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July 13, 2011

Taylor Street in Tempe

Chicago Style Hot Dog Dominic Armato

One of the things that always drives me nuts is when people refer to the Italian neighborhood on Taylor Street in Chicago as Little Italy. It's not as though I knew everybody in the city of Chicago, but I certainly never heard anybody call it Little Italy when I was growing up. It was Taylor Street. Then, somewhere along the line (we may have the University Village Association to blame... I'm a little fuzzy on the history) "Little Italy" caught on, and where the term used to be an instant tourist identifier, I'm now shocked by how many Chicagoans use it. Yes, I realize that I'm going all "get off my lawn!" here, but the point is that there's a breed of Chicagoan for whom "Taylor Street" will never be replaced by "Little Italy." It's a breed of Chicagoan that can't stomach the city's signature foodstuffs being done any way but the right way. And this is why I nearly ran my car off the road last week when I drove by a brand new place called "Taylor Street."

Positive IndicatorsDominic Armato

Taylor Street, speaking this time of the sandwich shop that just opened in Tempe a month ago, popped up out of nowhere with zero fanfare, like so many little hot dog and beef stands back home. It's taken over a strip mall space formerly occupied by a Quiznos, which left behind some of the kitchen equipment, all of the wall decorations, and apparently even a few boxes of the paper they used to wrap the sandwiches (Hey, why waste?). The story of its genesis is a familiar one. The owner and chief kitchen operator, Joel, used to run Luke's of Chicago on Indian School and 16th Street along with his brother, before selling off his half of the business and setting out on his own. When I learned this, a little light went off. Luke's had been my favorite Italian Beef in the valley, a very respectable if less than stellar version that guaranteed a taste of home wasn't too far away. But it's been slipping lately. My last few visits left me with underwhelming sandwiches and I was starting to worry that the magic was gone. Turns out the magic moved to Tempe. And got better.

Italian BeefDominic Armato

That I've even had the opportunity to be mildly frustrated by the hunt for an Italian Beef sandwich in Phoenix is a blessing. I made the mistake of turning a love into an obsession right before leaving Chicago, creating intense cravings that couldn't be even remotely satisfied in Baltimore and Boston. Then we get to Phoenix, and suddenly it's Southwest Chicago, with hot dog and beef stands everywhere. There are a lot of places around town that serve a decent dog, but Italian Beef, for lengthy reasons I'm not going to get into at the moment, is deceptively tricky to get right. And man, does Taylor Street get it right. I picked up a beef, sweet, hot and, most importantly, dipped (I try not to state opinion as fact, but I don't see the point of a dry Italian Beef). And this sandwich is fabulous. The beef is tender and flavorful, roasted fresh daily and sliced thin before going for a brief swim in the gravy (what non-Chicagoans may know as seasoned beef broth). The sweet peppers are big, lush and actually sweet, avoiding the bitterness that so many beef stands fail to avoid. The giardiniera is a good bottled variety, big chunks of peppers and vegetables with the right amount of vinegary tang and plenty of heat. The gravy is bold and well-seasoned and, in oft-overlooked fashion, contains enough oil to make the sandwich rich and succulent. Really, the only knock is the bread, which could stand to be a little more crusty and a little less spongy. But as I've mused before, the bread is the hardest thing to replicate halfway across the country, and the loaf they've chosen possesses the requisite absorbency and resilience to make the sandwich work. Bottom line is that this would be an excellent beef in the heart of Chicago, to say nothing of the middle of the desert. It's head and shoulders above anything else I've had locally... Luke's, Lobby's, Casella's, Chicago Hamburger Co., Joey's of Chicago, the now departed Al's franchise and more... this one beats them all in my book. And at $5 (an absurd price for the most expensive item on the menu), it's a steal.

Maxwell Street PolishDominic Armato

I could close the book here and be absolutely thrilled with the place, but it gets better, as Joel extends that care to a bunch of other Chicago standbys as well. I love a good Maxwell Street Polish, on a poppyseed bun with grilled onions, mustard and sport peppers, and while there's nothing like grabbing one from Maxwell Street Express and then sauntering next door to Jim's Original for an encore, this one's on point. I don't know where they source their sausage, but it's a good one, a thick, garlicky beef and pork kielbasa that's split lengthwise and griddled until crispy around the edges, dressed with a conservative amount of mustard, hot and tangy sport peppers, and a mix of griddled onions and bell peppers that, while non-canonical, strikes me as perfectly acceptable substitute (I believe the same grilled vegetables are used for a few sandwiches, hence the mix). Again, I'm not completely without complaints. The onions need to be cut thicker so they stay a little sweeter, moister and more voluminous, but even if no improvement is made -- and one gets the sense from talking to him that Joel is constantly testing and improving -- I'm more than happy with it.

