meal that cost a mortgage payment, but was totally worth it.  What we haven’t touched on, and really must, are the Chicago classics. After all, they’re one of the reasons that we chose the Windy City in the first place!  From all beef ‘dogs to Italian beef sandwiches, we wanted to eat the food that identifies itself as a Product of Chicago. You know, the real deal. The signature dishes.  The street food, man. That’s where its at.

In a city with such rich culinary traditions, and so many great restos to visit, when we were looking for the quintessential Chicago experience,  we looked to you for advice.  My friends, you did not lead us astray.  Starting with the fabulous comments and recommendations that you left us on the site, emails that you were kind enough to send, and even the occasional DM on Twitter, we started to plan our culinary itinerary.  We pared down our choices with a bit of input from YELP and Trip Advisor, and used geography and location as the final criteria when everything else was equal.

We walked a lot.

We ate a lot.

We drank a lot of Argo tea.  It was divine.

There are so many signature dishes that Chicago claims as kin, but we focussed on the Big Three:  the Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and Italian Beef sandwiches. If you have never been to Chicago, by all means, please read on to see what has been missing in your life. For all the proud Chicagoans out there, or the recent converts like us, these are our thoughts on your delicious food.

The Chicago Dog

Chicago gradually eased me into a reluctant truce with chain restaurants, of which I generally tend to be rather suspicious. After all, the most infamous Chicago digs all started out as small Mom’n’Pop deals and grew into the franchises that they are today because, well, because they’re good.  For the sake of seeking out a decent Chicago Dog on our first day in the Windy City, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and travel to a hokey themed restaurant chain called, “Portillos”.

Portillos: each one is a little bit different, and there is one just right for you. Or for Mike. Mind you, really any place that sells hotdogs is just right for Mike. This was kind of like the happiest place in the world for him.

Did I mention that Portillos sells hotdogs AND local beer? That may have something to do with his enthusiasm.

Here is the deal with a Chicago Dog; basically, you have a good steamed or boiled all beef hot dog nestled in a softly steamed white bun (poppy seed, preferably). On top of the dog is a swizzle of yellow mustard, a few slices of tomato, diced fresh onion, a spear of dill pickle, and the essential ingredients, pickled chili peppers (aka “sport pepper”, “pepperonata”) with a dash of celery salt.

Don’t even ask where the ketchup is, because;

a) you will be run out of the restaurant

b) the hotdog is perfect as-is, with the richness of that meat cut by the sting of onion, heat of chili, sour tang of mustard and pickle and sweetness of tomato.

b) and if you persist in asking, you don’t deserve a Chicago Dog

I think the skies might have opened up above Mike with his first bite, and now every time we go to Costco he eyes the concession stand and mutters grumpily about how Canada just doesn’t have enough appreciation for the pickled pepper.

The other signature dishes at Portillos are the tamale (the first Portillos served hotdogs and tamales, which seemed like an odd combination but who are we to judge?) and the Italian Beef. We had other plans for our first taste of the Chicago beef sandwich, but I couldn’t resist a tamale.

Here’s the thing: Toronto is not exactly a hotbed of authentic Mexican food, and I have never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, what with my phobias of foam parties and throat slashing.  As this was only the second tamale that I had ever eaten in my life (the first, being from a suspicious Cuban diner in New York), I was not inclined to be fussed about details, like the perfectly cylindrical shape, the fact that it was wrapped in 17 layers of waxed paper and aluminum foil rather than a corn husk, or the texture of the filling which seemed to be borrowed from Taco Bell.  As far as I was concerned, it was heavily spiced with cumin (yum!), fat (YUM!), and the Portillos equivalent of an Old El Paso seasoning kit, which, lets just be honest, is synonymous with Family Taco Night. So, yeah, I was actually kind of down with that.

The location we chose had a vaguely 1930’s gangster theme (the hot dogs were far more successful than the decor), but it was conveniently located and we passed it at least once a day on our travels. Portillos totally gets a thumbs up from the two of us.

