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Billy Goat Tavern – Chicago, Illinois

Directly below Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile is the world-famous Billy Goat Tavern

The genesis of the idiomatic expression “got your goat” which means “to greatly annoy someone” is in dispute with sources attributing it to both the United States and England.  The American version has it that horse trainers would put a goat in a racing horse’s stall to keep it calm.  When bettors wanted a horse to race badly, they took it away (ergo “got someone’s goat”) and the horse would become agitated and run badly.  No evidence exists to support this legend.  According to the English version, keeping a goat in the barn has a calming effect on cows, thereby motivating them to produce more milk.  When rapscallions wanted to upset competing cattle ranchers, they would abscond with their goat rendering their cows less to non-productive.

In Chicago, the phrase “got your goat” has meant something entirely different since 1945, the very last time the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series.  That’s more than 67 days of ineptitude and frustration.  That’s the power of the “billy goat curse” and it all happened because Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley prevented local Greek restaurateur William “Billy Goat” Sianis and his pet goat Murphy from going through the turnstiles to watch game four of the Series.  Legend has it that William cursed the Cubs with the prophetic statement “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.  The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field.”  Not only did the Cubs go on to lose game four and the subsequent games in the Series, they haven’t experienced success since.

Established in 1934

You might think that such an outcry of anger and disapproval over William and his restaurant would have ensued that William would have been forced out of business, but since that day of infamy, most rancor seems to be directed at the Cubs organization.  William’s Billy Goat Tavern has not only been a Chicago institution since 1934, it’s earned worldwide fame…and it’s done so despite serving food which, at best, be described as mediocre.  The Billy Goat Tavern is not a dining destination.  It’s not where any self-respecting gastronome would ever go expecting a great gourmet meal.  We visit because of the experience.

We visit to experience for ourselves, the famous Saturday Night Live skit (back when SNL was funny) executed so uproariously funny by the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”   John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Loraine Newman.  The hilarious skit was based on the Billy Goat Tavern, a hang-out for many of the show’s writers.  It satirized the experience of dining at the restaurant where it doesn’t matter what you order, the colorful waitstaff will call out “cheezborger; no fries, cheeps; no Pepsi, Coke.”

The bar and dining room area at the Billy Goat Tavern

Today, the thickly accented Greek wait staff continues to entertain guests just as William Sianis did all those years:  “Try the double cheese!  It’s the best!  No fries, cheeps!”  It’s part of the restaurant’s charm.  It’s why we return.  This type of wait schtick just doesn’t get old.  The entertaining wait staff is just one of the things we love about the Billy Goat Tavern.  We love that the restaurant isn’t at street level, but directly below Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile.  We love the homey hang-out feel of the joint where regulars belly up to the bar and grin with amusement as tourists snap photo after photo of their home away from home.

Cheeseburgers are the Billy Goat Tavern’s featured fare, some would say the only thing to eat.  While the menu may list other items, including a few sandwiches, order something other than a cheezborger and you’ll incur the ire of the counterman who will admonish you: “Cheezborger!  Double cheez!  That’s the best!”  I won’t advise ordering two double cheez.  They just aren’t very good.  Not only are the beef patties waifishly thin, they’re desiccated, maybe the driest burgers I’ve ever had.  Worse, they’re served on a very dry Kaiser roll.  You add your own pickles, onions, mustard and ketchup at a condiment bar.  Trust me, you’ll need a lot of ingredients to make the burger palatable.  The cheeps, made by Vitner’s, a Chicago staple, are very good.

Two double cheezborgers with cheeps, no fries; Coke, no Pepsi

Visitors to the Billy Goat Tavern are fully cognizant that they’re not going to be treated to a gourmet meal, but we still visit in droves. There’s a lot to be said about a restaurant with so much personality it’s become legendary.

