Ask any Chicago transplant in Albuquerque or anywhere else to list the five things they miss most about the Windy City and it’s a good bet the list will include Italian beef sandwiches, a staple in Chicago. Citizens of the Toddlin’ Town are almost as passionate about this sloppy sandwich as they are Da Bears.
Chicagoans grow up worshipping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing.
The authentic Italian beef sandwich is, according to Pasquale Bruno, the Chicago Sun-Times dining critic and contrary to the opinion of some purists, a spin-off of the French-dip sandwich. It is never (and I mean ever) made with marinara sauce. You won’t find one in all of Italy, in fact. It is as uniquely Chicago as deep-dish pizza (which you also won’t find in Italy) and hot dogs with sport peppers and green tomatoes.
An Italian beef sandwich is made with roasted sirloin tip which is massaged with a blend of herbs and spices (oregano, black pepper, basil and more) before roasting. The beef is sliced Nicole Ritchie thin and is so tender it shreds into pieces. At many Chicago restaurants, it is momentarily immersed (dipped) in the gravy to make it even juicier. It is often served with either hot or mild giardiniera (a concoction of spicy, pickled, chopped-up vegetables such as peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery), but sometimes with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers. The entire creation is extremely messy; you dare not ever try to eat one while driving.
When we found out a new restaurant with the name Chicago Beef had launched in August 2006, we wondered if this was some audacious pretender or if, perhaps, this was the real thing. One thing is certain–you can’t fool a Chicago native and Albuquerque which has its share of Chicago transplants, has been direly lacking an authentic Italian beef sandwich shop since Frank Bellino sold Sweet Peppers in 2005.
Those transplants–especially Rio Rancho residents according to co-owner Hass Aslami–have discovered Chicago Beef, a Chicago-style restaurant specializing in Italian beef and hot dogs. Chicago Beef is situated in the building which until early 2005 housed Doc & Mz. V’s restaurant.
Business has been brisk since Aslami and his partner Tom Epley, both former residents of the City of Big Shoulders, launched their taste of Chicago. The menu features several hot Chicago-style sandwiches, bratwurst, hot dogs and a beef burger as well as some of the very best onion rings you’ll find this side of the Mississippi and Texas-sized French fries you’ll never find in Chicago.
A condiment bar is well stocked with hot and cold condiments which you can lavish on your hot dog. The hot condiments include sautéed bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, chili with beans, sauerkraut and Au Jus (the wonderful beef gravy drippings for the Italian beef sandwich).
The cold condiments include diced tomato, onions, cucumbers, pickles, ketchup, various relishes, mustards, jalapenos and giardiniera.
Not only can you embellish your hot dog Chicago-style, but you can make it a Coney Island hot dog, too…and since this is Albuquerque, the condiment bar also includes nicely piquant green chile.
Though thinly-sliced (it may, in fact, have been deli roast beef), the beef on the Italian beef sandwich doesn’t break apart into shards like it does at our favorite Chicago area restaurants and streetside stands. Nor were we given the option of having the sandwich dipped, a messy option to be sure, but as long as there are napkins a plenty, who cares. Instead, we were given a small plastic container of Au Jus with directions to an Au Jus container near the condiment bar.
Not all Italian beef sandwiches are created equal. We’ve experienced beef with the gristly consistency of shoe leather, giardiniera as limp and soggy as a dishrag and sandwich bread as stale as last week’s leftovers. In comparison to the worse we’ve had, Chicago Beef’s version rates high, but is not nearly as good as the masterfully crafted Italian beef sandwich at Johnnie’s Beef. Overall, it was of mid-range quality for Chicago, but pretty good (by default) for Albuquerque.
The bratwurst and hot dog, on the other hand, were more noteworthy. I dressed my “brats” with both green chile and sauerkraut, probably not something you’ll see in Wisconsin. Who can go wrong with that combination? The hot dog was plump, flavorful and snapped when we bit into it. We half expected Chicago Beef to serve Vienna Beef products which are synonymous with hot dogs in The Second City.
Within months after opening, Chicago Beef began offering “Chicago style pizza.” True Chicago style pizza is more akin to a casserole on a deep dish crust than it is to a traditional pizza.
The pizza at Chicago Beef is about a third the thickness of a true Chicago style pizza as you might find at a Windy City pizzeria such as Gino’s East or Pizzeria Uno. Still, it’s thicker than most pizzas in the Duke City and it’s also quite good with a treasure trove of available toppings, including giardiniera.
Our expectations of Chicago quality Italian beef and authentic Chicago style pizza were somewhat dashed, but we have to remind ourselves that Isleta Boulevard more closely resembles the main drag in Espanola than it does Taylor Street (home of Al’s Beef). Still, we’re grateful to have some vestige of Chicago in Albuquerque.
3905 Isleta, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 June 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Combo Beef & Sausage; Onion Rings; French Fries