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August 20, 2008

Defending Chicago's Honor

Chicago-Style Hot Dog Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Zack's Hot Dogs has closed

I have more to report from Arizona, but first, something that just popped up last night. I know, I know. Just a month ago I was talking about how, midway through our stay in Baltimore, there are too many local foodstuffs I haven't yet tried, and here I am playing accidental tourist and searching for a little taste of home on the east coast. But after practically working it into my diet as a fifth food group, I haven't had an Italian beef since December. Can you blame me for jumping all over this one?

XtremeDominic Armato
While browsing the usual food sites last night, I came across favorable mention of a spot in the Baltimore 'burbs that serves, purportedly, excellent Chicago-style dogs. Zack's (or "Zack's... Hotdogs With An Attitude!" if you want to get technical about it) is one of the "hot dogs from across the nation" establishments that seem to be gaining in popularity -- complete with the übercorny made-for-franchising brand that always seems to come with that territory. The menu is chock full of in-your-face descriptions, and the mascot looks like it was brought to you by the brain trust that produced Poochie. The fact that the satire of these mascots was already seven years old when Zack's opened is somewhat troubling, but hey, their website touts Vienna products and I'd happily endure much more than a menu with attitude to obtain a good sausage, so I wasn't about to hold that against the place. I resolved to visit within a week. Then I spotted Italian beef on the menu and resolved to visit the next day. Others have written about the full body of Zack's menu (which is quite extensive in the hot dog realm), and if you'd like to get a broad, objective take on the place, I'd encourage you to read them. My goal, on the other hand, was to answer a single question -- are Zack's Chicago-style offerings solid enough to comfort a homesick Chicagoan?

Chicago-Style Hot DogDominic Armato
Upon arriving at Zack's, I figured I'd start with the hot dog and go from there. Not only because hot dogs are Zack's specialty, but also because, given that they were working with Vienna ingredients, I figured it'd be harder to screw up than the delicately balanced blend of flavors and techniques that go into a good Italian beef. I'm going to sidestep, for the moment, the debate over what, precisely, constitutes a Chicago-style dog and simply state that Zack's is a mostly faithful rendition of what I've come to call the Vienna/Royko standard: natural casing Vienna Beef frank, yellow mustard, pickle spear, chopped onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, sport peppers and an optional dash of celery salt (referred to here as "Zack's Famous Seasoning" -- see: in-your-face menu, above) served atop a poppyseed bun. But in watching its preparation, it was immediately clear that these folks needed a few pointers on technique. In a strange twist, by default, Zack's serves their Chicago style dog without mustard, pointing instead to the optional condiment bar. Mustard is easily the LEAST dispensable topping of the bunch, so this struck me as more than a little odd, but its easy availability kept me from getting bent out of shape over it. I did, however, hand her the bottle and ask her to add it first. Mustard sprayed across the top of the vegetables is, as any Chicagoan knows, totally unacceptable. The other thing that raised my eyebrows was the fact that the dog arrived on the bun after a shot in the microwave. I chose to willfully ignore this and let flavor rule the day. And you know what? It's a pretty good dog! The balance of toppings is a little wonky, it definitely doesn't have that steam table magic, and I think the microwave screws up the snap factor somewhat, but I've had far worse, even in Chicago. Were I to walk into a hot dog stand in Chicago and receive one of these I'd probably be a little more picky, but considering that I got it in Parkville, it's very respectable. I wouldn't hesitate to go back and, perhaps more telling, I wouldn't hesitate to send Baltimore friends over there for a sample of one of my fair city's signature dishes. And so, pleased with my first taste of transplanted Chicago, I moved on to the Italian beef.

Allow me to preface my thoughts on the Italian beef by saying that those who read this blog with any kind of regularity have hopefully come to learn that I'm somebody who tries very hard to avoid negative hyperbole, and that while I don't hesitate to criticize when I feel criticism is earned, my approach is to look for the positive first and the negative second. I don't need to rip dishes to shreds simply to prove to the world that I have discriminating tastes, and I like to think that, with rare exception, I can present fair and objective criticism without getting nasty about it. Having said that, let me share that while I cannot possibly express how awful this Italian beef sandwich was, naturally, I'm going to try anyway.

Now, the bold, meaty flavor of the Italian beef sandwich belies its delicate nature. It's a finicky little beast that requires careful attention to detail in both seasoning and technique. The sheer number of variables involved multiplied by their sensitivity make a great Italian beef a surprisingly difficult sandwich to produce, and it's why even the best Chicago beef stands -- places that are dedicated almost exclusively to this marvel of downscale cuisine and have been so for decades -- struggle to maintain a consistently great product. And yet, even with the worst Italian beef sandwiches I've had, I can almost always find something worthwhile; some redeeming factor that they're doing right, even if the sandwich still crashes and burns. This was not one of those sandwiches.