100 W. Ontario
Chicago IL 60654
Theme: 30’s, 40’s Gangster
Map to this location

The Italian Beef Sandwich

Portillos had an Italian Beef sandwich on the menu, and every second chain restaurant and bar had an Italian Beef sandwich on the menu, but we didn’t want just any Italian Beef.  We wanted THE Italian Beef.  As always, we trusted your recommendations and determined that we would be jaunting down to Al’s Beef, another Chicago chain. Al’s is one of the longest standing traditions in Chicago, and the first Al’s shack opened in 1938  by Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli, Sr. Inspired by Italian weddings during the Depression, when the limited meat would be stretched by slicing it thinly and piling it on fresh white rolls, the lunch counter in Little Italy started serving their own version of the slow roasted beef sandwich to provide a filling and budget-conscious lunch for local workers. From there, of course, the reputation spread, and it was only about a decade ago that the whole jin bang show became franchised.  And how do I know all this?  I watched that episode of “Man vs Food”, people.  Don’t trust me, trust Adam Richman and his team.

Once made, our resolve to visit Al’s Beef turned out to be a rather difficult decision to keep, considering that even on our way to Al’s Beef we passed by a little storefront (and a great big sign) for Mr.Beef, and I swear to god that outside there was even a sign saying “Mr.Beef Blvd”, or something to that effect.  They had their own STREET.  Even if they put up the sign themselves, and even if “Mr. Beef Blvd” is actually a seedy alleyway that is just wide enough to trick the occasional errant driver, it doesn’t matter; I am still impressed. I would have insisted that we stop at both, just for comparison’s sake, of course, except that on this particular evening, the Italian Beef was our “pre-dinner”, before our later dinner reservations at a particular gastropub that I wanted to eat out of house and home. Ergo, we grudgingly trudged along another block or so to our destination.

So, what’s the fuss about an Italian Beef sandwich?  Well, basically it is just like your average Beef Dip (shaved roast beef on a baguette with some beef jus for dipping), but, you know, on crack.  I mean that in the best possible way.

First, you start with the beef.  At Al’s, the beef is seasoned with garlic, pepper, copious amounts of fennel seed and assorted spices, before being slow roasted until it is delectably tender.  The beef is then shaved, not sliced, and piled, dripping with meat juices, onto a high gluten Italian sandwich roll. You have a choice of “sweet” or “hot”, where the sweet refers to sliced and sauteed bell peppers, and the hot refers to giardiniera.  Obviously, we went for hot, and it was worth it for the crunchy pickled celery in a sweet and tangy dressing with a glut of red chili flakes.

Then, the best part: the entire sandwich is dipped again into the jus, a combination of the meat drippings and beef bouillon, before being served to you sloppy, dripping, and bursting with flavour.  That, my friends, is why you want a high gluten sandwich role, which is pillowy and soft but will stand up to a good douse of love beef juice.

As grease and broth dripped down our chins and pooled between our fingers, we agreed that maybe we made the right choice after all.  The location we chose was:

Al’s Beef

169 W. Ontario
Chicago, IL
Order Online
View Menu

Also, if you’re curious and think you want to know everything that there is to know about Italian Beef, check out this article.  I promised Mike that I would take a stab for making it for him sometime soon, and that recipe might be a jumping point for me, but with a liberal sprinkle of fennel seed as a respectful homage to the good people at Al’s.

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza

If Mike was excited to try a Chicago Dog, the Tina equivalent was my enthusiasm over the prospect of deep dish pizza.  You guys, I had no idea what to expect.  Well, that’s not true.  I mean, I knew the basics. I knew that Chicago deep dish was baked in a straight sided cast iron skillet.  I knew that the toppings went down first and the sauce went on top to create a molten lava pool of marinara that was guaranteed to scald and possibly permanently damage my chin. I knew that I would love it, and really, that’s what counts.

