Friday, November 2, 2018

When Desperation Begets Perfection - Hoosier Mama Pie Company - Chicago

Pie was never this cool. Not where I was from.  Not in rural Missouri.  Not in the 1970s.  Pie then seemed the default setting of middle-American culinary laxity and the thing you brought to church socials and offered to new neighbors and won in elementary school raffles.  Pie was the snooze button on culinary innovation.  It was old fashioned.  And it appeared on restaurant menus and family dinner tables like some artifact of a bygone era, always dolloped, it seemed, with the Pleistocene miasma of culinary decay.  It was emblematic of everything a child of that time and place didn’t want at the end of a meal.  Pie wasn’t Pop Rocks. It wasn’t Laffy Taffy.  It sure as shooting wasn’t Zots.  Pie was the foodstuff of octogenarians and culinary nostalgists.  It was soft food for farm people with leaky, Depression-era memories and bad teeth, and its ubiquity in our young American lives made it an object of ridicule and scorn for all the cool kids across the Show-Me state.  Because cool like this pie was most certainly not.

Not until the seventeen-year-old version of myself had chanced across Kerouac’s famous pie references in On the Road did I first get a whiff of pie’s inherent panache and élan.  Not until I had read Kerouac’s confession that pie was “practically all [he] ate all the way across the country” did I consider pie’s place in the pantheon of the culinary hip.  But it wasn’t until my accidental career as a thirty-year-old culinarian brought me into daily contact with some truly great pastry chefs did I truly begin to understand that pie is simple, and that simple is almost always really, really hard, and that the intricate interplay among butter, flour, and water in the making of pie dough is as ethereal as the rendering of gastronomic gold in an alchemist’s kitchen.  Pie is magical.  And no one—and I mean no one—is making better pie in the American Midwest these days than Chef Paula Haney and her crew of cool kids at the Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Chicago.  

Paula Haney is just the kind of chef that professional culinarians and food careerists like me love to love.  She is the once-nascent amateur turned celebrated virtuoso, whose rise to culinary acclaim came through years of fantastically hard work, making her bones (in the parlance of this industry), as she did, in some of the most demanding fine-dining kitchens in the country.  Haney is a chef’s chef.  A pro’s pro. A savant of the sweet stuff who walked away from the high-wire act of fine dining to pursue her possibly financially-ruinous passion for all-things-pie.  It’s a theme found in many of the winning narratives across this business, and it’s a central trope to most stories that speak to self-sacrifice on the path to culinary greatness:  the late-to-the-game, self-taught outsider who risks it all for a glittering, gastronomic prize.  And it's Haney’s daring, as well as her hard-won triumph, that has made her a much-beloved figure in the world of Chicago food.  

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Haney majored in journalism at Indiana University.  It was only when she failed to find work as a reporter—so the story goes—did Haney first take up a rolling pin in anger.  First as a five-dollar-an-hour baker for a Bloomington, Indiana, area coffee shop, and then, later, two hours to the north, in our shared big city of Chicago, as head pastry chef at Pili.Pili, One Sixtyblue, and, finally, Trio, with then-gastronomic wonder boys, Shaun McClain and Grant Achatz. But for all her prowess as a pastry chef, I believe its Haney’s non-culinary antecedents as a writer (e.g.: big, huge brain; sweet tooth for culinary context and gastronomic intertextuality between savory and sweet), as well as her origins as Hoosier-state native, that have all happily coalesced in producing what is easily the best desperation pie I’ve ever encountered, and what may very well be the best piece of pie in Middle America:  the Hoosier sugar cream pie.

For those yet unfamiliar with desperation pies—or “make-do” pies, if you’re from Missouri—they are the very definition of locavorism and seasonality in gastronomy:  they are what your deprivation-addled, pre-refrigeration-era forebears made for dessert when the larder was empty and local trees had stopped fruiting—when ingredients like vinegar and sugar, molasses and cream, were all that might be had for these hard-scrabble, seasonally-bound, intrepid early bakers.  Desperation pies are the very acme of thrift in baking, and they represent the high-water mark of making due—and making delicious—with whatever ingredients might be on hand. 