Pork Chop SandwichDominic Armato

Happy as I was to see a Maxwell Street Polish, I was practically giddy to see a pork chop sandwich on the menu, another Maxwell Street standby that languishes in the shadow of its Polish brethren. When you get one of these fellows in Chicago, typically you substitute a griddled pork chop for the sausage and a hamburger bun for the hot dog bun, and everything else remains the same. Taylor Street takes a little liberty with convention, putting two thin-cut pork chops side by side on a long roll. This lame picture doesn't do it justice, because it's pretty darn good. I've had juicier and I think I prefer the hamburger bun, but this one's a fine specimen that's deliciously seasoned and appropriately dressed.

CheeseburgerDominic Armato

The more typical offerings are also well-represented. The cheeseburger's nothing fancy, but it's good, a freshly-griddled patty with two slices of cheese, vegetables and condiments, on a toasted sesame bun. There's nothing special about it beyond the fact that it's just like the burgers you might get from any neighborhood stand in Chicago, which just makes it right somehow, even if it probably won't be a standout to anybody who didn't grow up with it. The hot dogs are more obviously good, a skinless Vienna beef five-to-a-pounder dressed with the usual suspects. I much prefer the sublime snap of a natural casing dog, but the early returns apparently indicate that most of Joel's customers thus far prefer the bigger dog (Vienna's natural casing dogs are only available in a smaller size). But I understand the natural casing dogs will be making an appearance later this week on a trial basis. Here's hoping they stick around.

Italian SausageDominic Armato

Lastly, the unexpected surprise of the menu was the Italian sausage sandwich. When you've been spoiled by places like Johnnie's back in Chicago, where skewers loaded with sausages are charred over live coals, you don't want to set unrealistic expectations for a brand new place that doesn't even have a grill. And Taylor Street isn't Johnnie's. But this sausage -- at least the way he prepares it for those he identifies as Chicagoans -- is both a killer sandwich and one of the best in Joel's arsenal. No tub full of par-cooked sausages to be found here. He takes a raw Roma's sausage (another Chicago import), splits it down the middle, griddles it to a crisp and serves it on a roll with your choice of peppers and -- most critically -- a healthy splash of the Italian beef gravy. It's messy and spicy and rich and absolutely delicious. Just be sure to specify that you want it with gravy if you don't sound like one of the superfans.

Onion RingsDominic Armato

I don't want to get carried away. The place isn't perfect. The fries are frozen fare, if super hot and crisp. And then the aforementioned items like the good but less-than-awesome bread, the (current) lack of a natural casing dog and the issues with the onions are frustrating, but only because so much is right here that the few things that aren't ideal stand out more. But across the board, this is a great Chicago-style sandwich shop -- the best I've encountered in Phoenix -- anchored by an unconventional but surprisingly delicious sausage and an almost unimpeachable Italian beef, and overseen by an owner who obviously wants to do things right and seems to be experimenting and tweaking with the aim of further improvements. The only thing that worries me with a place like this is that folks who don't have a lot of experience with these sandwiches as they're prepared in Chicago will bring a different set of expectations and put pressure on them to change. And that's why I offer these words of advice: No matter your pepper preference, order your Italian beef wet or dipped. When ordering a Polish or pork chop sandwich, specify that you want mustard, grilled onions and sport peppers. Ask for some gravy on your Italian sausage. And most importantly, don't get antsy if your sandwich takes ten minutes to come out. When it's the lunch rush in Chicago, you can keep cranking out the sausages and people will keep streaming in the door to eat them fresh. When you're in Phoenix and the orders are less predictable, you need to cook to order and that takes a little time. Believe me, you don't want them making the sacrifices in flavor that would be necessary to finish that Italian sausage in two minutes. Speed is often the enemy of good, and that definitely applies here. This is already a great place, and I have a hunch it will become even better so long as there aren't too many people demanding dry beef, lean sausage and hot dogs with ketchup. Tell Joel you want it the way you'd get it back in Chicago, and you might see why these sandwiches, when done well, can inspire such devotion.

Taylor Street
914 N. Scottsdale Road
Tempe, AZ 85281
Mon - Thu10:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat10:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun10:30 AM - 7:00 PM


Thanks for the rec, Dom! Hit it yesterday and loved it. The Italian beef was killer. Also enjoyed the Chicago dog. While the family and I really only have 1 Chicago eating trip under our belts, we've definitely gone searching for a good Italian beef here in Phoenix. As you've said, this definitely has to be our favorite. And I just can't get over how affordable this place is.

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