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December 04, 2006

In Support of Edible Gifts

Dominic Armato
Judging from the mall parking lots and Michigan Avenue gridlock this week, we're apparently in the midst of the annual holiday shopping insanity. Comprehensive gift idea lists for every conceivable hobby are ubiquitous, and those food-related are certainly no exception. I've already seen a few myself, and while I'm certainly in full support of anything intended to enhance the awesomeness of foodie gift giving, I'm struck by the fact that they all seem to overlook what I think is the coolest category of food-related gifts.

I'm talking ingredients.

Not prepared foods, mind you. Don't get me wrong, in my experience food geeks love to receive superlative chocolates, preserves and pates. But food geeks live to make superlative chocolates, preserves and pates. When you're somebody who loves to cook, there's nothing that makes your heart sing like stunning ingredients. I couldn't possibly count the number of times I've walked by some incredible ingredient in a specialty store only to wish I had a good excuse to turn it into something. White truffles, specialty mustards, Kobe beef, 50-year balsamic, fresh wasabi and yuzu, premium olive oils, Jamon Iberico, lobes of foie gras, specialty bacon, fennel pollen... they may seem mundane or odd next to kitchenwares and cookbooks, but they're all the kinds of things we long to use but never quite manage to justify buying.

Perhaps I'm deluding myself into thinking that these are the kinds of presents that would appeal to anybody beyond the most fanatical and devoted home cooks, I dunno. Am I alone in thinking there's vast untapped potential here?

December 01, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter IX - Jay's

Dominic Armato
Looks like I'll be finishing the year with a beefy whirlwind! A beef a week with a year-end wrapup around Christmas is the plan, so here goes.

Three-quarters of the way through, and inconsistency is once again rearing its ugly head. I first tried Jay's, on the recommendation of a coworker, a couple of months ago before the Unintentional Hiatus™. At the time, I was really, really underwhelmed. In fact, Jay's beef was so overdone and tasteless that I was prepared to let it take over the bottom spot when I sat down to do the writeup earlier this week. Problem was, the details were eluding me due to the layoff and I felt inadequately prepared to fully express my discontent. So I popped by again this afternoon for a refresher, and much to my surprise, visit number two was a vast improvement over visit number one. Since visit two is the one I remember in detail, however, that's the only one I can write about.

There are actually three Jay's locations, but I hit the one in Schiller Park, which appears to be the original. It's another typical Chicago beef joint -- a small, ever-so-slightly grungy standalone building with a counter, five or six tables, cheesy Italian-ish painted wall murals, and a small menu that prominently features the beef. There's a lot to love about the place. The people running the counter struck me as friendly folks on both occasions. When reading their matching black and yellow shirts, emblazoned with "Jay's Italian Beef - Established 1976", I felt an immediate kinship with the place as I, too, was established in 1976. Squirt bottles of ketchup wander the dining room in lieu of irritating packets or a counter-based dispenser, and atop each table sits a massive roll of ultra-absorbent paper towels. Jay's is a beef stand that loves its customers.

Dominic Armato
The beef itself is... okay. I think the Beef-Off has been skewed somewhat by the fact that I've received excellent recommendations from those whose suggestions I've solicited. Jay's makes a good beef (at least it did the second time), but it's still going to land in the bottom half of the standings thus far. If judged on their own, the fries, unfortunately, would deserve the bottom spot. While some of the other stands have done as much with the precut frozen fare as can be done, these just weren't well-prepared at all. But again, it's all about the beef. Jay's beef is nothing if not generous. They keep stuffing the roll until it can hold no more. I actually see this as something of a downside, since it throws off what I would consider the optimal beef to bread ratio, but there are those who I'm sure are tickled pink to receive as much beef as possible. The sweet peppers are good, but unremarkable. They come in big chunks, lightly cooked with much of their raw body left, which makes for a nice chew if not the sweetest flavor possible. I thought the giardiniera was unusually nice. It's a tart blend, employing both green and red peppers. There are thinly sliced pickled jalapeños, an abundance of dried red chile flakes and a goodly amount of celery for body. Unfortunately, I think the beef really needs the giardiniera. From a technical standpoint, it's well-prepared -- juicy and mostly tender, perhaps a touch overcooked but not exceptionally so, and in possession of a strong beefy flavor. While I appreciate the strength of the flavor, however, it strikes me as rather one-dimensional. It's beefy, and that's about it. As a basis of comparison, where Tore's was a lovely song that I had a hard time hearing, Jay's is nice and loud but it's only playing one or two notes. In particular, I missed the natural beefy sweetness that places like Chickie's and Johnnie's coax out of the meat. Again, this may sound harsh... Jay's has a decent sandwich (when they're on, at least) and I'd drop in again if I were in the neighborhood and had a hankerin'. But the competition is stiff and I certainly won't be making Jay's a destination. The giardiniera helps a lot and almost saves it from the lower third of the standings, but in the end I can't in good conscience overlook the middlin' quality of the beef.
Jay's Beef
9732 Irving Park Rd.
Schiller Park, IL 60176
847-671-0033
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Mr. Beef
4) Bostons
5) Tore's
6) Portillo's
7) Jay's
8) Roma's
9) Al's

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