NOTE: Although AK Deli shuttered its doors in 2020, you can still have many of its wonderful sandwiches at AK Pizza.
“You’ll never be one of us,” my brother-in-law Chuck quipped in his best Baron von Trapp voice. He wasn’t talking about me being part of the family. He was talking about me being a Chicagoan. Chuck wasn’t being mean-spirited or condescending in any way. The only person not born in the Windy City whom he considers a true Chicagoan is da coach Mike Ditka. “He’s the embodiment of Chicago. It’s in his soul. It’s his attitude.” he explained. Michael Jordan? “Nah, his Royal Airness probably has never even had a real Italian beef sandwich.” Oprah? “Too Hollywood. Not a real person.” Barack Obama? (Surely a former President for whom Chuck voted twice would have to be given a pass). “Politicians are what make Chicago the “Windy City,” he joked. “To be a Chicagoan, you have to have been born here, not transplanted here in your 20s,” Chuck qualified. He isn’t alone in his thinking. A lot of people in the Windy City feel that way and they’re not xenophobic in the least.
Throughout Chicago the walls at many small cafes, diners and hot dog stands are festooned with a poster entitled “You know you’re from Chicago when…” This colorful, fact-filled poster was created by Vienna Beef, the true sausage king of Chicago (with apologies to Abe Froman, the mythical sovereign of tubed meat immortalized in the 1986 classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)” Among other things, the poster will tell you that you’re from Chicago if…”you know what the phone number is for Empire Carpet (it’s 588-2300, by the way),” “you commute 20-feet above street level,” “you have two favorite football teams—the Bears and anyone who beats the Packers,” and of course, “you know you’re from Chicago when you insist on a Vienna Beef hot dog with all seven condiments” (more on this later).
Vienna Beef’s famous poster festoons one wall at AK Deli, the Chicago-style sandwich shop which opened its doors shortly after Labor Day in 2017. The Deli is named for Allan and Kameko, the friendly husband-and-wife couple who own what has already become one of my favorite sandwich destinations in Albuquerque (four visits in two weeks). Allan is originally from the south side of Chicago which legendary troubadour Jim Croce described as “the baddest part of town,” while Kameko is from Aurora. AK Deli is located in a nondescript shopping center on Wyoming Blvd just north of Comanche. It’s next door to Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant. Sadly it isn’t nearly as capacious as Ortega’s. In fact, it’s downright Lilliputian. Within feet of its entrance, you run into the counter where you place your order. There’s a menu on one wall and a few chairs where you can sit while you wait for your order. There’s not much else.
Unlike two classic Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits which immortalized Chicago, there aren’t many telltale signs that AK Deli is destined to be a second home for Chicago transplants living in the Duke City (and for those of us who love the City of Big Shoulders). No, you won’t hear the exaggerated Chicago accent embodied by George Wendt playing Bill Swerski on the Saturday Night Live “Super Fans” skit. Nor will you hear anything approximating “cheeburger, cheep and Pepsi” as you might at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern (and in another classic SNL skit). What you will find is amiable people who are happy to see you…and contrary to stereotypes, there are very nice people in Chicago. They’re happy to answer your questions on their little restaurant and big menu.
That menu is very similar to what you’d see at restaurants and cafes throughout Chicago where the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar is blurred because real Chicagoans tend to love the same foods. Three breakfast sandwiches–available in your choice of bread: bagel, English muffin or toast–as well as bagel and cream cheese will open your eyes in the morning, but Chicagoans (including wannabe-Chicagoans like me) will gravitate toward the “Chicago Favorites” menu. That’s where you find Chicago hotdogs, Italian beef, Italian combo (sausage and beef) and the ribeye steak sandwich. Other sandwich choices include pastrami, corned beef, fried bologna and more.
You can have your sandwich dressed with such condiments as mustard, spicy mustard, mayo, A1 steak sauce and BBQ sauce. Available cheeses include Cheddar, Havarti, Provolone and Swiss. Sandwiches can be constructed on a canvas of rye bread, sourdough, kaiser roll, English muffin or bagel. Extras include whole pickles and chips–Lay’s or Jay’s. The latter is a 90-year old Chicago institution. Of course, you know you’re from Chicago if you grew up eating Jay’s potato chips. My Kim got me hooked on Jay’s, especially the open pit BBQ chips with their hint of heat. AK Deli offers these gems and will soon be carrying regular potato chips, too.