Billy Goat Tavern
430 N. Michigan Ave at Lower Level
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 733-9132
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 14
COST: $
BEST BET: Cheeps, Coke

Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Al’s #1 Beef – Chicago, Illinois

Al’s Beef, home of some of Chicago’s most popular Italian beef sandwiches and more

Assume the position!  It’s been called the “Chicago Lean,” the “Italian Stance” and simply “The Stance.”   It’s  the time-tested, traditional art and science of eating Italian beef sandwiches, a Chicago specialty.  Trust me, it’s not the same as eating an ordinary sandwich.  If you don’t follow the process, you’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto your clothing.  Italian beef sandwiches are as messy as they are delicious. 

Some Italian beef sandwich shops don’t even offer seating.  Instead, they provide high, thin counters with or without stools where you’ll park yourself and proceed to assume the position.  I’ll let the professionals take over from here.  Courtesy of Italianbeef.com:

(1)  Put your sandwich on the counter and stand in front of it, with your chest about 12 inches from the edge of the counter
(2)  Lean forward so your chest is at a 45-degree angle to the counter (Note: if you’€™re wearing a tie, make sure it’s tucked inside your shirt)
(3)  Pick up your sandwich, resting your elbows on the counter
(4)  Angle the sandwich at a 45-degree angle to the counter, with the top end towards your mouth. (Imagine making a triangle: the counter is the bottom, your head and chest are one side, the sandwich is another)
(5) Eat and enjoy. For best results, keep the sandwich wrapped in the wax paper it most likely came in, unwrapping it as you go.

The Italian Stance: the only way to eat an Italian beef sandwich

There is no one single version of truth as to who invented the Italian beef sandwich.  One of the claimants to being its progenitor is Al’s #1 Beef which first opened in 1938.  According to the founding family, the Italian beef sandwich was born out of necessity.  Needing to stretch a small amount of food a long way for Italian weddings, meat was sliced as thinly as possible and inserted between bread with giardiniera.  Chicago Sun-Times dining critic Pat Bruno asserts that the Italian beef sandwich is the scion of the French Dip sandwich, introduced in Los Angeles in 1918.

Whether or not Al’s #1 Beef is the originator of the Italian beef sandwich, one thing’s for certain.  It’s probably the most famous restaurant in the Windy City to serve Italian beef sandwiches.  Al’s #1 Beef has also earned more accolades than any competitor.  In nationally televised one-on-one competition (Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” versus the Food Network’s “Food Feuds.“) against Mr. Beef, Al’s was selected as the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Moreover, Al’s has been featured as Esquire magazine’s picks for “best sandwich in America.”  In 2012, Al’s Italian beef sandwich was named the Midwest’s Best Sandwich according to the Travel Channel’s show, Best Sandwich in America.

Italian beef-sausage combo

Nationwide networks and publications, however, don’t speak for all Chicagoans.  If you think Chicago’s politics are a contentious topic, try debating which restaurant serves up the city’s best Italian Beef Sandwich.  Opinions don’t necessarily vary that widely as there are just a handful of Italian beef restaurants which have truly distinguished themselves over the years. It’s in the intensity of the debate with which you might be surprised. Each of the anointed restaurants has its vocal supporters and each has its detractors and some in either party won’t hesitate to explain (with fisticuffs if necessary) why their choice is the best and yours is not.

Perhaps in an attempt to achieve a greater consensus, Al’s #1 Beef has become the most ubiquitous Italian beef presence in the Chicago area and has started to expand nationwide.  In addition to thirteen Chicago area restaurants, current franchise locations can be found in Athens, Georgia; Scottsdale, Arizona; and soon in Las Vegas, Nevada and San Jose, California.  My most recent visit to Al’s was at the East Jackson Street location a few blocks from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile where, in addition to the long, thin counters, you can actually find seating.  Take a seat and eat, if you dare!

Hand-cut fries with blue cheese crumbles

Now for Gil’s verdict.  First, in the interest of full disclosure, my very favorite Italian beef sandwich in the universe is at Johnnie’s Beef.  None of the dozen or so other proprietors of Italian beef I’ve sampled in the Chicago area come close.  Al’s #1 Beef isn’t in the top five.  Here’s why.  I always ask for a “wet” sandwich, meaning it’s momentarily baptized in a spicy au jus style gravy.  No matter how substantial the bread, the moistness almost immediately begins to disintegrate the bread.  The bread used at Al’s is the wimpiest I’ve seen, soon resembling shards of bread swimming in a soup.  Al’s uses a much more assertive spice mix to create its au jus than other Italian beef restaurants.  It’s not my favorite.  Neither is the giardiniera which is a bit overwhelmed by a spicy red pepper kick.  The giardiniera tends to be mushy. 

