Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Jerry's Sandwiches

I've never been to this place, but I am quite impressed nonetheless. For one thing, when you go to their web site, you find this bit of startling honesty:

We love sandwiches. We've eaten them at delis in Philly and New York, cheese steak stands in Philly, hoagie shops in Pittsburgh, barbecue stands in Tennessee, various New Orleans muffuletta & po boy locales, Zingerman’s great deli in Ann Arbor, bars in France, and we've eaten exotic sandwiches in restaurant kitchens. That said, we find good sandwiches hard to come by in Chicago (excluding of course outstanding Italian beef and hot dogs). Being long-time cooks, and with available space at the front of our catering kitchen, we thought we’d give it a try.

That's a credo I can admire. Then, even more impressive, I learned from Chowhound RobS that Jerry's put this on their mailing list:

From the Wednesday "Jerry's Specials of the Day"...
"Mark has made several visits to the favorite source for
Italian subs, Riviera Deli on Harlem just north of Belmont. ($3 for a sub
featuring assorted Italian cured meats. Sheesh.) As a result of these
culinary archeological expeditions, we've added fine versions of the above
two meats. You'll see them in the deli case. We now carry salami,
prosciutto, coppa and soppresata. Mortadella is a possibility for the

As RobS so accurately puts it, "Cool, a restaurateur who not only reads chowhound but uses it to improve his

JERRY'S SANDWICHES, 1045 W. Madison, Chicago 60607, 312.563.1008 / 1009 fax
Bread in Chicago

Because it is pretty close to us, my wife and I shop fairly often at the Caputo's in Elmwood Park. One of the most interesting and vexing things about Caputo's is their selection of breads. On any given day, one can find at least ten versions of Italian style breads baked in Chicago. In order to help me know which ones to regularly buy, I decided to have a bread tasting. This morphed into a Chowhound bread tasting party. The bread tasting party turned out to be one fine time but a lousy attempt to scientifically taste. Mostly, we had too many breads, too many other things to eat, and too much damn conviviality to pay long attention to the ins and outs of each loaf. So, I remain interested in figuring out the best bread in Chicago.

One leading contender would be Red Hen Bakery, one of the first places to bring a semblance of artisanal breads to Chicago. In the past, I have liked their breads. They make the ideal Thanksgiving bread, a sweet potato pecan crusty loaf. Still, I was there just the other day. I purchased the oddly (and dumbly named) "Italian Country Boule". It was not as good as stuff found these days at supermarkets with an especially weak crust. It paled compared to the bread at Fox and Obel. Their large round country bread HAS to be the best bread in Chicago. It features a bullet proof crust that protects an inside surprisingly moist that it almost tastes like cake. As Wiv would say, you weep from eating it.

Anyway, I'm gonna try to blog as much as I can on bread in Chicago. Here's a source of inspiration. Please give me suggestions and other input in the Comments. If you need a list of places to try, start here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Ever Growing Chicago Chinatown

Those who know me and read me, know of all my bugaboos, perhaps my biggest is false claims about Chinese food in Chicago. I know we are not Vancouver, the San Gabriel Valley or even San Jose, but I also know we have some good enough Chinese food. Places like Happy Chef, Ed's Potsticker House, Lao Sze Chuan and Spring World have been keeping me well fed for years. It is only getting better. Dragon Court is a new option, another modern Cantonese place, in the same mein as Happy Chef (without the plastic table clothes!). Chicago Magazine called it the most authentic in Chinatown. Chowhound Critical1 did a report here and noted its late night menu here. I am anxious to try.

A couple of other newer places in Chinatown I have either tried or at least scoped out included Happy Cafe and Seven Wives. Like Dragon Court, they are on Wentworth, showing that after several years of development coming pretty much only in the Chinatown Mall, action is moving back to the main part of Chinatown. Both are small, HK style cafes serving a variety of seemingly odd plates. Happy Cafe is a rather plain room with a ton of lunch options under $5. Most of the dishes can be served over rice, rice noodles or pan fried noodles. Seven Wives is suprisingly nice on the inside, not posh but far from a dump. They have a range of choices by the hour including breakfast, lunches and happy hour snacks. If you ever wanted to try a Hong Kong style breakfast--say toast, stirred egg white with mushromm and ham, and two supreme smoked sausages + coffee or tea ($3.25!), this is your place.

