Big Max Attacks

Michael Nagrant / 09.05.06

big max

Max’s Ghetto Fries

Chicago is the land of the obese, the corporate home of McDonald’s, purveyor of deep dish pizza, slinger of fat Vienna franks, and yet we still cede our title of supreme imperial culinary hedonism to Quebec by not adopting poutine, a cholesterol bomb of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

The best is served at La Banquise in Montreal, a glowing orange temple of haute poutine. La Banquise slings the classic with gravy and cheese curds, but they also rock it out with approximately thirty other varieties including “B.O.M.” topped with bacon, onion and Merguez sausage, and “Elvis,” topped with steak, mushroom and green peppers. It should really be called the Philly. Everyone knows real Elvis poutine would be topped with fried pickles and peanut butter.

Since no one in Chicago serves poutine, I resigned myself to the fact the fact that after drunken benders, I’d have to settle for fajita burritos from Flash Taco or deep-fried Twinkie’s from Swank Frank.

Then I remembered the Max’s Famous Italian Beef sign I’d seen on Western Avenue last winter that said, “Home of the Ghetto Fries.” Could this be a substitute for my beloved poutine? The ghetto I call my stomach was about to find out.

Max’s is a West Rogers Park institution. Opened since 1957, it’s a classic beef and burger joint, a deep-fried South Beach or Atkins dieter’s nightmare. Unlike the original Al’s on Taylor or Johnny’s in Elmwood Park, which tend to run soup-nazi-like operations, (extra charge for giardiniera, no cheese for you), the folks at Max’s are fun. The parking lot is littered with a herd of rusty steel cattle sculptures, and when you walk inside, the interior walls are an all-encompassing mural of sky and the Chicago cityscape. In a local game of “Where’s Waldo?,” Max’s logo–a cow that looks like a Cubs bleacher bum clad in baseball cap and sunglasses–is littered throughout the acrylic renderings of the Smurfit Stone, Prudential and Aon Center buildings. Overhanging the door is a beat-up vintage metal sign for “Max’s drive-inn” advertising polishes for $.35 and beef for $.40. If only it were 1957.

While I believe those who besmirch their Chicago Dog with ketchup should endure water torture by being hung over the eye of the Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, I have no problem with cheese on Italian beef. The fact that Max offers cheesy beef and offers up its giardiniera–a mélange of red peppers, garlic and sport peppers in oil–in plastic tubs on the table for free, scores some points. While I prefer the nutmeg essence of Al’s beef, Max’s is tender, thin and moist, a very good beef.

I wasn’t here for beef though. For $2.89, I scored a dish of crisp, thick-cut fries topped with Merkt’s cheddar cheese, Italian beef gravy, onion slivers, sweet barbecue sauce and the aforementioned giardiniera. The fries, which two years ago sparked a debate about culinary political correctness and are named after a former white employee known as “ghetto girl,” are a great way to stave off a hangover–the viscosity of the cheese is enough to force any residual alcohol out of your stomach. The bbq sauce on its own would be cloying, but it balances the spice of the giardiniera, the tang of the onions and the richness of the cheddar. It’s not quite poutine, more like poutine methadone for this junkie, but it’ll do. Unfortunately, because Max’s is only open between 7am and 9pm on Friday nights, I now have to solve the question of where to spend those idle three hours after the 4am bars close and before Max’s opens.

Max’s Famous Italian Beef, 5754 North Western, (773)989-8200

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago in a slightly different form.