My friend Bill Resnik, who had never experienced an Italian beef sandwich in Chicago, agreed with me that the Italian beef in Albuquerque’s own Pizza 9 is actually better than the Italian beef at Al’s #1.  That’s as much a validation of Pizza 9 as it is an indictment of Al’s.  If there is one saving grace about Al’s, it’s the hand-cut fries if you order them with blue cheese crumbles.

Al’s Beef
28 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 461-9292
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2012
# of VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Italian Beef-Sausage Combo, Fries with Blue Cheese Crumbles

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

David Burke’s Primehouse – Chicago, Illinois

David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago

By day, my friend James Sorenham was an architect of his business group’s data warehouse and business intelligence strategies.  By night and on weekends, James was a gentleman farmer tending to a small herd at his Broke Again ranch outside Portland, Oregon.  James took immense pride in raising prized beef cattle and kept his colleagues apprised of their progress through his weekly status reports.  Alas, his writing skills weren’t in the same zip code as his data management skills so when he reported that he had “personally inseminated sixteen cows,” he got teased mercilessly about his deviant bestial activities.

The fact that David Burke is the first chef to own his own bull means “personal insemination” of beef cattle can best be left to the bovine persuasion.  That leaves Chef Burke to follow his passions as one of America’s most pioneering chefs and self-proclaimed chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor.  The New York-based Burke is a practitioner of culinology, a revolutionary approach to food that blends technology and the culinary arts.  By experimenting with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, he has developed such culinary innovations as an edible bacon candle which can be lit, smelled and eaten.  His innovative style translates well to the arena of prime grade beef.

My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner about to take their seats in one of the capacious dining rooms at David Burke’s Primehouse

Founded in 2006, David Burke’s Primehouse has redefined the modern American steakhouse with its out-of-the-box approach to culinary creativity.  Located in the James Chicago Hotel on the corner of Rush and Ontario just west of the Magnificent Mile, the restaurant remains one of Chicago’s few remaining practitioners of dry-aging its beef.  The Primehouse dry-ages its beef in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room on the premises.  While USDA prime grade, hand-selected beef is the restaurant’s raison d’etre, the menu also showcases Chef Burke’s signature whimsical and imaginative dishes such as the Lollipop Tree, cheesecakes on lollipop sticks.

The Primehouse has two full-time butchers who butcher meats and fish on a daily basis Monday through Friday.  The back wall of the aging room is lined with Himalayan pink salt which performs two functions.  It purifies the air and slowly seasons the beef by extracting all the moisture out of the beef.  The Himalayan Salt Room (henceforth known as the aging room) is maintained at a constant state of between 34 and 40 degrees with sixty-percent humidity (a normal refrigerator is at about ninety-percent humidity).  All the beef is tagged with the date it was placed into the aging room and its weight at the time.

Cheese bread

Because of the room’s climatic conditions, the beef begins to break down very slowly, but doesn’t dehydrate all the way through.  Instead it becomes more tender.   While in the drying room, however, the beef’s exterior is desiccated and the cut of beef is firm and hard as might be expected from beef stored in a cold-temperature.  Ideally, the beef experiences about a twenty-percent loss of volume after 28 days and another fifteen-percent when it’s trimmed later.  At 75 days, the beef experiences a loss in volume of about 55 percent.  The Primehouse dry-ages ribeyes, sirloins, short-loins and chuck as well as prosciutto, kidneys, veal breads and brisket.

With “wet-aging,” the process used by many of Chicago’s best steak and chop houses, the beef is placed into a plastic bag and is then cryo-vacuumed (air is sucked out of it).  The beef basically “sits” there and flavor isn’t developed.  When you cut a wet-aged slab of beef into individual steaks, a puddle of blood ensues  With the dry-aging process used at the Primehouse, flavor is actually developed because of the catalytic intensification.  When a dry-aged cut of beef is prepared, what’s being cooked is the beauteous marbling and fat which breaks down the beef, making it tender and imparting a sweet, meaty flavor some have likened to an exotic foie gras like quality.