If you know only one thing about eating a hot dog in Chicago, it’s probably the hard and fast rule: absolutely, under penalty of ridicule or torture, no ketchup!!! Even Dirty Harry, who’s not even from Chicago, will tell you (in the movie Sudden Impact) in his inimitable manner: “Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hot dog.” Though he didn’t declare a presidential fiat, Barack Obama (sounding very much like a real Chicagoan) chimed in: “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.” The most definitive anti-ketchup declaration, however, came from Chicago’s legendary columnist Mike Royko: “No, I won’t condemn anyone for putting ketchup on a hot dog. This is the land of the free. And if someone wants to put ketchup on a hot dog and actually eat the awful thing, that is their right. It is also their right to put mayo or chocolate syrup or toenail clippings or cat hair on a hot dog. Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.”
6 November 2018: There is absolutely no ketchup in a Chicago Hotdog, whom Chicagoans lovingly tease is “dragged through the garden” because of the many accoutrements with which it is constructed: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash or two of celery salt on a poppy seed bun (preferably from Rosen’s). Then there’s the Vienna Beef hot dog in a natural casing with its first-bite-snap. By the way, you should never say “Chicago style hot dog” because “style” implies Chicago’s hot dogs are a variation of an original. No self-respecting Chicagoan can accept that. AK’s rendition of the Chicago Hotdog is exemplary (my Kim called it “spectacular.”). It will trigger memories of your very first Chicago Hotdog. This is what most transplanted Chicagoans will order their first visit to AK Deli.
6 November 2018: 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 worshiping 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. 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. Kameko’s favorite Italian beef sandwich, by the way, comes from Portillo’s.
18 September 2017: 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. My favorite variation is an Italian combo which pairs Italian sausage with the Italian beef. AK Deli’s rendition is very good though I regret not having had it served “wet” (dipped). The gravy is a wonderful counterbalance to the heat of the hot giardiniera. During her inaugural visit with me on September 30th, my Kim had an Italian Beef sans everything–and she had it wet. “It’s just like home,” she declared.
20 September 2017: Midwesterners have long claimed fried bologna sandwiches as their own, but if you’re from Northern New Mexico (particularly if you lived on or near an Indian pueblo), you’ve probably consumed dozens of fried bologna sandwiches in your day. In that regard, having a fried bologna sandwich from AK Deli was for me like going home. Another way in which it was akin to going home is that AK Deli prepares sandwiches the same way we do at home. That means they’re not chintzy in their portions. With three thick slices of bologna fried just the way I like it, mustard and onions on lightly toasted sourdough, this is a sandwich’s sandwich. Comedian Mitch Hedberg calls bologna “a deli meat for people with eyes.” It’s also for people with great taste who love deli meats that taste great!
30 September 2017: In two of my first four visits, my choice has been a pastrami sandwich–a regular-sized sandwich my first visit and an “AK Max” sandwich on my second. Both times the pastrami has been served on a canvas of light rye with mustard–the way Chicagoans like pastrami. The pastrami served at AK Deli is quite a bit thicker than the fabulous pastrami served at California Pastrami. While Joe Rodriguez slices his pastrami into thin shards, at AK Deli the pastrami is sliced into thick ribbons. Aside from the distinctive brine flavor that characterizes great pastrami, this pastrami has a peppery influence–large flecks of pepper that compete with the mustard as the most assertive element of the sandwich. It reminded me very much of the wonderful pastrami sandwiches shared with Aunt Emily at Siegelman’s Deli in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb.
21 September 2017: Determined to have something other than a pastrami sandwich or Italian combo, I asked Kameko what her favorite sandwich is. Without hesitation she recommended the Ribeye Steak Sandwich on a kaiser roll with A1 sauce, onions, tomato and lettuce. That’s just how Allan prepared it for me and I loved every single bite. Ribeye is tender, juicy and full-flavored, with nice marbling throughout. It loses none of those qualities the way it’s prepared at AK Deli. This is a terrific sandwich! By the way, you should always order the combo which includes chips (Jay’s, of course) and a soda.