Dragon Court
2414 S. Wentworth
Chicago, IL

Happy Cafe
2351 S. Wentworth
Chicago, IL

Seven Wives
2230 S. Wentworth
Chicago, IL

Monday, February 23, 2004

Chicago Hot Dog Primer

Strangers may think pizza the archetypical Chicago food (in its pan format), but locals know the true Chicago food is the hot dog. When asked, the local will describe the Chicago hot dog as thus: a chubby, beefy, slightly spicy sausage manufactured by the Vienna company, taunt from its natural skin, boiled, served on a steamed poppy seed bun and widely garnished with mustard (smooth, yellow, mild), relish (Halloween green), dill pickle spear, chopped onions, tomato, sneaky hot "sport" peppers and a shake of celery salt. The leading source for all things hot dog remains Hot Dog Chicago, a 1983 frank field expedition by two Loyola professors, Rich Bowen and Dick Fay. The fact that conventional wisdom is best represented in a twenty year old book demonstrates the current state of Chicago wieners. (Although in 2001, Rich Bowen claimed that 75% of the places reviewed still existed)

It is my contention that for all its connection to and glorification of, the Chicago hot dog is a fading star. The claim that Chicagoans do not seek dogs often can be epitomized by the fact that within the Loop, the central business district, where tens of thousands of workers need lunch daily, nary a decent hot dog can be found. Ten years ago, the Loop had fine standard bearers in Irving's, U Dawg U, Michael's and Little Louie's. These are all gone. There remain a few outposts in places like Union Station, combined with a Popeye's, and such, but nothing great. And it is not just central, a rather spontaneous hot dog survey produced a lot of so-so results (here and here ). Other reports of decline can be found here ( the mediocre Polk and Western). No one captured better possible state of the Chicago dog than Harry V's take on the Bunny Hutch.

But let us not mourn the Chicago hot dog's decline. Let us lead a revitalization. Let us eat hot dogs again! After all, we have been eating them since the 1893 Colombian Exposition when two immigrants offered a sausage with the flavors of Austrian Hungarian empire. A few years later, these brothers formed the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing company, named after their inspiring city. Today, Vienna claims that over 80% of Chicago's hot dog stands serve their product. A heavy majority, but not a monopoly, GWiv points out some of the other hot dog brands, prompted by John Fox, a New Jersey hot dog freak who brings this topic up every so often. Interestingly, I've had a hard time getting specific information on the history of the other two definitive aspects of the Chicago dog. I do not know when or why Chicago dogs were served boiled and not griddled or charcoal grilled as you find most other dogs around the USA. In addition, for a long time, I did not necessarily know who started dressing Chicago dogs in the classic manner or why they did it as such. Still, as described below, I think I may have an answer to the dressing issue. The Chicago dog, of course, does not include ketchup or kraut (see here for some ketchup discussion). The Chicago hot dog vendor also does not operate from the street .

One subtext of the Chicago hot dog that is seldom spoken out loud is that the Chicago hot dog is Jew food. The Vienna dog is not kosher, but it is all beef, "kosher style." For many years, Vienna's chief rival was the Kosher Zion hot dog produced by David Berg. (For a while, Vienna owned their rival, but David Berg as a competitor is alive and well). No hot dog stand stands more for Jewishness of the Chicago dog than Fluky's, a Jewish owned establishment serving food to Jewish customers in the very Jewish neighborhood around Maxwell St. Fluky's followed the Jews south, Blackstone and 63rd, west (Roosevelt and Central Park) and finally north (Western and Pratt). My hunch is that Fluky's created the MRPOTPCS configuration. When I first start researching this, I could not confirm this, but via a link by the ever astute ReneG, I found an article by Leah Zeldes. In this article, she claims that Fluky's did in fact start dressing the dogs the Chicago way:

The “banquet on a bun” had its origins in the Great Depression, when greengrocer Abe Drexler decided his 18-year-old son, local sports hero Jake “Fluky” Drexler, needed an occupation. That was in 1929, when jobs were hard to find, so Drexler converted the family's Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot-dog stand, and began offering the “Depression Sandwich,” which sold for a nickel. “He built it like a vegetable cart would do it,” says Fluky’s son, Jack. (Also called Fluky, he likes to say he was “born in a bun” and is today proprietor of three North Side and suburban stands.) “It was an instant success.” The only change since 1929 has been the relish, which turned its distinctive “nuclear green” color in the 1970s.