Chef Haney’s Hoosier sugar cream pie is the supreme archetype of the desperation pie and the best shot we mortals have at experiencing the Platonic ideal of godliness in pie.  Made with just eggs, cream, brown sugar, and vanilla paste, Haney’s Hoosier pie has the mouthfeel of a cloud and the savor of a custard that has politely declined the opportunity to become butterscotch.  It evokes the best in American gastronomic ingenuity, and it’s so deeply and ridiculously delicious that I found myself—fork in hand—pounding on the Hoosier Mama table with every miraculous, perfect little bite.

When desperation begets culinary perfection, it tastes like this.  I think Kerouac would agree.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Swinging For the Fence With Chef Robin Choi - Chicago

Accidents happen.  This we know.  Houses catch on fire.  Planes crash.  Men like Donald J. Trump are elected President of the United States.  Accidents are part of the integral calculous of modernity and the differential geometry of occasional bad luck to which we are all inevitably consigned and which, on better days, we are able to accept with the implacable what-me-worry shrugs of Hindu cows.  Like when the door of your shiny new car catches its first ding.  Or when you trip over a shoe lace and skin your knee.

Not all accidents are bad or ruinous, of course.  Among our everyday lives there transpire the happy accidents of serendipity and kismet.  Like the purchase of a winning lottery ticket. The chance meeting of a future lover. The discovery of a newly-made acquaintance’s forgotten phone number on a matchbook inside the pocket of a newly washed pair of blue jeans.  And while these strokes of good fortune often appear, at first glance, to be inconsequential, experience teaches us they can be agents of transformation and epiphany secreted inside yawns of the seemingly mundane.  Like the day I took my eleven-year-old son to our local batting cages to work on his swing, only to encounter some of the most honest, genuine, and forward-thinking food purveyance I’ve yet experienced in a year of eating across my new hometown of Chicago.

That’s right, boy-o:  some of the best streetfood I’ve yet encountered in the Chicago area was found at my local batting cages.  Batting cages, dude.

To imagine Stella’s Batting Cages and Pro Shop as a mothership of gastronomic good works does require, on the part of the casual observer, exquisite powers of invention—that much I’ll grant you.  Situated next to the perennially porous banks of the Des Planes River on what is euphemistically known—in the patois of unscrupulous real estate agents, at least—as “bottomland” (re:  flood prone) at the periphery of the none-too-remarkable township of Lyons, Illinois, just twelve miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Stella’s has, however, been the place since 1986 for girls and boys to perfect the sweetest science in all of sports:  to hit an 80-mile-per-hour fastball with a 32-inch aluminum bat.  Nothing—and I mean nothing—about Stella’s outwardly suggests culinary excellence. Nothing about Stella’s belies the fact that it stands as a shining gastronomic Brigadoon in a suburban food desert otherwise bereft of culinary excellence.  But that’s part of Stella’s quiet genius:  to have the extraordinary juxtaposed with the ordinary, and in plain sight for everyone to see.

My eleven-year-old son wanted a chili dog after some swing time in the cages; I wanted a beer. We quit the cages and entered the adjoining restaurant space, happily resigned, as we were, boy and man, to our certain and respective culinary fates of a dirty water dog indifferently topped with canned chili, and warm, cut-rate, piss-colored beer in a plastic cup.  What we found in Stella’s, instead, was a veritable wonderland of self-described “ballpark-centric” Korean-American-themed streetfoods.  Oh, sure, the hand-lettered menu above the counter offered—then as now—all the obligatory ballpark fare you’d ever want and expect at a sports complex: the nachos, the pizza puffs, and the cheese sticks of ho-hum middle-American culinary complacency.  But next to these tried-and-true culinary workhorses of sports-related cookery loomed an astonishing litany of what Stella’s calls “ballpark specials”:  an unlikely lineup of quasi-Korean-centric streetfoods representing various regional ballparks—and cuisines—from around the lower forty-eight, and beyond.  Representing Philadelphia, for instance, was a fried pork belly sandwich with gilled pineapple and Korean red-pepper paste mayo. From Montreal, a Quebecois poutine with jus-made-gravy and giardiniera.  Out of Houston: the crispy buttermilk fried chicken thighs with salted maple honey butter in a waffle cone.  And beer. Cans of the really good stuff. But it was the presence of sushi—made-to-order, no less—that sent me to my iPhone and down Google’s all-consuming rabbit hole of information to discover what kind fever-addled madman would so foolishly dare to offer this kind of cuisine in the middle of a fly-over, suburban wasteland, populated with gastronomic indifference and culinary mediocrity.

Texas Rangers Choomongous

Chef Robin Choi. That’s who.

