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July 27, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter V - Mr. Beef

Dominic Armato
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.

Dominic Armato
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.

Dominic Armato
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.

Dominic Armato
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:
Mr. Beef
666 N. Orleans St.
Chicago, IL 60610
1) Chickie's
2) Mr. Beef
3) Portillo's
4) Roma's
5) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.


Having stopped by for other reasons, I cannot help but comment on your beef-off.

Nice work. I respect the personal take, though it would be helpful if you revealed how you like your sandwich - looks like you go with giardinera on the sandwich (absolutely the perfect way to eat it, IMO, but not the best way to judge it - call me perverse - since a good giardinera can obscure so many sins). Dipped, dry or at the whim of the beef stand? Are you eating the sandwich in situ, or taking it out (I note the Vicenzo beef-off seemed to be a takeout affair).

Having spent a little time sampling beef, I look forward to hearing your take on some of the better beef stands in the city. Try Patio on Taylor as a better alternative in almost every way to Mr. Beef, though in the same style. And Johnnies, of course, for the best beef in town. Max's offers an interesting alternative in the seasoned beef school (like Chickies, though not as good, and much of the seasoning at Max's comes from the unique Giardinera).

I respect your dislike of Al's, as it is a very different sandwich in almost every way, and people either love it or hate it. But the point needs to be made - if you like Italian Beef, you need to go and sample Al's on Taylor. It is a unique take.

Any chance of you joining us in October for the grand finals of the Beefathon? If anyone else is interested, stop by www.lthforum.com - real link is in the beef-off postings.

Me, I will take Johnnies, Chickies and Al's in that order. Mr. Beef would not even make my top 10 - it is a well made sandwich, the beef is cooked well, but it lacks any great interest, particularly in the beef itself which is boring without the giardinera. Johnnies, at its best, has all the rich, beefy flavor you mention in Mr Beef, but 10 times better. Chickies and Al's use herbs and seasoning (fennel and sweeter herbs at Al's. paprika and a more Hungarian spice palate at Chickies) to great effect, and this is a style I prefer, though Johnnies stands alone.

Look forward to further updates.

Heh... since I'm on number five, now, I'm getting a little lazy about rehashing all of the details :-)

All sandwiches are ordered hot, sweet and dipped, on the premises, at or near the peak of the lunch rush. But I never really intended for this to be as scientific an endeavor as, say, the Deconstructing Garlic post from a week or so back. It's supposed to be a fairly casual, very personal take. When I started the series, I had no idea anybody was going to be reading this thing :-)

Regarding the giardiniera, I understand your concern, and you're right, but I stand by that decision. It's intended as a real-world survey. When I get a beef, I order it with peppers, so I figure my personal standings should represent that. It's the same with, say, burgers. Judging them based solely on bun, meat and cheese is going to give you different results than getting them with the works, and which is the "truer" form is completely subjective. So I just picked the form that was truer to me (and more desirable to my belly :-).

The Al's conundrum is really a funny thing. As mentioned in the earlier posts, I was a huge Al's fan for a long, long time, but the more I eat around the less I like it. It certainly stands on its own, and I understand why it's so beloved, but hopefully I've made it clear over the course of the 2006 Beef-Off that, since beef tasting is such a subjective endeavor anyway, I've opted to embrace the subjectivity and make it all about MY preferences, and not about which is an idealized "best".

Patio, Johnnie's and Max's are all on my list for the rest of the year. And I'd LOVE to jump in on the Beefathon finals. I've been eyeballing that particular outing for a while, now. Though I'd like to have the bulk of my personal survey done by then. I have a little catching up to do :-)

Great post! I think you're right on about Mr. Beef and the balance of friendliness / surliness of the staff. I also agree that the fries are of the de facto Sysco-type product but since they're not the focus of the visit, they don't offend.

But the beef sammich - in my most recent tastings, I feel that they've lost the love. It used to be one of my top five, but go at the wrong time and you'll be handed a premade sammich (happened twice) and imho the seasoning that used to be there just isn't anymore.

I also think the best italian beef is available at Johnnie's. Requisite surly-ish staff, long lines at lunch and dinner. Better fries than at Mr. Beef and a really, really fine sammich. Plenty of oregano, garlic, pepper and salt. The sweet peppers are cut in 1/4" dice and liberally applied. The hot giardinera has chopped sport peppers, celery, carrot, cauliflower and onion. If you want just a little heat, they will drizzle on some of the hot giardinera oil.

Most importantly, when you place your order they make it right then, bread filled and dressed while the fries are always just out of the fryer.

When I was living in NYC and we'd come back to visit family, Johnnie's was always on the list of must-dos...



A premade beef sandwich?!? That's just wrong... WRONG!!!

I've never seen it happen, but that'd certainly be a massive negative mark in my book.

I know I need to get to get to Johnnie's. I'm trying to space out the heavy hitters a little bit, but I don't know if I can wait that long. Remains to be seen :-)

We Lost another one :( I am a 30+ year customer of Chickies on 28th and pulaski, in Chicago. They were sold and they are NOT the same. The fries are different and the beef juice is different. There are people that don't speak English, attempting to take orders. They FINALLY painted and put some color into the place, but other than I will bet on they NEVER win best beef again.....It's still a dump ......GOD I loved that joint!!!!!

From what I tasted at Chickies recently the fries and beef juice are still the very same. The staff is curtious and well spoken. Best Beef In Town!

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