In our increasingly homogenous culture more and more people are dining at chain restaurants owned by giant conglomerates. I’m certain that there’s some comfort in knowing that a hamburger from McDonald’s will taste the same in Fort Lauderdale as it does in Anchorage, but it all seems so corporate and soul-less. Besides that, there’s a sense of adventure in eating foods that are distinctive to a certain region. Sure you can get a Philly cheesesteak at TGIF or Chili's, but it’s not going to taste authentic.
When I left Chicago to move to South Florida, I gladly said goodbye to the winters, the corrupt politics (where no less than three governors went to jail in my lifetime) and, did I mention the winters. I do miss the three Fs; family, friends and food.
Friends and family I can handle through visits, telephone and Internet, but you can’t do that with food. In addition to missing the best pizza in the world (that’s a whole separate column!), I miss Chicago style hot dogs. In last week’s column I gave you an overview of how hot dogs vary from region to region. In this column we’re going to focus on Chicago style hot dogs, as well as its distant cousin, the Maxwell Street Polish, and another Chicago specialty, Italian beef sandwiches.
In Chicago the hot dog must be an all-beef wiener from the Vienna Sausage Company. At a typical Chicago hot dog stand they keep the sausages ready in a hot water bath. When you place your order it is placed it in a poppy seed bun that has been kept warm over steam. The dog is then slathered in yellow mustard and topped with finely chopped onion, bright green pickle relish, slices of tomato sprinkled with celery salt, then topped with a dill pickle spear and spicy sport peppers. Ask for catsup and you may be asked to leave.
Almost every hot dog shop will also serve Chicago’s other two sandwich delicacies. A Maxwell Street Polish gets its name from the area of the city where it was served as Jewish peddlers hawked their wares in the early part of the 20th century. The char-broiled sausage, slightly larger and spicier than a hot dog, is traditionally served on a hot dog bun (or a slice of Italian bread if you’re bein’ fancy), slathered with yellow mustard and topped with grilled onion (the greasier the better).
Italian beef is similar to a French dip; shaved beef is kept soaking in an au jus that is rich with garlic and Italian herbs. To assemble the sandwich, a mound of beef is removed from the jus and stuffed into a split piece of Italian bread. When you order this sandwich in Chicago, you’ll be asked, “Hot or sweet?” meaning roasted green bell pepper (sweet) or spicy giardiniera (a relish of hot peppers, onions, celery and spices in an olive oil base). Those in the know ask for their sandwich “wet,” which means the entire sandwich is dipped in the jus. It’s a soggy, spicy, mess, but well worth the extra napkins you’ll need.
When I get a hankering for one of these tastes of home, I head to one of these spots, both run by ex-Chicagoans.
Howie's Top Dog
5021 S. State Road 7, Davie
Handsome Howie is behind the counter Monday through Saturday from a little after 10 in the morning until just before four in the afternoon. His "Chicago Style" eatery is as authentic as it gets, from the Formica tables to the music on the “radio” (“WXRT, Chicago’s Finest Rock” via Internet).
Howie has his supplies shipped down from Chicago and serves the holy trinity of Chicago sandwiches described above. The hot dog is $3.29 for a single, $4.69 for a double (two dogs in one bun). His Chicago style comes steamed with all the classic toppings. If you prefer, he’ll grill the hot dog for you. It can also be served topped with chili and cheese. His Polish is $4.29 and he’ll do it Maxwell Street style for no extra charge. Howie’s Italian beef $4.29 tastes just like home, with just the right balance of herbs and garlic
Another flash from home is authentic gyros, carved off the spit. It’s worlds away from thin strips of processed meat cooked on the grill that passes for gyros at some places here in South Florida, even those owned by Greeks (I’m talking to you Peter Pan!). For non-meat eaters there’s a decent veggie burger and a choice of three salads. It’s $5.99 for your choice of Greek, Caesar or Chinese.
Hot Dog Heaven
101 Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale
Conveniently located and the food also tastes just like home. My only complaint is that they charge more for a Chicago-style hot dog than they do for a regular one. Granted, it’s a small up-charge, less than 50¢, but it’s the principal of the thing. They’re also not nearly as personable as at Howie’s and the seating is limited to a counter and a couple of outdoor tables. When it’s raining, it gets pretty crowded in the already cramped space. My husband calls it a panic attack waiting to happen.
Their Italian beef is a little salty and garlicky for my taste and it’s a bit pricier ($7.95, almost three bucks more than Howie’s), but HDH is in an area where rents are higher, so I’ll cut him a little slack. HDH also serves a couple of other Chicago treats; a grilled salami sandwich and Vienna’s beef tamales. This tamale isn’t even close to authentic Mexican, but when they top it with chili, onions and cheese, who cares? All that’s missing is a side of Xantac.