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December 27, 2006

The Year In Beef

I started back in January under the assumption that there had to be more to the Chicago Italian beef scene than Al's and Mr. Beef, the conventional favorites. I was determined to get out and try a dozen spots over the course of the year, and I'd say this exercise has been a rousing success. It took a little bit of a December flurry (the only flurry we've had this December, I believe), but we've finally brought the 2006 Beef-Off to a close. It was intended to be more of an amusing tour than a hardcore contest, and the rankings were a way to keep it fun and honor the original Great VinCenzo Beef-Off. But I have to say, with all twelve chapters in the rear view mirror I almost feel as though the rankings have done these establishments a disservice.

If there was a theme for the 2006 Beef-Off, it was inconsistency. Well, that and mediocre fries. But on the occasions when I revisited beef stands, either officially or unofficially, there was frequently a vast difference in quality from day to day. Of course, it could be said that one of the marks of a great beef stand is consistency, but all the same, I think it's important to bear in mind that these are all ranked as they were on the day I had 'em. Also, while I never strive for complete and total objectivity, the Beef-Off was intended to be an extremely personal and subjective take. And what's more, these are all really good beef stands, top to bottom. The list consisted of my own favorites, some I'd heard of here and there, the recommendations of friends, and the always thoughtful musings of my compatriots over at LTH Forum. As a result, there wasn't a single establishment that didn't send out a good beef at some point. As tempting as it was to throw in some beef establishments of dubious quality to spice up the writeups, there were so many places I was dying to try, I couldn't bear to axe any on the schedule. The bottom line is, though I sampled a full dozen beef stands this year, I've only just barely scratched the surface... even of the joints I've visited.

As such, for the final wrapup, I'm going more qualitative than quantitative. You can click on the names of the stands for the full writeup. And so, without further ado, the Year In Beef... after the jump:

The Enigma

Dominic Armato
Al's #1 Italian Beef
We'll let the joint's name slide for the moment. I have to say, I just don't know what to make of Al's. It was my favorite beef in the city from high school through the original Beef-Off, it kicked off the 2006 Beef-Off, and yet it finished the year at the bottom of my rankings. Generally speaking, I think it's a really good beef sandwich... just no longer to my tastes. And it would have been higher on the list were it not for the fact that I got a particularly substandard one on the day I did the writeup. Given the incredible love for the place among both food nerds and others, I worry that I'm being overly hard on Al's, but the truth is that I've been less enthused with every subsequent visit despite being careful to hit the original (and ostensibly the best) location on Taylor. I take comfort in the fact that this consternation regarding Al's is not mine alone. It seems that Al's is very much a love it or hate it establishment, their particular breed of spicy irresistible to its devotees and unimpressive to its detractors. So I think the take home message is that you just have to give it a try and see if it's your thing. Either way, it's a fun stop. The place is long on character. I mean, how could these guys not serve one of the best beef sandwiches in town?
The Meh

Dominic Armato
Roma's Italian Beef & Sausage
Given the awesome story and my family's history with Roma's, it pains me to put them in this category. I only visited Roma's once, but the beef I had on that one visit was... unexciting. It wasn't at all bad, but in this field there just wasn't anything about it that stood out... except perhaps the sweet peppers, which didn't seem unusual at the time, but in retrospect were some of the better ones I've had. Perhaps that's why, nostalgia aside, my father's such a fan of the place. He's a sweet pepper guy, and the Beef-Off taught me that sweet peppers are often an afterthought. I've heard that Roma's has some significant consistency issues, so perhaps my experience was unusual, but I wasn't in any hurry to return... and I haven't, since February.

Dominic Armato
Max's Famous Italian Beef
The second beef in this category had some serious flaws, and was only kept out of the basement by a couple of compelling features. Max's is a fun little joint and it was another place that I only hit once. They have a nice juice and the tubs of giardiniera on the tables are a very, very appreciated touch. But in the end, the beef I had was way overdone. Though I haven't done much in the way of Italian beef preparation myself, I suspect the problem is that tender, juicy beef that sits in hot juice too long gets tough and dry pretty quickly. I have a hunch that Max's is capable of a better sandwich than the one I tried, but as it stands, nice giardiniera or no, this was one of the weaker entries. If, on the other hand, the beef I had was a shining example of the best Max's has to offer, they still have their hooks in me. Those hooks go by the name of ghetto fries. I'll be back.