Bacon Sticks: black pepper, maple syrup

The beef at David Burke’s Primehouse is brought in once a week from Kentucky.  The aforementioned 2,500-pound bull, who just might have the best job in the world, performs his “service” three times a day six days a week.  The cows are high quality Black Angus prime.  The aging room can accommodate more approximately 12,000 pounds of beef valued as much as some homes.  Because of the restaurant’s bustling business, the aging room retains a month and a half of inventory at all times.  The minimum dry-aging period is 28 days and the maximum is 75 though one ribeye has remained in the aging room since April 4, 2006 when the restaurant first opened.  It’s starting weight was 10.10 pounds, but today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

When the beef is trimmed down, all the aged beef trim and fat is rendered down and tossed with roasted garlic, mustard powder and spices before being brushed on each steak as it goes out.  The staff calls it “beef love.”  It’s no wonder so many consider the Primehouse the very best steakhouse not only in Chicago, but in the entire country.   Prime dry-aged beef is only one of many things the restaurant does exceedingly well. Chicago Magazine named the Primehouse “Burker” one of the top ten burgers in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, the ten ounces of beef which form the beef patty are also dry aged.

Ahi Tuna: spicy chili bean sauce

The Primehouse has a relatively understated ambiance.  It’s contemporary and relaxing.  The cynosure at one wall is shelf work from which small blocks of Himalayan salt dangle.  Lighting is subdued, but sufficient for the visual appreciation of your meal.  The ambassador-like staff will take excellent care of you, explaining every detail of the aging process to the extent you want.  We asked a lot of questions and were amazed at our server’s encyclopedic knowledge. Our server happened to be from Santa Fe and took very good care of us.  Frankly, the only aspect of our meal that wasn’t absolutely first-rate was the soundtrack which seemed overly loud and disjointed for an otherwise classy milieu.

As you contemplate the menu,a cheesy Parmesan bread “popover” on a tin-can-like pan will be delivered to your table.  It’s a delicious difference from the de rigueur, ho-hum bread served at many steak restaurants.  The exterior of the Parmesan popover is crusty while the interior is light and chewy.  Best of all, it’s served with soft butter.  You’ll luxuriate in the popover’s wispy softness as you contemplate the “sticks and stones” on the menu.  Sticks are essentially items such as bacon, octopus and Kobe corn dogs served on a lollipop type stick.  Stones are hot Himalayan salt stones atop which you cook such starters as ahi tuna, steak and lamb loin. 

A “Caesarista” prepares to create a Caesar salad tableside.

One experience not to be missed is the tableside creation of a Caesar salad.  It’s one of the unique and personal experiences that once set apart the very best prime steak restaurants of a bygone era  A specially trained “Caesar barista” or “Caesarista” whisks the Parmesan-rich dressing by hand with egg yolks then tosses it with fresh Romaine lettuce.  Other classic ingredients include garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and of course, Parmesan.   Your Caesarista will ask whether or not you want anchovies on your salad.  Frankly, it’s the only way a Caesar salad should ever be made.

From among the “sticks,” the one which called loudest to me is the bacon, five sticks of thick pork-belly bacon.  This is a perfect marriage of savory and sweet, pairing a smoky, salty bacon laced with black pepper and a lacquer-like maple syrup coating.   This fun carnival-stick-food-like starter is further proof that bacon goes well with everything.  From the “stones” section of the menu, we had the Ahi tuna with a spicy chili bean sauce.  For what more could you ask: five pieces of uncooked tuna per order plus the treat of preparing it yourself on a thick Himalayan salt stone.  If you like your sashimi slightly seared, you’d better pay close attention to the cooking process.  Even at just slightly more than seared, the tuna is quite good.  The spicy chili bean sauce adds punch and saltiness.

