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December 07, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter X - Uncle Johnny's

Dominic Armato
I have to confess, the tenth entry in the Beef-Off schedule came as a bit of a surprise.

I threw in Uncle Johnny's less because of what I heard about their beef, and more because of what I heard about their character. Uncle Johnny's isn't a beef stand at all. It's actually a tiny old corner market down in Bridgeport that makes a few sandwiches behind the deli counter, one of which happens to be of the beefy and Italian variety. When I say tiny, I mean the place absolutely defines hole in the wall. The area open to customers can't be more than about 15'x20'. A few shelves are crammed with items like potato chips, some canned goods, condiments and such. The back wall is lined with ancient wooden coolers containing milk, eggs and other basics. Judging from the yellowing paraphernalia tacked to the walls above the shelves, somebody's an Elvis fan. And next to the cash register is a small deli case, behind which is a tiny prep area where they prepare sandwiches for carryout. Though I believe there's a small kitchen in back, this sandwich prep area is a decidedly low-tech operation. In fact, rather than the typical large commercial equipment, Johnny's serves their beef out of a small countertop appliance. Having heard that Uncle Johnny's didn't have any seating, I'd assumed there would be some kind of stand-up counter or something of that nature. No dice. While I understand there's usually a picnic table or two out on the sidewalk during the warmer months, my December expedition left me with the options of either A) the street corner, or B) my car. I opted for the latter. As such, it was in the front seat, hunched over my makeshift briefcase-wrapped-in-plastic-grocery-bag table, that I discovered Uncle Johnny's is about a lot more than character.

Dominic Armato
It was a really good beef.

One of the best I've had, in fact, if a little atypical. The thing of it is, there are issues with Uncle Johnny's sandwich that I'd ordinarily consider detrimental. The sweet peppers were overcooked and rather bitter. The seasonings were weak, with the exception of an overly strong black pepper flavor. But as much as I tried to fulfill my Beef-Off responsibilities by carefully tasting and nit picking, no matter how much fault I found I couldn't help but get lost in what was a fantastic beef experience. It was really, really delicious, and I think the operative word here is fresh. It had a pure, clean flavor that was wonderfully intense despite its simplicity. Uncle Johnny's uses a very moist French bread which, when mixed with a healthy amount of juice, partially morphs into the warm, gooey mess that may very well be my favorite part of a beef sandwich. The giardiniera appeared to be a typical bottled variety -- probably off the store's shelves -- with chunks of peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery sitting in a healthy amount of spicy olive oil. The beef, which I understand is roasted in house, is unusually moist, tender, and sliced particularly thin. The flavor of the beef and juice, however, is the real enigma to me. Aside from the aforementioned potent pepper flavor, it's very, very lightly seasoned. I'd normally classify this as a problem, but the beef flavor was so warm and intense and rounded, strong but beautifully mellow, capturing both the lighter sweetness and the darker well-done flavors, I finally decided that I just didn't care. Since commencing the Beef-Off in January, I was completely lost in the sandwich for just the third time.

From what I'd heard, I expected Uncle Johnny's to make a pretty decent sammy, but I had no idea it would crack the top tier. While it doesn't embody the complex, artful, perfectly balanced genius of places like Chickie's and Johnnie's, it has a simple but bold character that's just flat out good. As such, I'm going to put it at the bottom of the top tier. My brain says it has a few issues, but I'm going with the gut on this one, and the gut is very, very pleased.

Uncle Johnny's
500 W. 32nd Street
Chicago, IL 60616
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Uncle Johnny's
4) Mr. Beef
5) Bostons
6) Tore's
7) Portillo's
8) Jay's
9) Roma's
10) Al's

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


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