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Laissez Les Bons Boefs Roulez!

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Beef.  The quintessential meat.  Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms.  If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country.  We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.

So.  much.  beef.

So. much. beef.

 

The Union stockyard gate then...

The Union stockyard gate then…

and now

and now

Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone.  If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives.  Enter another Chicago institution:  the Italian beef sandwich.  While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think.  In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz:  Mr. Beef.

Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood.  Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try.  It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich.  It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll.  Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born.  While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. IMG_4930IMG_4931 So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. IMG_4932 Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks.  I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag.  I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top.  I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil.  However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all.  Then there’s the juice factor.  You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in.  I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef.  After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich.  As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings.  Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about.  I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners.  Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. IMG_4995 From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef.  The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches.  The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired.  While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal.  It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.

So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town?  I’d say no.  It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene.  It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me.  Happy hunting!
Mr. Beef on Urbanspoon

In the Garden of Eatin’

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What’s beef? Beef is when you make your enemies start your Jeep
Beef is when you roll no less than thirty deep
Beef is when I see you guaranteed to be a ICU, check it”
-Notorious B.I.G.

While my gangster friend, Biggie, had other ideas about what “beef” meant to him in a serious context, today’s Mastication Monologues post is much more lighthearted.  While I could be considered a culinary hitman who is hired for his discerning palate and ruthless ability to deal with difficult dining experiences, I was working pro-buona at this latest establishment, Buona Beef that is.

While Philly has their cheesesteak and NYC has their monstrous pastrami sammiches, Chicago’s sandwich is one that was born out of poverty.  When Italian immigrants used to work in the Union stockyards of Chicago, they would bring home the lower quality, tougher pieces of meat.  So what would be the easiest way to stretch these meager resources for a meal?  Easy.  First, they wet roasted it in a beef broth seasoned with garlic, oregano, and other spices.  Then, they’d slice the meat extra thin to feed the most amount of mouths with the least waste possible.  These paper-thin pieces of meat were thrown back into the broth to soak up all of the flavor from the roasting period for maximum deliciousness.  From there, the Italian immigrants put the beef on Italian bread loaves, and thus the Chicago Italian beef sandwich was born.  While the times and customers have changed, the cooking process has stayed the same.  Enter Buona Beef.  This franchise started back in 1981 by the Buonavolanto family who brought Neopolitan family recipes to the mainland and brought them to the American public.  Buona Beefs can be found all throughout the Chicagoland area but nowhere else in America.  I went with my parents to the location in Darien, IL, and it was a pleasant dining experience. darien The service was quick, and the prices are reasonable.  The menu ranges from pizza, salads, pasta, and of course, da beef sandwiches!  I got the regular 7″ sandwich ($5.50), but they also have piccolo (small) and maggiore (large) sizes.  While most sandwich restaurants ask if you want everything on it, ordering an Italian beef sandwich could almost sound like a script Ron Jeremy could read.  One can be asked if they want it juicy/dipped (dipped in the beef broth), dry (sans broth), hot (with hot giardiniera on top), or sweet (with sweet peppers on top).  While my mom went for the more subdued sweet, dipped sandwich, I kicked it up a notch by getting a hot dip.  This is definitely where I parked my car. While Buona Beef offers various desserts like cannoli, brownies, gelato, and lemon knots, I knew I had to try their new maple bacon shake ($3.25) which apparently diners have been scared to try.  Since I was the first to do so, the manager was overjoyed that I ordered it.  With our orders in, we took our number, and waited for them to bring us our food.

After a brief wait, our sandwiches came out along with the shakes.  I hadn’t had one of these bad boys since coming back to America, and when I laid my eyes on it, I could remember why I missed this small, meat-laden piece of home.  While I prefer the spicy over the mild, my mom’s sandwich still looked pretty good. I think they could have given her more of the roasted, sweet peppers though. IMG_3205 As for my sandwich, it was a thing of absolute beauty.  The bread was fresh yet glistening slightly with the juice of its beefy bathtub in the back.  Plus, the vegetables, or giardiniera (jar-din-air, Chicago pronunciation), looked fantastic.  Giardiniera means comes from the word in Italian for “garden” but actually means “pickled vegetables”.  That’s why the version in Italy is called “sotto aceti” or “under vinegar”.  However, there are slightly different takes on giardiniera depending on where you are.  The West Coast version is closer to its Italian roots with just using vinegar, but here in Chicago we use olive oil.  I’ve asked friends from across the US if they’ve heard of giardiniera, but it seems to be chiefly a Chicago thang.  Typically, one can find a cornucopia of vegetables in the mild or spicy oil such as carrots, celery, olives, pimentos, cauliflower, and bell peppers.  Everyone has their own favorite blend and brand like Greco’s for me.IMG_3216  Even though they’re soaking in oil, the vegetables still maintain their crispy texture.  compliments of the pickling process.  After appreciating the beefy Botticelli in front of me,  I finally took the first bite.IMG_3211  Not only is the Italian beef sandwich unique in terms of ingredients and being a culinary representative of Chicago, but one must eat it in a certain way known as “the stance”.  I’ll let the owner of  Al’s beef, the mothership of Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago since 1938 in Little Italy, and Adam Richman explain it.  Much like Mr. Richman, I was overwhelmed by the soft, juicy bread that encased the delicate pieces of garlic and oregano-laced beef.  The giardiniera provided a much needed crunch and spice to offset the soggy sandwich.  Naturally, my basket by the end of the meal looked like a sloppy slip-n’-slide, but it hit the spot.  As for my shake, it was thick and topped with a few morsels of bacon. IMG_3208IMG_3209 Upon sipping the ivory-hued beverage, I was immediately greeted with a wave of excruciatingly sweet maple flavor that dominated the shake for the most part until I reached the latter half.IMG_3213Once I finally dove deep enough, I could find and sample the crispy creatures hiding beneath the whipped cream.  The smoky and salty flavor of the bacon combined well with the sweetness of the maple riffs, but it proved to be a bit overwhelming as I sampled the dregs.  By the end, I feel like I drank a bottle of sugar syrup which didn’t settle well with me.  I think if  Buona Beef lightened up on the syrup and evenly distributed the bacon in a smaller portion size, they’d have a real hit on their hands.

So if you want to try a unique piece of Chicago’s culinary history without having to make the trek downtown to Little Italy, try Buona Beef!

Buona Beef on Urbanspoon

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