“The veal Parmesan hero from Rocco’s Pizzeria up the block from my parents’ house. My parents live five minutes from LaGuardia, and when I get picked up from the airport, there’s always one sitting on my mom’s stove. If it’s not there, my lazy ass has to walk up the block to get one.” Advertisements
What happens when a whole bunch of people who worked at Publican Quality Meats, and also Zingerman’s, the famed Ann Arbor deli, open their own concern? They create something that is somehow twice is as good as PQM.
Deli food, like sex and barbecue, is very personal. Within minutes of posting a picture of the Uncle Rube Reuben ($13 or $22 “overstuffed”) from Steingold’s, a new deli and cafe in North Center, on Twitter, people harrumphed, “Where’s the beef?”
“It’s the eye of the tiger. It’s the thrill of the fight …” I’m at Andorka’s Sandwich Shop, a cozy neighborhood joint tucked into the bottom of an old red brick building in Pilsen, and I can’t stop humming that legendary Survivor track from the “Rocky” movies.
The thing people often forget about Emeril “Bam” Lagasse and Mario “Gwyneth Paltrow homie” Batali is that they were real chefs before they before they bammed and orange Croc-ed their way to celebrated caricatures. Even on TV, they were killer cooks. Batali made pasta with eggs and flour like an Italian nonna. Emeril mixed his signature spice essence live instead of pouring it from a plastic supermarket shaker. These were the days when they really cooked on the Food Network
They don’t do diners these days, at least not like they used to. No one really opens that Edward Hopper-esque “Nighthawks” ideal, the late-night boutique trimmed with more chrome than something off the Ford assembly line in the 1950s and fueled by bottomless cups of sludgy coffee and two-egg specials.
It’s not often I give great thanks to corporate America or the Chicago bureaucracy. But on this occasion—with a stomach full of the best Puerto Rican food I’ve had in Chicago in a while—a salute is in order. For without corporate America, Cely Rodriguez (a former paralegal) and Moraima Fuentes (a former counselor for a nonprofit), friends, dreamers and purveyors of the great Puerto Rican eats of which I speak, might not have opened their excellent new Pilsen restaurant The Jibarito Stop. “We used to sit around and talk about how there has to be more to life than doing the 9-to-5 thing,” Fuentes said. “We were tired. We wanted to be passionate, to create something and make a contribution to society and fill a need.”
I got a little cranky when I first walked into Wyler Road, a new Logan Square sandwich emporium. It was my mental decor and ambience checklist that was ticking me off: chalkboard menus, reclaimed wood backbar, industrial light fixtures made out of electrical conduit, aquamarine-colored barstools and white medicine cabinets that looked like they were ordered from a hospital supply catalog. I’m so over reclaimed wood decor. The next time I hope to see worn timber is when I’m really old and start touring Midwestern barns on long RV trips. Plumbing and conduit decorative fixtures have been tired since the 100th Chipotle opened. Chalkboard menus should only be used if you’re a turn-of-the-century-founded Parisian bistro.
Manny’s corned beef is just not that good. And listen, I love Manny’s Deli. I appreciate that the Raskin family has kept the venerable joint going, that’s they’ve provided a feeding/meeting trough for presidents and aldermen. Knife- and plate-flipping counterman Gino Gambarota is one of greatest restaurant personalities we have, the short ribs are heaven and they stock Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. But their legendary machine-sliced corned beef is often dry. What I really go to Manny’s for is the pastrami and the nostalgia.
How many civil engineers does it take to build a great Vietnamese sandwich? Judging by the excellent banh mi served at Lotus Cafe in University Village, the answer is at least one.