leave your inhibitions at the door
After my cousin and I wrapped up our breakfast at Dove’s Luncheonette, we had some time to kill. We decided to head over to Costco to check out their booze selection because…. well… BOOZE! On the way there, we stopped into the Vienna Beef Factory Store because…well…BEEF!
It clearly doesn’t take much to please me…
As the name implies, it’s an outlet for the Vienna Beef company which produces just about every hot dog sold in the Chicago area. Sorry Abe Froman…
But get this – I didn’t buy a single hot dog. Just about everyone names hot dogs and that stuffed pizza monstrosity (no, not the Pizza Monster) as the best Chicago dishes. But, by far, the best thing ever is the Italian Beef Sandwich.
Seriously, I can eat three of those in one sitting. Make that three sittings – breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There are a couple of places in Ann Arbor that serve them, but they just don’t get it right – either the beef is sliced too thick, it’s devoid of spices, the bread is completely wrong. One place here hadn’t even heard of serving it “dipped” (i.e. the whole sandwich dipped in the vat of juices) – and that’s pretty much heresy. The Portillo’s chain sells a package online with enough beef, gravy, bread, and peppers to make eight sandwiches. For $80. #notthatdesparate
The factory store sold 4lb tubs of frozen beef and gravy for $9! That’s enough for about two sandwiches. For me. For mere mortals, that’ll still make eight. So naturally I bought two…
I also bought big jar of their hot giardiniera which is fantastic on just about anything. Just not as fantastic as it on Italian Beefs.
The beef and gravy weren’t spiced as well as Al’s or Portillo’s, a definite downside to getting something that was mass-produced. And I didn’t buy the french rolls at the outlet thinking, erroneously, that I could buy similar around here. Unfortunately, the ones I got were too good – you need a tougher roll – and they didn’t stand up as well to dipping. But it still beat anything I’ve had around here. Added bonus: I was steps away from our washing machine, a convenience that can’t be overlooked with how messy these things get.
But that wasn’t the only thing I bought…
Tamales aren’t a Chicago invention and they’re enjoyed in a lot of places this side and that side of the border. The concept is pretty simple – masa (a corn-based dough) stuffed with meat and wrapped in a corn husk. I’ve heard of them being stuffed with fruits and cheeses, too.
But unlike hot dogs and pizza, no one can rightly say that the Chicago-style tamale is the best expression of the genre. In Mexico and Mexican communities throughout the US, families often make them for Christmas and other celebrations. It’s a time to gather as a family for bonding and passing traditions and recipes to younger generations.
By contrast, the Chicago-style tamale is machine-rolled and wrapped in paper. They’re mass-produced in that way so that they can be heated up just like and along with hot dogs.
I came across an incredibly fascinating article detailing how they became part of Chicago tradition. It would seem obvious that it would be due to Mexican immigrants, but it wasn’t them. African American “Molly Men” from the Deep South sold them on the streets when they came to Chicago just after the turn of the 20th century. This same migration brought something else to Chicago – blues music. So there are several old songs that make reference to them, including blues legend Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot”
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime
Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale, I mean
Yes, she got ’em for sale, yes, yeah
Hot tamales and they’re red hot
History aside, the Chicago-style tamale is kinda like Taco Bell. It’s technically Mexican food because it has all the required ingredients. But it’s not really Mexican food. To be perfectly honest it’s closer to an abomination to all things holy and probably offensive to Mexicans everywhere.
But, like Taco Bell, I LOVE THEM. I wasn’t that into hot dogs as a kid, but anywhere that sold hot dogs in Chicago also sold tamales. So I’ve probably eaten hundreds of them in my lifetime. I couldn’t resist buying a bag.
For the most part I just heated a couple here and there when I wanted a quick snack. Then I remembered the dish I had for breakfast at Dove’s Luncheonette had one in there. I wasn’t that fond of it because it packed too many components, making it a muddled mess. But what if I just had the tamale with an egg?
Not bad. Not bad at all.
I don’t know when I’ll be in Chicago again, maybe around Christmas. If I do go, I think on my Christmas wish list this year is going to be a big ol’ freezer for the basement to store more beef and tamales.
Have you had either of these Chicago gems?