The Jewish connection can also be seen in the fact that good hot dogs remain in the Jewish suburb, Skokie.

Fluky's long ago left Maxwell Street, Chicago's version of the Lower East Side, but the hot dog remained a Maxwell Street staple. Until misguided urban planning and a greedy University destroyed the Maxwell St. area, hot dog stands operated on and around the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell. The Maxwell St. stands became more known, however, for an offshoot of the hot dog, the spicier, "Polish" sausage (not necessarily related to true Polish sausage, i.e., kilbasa). The polish sausage inverted a lot of the rules. The thing gets griddled, producing a greasy, unctuous sandwich ("a tiny thrill in the gall bladder" they say in Hot Dog Chicago). Sharing the griddle with the Polish sausage are piles of soft onions. A healthy portion of onions becomes the dominant accessory to the Maxwell St. Polish. The heavier, zestier Polish, SOULFUL, Polish, appealed to the later day denizens of Maxwell St., African Americans. Ironically, Maxwell street operators added to their menu's, that most un-Jewish of foods, the pork chop. Several places following in the Maxwell tradition have popped up around Chicago, pretty much entirely in areas with African American populations (here here and here).

For a while, there existed a strong counter-school to the Chicago dog, what I call the "tastee" school centered on the now defunct Tast-e Hast-e. The tastee dog differed firstly by the base and then secondly by the toppings. The meat in the tastee sausage comes from Leon's Sausage Co., a dog both squishier yet spicier than the Vienna hot dog. The soft base supported a full garnish. More than the usual topping: lettuce, green pepper, cucumber with the other toppings, called a garden on a bun. Because the Leon's sausage textually seems like a pork wiener, even an Oscar Meyer "kiddie" dog, I always associated this school of hot dog as the "gentile" school. Today, I appreciate an occasional Leon's dog (although I skip the lettuce). They are, however, hard to find. A very fitting lesson on Chicago politics can be found in this post on the closing of Wally's, a tastee place (). My report on one of the few remaining tastee place can be found here. Byron's (several locations including the original at 1017 W. Irving Park) serves a Vienna dog with the tastee garniture.

Even though I speak somewhat pessimistically about Chicago hot dogs, they remain, probably my single favorite food to eat. The greatest hot dog in Chicago is still Gene and Judes (2720 River Road, River Grove). The Gene and Judes dog ignores the rules willy-nilly. It is skinny and minimally dressed (no tomato, pickle or celery salt), but the dogs are cooked absolutely to perfection. Perfect (almost always) fries add to the experience. Eat two or three. Another favorite of mine, Wiener Circle (2622 N. Clark). Don't believe me, read what some other chowhounds say.

A place that sounds worth visiting for many reasons is Jimmy's (4000 W. Grand). ReneG captures it well. Rene also does an authoritative take on hot dogs (3425). Seth gives a good perspective from someone who grew up eating another style of hot dog. Andy O'Neill gives an impassioned defense of Chicago hot dogs here . Another outsider, John Fox, mentioned above, has weighted in a few times on Chicago hot dogs. Finally, for an idea of what a Chicago hot dog stand should look like, see this post by Gary .

Many of the hot dog places around Chicago have become Mexican places. The taco and burrito in many ways are the spiritual descendant of the Chicago hot dog. Yet, this being Chicago and America, there is surely a Mexican hot dog. These days, even chef's are taking over hot dog stands. Some reaction to Hot Doug's can be found here (positive) and backlash. MikeG in his superb guide to Chicago Chowhound lists Superdawg as his hot dog selection, but not everybody likes it. But how can you not like a Chicago hot dog!

UPDATE: In going through a big rash of Chowhound listserv mail, I came across this bit from Cathy2. She reports that her friend and hot dog historian, Bruce Kraig "claims it was Greek street vendors who developed the concoction know as the Chicago Hot Dog in an effort to please various ethnic groups. I.E. Germans favoring sausage and mustard ... which may explain why ketchup is considered heresy in this region."

As Matt Drudge would say, Developing....
Talk Better!

My friend Kirsten D'Aurelio runs a company called Voicescape. She is a trained actress and uses theater techniques to help people, well talk better (and give kick-ass presentations). She helps you improve on things that are highly important to nearly any career. Her web site is here.