Trying to sift through pizza recommendations was, perhaps, the most overt example of the passion locals from Chi-Town feel about their native food.  As one writer waxed poetic on their favorite pie, which they ate as a child and now insist on having freezer-packed and flown across the country to them for special occasions, another person proclaimed that only a chump would like that pizza, and the real pizza has to be (insert one of many names here).  This made it really, really hard for us, especially because in an effort to avoid coming back to Canada with gout, I had only planned for us to try two (2) of the recommendations.  Giordano’s for sure, and the other we were still debating on.

The answer came in the form of convenience, when we checked in on our first day and found that our hotel actually shared a wall with one of the contenders: Gino’s East.  Done.  Decision made.

(not our location, but a much more enticing picture considering that the location we went to was edged by scaffolding and covered in tarps for some late season hotel construction)

Gino’s East is the perfect place to let your inner vandal shine.  Once, about a million years ago (or in 1966), drunken patrons (my assumption) carved their names into the table (or wall. Or chair. Hard to say, really) at the original Gino’s East.  The owners, two Chicago taxi drivers and a buddy who invested for the fun of it, shrugged and said, “Whatevahhhh”.  Two days later (or, you know, sometime before 2011), the waiters got into the fun and actually started to supply patrons with the tools of graffiti’s trade, and before you knew it the joint looked like this:

We were warned, so we knew about the wait for deep dish pizza which takes time to bake. Even so, as soon as our gangly young waiter greeted us, he told us again that from the time that we ordered, there would be a 45-60  minute wait.  That was fine; more time to build up an appetite!  We did as we had been told, and ordered up a small deep dish sausage pizza, with the sausage patty, not crumbled. When it arrived, we could barely wait to dive in.

The crust was pale yellow, and not what we had expected. It was neither a traditional fluffy bread crust or a buttery and flaky pie crust, but rather, a cakey leavened crust that was dense to support the multitude of toppings.  The sausage was well seasoned, and the flattened patties combined as they baked to almost form a layer of tender sausage about 1/4″ thick running throughout the center of the pie.  Oh, and the cheese.  There was a lot of cheese.  The tomato sauce was bright but mild and sweet, and as a first initiation into the joys of deep dish pizza, it was a great start.

Also, you saw that piece of pie? That is all that I could get through after our starter salad.  Mike girded himself and finished off a second piece, but the last quarter was taken home for a shared late night snack.  Two people, and we couldn’t even get through a small deep dish on our own.  Pitiful, isn’t it?

Our location, which is actually the original location:

Gino’s East
162 E Superior St

For Contendor #2 in our quest to experience true Chicago deep dish, we had to go to Giordanos .  There were just too many of you that expounded the joys of Giordano’s, and were kind enough to give us tips on what to expect.  Tips that we were incredibly grateful for, as a matter of fact, such as, “Line up early and get your name on the list, then go for a beer somewhere.  Pop by halfway through to order your pizza, and then go finish that beer before you get seated. Because it will take that long.  And you will still be glad that you waited.”

Sure enough, even as dusk was just starting to fall on a weekday night, there was a 90 minute wait for our seats, and people were milling around about 7 deep in the entry way to the restaurant. This was fine with us, of course, because as soon as we left our name with the hostess we popped across the road to a charming little French bistro to share a bottle of wine and a light nibble.

Not to get off topic, but that place, by the way, was outstanding and I wish we had taken pictures of our fabulous chorizo and manchego cocktail skewers or the twee little jar of house marinated olives.  The food being served around us looked absolutely phenomenal, and if we only had one more day we would have returned for a full meal.  So hey, if you happen to go to the Giordano’s at Rush Street, and you happen to need a place to kill some time……we recommend the French bistro across the road.

But let’s get back to the pizza.

Our waiter was having a rather poor night, and if we weren’t so hungry we would have pitied the young lad.  Considering that we put in our pizza order about 45 minutes before we were seated (about halfway through the wait time, at the recommendation of our hostess) it was a bit frustrating to continue waiting another 45 minutes for the food to arrive, or even the 20 minutes that it took to get a bloody glass of wine. Even so, about 2.5 hours after we first gave our names to the frazzled hostess to book a seat, the pizza finally arrived.

And it was magnificent.