To read Chef Choi’s biography is to chart the course of a journeyman culinary auteur through the all-important stops of an already-remarkable career:  Ra Sushi. Kabocha.  Japonais By Morimoto.  Yusho.  Dukku. Furious Spoon.  The list of restaurants under his belt is dazzling.  Especially for a 38-year-old guy.  So why, then, would Choi walk away from it all?  Why would Choi forsake the loving (and often lucrative) embrace of the culinary establishment to instead set out on his own, in a woebegone kitchen space, contiguous to batting cages, and populated by a mostly-apathetic eating public, in a one-lunged suburban Chicago town?  

To know a chef, any chef—Choi and all his brethren cooks of a certain advanced age—is to know that the answer to this question is self-evident, because all chefs, the truly driven among them, at least, eventually require creative autonomy in their own kitchens and a greater—never lesser—degree of financial independence from the soul-sucking culinary compromises inherent in any venture funded by (and beholden to) restaurant groups and return-hungry investors.  Ownership is everything.  Independence is the whole game.  So Choi bought Stella’s to make his stand.  Just how—and where—Choi has chosen to express his hard-won and high-stakes freedom was (and remains) of abiding interest to me, so I did what I thought would reveal the greatest insight into this maverick chef’s soul: I put down my iPhone and ordered his food. 

Camden Yards Soft Shell Crab

I ordered three menu items of whose savor I was admittedly skeptical.  Not because I doubted Choi’s prowess as a culinarian, but because the regionality of the dishes seemed far too specific for Choi to pull off there, in that tiny Stella’s kitchen, next to those batting cages, with any real or accomplished degree of fidelity to the original versions to which they aspired, or with any real degree of uniformity of success among the three if Choi somehow managed to not screw them up.  The Kilimanjaro-like degree of difficulty of succeeding on all three dishes appeared far too high for Choi to surmount, I thought.  There was simply too much working against him.  And I wasn’t entirely convinced he had the juice or resources to pull any one of these dishes off.  But I ordered anyway.  Gleefully. I ordered the Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich, the Texas Rangers Choomongous (re: Korean-style steak, kimchee slaw), and the Camden Yards soft shell crab sandwich, then sat across from my son, across all that food, and ate.

To say Choi’s food was delicious would be an understatement. It was beyond delicious, actually; it was sublime, transcendent of context and limitation, deep in complexity of textures and layers of depth of flavor, and yet forthright in its deliverance of perfectly-balanced piquancy and goodness, while palpably devoid of all pretense.  And all of this served, without ceremony, by Choi himself, in Stella’s dining space, which is clearly and steadfastly a bullshit-free zone. Choi’s food is the perfect amalgam of haute and the ordinary, of fancy and plain, of the exotic and familiar.  It’s food for foodies.  Food for the masses.  Food for you and me.  And it’s exactly the kind of food I want to eat every time I go out to eat.

Nashville Hot Chicken 

But something else happened while I was eating Robin Choi’s food.  Something almost unique in my experience as an eater.  Something magical.  For after coming out from behind the counter to ask if my food was okay (my mouth was too full to lavish Choi with the much-deserved superlative of best soft-shell crab ever), I watched Chef Choi approach a nearby table, where sat two older adults and two young children.  And by the almost wordless intimacy and winking conviviality that passed among the five of them, I saw the adults were Choi’s parents, and that the two children were Choi’s kids, and that Choi’s entire enterprise at Stella’s—the batting cages, the pro shop, the exquisite ballpark food—has been built not just on the pursuit of culinary excellence—that seems merely a happy and inevitable result of Choi’s protean abilities as a cook—but on the idea of a family’s collective pursuit of prosperity (or some facsimile thereof) through the collaborative experience of hard work.  That is still the most beautiful and most American of ideas that I know, and to see its value similarly prized by the Choi family made me want Choi to succeed at this crazy endeavor in a way I rarely—if ever—feel for a chef in this most-Darwinian world of food purveyance.

I want Robin Choi to win at this.

Eat his food, and you will, too.