She told me that she has a couple of slots remaining for the upcoming Tuesday evening presentation skills course, which begins next Tuesday, March 2. It's a 5-week course that runs throughout the month of March.
Carson's Ribs
Can a rib place be great without great ribs?

Well, how about this, can I believe Carson's ribs are great even though I know they are not great ribs? I have had great ribs. Great ribs in Bowling Green, Kentucky; Birmingham, Alabama, even the far south-side of Chicago (Lem's). These ribs all achieve the ideal mix of smoke, spice, porcine flavor, and a texture neither smooth, soft, tough or stringy. Carson's ribs lack some key elements, especially any twinge of hickory. Still, the ribs, in their own way, are very good. Way too good to be dismissed because they do not follow an ideal-type. These are PORK ribs. I am sure some maven like GWiv can explain to me and you how and why Carson's ribs just have so much more meat between the bones. And the pork meat tastes good, special. We appreciate a good steak without seasoning, with any interference, why cannot we appreciate a fine bit of pork without it being long smoked? Do not sneer at the overly sweet sauce either. Just as French chefs have known historically (say duck a l'orange) and recently (1001 foie gras treatments), a sweet sauce expertly compliments something rich and fatty. So, right away, I am not conceding that Carson's is good, but.

But everything else about eating at Carson's makes it so damn enjoyable. It remains one of the premier total packages in town. First, you nosh a bit more than you need on chopped liver of the proper, read not too smooth, consistency and a cheese spread that is so well processed that I do not feel the least bit guilty for liking it. For whatever reason, I always find Carson's spritzy old-fashion goes so well with these openers. Second, well once upon time, second would have been digging your knife into this wonderful, sexy glob of butter and doing up a few rolls. Now, that the butter comes in safe, sanitized packages, the allure of this course is gone. I do not even know if the quality of the rolls is the same. Third, there is salad, excessively dressed but with ultra-bold flavors or the slightly oniony coleslaw. Fourth, the ribs. Fifth, a choice of deluxe potato options. Sixth, if there is possibly gullet space, the trademark gold brick sundae.

Carson's deserves room in the pantheon just for those deluxe potatoes. I could easily eat here just for the potatoes. I long for the Carson's potato buffet. Nearly always, I cannot budge from the molten blend of cheese and potato chunks that is the au gratin, but the crisp and thick skins, the archaic twice-baked and the jumbo baked all make excellent sides. When you combine these sides with the ribs and salads, you have a meal that far exceeds any other rib place in Chicago, even Lem's.

Besides, the service remains top-drawer. If you need, they will make you a little dish of chopped liver, parselyed onions and rye bread to accompany your drinks. When a coke was proffered instead of a diet coke, the server did not argue as so often the case these days. Instead, she said, regardless of what happened, my mistake. And she handled 4 tired adults (two going on 3 hours of sleep from an all-night poker game) and 4 tired kids (all us coming off some rigorous hours of ice-skating) with aplomb. I know better ribs exist, even in Chicago, but I nothing will keep me from loving
Carson's Ribs.

There are few less Carson's than there once were, and the restaurants are not nearly as crowded as before. We went to the Wells Street location (612 N.). Decor wise, it was getting a bit long in the tooth. They'd be better off keeping the lights dimmer to hide the wear. More info on Carson's and their locations can be found here.
Watch Gorilla Gourmet Eat Maxwell Street
Will Be On Soon in Chicago!

Gorilla Gourmet Impressario, MikeG passes on the following info:

Got back from vacation to find a letter from CAN TV, which handles
public access programming for all Chicago cable franchises. Gorilla
Gourmet: Maxwell Street Mexican will air (so to speak, since this is
only cable) at the following gorilla-times and gorilla-stations:

Sunday, 3/21, 7:30 pm, Channel 21

Thursday, 3/25, 10 pm, Channel 21

And it only took them losing the tape and all the forms once!

If you don't know what I'm talking about, go here (shortly to be
updated with the above info):

And if you don't get cable at all, and still want to see this fabulous
program starring many of the folks here (well, a good dozen and a half,
anyway), as well as some of the best food and most interesting vendors
on Maxwell, use the above link to find where you can shell out money
for your own copy on VHS or DVD including DVD-only bonus scene! (Did
everyone who has a DVD already find the DVD-only bonus scene?)