Himalayan Salt Dry-Aged Reserve Ribeye Steak Aged 75 Days

On an October 8, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “Meat & Potatoes,” host Rahm Fama called the Primehouse’s 75-day dry-aged rib-eye “the best steak I’ve had in my 35 years!”  An endorsement from a highly respected chef and fellow carnivore (especially one from New Mexico like Fama) certainly carries a lot of weight with me.  While the 75-day dry aged rib-eye may be perpetually listed on the menu, it isn’t always available.  On the date of our visit, only one 75-day aged steak remained.  My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner insisted I have the privilege of consuming it.  Bill would order the 55-day aged ribeye and Paul the 40-day aged ribeye.

I must admit there’s more than a little bit of trepidation in ordering a steak the menu describes as having “intense beef flavor.” That sounds just a bit intimidating.  Just what is intense beef flavor and why haven’t I had it before?  Our server recommended the steak be prepared at medium-rare.  Two bottles of David Burke’s 207L (the designation for Burke’s prize bull) Prime Steak Sauce were brought to our table, but none of us could conceive of desecrating our steaks.  No sauce could possibly have improved on perfection.  The 75-day aged rib-eye was indeed sinfully rich, decadent and utterly beefy. The rib-eye was richly marbled and just as our server explained, the marbling intensified the aged flavor.  So did the “beef love.”  The steak was tender and moist with a pinkish hue, but not the bloody flavor of wet-aged beef.

55-Day Rib-eye

There was a discernible difference in flavor profile between the 75-day rib-eye and the 55-day aged rib-eye described on the menu as “deep, concentrated beef flavor.”  This was another absolutely outstanding steak, one named “best dry aged steak” by Chicago Magazine in 2008.  The 55-day aged rib eye had a nice fat and marbling content and indeed, a bold and concentrated flavor.  The 40-day aged ribeye, described as having “rich beef flavor” was similarly distinctive.  We were amazed at what a difference a few days makes!  Why all prime beef and chop houses don’t dry age their steaks for as long as David Burke’s Primehouse is a mystery.

There are seven side dishes available to have with your steak.  All are available for seven dollars a piece or three for nineteen dollars (as of September, 2012).  The Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style will never be mistaken for Kraft dinner.  It’s a grown-up mac n’ cheese made with a rigatoni noodle, heavy cream, fresh peas and rich cheeses.  Another superb side is the creamy spinach tinged with garlic.  Both the mac n’ cheese and the creamy spinach were very rich, perhaps too rich after having had such an indulgent steak.

Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara style

David Burke has lamented that the steakhouse experience often leaves guests so full, they don’t have room for desserts.  That’s one of the reasons so many of his dishes are intended to be shared.  You have got to save room for one of Burke’s fun and inventive desserts.  The Primehouse desserts, cheeses and coffee menu is unlike that of any restaurant not owned by David Burke.  As fun as it is to peruse, have your server explain the dessert in which you’re interested.  Desserts are not always as they appear.  The “carrot cake” which my friend Bill ordered was essentially a “deconstructed” and reinvented carrot cake.  The components–gingerbread dream rooibos cake, pineapple golden raisin jam, orange cheesecake, black walnut ice cream and candied carrots–aren’t what your mom’s carrot cake recipe calls for, but they make for an outstanding dessert.

The banana split sundae is also unlike any other banana split-sundae hybrid you’ve ever had.  It’s layers of flavor complexity and absolute decadent deliciousness, one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had.  Each component–salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans and roasted pineapple slices–would have made a wonderful dessert on its own, but the compilation was mouth-watering.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the next best thing on the menu to one of the fabulous dry-aged steaks.

Banana Split Sundae: salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans, roasted pineapple

David Burke’s Primehouse is a pioneering steakhouse in a city long renowned for its prime steakhouses.  It’s  a beef emporium for the new millennium with dry-aged prime beef unlike any other anywhere.

DAVID BURKE’S PRIMEHOUSE
616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 660-6000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: 75-Day Aged Ribeye, 55-Day Aged Ribeye, 35-Day Kansas City Strip, Banana Split Sundae, Carrot Cake, Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style

David Burke's Primehouse on Urbanspoon