Well, the 2006 Beef-Off is running a little behind schedule, but not without reason. May's post (which never happened) was to be about Mr. Beef, the old family favorite and landslide winner of the Great VinCenzo Beef-Off
back in 2002. It was, in fact, the narrow scope of the 2002 Beef-Off that was the inspiration for the 2006 Beef-Off. Though Al's and Mr. Beef are probably the most famous Chicago beef sandwiches, I assumed that there must be other worthy contenders out there and resolved to broaden my horizons. As it turned out, my assumptions were correct. A little too correct. The leader going into May, Chickie's
, was good... really
good. So in preparing for my Mr. Beef post, I felt I had to give both establishments at least two visits before going to the scorecard. As much as I loved the idea of pounding four Italian beef sandwiches over the course of one week, I figured I'd better spread them out a little bit. So we lost a couple of months in the process, but rest assured, we'll be back on track shortly.
Getting back to the beef stand at hand, Mr. Beef is the undisputed winner in the charm category. It's a Chicago institution. It has the requisite greasy/skeezy factor without crossing the line into creepy. The staff is quick, efficient and juuuust
surly enough to be amusing without being rude. It houses the self-proclaimed "Elegant Dining Room", so identified by the plaque above the entryway. It's one long table with benches on either side, adorned with a horde of Rat Pack movie posters and LP sleeves. It was made famous outside the city limits largely due to the efforts of Jay Leno, who is a vocal Mr. Beef devotee and who has provided multiple signed photographs for the wall o' celebrities, sitting alongside more traditional Chicago folks. As greasy joints go it's a fun one, and its character is the antithesis of the Portillo's
down the street.
Of course, while character is always appreciated, it doesn't affect the standings where the Beef-Off is concerned. I know Mr. Beef well enough to write it up without a recent visit, but I... uh... went back for a refresher anyway. As always, we'll get the fries out of the way first... and this has always been a weakness of Mr. Beef's. They're cookie-cutter thinly cut frozen spuds. Crispy, competent, and uninteresting. The sandwich, however, is fantastic. Mr. Beef exudes quiet strength, fairly traditional in all aspects. The meat itself is always tender, intensely flavored and never overcooked. The juice is fairly potent with a nice dried herb flavor, but not so overpowering as Al's
, and has a none-too-subtle naturally sweet component to round out the flavor. The giardiniera is as standard as they come, with pickled peppers, chunks of celery and bits of carrot. The sweet peppers are no-frills, barely seasoned if at all, and served in big chunks. One element that sets it slightly apart is that it has a bit of a dark, almost caramel flavor, as though the juice is perhaps reduced a little more intensely than at your average beef joint. But this small difference aside, the beauty of Mr. Beef isn't in the composition, but in the quality. It isn't unusual, but it's unusually good, and it doesn't try too hard to show this because it's a sandwich that knows
it's good. It's a strong, well-balanced, confident beef sandwich with just enough character, like the surrounding establishment, to help it stand out from the pack.
But it's no longer my favorite.
I'm going to take some serious abuse for this one. Really, you have no idea. But I've taken all of the necessary steps to confirm my findings and I am resolute in my judgment. Mr. Beef is a great beef, firmly ensconced in second place, but I can no longer put it at the top of my list. When I first ate at Chickie's, I thought there could be trouble. I then went to Mr. Beef with Chickie's on the brain and knew there was trouble. I returned to Chickie's a second time and had, without exaggeration, the best Italian beef sandwich of my life, which made the final return to Mr. Beef merely a formality. I've already swooned
over Chickie's, but my second visit has only deepened my appreciation. In addition to everything I've already articulated, there's a life to Chickie's beef that I can't quite describe, but which haunts me. We're not quite halfway through the year's planned stops, but already my beefy world has been rocked. As such, the revised standings:
Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.