Dominic Armato
Jay's was the poster child for inconsistency. On my first visit, the beef was flat out bad. In fact, it was one of only two bad sandwiches I had this year. I was all prepared to put it dead last -- and it would've absolutely deserved it -- but then I got sidetracked for a couple of months. When I went back for a refresher, I was surprised to discover that the improvement was vast. What could I do? I had to write up the visit for which I could remember the details. It was still a beef of the lesser variety, but that second trip saved Jay's from the basement. One thing I will say is that if you aren't a hot pepper person, I'd pass on Jay's. On both occasions, the beef couldn't stand up on its own. With the giardiniera, it's a decent sandwich when it's on. Without the giardiniera, it's kinda flat. If Jay's is in your hood, by all means, drop by. But it definitely isn't worth a trip.
The Consistent

Dominic Armato
One thing I will say for large chains... they tend to be pretty consistent. In this case, Portillo's avoided the Beef-Off's most common pitfall and put out exactly the same sandwich every time I tried it. First off, allow me to defend Portillo's against those who assume chain = bad. Portillo's puts out a very good Italian beef sandwich, and what's more, you know it's always going to be good. That said, while I have a hard time finding fault with Portillo's, I also have a hard time finding things to get excited about, except for the bread. Their bread rocks. But excellent bread does not an excellent beef sandwich make, and its lack of pizzazz is what keeps Portillo's out of the upper echelon. And really, unless you're by one of the locations out in the 'burbs, there are better options out there.
The Flawed and The Inconsistent

Dominic Armato
Tore's Italian Beef & Pizza
In this section are the sandwiches that I'd consider near misses for greatness, and Tore's is a perfect example. This is a sandwich that's spot on in a lot of departments. The beef is moist and tender, the peppers are great, both hot and sweet, and the juice is nicely balanced. So what's wrong? Not much... it's just a timid sandwich. If they did the exact same thing and turned the volume up to 11, I think Tore's would have a big winner. Maybe if the juice were reduced further? If you find yourself tasting other beef sandwiches and finding that they're just too aggressive, Tore's might be the way to go. But for me, while I respect the technical mastery and rather enjoy Tore's beef, I like a little more life in my sandwich.

Dominic Armato
Boston's Italian Beef
Boston's was another victim of inconsistency. On both trips, I greatly appreciated Boston's ability to balance rare and well-done beef flavor (still not sure how they do that), but while I appreciate aggressive seasoning, the first trip was all about the oregano. The second trip, which I didn't write about, was a lot better... really good, in fact. In both cases, the sandwich was simple, beefy and potent, if not exactly the picture of careful flavor balance. Not only is Boston's beef generally well-prepared, but it has a unique character that I really enjoyed. On top of which, the building is the best kind of dive. I dig it. The fact that the seasoning was a little sloppy sets Boston's back a bit, but this is a very worthy beef.

Dominic Armato
Mr. Beef
Mr. Beef was the winner of the original Beef-Off. It had been my favorite up until this year. The joint is chock full of character, the sandwich is awesome when it's on, and I always felt comfortable recommending it... until recently. Mr. Beef earned this spot through years of great sandwiches, including a very good one on the day I wrote about it. But I have to say, some of my unofficial visits this year have me more than a little spooked. Not only has Mr. Beef shown me a remarkable lack of consistency lately, but I ate lunch there about a month after the writeup and had what was, without question, the worst beef sandwich of the year. It was just awful. Dry, tough, chewy, tasteless... a shocking departure. But even if I write this one off as an odd exception, I've had some other mediocre sandwiches there as of late. They still turn out some great Italian beefs, and when they're on they're on, but now I feel as though I have no idea what I'm going to get. I've since learned that Mr. Beef has the dubious distinction of occasionally throwing a premade sandwich at you during the lunch rush, but I'm fairly certain this was not the case on all of my substandard visits. Mr. Beef is the once champion and his peaks are high, but I fear that my old stalwart may be on the decline. Beware.
The Excellent

Dominic Armato
Pops on Kedzie
I only went once, but based on what I've read elsewhere I feel comfortable assuming that Pops is always as good as it was the day I went. In some ways, I feel silly about how little I have to say about Pops. They just do everything right. I could pick nits here and there, but the flaws are so few and so minor that they don't in any way diminish my appreciation for the sandwich. It's bold but balanced, and all of the individual components are great on their own. Pops doesn't need to lean on a great giardiniera or excellent bread to excel. That said, the giardiniera is one of the high points, as far as I'm concerned, combining pickled, fresh and dried pepper flavors all in one. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a condiment fiend, but I don't think I'm being bought by the hot peppers. While it doesn't achieve the magic of the final three for me, Pops is spot on.
The Scrappy

Dominic Armato
Uncle Johnny's Grocery & Deli
I call Uncle Johnny's the scrappy beef because I don't know that I can justify how much I loved it, but I just did. It's really, really delicious. And what's more, it achieves this despite being at a significant disadvantage when it comes to facilities. This isn't a beef stand... it's a little corner store that happens to make the occasional beef sandwich behind the miniscule deli counter. And I'm absolutely cognizant of its flaws, including bitter sweet peppers and an overabundance of black pepper in the juice. But in the end, it was just so damn good that I couldn't keep it down. Three times this year I got lost in an Italian beef sandwich, absolutely loving and savoring every single bite. While I think there are some who won't understand why, my visit to Uncle Johnny's was one of those three. Can I claim that it's a better beef sandwich than Pops? Nope. But there's no question that I enjoyed it more.
The Awesome