13 January 2018: Located in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, Maxwell Street is a mile-long venue beloved by Windy City denizens because of its diversity of commerce and cuisine. A legendary sandwich was invented on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets some seventy years ago. That sandwich is almost as famous as the street in which it was born. In the Duke City you can find the Maxwell Street Polish Sausage sandwich only at the AK Deli. Take a bite and you might swear you’re strolling along the Maxwell Street market. It’s every bit as good as you’ll find in Chicago. The canvas for this paragon of deliciousness is a soft celery seed bun in which is nestled a thick, well-seasoned beef and pork sausage with a smear of mustard, a tangle of grilled Spanish white onions and a couple of sport peppers. The aroma and flavor of those sweet onions is so addictive, you could make a meal of just those alliaceous beauties, but you wouldn’t want to. This is a sandwich that’s great because of the sum of its terrific ingredients. This is sandwich greatness!
15 October 2019: Back when Saturday Night Live was funny, one of the most popular skits featured three hirsute heavyweights sporting dark sunglasses and a thickly accented Chicago swagger that bespoke of their obsession with the Chicago Bears, especially “da coach.” Da coach, of course, was Bears legend “Iron” Mike Ditka, the embodiment of the Windy City despite being from Western Pennsylvania. The “Super Fans” as the trio came to be known didn’t just love Ditka; they wanted to be Ditka, their masculine ideal. In between gorging on large portions of red meat and fatty snacks, they predicted the score of upcoming Bears games, usually lopsided slaughters.
The Super Fans would have loved AK Deli’s Ditka Dog a spicy monster (of the midway?) Polish sausage topping the scales at a full third-pound topped with mustard, grilled onions and sport peppers on celery seed buns. It’s a winner, just like Da Coach. Thick ribbons of sweet, translucent onions are the perfect foil for the garlicky, smoky Polish sausage, a porcine log that extends beyond its bready boundaries. Just like Da Coach, the sport peppers are fiery with a Scoville heat unit equivalent as much as nine times hotter than a jalapeno. Oprah couldn’t handle one. Neither could Jordan, but Da Coach could.
You may have noticed that AK Deli is the 1000th review published on Gil’s Thrilling… While achieving a millennial occasion of any sort is one worthy of celebration with friends and family, the truth is I often dine alone. I wanted to be alone on this momentous occasion to take pause to reflect on the many wonderful friends this blog has brought into my life. My journey to 1000 reviews has been made special because it’s been shared–on at least one meal–by great friends such as Andrea Lin, Barbara Chase, Bill Resnik, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, Bruce and Grayce Schor, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver, Bruce Terzes, Bryan Byun, Captain Escalante Tuttle, Carrie Seidman, Dave Hurayt, Dazzling Deanell, Delightful Darren, Elaine Rising, Esther Ferguson, Franziska Moore, Dennis Gromelski, Hannah Walraven, Henry Gabaldon, Howie Kaibel, Huu Vu, Jim Millington and The Child Bride, Jim and Sylvia Westmoreland, John Colangelo, John and Kay Lucas, John and Zee Baldwin, Joe Vaughn, Karen Baehr, Professor Larry McGoldrick, Mary Ann Spencer, Mike Muller, Nader Khalil, Nikko Harada, Paul Lilly, Ruben Hendrickson, Ryan “Break the Chain” and Kimber Scott, Schuyler, Scott McMillan, Shawn Riley, Tom and Elyn Hamilton, Tuan Bui and others whose names may not appear here, but which are forever impressed in my heart. Thank you for accompanying me on this cavalcade of calories.
3615B Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 February 2020
# OF VISITS: 10
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pastrami Sandwich, Chicago Hot Dog, Italian Combo Sandwich, Ribeye Steak Sandwich, Jay’s Open Pit BBQ Chips, Fried Bologna Sandwich, Maxwell Street Polish Sausage Sandwich, The Ditka