Italian BeefDominic Armato
The closest to acceptable was the bread, which was all wrong. In Zack's defense, as a friend of mine, Jeff, once astutely observed, the greatest hurdle to overcome in making regional specialty sandwiches outside of their region is the bread. It's so important to a sandwich's character, but unlike most other sandwich ingredients, it doesn't travel well. That means you're almost certainly sourcing your bread locally. But bakeries are, by nature, low margin / high volume businesses with immediate spoilage. Unless there's large demand for the bread you're trying to sell, you can't make it profitably, and that demand will probably only exist in its home region. In short, it's really hard to get the right bread for a sandwich that's made halfway across the country. But that said, they could have made a much better choice. It's fine for their other sandwiches, perhaps, but totally wrong for an Italian beef. Generally, you either want something dense, firm and a little dry to stand up to the juice (Gonnella), or something with a strong crust so that it maintains structural integrity even while the insides get mushy. This bread was soft and light and spongy throughout, and it completely disintegrated when set down within three feet of a tub of juice. Which leads us to problem number two, the juice. I asked if they were set up to dunk the sandwich (key, in my opinion). They were not. I was told they were served with a tub of juice. I requested three, saturating my sandwich with two and tasting the third. It was thin, pale, overly salty, almost completely devoid of beef flavor, and while I hesitate to make such a scandalous suggestion without knowing for certain, my hunch is that it was "Italianized" not by simmering with herbs, spices and garlic, but rather through the introduction of bottled Italian salad dressing. But whatever the method, it was terrible. The beef itself was shocking in how little it resembled meat in both flavor and texture. They get their beef from Vienna, and I'm unfamiliar with the nature of the product before it's prepared, but this was rubbery, weirdly squishy, cut too thick and almost completely flavorless. Sweet peppers were unavailable. And even the giardiniera, great when freshly made by a skilled hand but sometimes even better and easily obtainable as a bottled product with an infinite shelf life, somehow came out terribly. It had no heat of any kind, almost no oil, and was nuked into mushy oblivion, completely destroying whatever textural interest it may have once possessed, before being introduced to the sandwich. In short, this Italian beef sandwich achieved the remarkable distinction of having gotten everything -- EVERYTHING -- wrong.

I write this not because I take pleasure in doing so, but rather because I feel compelled to defend the honor of what I consider to be the most noble of my hometown's signature foodstuffs. I admire the owners of Zack's for producing a worthy Chicago-style dog 700 miles from Chicago. And I respect them for attempting to propagate the juicy pile of awesome that is the Italian beef sandwich. But, good people of Baltimore, please, please, please do not think for a moment that this even remotely resembles what my beloved Italian beef sandwich can be, even in its most mediocre form. In return, I hereby pledge to inform the denizens of Chicago that their crabcakes suck. Deal?

Zack's... Hotdogs With An Attitude!
8923 Old Harford Rd.
Parkville, MD 21234
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 6:00 PM


If I was not feeling so bad I would have to pop over to Al's or Mr. Beef this afternoon just to add to your pain for leaving the hometown and add to the incentive to return soon. I did try Patio down the street and amazingly from your description, I think that perhaps they learned how to make the sandwich from Zack's

(sshhh...hugo's frog bar--if you can stand the company--does a really good crabcake. i learned this from my maryland-native friend!)

As a fellow Chicagoan, I hereby certify the above hot dog as Chicago style. That picture is amazing, you can literally see the sprinkle of celery salt!

Dom, after having tried Italian Beef at places all over the country, I've come to one overall conclusion: If you are not within a 75-mile radius of the Loop, then avoid any Italian Beef that from any place that does not have it at the very top of the menu.

If they advertise Hot dogs! (and Italian Beef) or Pizza! (and Italian Beef) or Gyros! (and Italian Beef), the Italian Beef is going to be wrong. If it is buried in a list of sandwiches between the Reuben and the Grilled Chicken breast, just below the BLT and above the Turkey Club -- don't even think about it -- it's going to turn out to be a French Dip.

Italian Beef is not a secondary menu item; making a good one is too complicated.

Ha! Dom I just read your Chowhound post on Zack's IB before coming to the site. The post here at SD really is much more entertaining, in a kind of regional culinary schadenfreude kind of way.

I have to agree with rabrab on this one. Growing up in the 'burbs of Chicago I learned that you don't order Beef sandwiches from pizza places. It's never a respectable rendition of this beloved treasure.

And nuking it? UGH!

Hi Dom,

This is non-food related, but I wanted to warn you that when I clicked the Zack's Dogs link, I immediately got hit with a virus. I'm at work (at a large internet company) so it got caught quickly by our rather stringent security, but people reading at home might not be so lucky.

Is it time for the monthly post?

"Is it time for the monthly post?"

That was low... but well-deserved :-)

(I hope... backlog... busy... blahblahblah)

No offense attended. Just a little light ribbing. Enjoy the blog, so its a bummer when you can't post for awhile...

Missed ya, Dom! When are you coming back?

And... uh... not to be pushy, but... Top Chef 5 is starting soon. Will you be doing power rankings again? I missed those, too.

hey Guybrush!!

Top Chef 5 starts Nov 12th

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