Your link:  Stella's Batting Cages & Pro Shop

Monday, September 10, 2018

So Wrong It’s Right – Maid-Rite in Middle America

Loose meat.  No two words our culinary lexicon, when wedged side-by-side and thrown together, like the strangest of bedfellows, on signboard or menu, are more likely to strike fear and trepidation in the hearts and minds of prospective eaters than loose meat.  How so? Because we don’t know, on first reading, if loose meat is a promise or a threat.  We don’t know if the juxtaposition of loose and meat is just indelicate food writing, or if the two words, together, portend—for the hapless eater—the coming miasma of gastroenterological calamity and the promise of an involuntary ride on the thunder bucket of scatological chagrin.  And yet there they are—loose meat—on every Maid-Rite menu across middle-America, describing exactly what you’ll get when you order The Original Maid-Rite sandwich, served on a warm bun.

I know, I know:  with descriptors like that, the jokes write themselves.

But for higher-minded gastronomes yet unfamiliar with the wonders of Maid-Rite, think of this hallowed midwestern franchise as a collective repository and relic of homespun gastronomic charm whose menus remain so deeply antediluvian as if to somehow render them cutting edge in their insistently dogmatic, retro-chic goodness:  deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, cheese curds, chicken salad, root beer floats—all of those dino-era classics with which your grandparents filled your Leave It to Beaver-esque childhood dreams of what food of that era was supposed to look and taste like.  Heaven on a soggy paper plate.  

Founded in 1926 by butcher Fred Angell, Maid-Rite first appeared Muscatine, Iowa, and has expanded with a glacier’s sense of patience over the years throughout Iowa and its contiguous farm-belt neighbors of Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri.  This plodding pace of expansion, however, has allowed Maid-Rite to achieve that perfect equipoise between being just accessible enough to annually indoctrinate faithful legions of new eaters, all the while remaining hard enough to find to so perfectly cultivate and inspire a fiendishly devoted and cult-like following of carnivores forever omnivorous for ground beef in its most excremental-looking of forms.  

I visited my first Maid-Rite this summer in St. Cloud, Minnesota, one of just two locations in the entire north star state.  Located inside Vuke’s Pro Fuel gas station and tackle shop, just off Roosevelt Road, on the south side of town, and but a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, the Maid-Rite of St. Cloud is, for all outward appearances, the kind of place you’ve likely read about in Steinbeck or Kerouac, or seen in the landscapes of Hopper or Leone:  cinematic in its desolation and almost existential in its disconnect from the buzzing of the outside world.  Inside is a different story, however.  Inside, the Maid-Rite of St. Cloud is a warm hug of the familiar and welcome refuge from the ravages of the open road.  It smells like a kitchen—your grandmother’s kitchen, in fact—and is crowded with precisely the kind of people with whom your better self should always yearn to lunch—farmers, mechanics, Minnesota State Troopers—people for whom the pleasures of the midday table, however humble, are indefatigably keen. 

I ordered the Original Maid-Rite sandwich.  I ordered two, in fact, paired with fries, then sat in a booth, and tucked into my meal. And while the anatomy of an Original Maid-Rite sandwich seems outwardly minimalistic in design—seasoned ground beef, pickles, and onions on a perfectly steamed bun; it’s really that simple—the effect is post-maximalist in its umami bomb throwing disbursement of sodium-saturated greasy goodness.  I ate my first sandwich without breathing.  The second I dispatched with the only slightly-greater dignity of having chewed my food before swallowing.  I tore at the sandwiches.  I devoured and gnashed.  And when my meal was over, I sat above the Rorschach ink test of beef grease that had splattered across my plastic tray, the collateral damage, I guessed, of consuming the most pitiable of combined ingredients—ground beef; enriched white flour bun—prepared and served in the most inelegant of ways, and with a kind of shit-on-a-shingle gastronomic technique.  I didn’t care.  I simply wiped the meat-sweats from my face and laughed out loud for the sheer ebullience of having just bitten through all of that beefy bliss.  I loved my Original Maid-Rite sandwiches, and the experience of having just eaten two left me wanting even more.  

Which is not quite the same thing as saying the sandwiches were actually any good.  On the contrary: by the metrics of culinary modernity, my meal might actually have been something beyond the pale of deliciousness.  Too salty.  Too greasy.  Too strange tasting to modern palates otherwise accustomed to levels of acidity chemically engineered to operate as ballast against overwhelming amounts of mouth-coating dietary fat.   

