Beyond Deep-Dish: Exploring Chicago's Other Native Foods
It was just a couple of years ago that some catty remarks on deep dish pizza almost triggered an East Coast-Midwest war. And, by now, most of the foodie world knows Chicago’s militance about ketchup-less hot dogs.
But those dishes have become food cliches, stuff tourists eat when they visit — not the quirky, lesser-known, culinary gems forged in hot little kitchens across the city.
Those are the foods that this Curious City questioner Rebbie Kinsella wanted to know about. She wrote:
Besides deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, what are some other foods with a genesis in Chicago?
Kinsella says it was mostly her longtime interest in Chicago food culture that drove the question. But it was also spurred by a comment that her non-Chicagoan daughter-in-law made on her first visit to the Windy City.
“I turned to her and said, Well, what do you think about Chicago?” Kinsella remembered. “And she said, ‘Well, it has a lot of meat.’”
Ouch. But also, kind of true. Meat emerges as a consistent theme throughout the Chicago food pantheon, with only a few vegetarian exceptions. Still, in reporting this story, I realized something else about Chicago food inventions: Most folks have only tried the ones that come from their own part of our large, persistently segregated city. North Siders, for instance, can spend years missing out on culinary delicacies just miles away on the South or West sides.
Yes, there are some Chicago-invented foods that defy geographic and racial boundaries. Rebbie Kinsella referred to a couple, and there are others: gyros, Cracker Jacks, brownies, Twinkies and pizza puffs, to name a few. But how many North Siders have eaten a Jim Shoe, a Freddy or Bananamana? And how many South Siders have eaten the Akutagawa, jibaritos or even flaming saganaki?
Were your afterschool snacks conchas, pickles speared with candy canes, or bags of Cheetos topped with molten cheese? This, it seems, depends heavily on the neighborhood you live in or visit. Still, as Nate Silver pointed out, the news isn’t all bad: Yes, we’re extremely racially segregated, but also highly diverse. And this, I found, is borne out in our native foods.
As I’ve chewed on this topic for the past few weeks, I’ve come across dozens of dishes that were arguably invented, developed or perfected in Chicago. I’ve pared it down to a list of 15, which is a good start in answering Rebbie Kinsella’s question. (Sorry, Rebbie, for folks unfamiliar with the history, I feel we just had to mention hot dogs and deep-dish pizza!) But I’ve done a little more than that, too: I’ve ordered the list from most familiar to most obscure, and then listed where they can be found. Why? To give you a reason to visit a neighborhood off your everyday path.
My bet is that few people have tried all 15. If you have, you’re probably an adventurous eater with an iron stomach and a deep familiarity with a wide array of Chicago neighborhoods. Congratulations!
I’m ashamed to say, that until recently, I’d only made it to No. 8. What about you?
As you move through the list, let us know if we missed something and how many you’ve actually tried. If you’ve got alternatives or better suggestions, we’d love to see them in the comment section below.
1. Vienna Beef Chicago style hot dog: It was 1893 when Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Landry presented their Vienna beef hot dogs at the Columbian Exposition. The next year they opened a storefront selling bologna and sausages around Roosevelt and Halsted. As for the toppings, hot dog historian Bruce Kraig believes they developed around the Depression, inspired by various ethnic groups in the city. The mustard came from the Germans. Onions and tomatoes from the Greeks. Sweet relish from the Czechs. And the sport pepper from the Italians. Try it at Gene & Jude’s in River Grove $2.59 All Neighborhoods.
3. Gyros: Spinning stacks of spiced meat can be found all over the world. But it was in 1970s-era Chicago that Greek-Americans decided to grind up the lamb, beef and spices and turn it into a preformed cone o’ meat known as gyros (that’s YEE-ros). One of those guys was Chris Tomaras who started Kronos, which ships cones all over the country from its Glendale Heights factory. Excellent versions of this shaved meat on griddled pita, topped with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki abound, but we’re partial to Hub’s on Lincoln Ave. $6.05
4. Italian beef: This sandwich of thinly sliced roast beef, cooked in its own juices and served on an Italian roll with spicy giardiniera and/or sweet peppers is widely attributed to Depression-era Italian immigrants in Chicago. But the folks at Al’s Beef, which opened in 1938, lay claim to its eventual development as a popular, often juicy, sandwich. Try it at Al’s Italian Beef. $6.35.
5. Flaming saganaki: Today it’s hard to find sit-down a Greek restaurant in Chicago that doesn’t erupt in cries of “opaa!” as someone lights a block of cheese on fire. But that wasn’t true before 1968, when staff at Chicago’s Parthenon decided to add a dose of theatricality to the fried cheese dish known as saganaki. Usually made with a salty, high melting point cheese like kesseri or halloumi, it’s delicious smeared on a chunk of crusty bread. Try it at Pegasus Taverna in Greektown. $6.
6. Chicken Vesuvio: While it may be true that Southern Italians have been baking chicken with garlic, lemon, white wine and herbs (and serving it with potatoes and peas) for a super long time, Chicagoans can take credit for marketing it as Chicken Vesuvio. Was it because it started at the Vesuvio Restaurant on Wacker Drive in the ‘30s, or was it meant to commemorate the explosion of the Mount Vesuvius volcano? Unclear, but it definitely delivers an explosion of garlic that you won’t forget. Try it at Harry Caray’s $21.95, or a little less at several Heart of Chicago spots.