The crust was thinner and lighter than Gino’s East, and the texture was less cakey and a bit crispier, like a cross between a pie crust and a leavened cracker.  Another key difference is that the crust was on the bottom, thick and firm enough to stand up to the toppings/fillings, and then again, thinly, on top.  This two crust “stuffed pizza” finally made sense of the term “pizza pie”.  Above the top crust was the obligatory -and welcome- layer of sweet, bright tomato sauce.

For our Giordano’s pizza, we ordered the spinach pizza (spinach, mozzarella, parmesan).  What we received, instead, was the veggie pizza (green pepper, mushroom and onion), but by this point we had been waiting so long and had enough merlot coursing through our veins that we didn’t care.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked inside the pie and the cheese actually tasted like a good quality, stringy, chewy mozzarella cheese, rather than white I think of as “white pizza cheeze”.

We did our best on the pie, and in fact it was so delicious that I literally could not stop eating it, picking away at little strings of cheese and stray mushrooms, but we still had a sorrowful amount left at the end.  Again, two hungry people and we couldn’t even make it through a small deep dish pizza pie.  I feel so much shame.

I can’t help playing favorites, you guys.  I know that we only tried two of the many infamous Chicago deep dish pizza joints, but I may already have a favorite.  With the lighter, thinner crust and flavorful stringy cheese, Giordano’s blew Gino’s East right out of the running with my very first bite.  I can see why this place has a cult following, and I can honestly say that it was worth the wait….except that next time we might order two pies, and eat nothing but leftover pizza for the next few days.  That just seems like the right thing to do.

Giordano’s – one of many locations

Rush Street
730 N. Rush St.

The loss, the sadness…

We put a good college-try into eating our way through Chicago’s classics, one slice or sandwich at a time, but between reservations at fancy restaurants, eating our way through the Rick Bayless empire, and foraging for haute hot-dogs in the city, we barely scratched the surface of this phenomenal food town.  It makes my chubby chin quiver to think that we couldn’t manage to justify trying a third deep dish pizza place (“But…but Unos is just up the street! Yes, I know dinner reservations are in an hour, but….LOOK, IT IS LOU MANALTI’S!! RIGHT THERE!!!”), and don’t even get me started about how I never got to try real Chicago barbecue.  However,  as I seek out the silver lining from those five gray and cold food-filled days, it would be that now, more than ever before, we have the perfect reason to return.

  • Kristina

    I came back from a weekend in Chicago and I’m pretty sure that I will never be hungry again. I stuck to places mostly in the Andersonville/Uptown area (Acre, Lady Gregory’s, Thai Pastry, Tweet, Mixteco) because that’s where all my friends live, and…yeah. This is a food coma that will last a year. I loved reading about your trip, though, and a dinner at Alinea has been on the top of the list of things I’d like to do before I die, so it was nice to get your perspective on that.

  • Renee

    If Google Maps is to be believed, that French place looks like Pierrot Gourmet.

  • jennie

    I’m so glad you liked everything! My biggest Chicago disappointment was deep-dish. I thought I would love it. We chose the original Uno’s and waited forever for a table and then an hour for the pizza and just didn’t like it. They somehow managed to arrange bread, cheese, meat and sauce and a way that didn’t appeal to me – and I never thought that could happen. And it’s shocking how filling it is!

    Can’t wait to read about the Bayless places! We may go back to Chicago over Christmas just to visit Frontera Grill again.

  • mel

    You forgot the neon green relish on the dog–a standard Chicago dog ingredient. And if you do get back this way and want to try a Portillo’s beef, I suggest getting a “combo”. That’s an Italian Beef with an Italian sausage in it! For straight beef, Al’s is my go-to chain, but for a combo, I love Portillo’s.

  • Erin

    I actually have it on pretty good authority that Gino’s East makes the sausage patty by using a pastry press. That’s how they get the uniform thickness.

    And to jennie above, I have always thought Uno’s was overrated. There is always a line but I feel like it is mostly a tourist trap. Don’t judge all deep dish by that place, give it another try!