But so what?  What if the ephemera of savor is determined by something other than—or in addition to—to the summation of ingredients of a particular dish?  What if my meal Maid-Rite was made so deeply delightful by more than what I simply put in my mouth?  What if it was the wax paper in which my sandwich came wrapped?  What if it was the fraternity and fellowship of my brethren eaters?  What if it was the red-aproned lady behind the counter who took my order with grandmotherly warmth?  What if this whole Maid-Rite experience was really some proto-Proustian manifestation of associative synesthesia whereupon all of these stimuli combined for an environmental experience whose potency on determining if I should find the whole fandango pleasurable or not was far greater—on balance—than the sandwiches I shoved in my pie hole?    

Fuck if I know.  That will be up to you to decide.

What I do know, however, is that you should could consider me among the converted.  Count me among the devoted many who will travel far and wide and always out of his way for the pleasures, keen—or not—as they are, of the Original Maid-Rite sandwich.

And as for that dubiously described loose meat sandwich, it turns out that it’s both a promise and a threat.

Your link:  Maid-Rite

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Beef with Baltimore's Pit Beef

It’s a question for the ages, and for many of us in the food world, a proverbial hermeneutic Gordian knot of epicurean semiotics and vexation, whose elucidation often seems as enigmatic and ultimately unknowable as that final, all-too-distant digit of Pi. Men have fought over the question. Marriages have ended because of it. And the food press has debated the issue with a rancor and invective usually reserved for the most politically binary questions of national identity and matters of state.  

The question I’m talking about:  is Baltimore's pit beef actually barbecue?

For the uninitiated, a quick note of explanation:  pit beef is made of minimally-seasoned top round (that’s the rear leg of the cow, yo), usually grilled over charcoal—not smoked—then sliced, deli-thin on an I’ll-take-your-fingers industrial slicer, and served, medium rare, atop a Kaiser roll.  Baltimore’s pit beef is many things.  It’s emphatically local.  It’s insistently sauceless.  And it’s ferociously working class.  Many familiar with its charms have even gone so far as to call pit beef their favorite kind of barbecue.

But is pit beef actually barbecue?

To know Baltimore is to know (intuitively, at least) the answer to that question.  Baltimore is the wackadoodle yen to sister-city (and just 40-miles to the south) Washington, D.C.’s buttoned-up yang.  But the city is an object of deep and abiding adoration for me, and the once-home to heroes of mine.  Fitzgerald lived—and drank—there.  Poe drank and died there.  A few years ago, I filmed an episode of Netflix’s House of Cards there (Season 3, Episode 3, in case you’re wondering), and once, well before that, very nearly got into a fistfight with Cry Baby-era Iggy Pop at Baltimore’s infamous 8 X 10 Club during a Joe “Don’t Mess with My Duck Tail” Clay show (though that story will have to wait for another time and place, friend-o). 

Baltimore is where Washingtonians go to let their hair down and their freak flags fly.  Baltimore is a John Watersian bizarro world of rococo cultural and culinary oddities—think Frank Zappa; think of the mighty and gender-bending Divine—where the Four C’s of local gastronomy reign supreme:  coddies (puck-like cakes of salt cod and potato), crab cakes, corned beef, and chocolate tops (cookies coronated with crowns of chocolate frosting).  But arch among these deeply unctuous gastronomic curios is Baltimore’s divisive take on barbecue:  the venerable pit beef sandwich.  

To settle this is-it-or-is-it-not-barbecue debate (in my own mind at least, and for all the perpetuity it would take for me to digest my sandwich) I visited the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Expressway Pit Beef (of the “Beef “Stand” as locals call it) in Odenton, Maryland, about thirty-minutes outside Charm City, but at the very epicenter of Maryland’s pit beef country.  Expressway is a function-over-form kind of place, contiguous to an Ace Hardware store, and, not surprisingly, egalitarian in the extreme.  Walk up to the “order” window.  Order. Pay.  And wait.  After a few moments of sunshine, car noise, and birdsong, your food—in my case, a pit beef sandwich with a side of house-made fries—is unceremoniously slid from out of the “pick up” window for you—and for you only—to adorn with the requisite and don’t-even-think-about-skipping-these pit beef condiments of horseradish, malt vinegar, and Baltimore’s very own Old Bay seasoning; a holy trinity of added flavor if there ever was one.  You then sit at a plastic picnic table outside the beef stand and eat.  Simple enough, right?  But what comes next is anything but familiar.  Because nothing is quite routine about what happens inside your mouth when you bite into a pit beef sandwich.  For what comes with the actual eating part of this transaction is a culinary epiphany and a lesson in gastronomic minimalism wherein we learn that two simple ingredients—meat and bun—can be transformative in our lives as eaters in ways that make us more perceptive to nuance in textures and the slightest gradations in flavor.  The pit beef of Expressway Pit Beef is wonderfully delicious.  It’s more than delicious, actually:  it’s revelatory in its pure and unadulterated “beefiness” and it teaches those eaters astute enough to pay attention all that beef—simply prepared and left well enough alone—can be.  I love the pit beef of Expressway.  My adoration for their no-fuss, Charm City charm is keen.

