One of my mentors at my old job was a Chicago native. Many times in our now-burned-to-the-ground office we would turn to talking about food as the day came to an end and our bellies started to growl. Often he would wax nostalgic about the foods he used to take for granted that were no longer available in the southern U.S. My mouth would water from the tales of the unique regional treatments of seemingly common foods. A few weeks ago I passed an authentic Chicago sandwich shop as I was biking to the art store. Remembering the stories I used to hear, I had to give it a try.
Luke’s of Chicago is a family owned restaurant run by the Del Principe family and is located in a tiny shack. They pride themselves with using the same recipes that were used in their Chicagoland restaurants over 40 years ago. Bears posters, Mike Ditka autographs and photos of the Chicago river adorn the walls. The restaurant smelled great and you could tell by the way conversation was flowing that most of the people in there were regulars. I knew what I wanted without even reading the menuboard. A man behind the counter grabbed a notepad to take my order.
“Whaddya want?” the man belted out. I immediately recognized the accent and attitude as aggressively Chicagoan.
“I want one Italian beef with hot giardiniera and one Chicago dog all the way… two orders of fries and two drinks.”
With that, he turned around and put the order in to the kitchen. After a short time, while I was explaining to Vess what I understood to be the intricacies of an authentic Chicago-style hot dog, our order was up.
“Thanks, pal. Come again.”
His tone and curt manor probably had been misconstrued many times as rudeness. I could tell he was really trying to be nice. It was just that city living had made him speak more on the side of brevity.
The sandwiches were soon eagerly unwrapped and cut in half. I divvied up a half of each sandwich to Vess and me so we could see what each one tasted like. I decided to try the Chicago dog first.
For the uninitiated a Chicago dog all the way consists of this: an all beef dog nestled in a poppy-seed bun then covered with mustard, onions, a dill pickle, tomato, neon-green sweet pickle relish, sport peppers and a sprinkling of celery salt on top. This is called being “dragged through the garden” and is the most traditional preparation. I had ordered Chicago style dogs before from Sonic and Frank ‘n Stein. Not that I am giving credence to a fast food restaurant’s ability to make authentic food (or anything else, for that matter) but I felt I knew what to expect.
The first obstacle to enjoying this thing was trying to figure out how the hell to eat it. It takes an inordinate amount of strategy to take a bite out of this sucker without condiments flying out of the opposite side. Mostly, planning is futile and you end up picking scattered vegetables off of the paper and cramming them in your mouth with each successive bite. After a brief consideration of plan of attack, I just said “fuck it” and dove straight in, opening my mouth as wide as I could manage. My teeth hit the skin of the dog and it popped as my teeth passed through – a sure sign of a natural casing. At that brief moment, I was sold. There is so much going on with a Chicago dog: sweet, sour, beefy, fresh, pickled. It’s really hard to describe because your taste buds are going apeshit trying to figure out what is happening. I know all of the add-ons sound like overkill, but somehow they managed not to overpower the hotdog, which was of excellent quality and the single thing that made it worth eating. Before I knew it, it was gone. I suspected witchcraft. Oh well, at least there was still the Italian beef sandwich to try.
Again, I had eaten an Italian beef sandwich many times before at home. Granted, it was a recipe that involved putting beef and broth in a crock pot, dumping in a jar of pickled peppers and letting it cook for a few hours… not very sexy, but I knew what to expect.
Holy shit was I wrong. This baby stunk up the room in the most delicious way possible when I unwrapped the paper. I took a bite of the fresh Italian roll and it was dripping with quality. The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. The beef was cooked medium and dripping with juices. The acidity of the hot pepper giardiniera cut the richness of the beef making for a flawless combination. It reminded me of eating the best French dip sub I had ever had. I would even be tempted to put horseradish sauce on it but would fear physical harm for messing with tradition.This was one of those sandwiches that once you picked it up and took a bite, it would not touch the plate again. I hastily tore through it and was picking scattered bits of beef up with my fingers in seconds flat. I looked at the plate, once again trying to figure out where my sandwich had gone. It was over too soon. Then again, most good things are.
In a city full of fusion restaurants, Luke’s was a nice pit stop. Among the Italian pizza/taco shops and the Chinese/Mexican restaurants down the street where you get a platter with refried beans next to your sweet and sour chicken, it’s nice to see a restaurant that sticks with tradition. I believe the recipes will continue to stand the test of time and I appreciate their effort to introduce people like me to something truly authentic.