"Hog butcher for the world,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with railroads and the nations freight handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of Big Shoulders:"
-Excerpt from Carl Sandburg's Chicago
Of all the things I miss from the place of my birth, almost every last one of them is food-related. I spent my first 18 years in Chicago, followed it up with a spattering of extended stays in my parents' basement and finished it by an ironic three-year stint in my mid-twenties as a Sox fan just a (very) long home-run from Wrigley Field. It is in Chicago that I learned to do what Chicagoans do very well: eat and drink. Sadly for us Chicago transplants, very few Chicago classics are reproduced faithfully outside of the loose borders of the greater Chicagoland area, and because of a personal history of repeated disappointments with Chicago-style food in non-Chicago places, I have for the most part stopped looking.
Lately, however, I have been yearning deeply for a good Chicago-style beef. I wrote about an average one when I was back there earlier this year that would keep me happy for the rest of my life in Denver. But that satisfaction has long-since faded from my memory so I turned to the streets of Denver in search of one.
Chicago-style beef is thinly shaved and served in a thick toasty bun soaked in beef juices and topped with peppers. It is one of the world's perfect sandwiches. It seems logical that in Denver when seeking out a sandwich so near and dear to Chicago, one would start at Chicago Style Beef and Dogs.
Chicago Style is a stand-alone brick building on West Colfax near Pierce. Its exterior signs simply read "Chicago" over and over, and entering is like walking into a concentrated indoor version of the city. It is a densely-packed homage to all things Chicago; a museum of sorts-- or more like a collectibles shop-- with everything from a Barbie doll dressed up in a Bulls uniform to dozens of Bears football cards to sports jerseys to a Chicago Tribune newspaper box.
I was here with my food-blogging friend and genius artist, Riki Takaoka. You may remember Riki from our adventures at Tacos Veloz, where we enjoyed what is in my opinion Denver's best taco al pastor both orally and visually. In fact, the painting that Riki made from his sketches that night is now in the process of being framed and hung in my kitchen (my wife would not let it in the bedroom).
Riki and I were back at it again at Chicago Style, he with his India Ink brush pen and sketch pad, me with my camera and both with our voracious appetites. Besides a beef, I ordered us a Chicago-style hot dog, an Italian sausage and fries that we split down the middle (Riki is also a struggling but immensely talented artist that you too can support here).
Let's start with the good: Riki's skillful drawings and the hot dog. Riki immediately got to work, his deft and precise brush strokes of black ink in no time turned the blank sheet of paper into a fluid and vibrant outline of dog, fries and drink that he later filled in with his trademark animation style.
He then set into the actual dog like the hungry artist that he is, inhaling it like I did mine moments before. It was a great Chicago-style dog with all the traditional fixin's: yellow mustard, onions, tomato, sport peppers, neon-green relish, an entire pickle spear and a dash of celery salt. And of course, no ketchup.
Ketchup, if you don't already know, is a serious insult in the world of Chicago hot dog cuisine and if you press the point when there you should feel passionate enough about it to know you just might end up in a fight over it. It was nice to see an educational pamphlet on our table, explaining the finer points of improper ketchup etiquette. I think the words used to describe those who choose to put ketchup on their dogs included "alfalfa-eating barbarians". The worst kind.
The next thing I sampled was the Italian beef. It looked good: copious amounts of thinly sliced meat, grilled and pickled peppers, a toasted Gonnella bun and all of it dripping in juices. The taste, however, was a little disappointing. Maybe it was all the hype that I had built up in my mind about it. Maybe it was that sitting in this restaurant I really felt that I could have been in Chicago. Whatever the case I am sorry to say that while everything looked to be in place, the beef was bland. I salted my beef (that would make Mike Ditka proud) and it got a little better, but something just didn't do it for me. Riki loved his beef, so maybe it is my snobby Chicago upbringing that left me wanting when it came to this beef, but I didn't love it.
I actually went back for a beef because I wanted to like it so much. The second time around it was a little juicier but the beef itself was somehow still dry. Again I salted. Again it left me wanting.
I am glad I did go back because I got to share with my wife another Chicago classic: the meatless Friday Lenten special that has become a menu staple in many a hot dog and beef stand known as the Pepper and Egg sandwich. Most Pepper and Egg sandwiches that I remember were of the scrambled variety, but I really liked the Chicago Style fried egg version. Like the beef it was topped with sauteed peppers and served on a toasty Gonnella bun. Delicious.
Back to my day with Riki. The last item we tried was the Italian sausage--grilled like it ought to be. It looked good but my first bite was incredibly salty and dry. Riki liked this sandwich as well, so I started wondering when my artist friend ate his last good meal. I suppose it wasn't really bad, it just wasn't as good as I expected it to be. What did turn out well were his sketches, as mouth-watering as the original promised to be.
Even though I liked the dog and the pepper and egg, I really wanted to love the Chicago style beef, and I'm not sure what didn't go right here. Maybe it is the number 8 Bears jersey that hangs from the rafters. It had no name on the back but it made me think of Rex Grossman-- or worse-- Cade McNown. Now sure they played football for the Bears, but like most quarterbacks that have played (and play) there, they are far from the best the city has to offer.
It is also seemingly north-south neutral, which is likely a necessity in the isolation of Colorado, but it might be that having large lighted signs of the Sox so close to the Cubs causes an irreparable imbalance in the Chicago Style universe that causes the beef to lose flavor.
I am sad to say that I also did not love the Chicago Style Italian sausage. Though disappointed by these Chicago classics, the dog and the pepper and egg will bring me back. Also, I could spend another hour just checking out the fantastic memorabilia again. I encourage you to check it out and judge for yourself, whether you miss Chicago-style food like me, or have never even been to The Windy City. Visit them on the world wide web, or at 6680 W. Colfax.