But the question yet remains:  is pit beef actually barbecue?

My answer, in a word: NO.  It’s not. Emphatically so.  

Because what is missing from the litany of pit beef’s ingredients and processes is the one primary and irrefutably essential component to barbecue that makes barbecue, well, barbecue.  And that one missing ingredient:  time.  As any pit master will tell you, time is the low-and-slow ritual of culinary supplication by which the dissolution of connective tissue and fat is petitioned and teased out from meat for the truly deserving from those all-too-fickle gastronomic gods of flavor through the sacramental imploration of wood smoke and fire. Without time as an ingredient, cooking meat over fire is just…grilling.  

But so what if pit beef isn’t actually barbecue?  Who really cares?  Baltimore doesn’t care.  That much is sure.  Baltimore has always been, and still remains, proudly immune from the too-cool-for-school castigations and food envy of other American cities; it’s utterly impervious to the culinary judgement of visiting food nerds.  Baltimore gives no fucks that pit beef isn’t considered “real” barbecue outside the city, and neither should you.  Eat it.  Enjoy it on its own terms and for what it really is.  Because what Baltimore’s pit beef really is is really, really good.

Your link:  Expressway Pit Beef

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Ride On the Mothership - Lunch at Vienna Beef Factory & Cafe - Chicago

The Japanese know it as satori.  To the etymologically-giving Greeks, the word is epiphany.  But for this journeyman eater, standing there, as I was, in Terminal 3 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, watching two grown men (one being my traveling companion) throw down and go mano a mano across the steam table of a rolling food cart, locked in what appeared to be a no-holds-barred death match to settle that age-old debate as to whether or not ketchup belongs anywhere near a hot dog, that, that, my friends, was what we shall call my momentary of clarity.  Because at that exact moment, I understood, truly and irrevocably, that in no other American city is the orthodoxy of canonical hotdog condiments so deeply entrenched than in Chicago.  For atop the Chicago dog, ketchup is blasphemy.  It’s sacrilege.  It’s the Miltonian fist of culinary defiance raised against the deific sky of better judgment.  Little wonder, then, that the response my traveling companion’s puffed out, bro-chested insistence that his hotdog receive ketchup should be one allotted for infidels and heretics of the highest order; for his spluttering indignation and dogged pursuit of the red stuff, my traveling companion received violence:  a quick shove to the thorax; a laudable and open-handed swipe at the jaw.  Bedlam ensued.  Punches were thrown.  Police were called.  And my traveling companion went—however briefly—to airport jail.

To explain.

I was traveling through Chicago with Polish Paul.  Co-worker.  Friend.  And fellow culinarian gifted with such protean talents and prodigious good looks that saddling him with such a silly nickname—it was believed by my then-employer—might somehow blunt the edge of his indefatigable Euro-swagger, his Ivan Drago-esque I-must-break-you under bite and mien, and his industry-wide (and much-deserved) reputation as a Lothario par excellence with its too-cutesy-by-half alliterative charm.    

