Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Chicago Food Review

Now that the Chicago portion of our road trip is over, it's time for the Great Chicago Food Review. Andy and I ate at three Chicago institutions during our time there: Lou Malnati's Pizza, Jim's Original, and Al's #1 Italian Roast Beef. As a quick refresher:

The Official Food Review Hierarchy
1) Not worth it
2) Stop in if you're driving by
3) Check it out if you're in town
4) I'd drive an hour for it
5) I'd drive several states for it
6) I'd kill a man

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria

Chicago-style pizza is different from normal pizza. Take it away, Wikipedia:
A thin crust of pizza dough is laid in a seasoned deep-dish pizza pan and raised up on the sides. The ingredients are placed on a Chicago style deep-dish pizza in the opposite order of a thin crust pizza. The first ingredient is thick slices of mozzarella cheese that are placed directly on the dough. Then additional ingredients like mushrooms, onions and sausage are spread on top of the cheese. The pizza is then topped with a tomato sauce made with whole chunks of tomatoes. One of the more popular features of a "Lou-Mal" pie is the "sausage patty," which is, as the name describes, a single patty of Italian sausage below the layer of tomato chunks or sauce, as opposed to the more traditional crumbled sausage.
Basically, Chicago-style pizza is like a pizza pot pie without the top crust. You eat it with a fork and knife, and, as I learned, three pieces of it is incredibly filling. 

The cheese, underneath the tomato and sausage, is stringy and delicious, but by far, the best part about this pizza was the sausage. Every bit of the pizza was covered with a thick layer of sausage, which in addition to the cheese, tomatoes, and flaky crust, made for an excellent meal.

In terms of actually calling it "pizza," I'm not sure that I'm down with that. I'm much more comfortable with "pizza pot pie." In my opinion, New York style pizza is still tops. But this is still very good.

Official verdict for Lou Malnati's Pizzeria: Check it out if you're in Chicago. And if you're not a filthy vegetarian, sausage is definitely the way to go. I've had better pizza, but I'll call my first foray into "pizza pot pie" a success. 

Jim's Original

After the White Sox game, Andy and I headed down to Jim's Original, a Steve Messer recommendation, for some Polish sausages. Even though the location has moved, Jim's has been serving Polish sausages since 1943. One look at the menu shows two great things: the great prices, and the fact that fries come free when you order any sandwich.

Andy and I both ordered our sausages with mustard and onions (the standard way is onions, mustard, and hot peppers) and dug in. Immediately, we realized why these guys have been around for almost 70 years. The skin was snappy, the meat was juicy, and both the mustard and onions complimented the sausage perfectly. And they have the production line down to a science

After we finished, we each went back to the window and ordered a road sausage for the train ride back. The guys behind the window thought this was hilarious and even posed for pics with the food. And the true mark of a champion: sausage #2 was just as good as sausage #1.

Official verdict for Jim's Original: I'd drive an hour for it every now and then. With the prices being so low, I'd probably also stock up and eat 4 or 5 in the car on the way back. Sure, I'd feel sick, but it would be worth it.

Al's #1 Italian Beef

Again, I defer to Wikipedia:
An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930s. The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called "hot") or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called "sweet").
After walking about 2 miles to Al's downtown location, Andy and I had worked up a good appetite by the time we got there. We knew we wanted italian beef sandwiches, but after looking at the menu quizzically for a few seconds, the guy behind the counter cut in. "First time here, guys?" he asked.

We nodded. "You guys saw this place on TV, right? Man v. Food?" Again, guilty as charged. He pointed out the combo meal menu, and told us we wanted the "Big Al Combo," the large italian beef sandwich with hand-cut fries. Perfect. We both got hot and sweet peppers on our sandwiches, asked for them dipped in the gravy, and while they put them together, we talked with the guy behind the counter about our road trip. The sandwiches came out, he threw an extra side of meat juice in for good measure, and we sat down to enjoy our food.

The fries were very good. The sandwich was great. The meat was tender, the peppers added a nice amount of spice and crunch, and the bread dipped in the meat juice was somewhat strange, but surprisingly tasty. It stuck to and changed the sandwich in the same way that cheese whiz melds to the meat in a cheesesteak, creating one homogenous piece of food.

The only negative (if you even want to view it as such) is that eating a large italian beef sandwich takes a lot out of you. Even though Andy and I had slept approximately 9 hours each the night before, after this sandwich, we both wanted to take a nap. If Al's ever did an eating challenge, we hypothesized that not too many people would be able to finish 2 large italian beef sandwiches with fries. Still, this sandwich was great, and will definitely be something I seek out on my next visit to Chicago.

Official verdict for Al's #1 Italian Beef: Check it out if you're anywhere near the Chicago area and don't have to do anything active for the rest of the day. Or if you run out of Ambien.

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