leave your inhibitions at the door
You know how to tell tourists from natives in Chicago? Yes, fanny packs are an easy sure fire method, but I think the memo is FINALLY is getting around and those are almost universally shunned. Mullets? Maybe, but those are unreliable. Not only are visitors from the south side of the Mason-Dixon still sporting them, people south of 95th Street are still wearing them. Nope, if you want to clearly identify a tourist, look for the person actually eating a Chicago-style stuffed pizza at one of the many downtown pizza places.
For those of you who haven’t had it, it’s a 3-inch thick deep-dish pizza with the toppings stuffed inside stuffed with a couple pounds of cheese. It’s delicious, but it’s too overwhelming. It takes about an hour or so to make, and that’s after waiting a long time at those touristy pizza places. And if you have a couple slices of it, consider yourself done for the day. Instant food coma.
Yes, Chicago-style pizza is awesome and, if you haven’t had it, it’s definitely worth a try. But these days, you don’t have to go to Chicago to get one. They are just about everywhere.
So what should you get if you want something distinctly Chicago? There are three other things I can think of that were originated in Chicago and only available there. One is pretty well-known, one pretty unknown, and the other somewhere-in-between known. I’ve included some suggestions on where to get your hands on one and how much Chicago street credibility you get to differentiate yourself from the other tourists. If you don’t give a crap about looking like a tourist, get some anyway – they’re that good.
The Chicago Hot Dog
Description: Known by locals as “dragged through the garden” – Steamed all-beef wiener, yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, dill pickle spear, tomato slices, spicy sport peppers, celery salt, on a poppy seed bun. Notice? NO KETCHUP. And in case you are thinking about ketchup, may I remind you of the following quote:
“Nah, this stuff isn’t getting to me, the shootings, the knifings, the beatings, old ladies being bashed in the head for their social security checks… Nah, that doesn’t bother me. But you know what does bother me? You know what makes me really sick to my stomach? It’s watching you stuff your face with those hotdogs. Nobody, I mean nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.” – “Dirty” Harry Callahan
Best Place to Get One: Too many to name.
Chicago Street Cred: 1 out of 10. These are too common to get you street cred. Unless you go to Wiener’s Circle, then you get 10 points. Here’s why –
This video KILLS me every time I see it. Trust me, the “ladies” are exactly like that and you can’t ask for better entertainment. If you go there, say hey to my cousin El Douchebag. He lives close by and will probably be there.
Italian Beef Sandwich
Description: Thin slices or shaved seasoned roast beef, drenched in juices, on a long Italian roll. Even though it’s already dripping with juices, they’ll dip it in the vat of beef juices to take it over the top. Your only choice is whether you want hot gardiniera peppers or sautéed sweet peppers.
I love these way more than the pizza or hot dog. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I found out that these are only available in Chicago. I figured with a name like that they would be available everywhere, but I’ve only seen them a few other places. It’s a hard sandwich to get right and it takes a commitment on the part of the restaurant. The meat and the juice have to be heavily spiced and it has to be cooked in a large batch. And the roll has to be a Italian roll which is chewy with a hard crust. If the crust isn’t firm enough, it’ll just disintegrate when dipped. I prefer the hot peppers, but the sweet ones will do if you can’t take the heat.
Best Place to Get One: If they’re still open, House of Vittori on Taylor Street. If not, go to Al’s, they invented it in 1938 and there’s a few of them around the city.
Chicago Street Cred: 7/10
Description: A sandwich with beef, pork, or chicken with garlic with optional mayo, cheese, lettuce, tomato. It’s topped with some minced garlic that sends it through the stratosphere. Oh, one more thing – IT HAS NO BREAD! In place of the bread are two pieces of flattened, deep-fried plantains. Carb-conscious folks will love the lack of bread. (Of course, that’s canceled out by the pork and the fact that it’s fried…)
My brother turned me onto this a couple years ago. It’s a Puerto Rican specialty, but it was invented at El Borinquen in Chicago. I don’t think you can get any more unique than this. It is so damn good.
But it’s not for everyone. It’s spicy and oh so ethnic. And the Humboldt Park neighborhood isn’t completely gentrified yet. I think it’s safe, but I’m probably not the right person to judge because I used to ride my bike through some of the worst public housing projects. I guess it’s not a good sign that best thing the insurance company next door can offer are prayers.
Best Place to Get One: El Borinquen is the only one I’ve ever had and it’s dynamite. But it sounds like it barely made this list of top 10 Jibaritos.
Street Cred: 10/10