We were on our way home from Missoula.  A way-beyond-wealthy client had flown us to Montana from our base of operations in Washington, D.C. to oversee a Missoula restaurant’s attempt at catering their son’s Montana wedding (re: plated, seated dinner) for three hundred guests under a tent, in a field, mere feet from the banks of the Bitterroot River.  Polish Paul was then just recently arrived to America from his perennially dishwater-colored city of Krakow, and his enthusiasm for all-things-American (including despoiling its rural maidenry) bordered on the maniacal.  Within just forty-five minutes of touching down in Missoula (his very first time being west of the Mississippi), Polish Paul had managed procure a cowboy hat, the complete Sun recordings of Johnny Cash, a fifth of Jim Beam rye, and (for the hour or so following) a toothsome, fire-haired bartender named Becky.  Polish Paul’s embrace of American culture was that of a zealot’s belief in a newfound faith:  total and all consuming.  So when Polish Paul learned our return from Montana to Washington, D.C. would be bifurcated by an hour’s layover in Chicago O’Hare, he could hardly contain his glee.  For Polish Paul, that quixotic and self-invented Americanist he was most certainly was, the great megalopolis of Chicago clearly signified one thing above all else:  the Great American hotdog.  Nowhere else in America were hotdogs any more delicious than in Chicago.  Polish Paul knew this, and with unequivocal and I’ll-fight-you-motherfucker-if-you-disagree certainty.  How so?  Because a then-adolescent Paul had once come across a well-thumbed Krakow edition of Perestroika Today, filled with all manner of visually titillating images of uniquely American foodstuffs.  Moon Pies.  Banana spilt sundaes.  Cotton Candy.  Arousing as those photographs were, it was what the monthly’s editors used as their money shot that Paul could never—and indelibly—unsee.  That’s right, friends:  Miss September 1987 had been a hotdog, a Chicago dog, no less, replete with its signature iridescent green relish and poppy seed bun.  However clumsy was that glossy, gatefold, proto Soviet full-color stab food porn, it worked:  the pimple-faced Paul popped a veritable culinary boner, so have one the now-in-America Polish Paul absolutely must.  We pinkie-swore over successive (if ill-advised) in-flight Bloody Mary’s that once aground in O’Hare, Paul would realize this most American—and by his telling—almost preternatural culinary experience.  Polish Paul would eat a Chicago dog.  And I would help.

So we debarked on Concourse C of O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and engaged the first red, yellow, and blue Vienna Beef steam cart we met.  Our hot dog vendor, himself a newly arrived Polish national and doppelganger for a circa-1980 Lech Walesa, replete with a side-cocked solidarist’s scowl and an omnivorous walrus ‘stache hell bent on consuming his entire face, was palpably unimpressed.  For in the tipsy Polish Paul now standing before him, the vendor recognized a fellow countryman, clearly corrupted by first-world appetites run amok, for which Paul’s present leering desire for a Chicago dog with ketchup was emblematic of all that was wrong with the West.  So the vendor said “no.”  He did more than say no, actually; he crossed his arms and stepped away from the cart.  Polish Paul was incredulous.  He repeated his order, more loudly this time, with less request in his voice, and more command.  The vendor again shook his head.  Keczup?  No.  He would not do it.  Polish Paul glared at the vendor, choking on his own spluttering rage.  There were threats.  Insults.  Indignations of labyrinthian complexity.  All in Polish.  But the hot dog vendor remained as serene as a Poznanian Buddha.  He could not be moved.  It was only when Polish Paul had plunged his hand into the steaming cart water to cobble together his own Chicago dog did the vendor change tact.  He came forward, wordlessly, and administered a withering karate chop to Paul’s throat.  That blow was followed by another to Paul’s face.  Paul swung back, blindly, and the two Poles grappled over the Vienna Beef cart like two bears trying to hug it out.  Police were called and Paul was zip-tied into surrender and remanded to an airport holding cell, where he remained, unsated and Chicago-dogless, until our return flight to D.C. was allowed to leave O’Hare.   

I thought little of the incident in the intervening years until I recently moved to Chicago, splitting my time between it and my hometown of Washington, D.C.  Only then, and only after I had encountered, and purely by chance, an incredibly delicious—nay, transcendent—hot dog on a just-in-town run to my Chicago-area Home Depot for a hacksaw, did I realize that in Chicago, more than in any of the other dirty water dog capitals I’d ever eaten—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C.—the Chicago hot dog transcended its own perfunctory utility as grab-and-go street food, while remaining fixedly central to the city’s own culinary identity as an internationally renowned food destination. 

For those of you who have yet to have the pleasure, the Chicago dog is made a “Chicago dog” by the requisite addition of several essential and post-maximalist savory toppings:  yellow mustard, chopped white onion, iridescent green pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices (or wedges), pickled “sport” peppers, and an ample dusting of celery salt, all atop a poppy seed bun.  And as for ketchup:  fuck that noise.  The Chicago dog does not abide the red stuff.  Ever.

I went for years without ever really considering—or eating—the dirty water dog in the many American cities in which I lived or traveled.  Its sheer ubiquity— with it being on each street corner of every major American city I had ever visited—somehow debased its value as regionally specific foodstuff and made it a cringe-worthy lunch option deserving of pure culinary contempt.  The hot dog represented total surrender to a hunger which could not be outfoxed with either cunning or wit, nor felicity with one’s own iPhone restaurant apps; the hot dog meant defeat.

