Chicago owes its entire foundation to meatpacking and processing, and beef has helped shape some of Chicago’s most iconic dishes. Famed Baltimore newspaperman HL Mencken coined Chicago’s nickname, the “abattoir by the lake”, just after the turn of the century.
Today, beef still features heavily in the Chicago restaurant scene, with new places such as lauded heavy-metal burger bar Kuma’s Corner (http://www.kumascorner.com/) in Avondale keeping the city’s reputation alive as the home of exceptional carnivorous dishes that rank amongst the best in the world.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was a showcase of new inventions for the society of the future – it was here that the Ferris Wheel was first introduced (standing at approximately 264 feet high). One of the greatest inventions to come out of the fair, however, was a culinary one: the ‘red’ hot dog, introduced by Viennese immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany. The Vienna Beef company still ply their wares to this day, and the winning combination is a constant: put a Vienna-style beef hot dog in a poppy seed bun with chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish, tomato slices, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt and mustard (never ketchup).
The sheer success of these hand-held tubular treats allowed Reichel and Ladany to open their first shop the following year on the Near West Side. Ever since then, the Vienna Beef hot dog has been a Chicago staple.
Over the years there have been various interpretations and creative spins on this classic, notably from the famed local culinary legend Doug Sohn, who served up his creations to long queues of patient customers at Hot Doug’s, which he closed in 2014 and is still spoken about by Chicagoans reverentially to this day.
Meanwhile you can lunch on Vienna Beef at venues across the country as well as right home in Chicago, including at Gene & Jude’s (http://www.geneandjudes.com/) cheap and cheerful eatery in River Grove. Or go straight to the source and tour the Vienna Beef facilities (http://www.viennabeef.com/); those who want to go really deep can take one of their Hot Dog University courses (http://www.viennabeef.com/hot-dog-university), which teaches students how to run their own stands.
There’s a unique vocabulary in Chicago when it comes to ordering an Italian beef sandwich that’s accepted anywhere you go. Whether you like your beef ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ or ‘hot’ or ‘sweet’, there is no wrong way to enjoy this enduring classic. The actual history of the sandwich has been obscured by time, but many food lovers agree it probably originated in Chicago at the turn of the century. The sandwich consists of thinly sliced meat that’s topped off with giardiniera (hot) and/or sweet peppers (sweet) that can be double-dipped in the meat’s sauce (wet).
With Chicago’s stockyards the hub of the meatpacking industry, the Italian immigrants who worked in the abattoirs often took home the lesser, more affordable beef cuts. It’s also said that with so many guests at Italian weddings and other events, they had to make the meat-buck stretch, so it was sliced thin to ensure it made the rounds. One Italian immigrant in particular, Pasquale Scala, who set up a shop after WWI, eventually expanded the business to be called the Scala Packing Company, established in 1925, and specialised in so-called ‘Italian’ beef, supplying to stalls and eateries across the city who were making the soon-to-be-famous sandwiches.
Another early favourite, the revered Al’s Beef (http://www.alsbeef.com/), opened its doors 1938 and has remained a popular spot since (it’s now a franchise), while enduring favourite Johnnie’s Beef (https://www.facebook.com/Johnnies-Beef-169537026394157/) in Elmwood Park is where the charcoal-cooked beef is transformed into something beyond the sum of its parts with the house’s unparalleled spice-rich gravy.
The “cheezborger” at the famous Billy Goat Tavern (http://www.billygoattavern.com/) is proof that sometimes, simple is best. Also just called the “borger”, it is comprised solely of meat and cheese on a bun; you add the fixins – relish, onion, pickle and/or ketchup and mustard.
There are no fries, just chips. But one bite of your borger and you’ll know the glory of simplicity (a fact lampooned by John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray in the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, “Olympia Café”).
The Billy Goat is also the source of another piece of Chicago folklore: the curse of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Up until 1945, the Cubs were one of the most successful franchises in the league. Then during game four of the World Series that year, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, William Sianis, bought two tickets for the game, planning to bring his pet goat with him for good luck. The usher wasn’t having it and as he was asked to leave, Sianis famously cursed the team proclaiming: “the Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field.” It’s been 70 years since that curse and 107 years since Chicago’s baseball team last won the World Series.
The Fulton Market District is a rough-and-tumble area full of the sound of meatpacking processors busily humming throughout the day, and the city’s elevated Green and Pink Line trains (the “L”) constantly passing by.
But this outer layer hides a resurgent restaurant and art scene, reinforced by the recently launched second outdoor location for the Green City Market. Fulton Market Kitchen (http://www.fultonmarketkitchen.com/) is a much-loved favorite, and with a new head chef at the helm, the menu is going through some exciting changes worth sticking around for. The recent arrival of contemporary cuisine such as chef Stephanie Izard’s latest turn, Chinese-inspired Duck Duck Goat (http://duckduckgoatchicago.com/), or a new venture from pastry chef extraordinaire Anna Posey’s inspiring art-food crossovers, show this district has become a beacon for new talent.
The once-overlooked neighbourhood is proving a hidden gem, embraced by local food lovers and tourists alike looking for quality and a taste of local flavour.