7. Pepper and Egg sandwich: Drop by several Chicago Italian joints during Lent and chances are you’ll find this meatless combo of scrambled eggs, sweet peppers (and sometimes potatoes) on a crusty Italian roll. Many places even serve it all year. Though no one has emerged as the official pepper-and-egg inventor, the sandwich is broadly attributed to early 20th Century Chicago Italian home cooks who wanted to create a tasty, packable meatless meal. You can try it at Ferro’s Beef in Bridgeport. $5.99.
8. Jibaro/jibarito: When chef Juan C. Figueroa was leafing through a Puerto Rican newspaper in the mid-1990s he saw a recipe for a lettuce and tomato sandwich that used fried green plantains for bread. He beefed it up with seared steak, mayonnaise, American cheese and a schmear of garlic oil and introduced it to customers at his Humboldt Park restaurant as the jibaro. Today dozens of restaurants serve the sandwich all over the country. Try the original Jibaro at Borinquen Restaurant II. $4.95.
9. Jim Shoe: I learned about this sandwich through genetics researcher and South Side food buff Peter Engler, who writes extensively about it. He’s never pinpointed the inventor but believes the Shoe emerged on the South Side sometime during the ‘70s or ‘80s. At its essence a Jim Shoe (there are many spelling variations) features roast beef, corned beef and gyros on a sub roll, complete with giardiniera and a tzatziki-like sauce. Today the sandwich has spawned the crispy (deep fried) Jim Shoe, the super Jim Shoe taco and even the halal Jim Shoe, which has traveled from the South Side to the North Side through Pakistan — or at least the Pakistani-American owners of South Side sub shops. They often make the best Jim Shoe, one that’s chopped up and griddled before it hits the roll. Try the “Delicious Gym Shoe” with grilled onions, multiple sauces and Swiss cheese at Southtown Sub 240 E 35th St. $6.99 to $10.99.
10. Mother in Law: This sandwich, featuring a Tom Tom or corn roll style tamal served in a hot dog bun with chili or hot dog condiments, is slowly fading from Chicago menus. It’s another South Side oddity that Engler has been studying for several years and one whose exact origin also remains elusive. Try it at Fat Johnnies in Marquette Park. $2.
11. The Freddy: This Italian sausage patty, topped by mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce and peppers on a French roll is also a favorite research topic of Engler’s. It’s a product of the far Southwest Side that he believes was birthed at Chuck’s Pizza by Benny Russo, who named it after his son. Engler’s pick for a great Freddy is at Calabria Imports. $6.79.
12. Big Baby: This double cheeseburger, native to restaurants around Midway Airport, is yet another area of study for Engler. He dates its birth to around 1969 and probably at Nicky’s in Gage Park, which now has other locations. While a double cheeseburger with American cheese, grilled onions, pickles, mustard and ketchup on a toasted bun is not unique to Chicago, the precise order of ingredients, name and geographic specificity of this creation set it apart from others. You can try it at Nicky’s. $2.79.
13. Akutagawa: Sometime during the late ‘60s — when Wrigleyville had a large working class Japanese-American population — a character named George Akutagawa was a regular at a diner called Hamburger King. There he asked his pal, HK’s cook and owner Joe Yamauchi, to saute a mix of chopped burger, bean sprouts, onions and green peppers along with a couple of eggs. The dish caught on with other customers and even other restaurants. Five decades, three owners and one name change later, it’s still a popular item on the menu, although the diner is now owned by Korean Americans. Try it at Rice and Bread. $7.49 with a signature side of rice and gravy.
14. Jerk Taco: Chef Julius “The Jerk Taco Man” Thomas says he uses his Kingston-born great grandfather’s jerk recipe to make tender, smokey, perfectly spiced meat that gets stuffed into flour tortillas and topped with cilantro, onions and cheese. Even if it’s unclear where and when these jerk tacos were invented, Thomas has put his restaurant on the map; lines can last for more than two hours to get this ultra-generous Jamaican-Mexican mashup, available in steak, chicken, lamb, fish and shrimp. Thomas will now let you avoid lines through online ordering and a $5 convenience charge. You can try one at Jerk Taco Man. $5.
15. Banana Mana: Reese Price is an inventor and cook who runs a tiny joint around 63rd and Carpenter. Technically, it’s called Mr. Allen’s Sweet Shop, but don’t look for that on his sign. Instead, look for the billboard that says “Home of the Bananamana.” This creamy, smooth cross between pudding and gelato comes in a clear cup with vanilla wafers and crumbles tucked around the edges. But Price, who patented the recipe last year, claims it’s better for you than banana pudding. You can find his Bananamana in stores and restaurants around the South Side. But for service by the inventor, stop by his tiny shop at 1022 ½ W 63rd St. 773-491-8467. $3 per dessert, two for $5.
More about our questioner
Computer tech and mom of two, Rebbie Kinsella, was born in the Chicago area and moved to Beverly about 20 years ago with her husband of 35 years. She’s a longtime member of WBEZ and an avid gardener and pie baker.
“I make a mean strawberry rhubarb pie,” she reports.
And as for Chicago food, she loves its diversity whether she’s out for Middle Eastern, Latin American, Mediterranean, “and you can’t beat a good Chicago hot dog with celery salt.”
Kinsella’s been thinking about this Chicago food question for a while and had a pretty specific one to add on: “Since it’s called Chicago Mix, I assume that cheese corn mixed with caramel corn also had its start here?”
Sorry, Rebbie, the folks at Candlyland, Inc. of St. Paul, Minnesota, trademarked “Chicago Mix” in 1992 and, in fact, won a lawsuit against Garrett’s about it. Garrett’s now calls its blend “Garrett’s Mix.”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com