666 North Orleans (@ Erie)
Chicago, IL 60610
LAX 2 ORD no. 6
Normally, I prescribe to Tony Bourdain’s brand of travel and exploration. Be a traveller, not a tourist and definitely eat, drink, and curse like you mean it, a$$hole.
But sometimes, you have to just be a tourist. *shrug* Sometimes, before you can duck into some back alley with a hooded escort who only goes by “Fig” to check out the only dive in the country that sells blackmarket speck, you have to see/do/eat all that stuff that everyone does, so that you can set a baseline for yourself. You have to be an A-number-one, camera-slinging, visor-sporting, Frommer’s-in-my-fanny-pack FOB-ulous Asian tourist and take pictures to send home to you parents so you don’t have to hear “Who visits Chicago and doesn’t ride to the top of the world’s tallest building?!” Sometimes, under some very specific circumstances that almost never happen – but look! today they do! – you have to censor your inner-Tony, grin like the Joker, and chortle “Yum-oh!”
Yes, on this first leg of my Midwest vacation, I had to tour like perky little Rachael Ray.
I say “had to” as if it Little Miss Funshine were forced upon me, but to be quite honest, I made a conscious choice to spend my too-short two days in Chicago doing very Chicago-y things, which basically translates to tourism. More importantly, I wanted to eat very Chicago-y things. Sure I can enjoy a flaky croissant and fabulous espresso at that cafe, sure I can do a lovely alfresco lunch overlooking the Lake, sure I can slip into my Pradski dress and step out onto the curb with my Bucci bag and sashay up to one of Chicago’s premiere dining destinations. But I can do that in other places, too, even L.A. Of course, I know that Alinea, Moto, North Pond, Spring, Trotter’s – these get lots of press and are all associated with Chicago, but I didn’t want just association. I wanted quintessential Chicago foods, things that howl “Windy City!” and will be burned into my taste memory as This. Is. Chicago. Rick Bayless, check. Chicago-style hot dog, check. Italian beef? Let’s work off that hot dog first, then hit up Mr. Beef ;)
After Portillo’s, I walked what felt like the equivalent of a marathon and a half down Clark to the Sears tower, exploring the Loop along the way. For my own personal reason that I shan't reveal here, the Hancock Tower and Wrigley Field (see? tourist) were on my list, but who knew walking to the Sears Tower would take up the better part of the afternoon? Besides, I saw all of it from the observation deck. :)
Although I’ve done the architecture tour along the river several times, it was also on my internal itinerary. I don’t know if it’s a true tourist attraction, like the Alamo in San Antonio (Remember it!), which you never go see unless your overseas relatives are visiting for the first time, or you’re on a first-grade field trip; or if the river ride is an activity that even Chicago-ans find themselves doing in their own hometown every once in a while. You know, when I lived in San Antonio, I loved the Riverwalk, but then again, I’m a freak like that. Either way, tourist attraction or not, the Architecture tour never gets old with me. Part of it has to do with seeing the architecture itself, part of it has to do with the fact that I’m cruising along lazily on a boat, and part of it has to do with a movie. Yes, o, she who eschews the movies like the plague of inflated prices and public germs that they are, is referring to My Best Friend’s Wedding (on DVD, of course). No, not the jello/creme brulee scene. The other one. I’d love to have Dermott Mulroney sing soft and low in my ear as we float along the Chicago river. *sigh*
Unfortunately, the season for hourly departures from the base of Michigan Avenue ended with the final flight of summer’s tourists back to their homes, and I had missed the second of only two boat tours of the day by hours already. Oh well. The architecture tour and daydreaming about Dermott would have to wait for my next trip.
We hopped in a cab for Mr. Beef, though it sounded like we just asked the driver to take us to hell. LOL. The address is 666 North Orleans. The several hours it took me to get from that part of town to my hotel took only five minutes in a cab. Sheesh.
From the street, I only saw a black and white sign that stated “Mr. Beef” in a slightly beat up setting and wondered what kind of place it would be. A tiny shack with a window covered with protective iron grates to squeeze a sandwich through? No. Mr. Beef is a step up from the sandwich-stand-type Al’s #1 Beef I had seen the night before, but definitely keeps it more real than the full-blown Disney Dogland of Portillo’s. It’s a decent sized store-front, with a tiny parking lot to the left. Not that I look out for these things, but who wouldn’t notice an enormous Bentley parked diagonally across two spots? I was curious to see if the owner might be inside, enjoying a sandwich in “the home of the elegant dining room,” as a small sign so proudly boasts out front.
The inside is just a box of restauran
t with a back window-type counter hung with sausages – Mr. Beef’s Deli, where I guess you order deli-type sandwiches (and Spider-Man watches over you). The other counter next to it is where we ordered our Italian beef sandwich. The place is by no means bright, shiny, and new, and in fact, it looks like it’s been around for a while, but it’s pretty clean. When our order was up, we sat down at one of the long, narrow, counters along the perimeter, facing out the front window. Right next to me, there was a white-haired man half seated on his stool, half standing, eating a huge beef sandwich in his hands that had a huge gold ring on his pinkie finger. I wondered if this was the Don who had parked his Bentley outside. The other counter faced a wall plastered with autographed photos of mostly Jay Leno, and a few othes. I suspect the “elegant dining room” was through a darkened doorway to the left of the register, but I was more interested in the beef that had just surrendered it self to me. No fries. No accessories like cheese or other sauce on the sandwich to detract from my first experience with Italian beef.
It looked like a Philly steak sandwich to me. Paper thin slices of beef had been grilled to shreds, piled into a crusty French roll. But no, this isn’t some mall food court great steak and fry. This is Italian beef, with giardiniera – a spicy Italian mix of pickled peppers, celery, and some other vegetables. I guess it depends on where you are, because I’m glad there wasn’t any cauliflower in my sandwich.
It was an absolute sloppy mess trying to eat it, tendrils of meat and rebel vegetables plummeting back down to the paper, juices dripping everywhere. I thought the bread would end up being too soft and squishy (like my encounter with a steamed bun at Portillo’s) but the crustiness of the French bread stood up to the juices, still maintaining its integrity as bread, just soaked with a lot of juicy, beefy flavor. The beef was tender, the vegetables were spicy, and though I tried to slow myself down to enjoy every single bite, I couldn’t hold back. I think I inhaled it in record time.
The sandwich was delicious. Rather, YUM-O, as my inner Rachael Ray would exclaim. The funny thing is, as much as Mr. Beef is very $40-a-day, I could totally imagine Tony B. skulking into Mr. Beef's with no reservations and mouthing off about how good it is, too. ;)