This week on the Curious City podcast, I dig into the origins of the sweet steak sandwich (also called the Supreme Steak). Though little known on the North Side, the sweet steak has been attracting long lines of fans to South Side eateries for 50 years now. The sandwich starts with a steamed bun, piled high with grilled onions, chopped ribeye steak, American cheese, sweet pepper relish, sliced tomatoes and hot peppers — all doused in a signature reddish sweet sauce.
Edward Perkins II told me his late father Edward Perkins Sr. was inspired to make the sandwich after trying cheesesteaks in Philadelphia in the mid ’60s. And by 1971, “he finally came up with a version that people here in Chicago would like,” the younger Perkins said.
Many fine journalists at the Chicago Tribune, Thrillist and Chicago’s Best have covered the making and eating of the sweet steak sandwich. And in the Chicago Reader, writer Ernest Wilkins shined a light on the cultural segregation that left the sandwich ignored by most Chicago media for decades.
But here, I’ve taken a different approach. I’ve put on my culinary archeologist helmet to dig through several layers and milestones of Chicago fast food history — all in an attempt to test my highly unscientific hypothesis: The sweet steak might just represent the “most Chicago” sandwich of all time.
I mean the sandwich shares elements from a virtual greatest hits collection of Chicago fast food. So no wonder it has inspired such a devoted and long lasting following around town. The only thing that might make the sandwich even more Chicago would be a sprinkling of gyros meat on top.
So where might each of these classic Chicago elements come from? Check out my exceedingly brainy hypotheses, below:
Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. You can follow her @MonicaEng.