But not here in Chicago.  Here, the hot dog remains the very acme of excellence in street eating.  It’s something the laboring classes have always had over on white-collared stiffs for generations.  Cab drivers.  Bookies.  Waiters.  Firefighters.  Cops.  They’ve known for decades what the rest of us in the American hinterlands are only now just discovering:  that the Chicago dog reins supreme.

I come late to this party.  Way late.  I didn’t purposefully, deliberately eat my first Chicago dog until the autumn of 2017.  Sure, I had spent most of the 90s in Chicago, and in that decade, unwittingly consumed hundreds of the things.  In those days, for this then-college student, eating wasn’t deliberate or even political; my gastronomic decision-making was rooted, purely, in economy and survival.  But upon moving to Chicago in summer 2017 as a food industry professional with seventeen hard years in, everything about what I then—as now—chose to eat was now invariably fraught with judgment and implied decree.  And after eating my first Chicago dog since the riotous Polish Paul incident at O’Hare, I knew it was true love, and I eat them every chance I get.

Founded in 1893 by Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, and made locally famous at the Columbian Exposition of that same year, Vienna Beef has long been heralded as the gold standard in Chicago street eating.  And while the Windy City hosts other several other venerable hot dog manufacturers—the Eisenberg and Red Hot brands come to mind—the sheer near-omnipresence of the Vienna Beef dog suggests that it holds a special place in the hearts (and major arteries) of Windy City eaters.  And with so much of Chicago’s culinary identity encased in its eponymous dog, I decided that for my first hotdog as a newly returned and re-minted prodigal son of Chicago, I would go directly to the source.  The fountainhead.  The mothership.  I went to the Vienna Beef Factory Café and got myself a hotdog.

If there exists in this world of gastronomy a more pure and proto-Marxian archetype of a happy-worker’s paradise wherein the sleeves-up proletariat consumes, bodily, that which it has just produced, I’ve yet to encounter its kind anywhere in America.  Located in the street-level underbelly of the Vienna Beef Factory, with the wheels of meat-in-tube-form industry humming ceaselessly overhead, the factory cafe itself occupies a liminal (if deeply egalitarian) mixed-use, culinary-and-retail space where Vienna Beef factory workers lunch elbow-to-elbow with eaters from the outside world in a florescent-lit, red-yellow-blue confluence of nagahyde-and-formica break-room-based insouciance and ennui so deep and vexed that the hum of refrigerated cases of just-made meats and cheeses is all you hear.  But so what if conversation is not on the menu?  It’s not for the witty banter and persiflage that eaters hunger and come.  It’s for the hotdogs, boy-o, and the Vienna Beef Factory has them a’plenty.

I ordered the classic.  I ordered the Chicago Style Hot Dog.  What I received was nothing short of sublime: a fresh-from-the factory Vienna Beef dog “fully dressed” on a just-steamed poppy seed, served with a side of impeccable, perfectly salted, just-dunked fries.  Crinkle cut no less.  And as I chewed, blissed out, as I was, on what surely must be among the crowning achievements of proletarian gastronomic glory that filled my mouth with a blunt-force-trauma umami-bomb of flavors—salty, sour, and sport-pepper hot—I realized the genius of the Vienna Beef Factory Café lies not what it is—a hushed culinary haven for a work force seeking a moment’s reprieve from their noble toil above—but for what it’s not.  For nowhere among my fellow eaters—middle aged men, mostly—was there a whiff of irony, nor any miasma of hipness.  Nowhere among them were sardonic hipster beards or the too-cool-for-school strains of Father John Misty issuing from the speakers overhead.  Nowhere among them was any palpable longing for culinary “betterment” from, say, the andouilles and boudins of the world.  No way.  Not here.  The Vienna Beef Factory Café is a sarcasm-free, no bullshit zone offering the quotidian best of what surely must be one of life’s keenest culinary pleasures:  a perfect American hot dog.

It really is that good.

I haven’t spoken to Polish Paul in a while—years, maybe—but when I do, I’ll be sure to invite him back to Chicago.  And when he makes the trip—as I know he will—I’ll be take him to the gloriously inglorious Vienna Beef Factory Café, where we will sit in the wan florescent light, among our fellow food industry brethren, and laugh about the bad old days over a meal of Vienna Beef hot dogs.

Without ketchup, of course.   

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