Dominic Armato
Johnnie's Beef
I suppose it's only fitting that two of my top three for the year are named in a manner that screams Chicago Italian. I didn't get a particularly good photo of Johnnie's beef, but don't let that fool you. Johnnie's is an awesome beef. Among beefy aficionados, it seems that Johnnie's is generally considered the citywide favorite, and for good reason. For somebody who purports to appreciate bolder flavors, it says something that my two favorites aren't the flashiest. Johnnie's doesn't have the aggressiveness of Pops or Boston's, and there isn't anything about it that's particularly distinctive, but man, everything about the sandwich is just perfect. Despite the fact that it wasn't my favorite, if somebody were visiting Chicago and wanted to try one beef stand to have the best, most perfect example of a traditional Italian beef sandwich in the city, Johnnie's is where I'd send them.
The Beefiest of The Beefy

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : It is with a heavy heart that I report the Pulaski location of Chickie's has closed
And so, we come to the end. Chickie's was, hands down, my favorite beef sandwich of 2006. And not only was it so on the day I wrote about it, but I visited four times this past year and the only one that I wouldn't put at the top was the one I carried out and drove 40 minutes with. Not only is everything about the sandwich perfect, but they throw in a few little curveballs that appeal to somebody like me who's always looking for something different and interesting. The seasoning isn't a strict garlic and oregano interpretation, and the razor-thin slices of fresh jalapeno in the giardiniera work miracles with the beef. But the best thing about Chickie's sandwich is that it manages to build such an engrossing flavor from such subtle, perfectly balanced components. When you bite into a Chickie's beef, nothing sticks out except for the fact that it's absolutely fantastic. That Chickie's is one of the few places that serves great fries is just the icing on the cake. Of course, the year that I discover Chickie's would also be the year that it may change hands. For the past few months, there's been a sign on the front of the building stating that the entire business is for sale. Scuttlebutt has it that the owner is just "testing the waters", but I'm afraid. I suppose there's something to be said for fleeting culinary joy, but here's hoping things stay just as they are for at least a little while longer. If Chickie's were to suffer at the hands of a regime change, the 2006 Beef-Off would most certainly have a tragic ending.

So there it is. The Year in Beef. Rankings and favorites aside, the truth is that all of these places have their charm and their good points. Of course, I know which sandwiches I'll be going back for, and which I'll be stopping for only if I'm in the neighborhood. But while the Beef-Off is officially complete, there are other joints I'd still like to hit (I hear great things about Patio), and I'll report as I do. What's been made clear to me this year is that Chicago's Italian beef scene is not only huge, but surprisingly diverse. I couldn't possibly hope to cover it all in comprehensive fashion. Ideally, this serves as a jumping-off point that provides context for future exploration. Explore I will. But I'll be coming back to Chickie's.


Wow! Bully you! That's an awesome round-up!! Lots of cheese and other varieties of steak sandwiches!

Great write-up. I have yet to find a good top ten "beef-off", so I applaud you for this. I consider myself a beef lover, but I don't get the chance to head into the city that often, so most of my beef outings are in the NW burbs and sometimes west. There are 2 places that I think you should give a go if you're up this way...

Fratello's II (not sure if any relation to the one in Round Lake)
3301 Kirchoff Rd, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008
Tel: (847) 253-3401
-Has improved over the past couple years. On the peppery side, although the last time I was there, the beef's seasoning was nicely balanced.

Carm's Beef Original
1801 S. Wolf Rd. Hillside 60162
-By far, the best beef I've had around. Everything you could want out of a beef - moist and delicious, plus they make their own very fresh and clean tasting giardiniera. Not sure if it's the same owner as the Carm's Beef and Italian Ice on Polk, though.

This blog is a must read "field guide" for any Chicago beef lover!

Excellent job, and while some may or may not align with your top 5 list or in which order you may have the rankings, anyone who reads this blog must truly respect the details, observations and great photo's of the places you went to and critiqued.

For your next taste off I highly recommend a place that is way off the normal beaten path;
Big Jacks in Round Lake Park on Washington & Hainsville rd. This family owned and run establishment makes their own beef & sausage in house and they put out a consistent sandwich that rivals any of the top 5. For guys like me who were dying for a real beef in the northern burbs these guys have answered my prayers and delivered a beef that would go toe to toe with Johnny's, Al's or anyone else for that matter.

Take care

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