Corned Beef Worth Mooning Over

Michael Nagrant / 12.20.06

There’s often an inverse proportion between the dinginess of a restaurant and the quality of the food. Moon’s Sandwich Shop, 16 S. Western, with its faded sign, rickety accordion style security bars and patchwork brickwork, confirms this rule.

Open in 1933, by Anthony Gambino Sr. (his grandson Tony III now owns and operates the fast casual Taco Fresco chain), the Western location was the flagship store that launched a franchise of five stores throughout Chicago. Seventy-three years later and now owned by Jimmy Radek, a former partner of Anthony Gambino Jr., this is the only Moon’s left, and architecturally speaking, it’s barely standing.

The interior is a patchwork of shabby neglected elegance, as if a stateroom from the Titanic were recovered from the bottom of the ocean and partially restored. The rich reddish wood wainscoted walls, the metallic deco strips, the red vinyl stools, and the stainless appliances provide a glimmer of the vibrant early history. In contrast, the Formica countertop is a French vanilla soft serve swirl of fading white wear spots and yellowish pallor and some ceiling tiles have been ripped out in favor of a plastic tarp in order to staunch a pesky leak. Down from the tarp, a pair of dead ceiling fans sporting identical missing fan blades droop like a pair of wooden amputees.

Despite the detritus, the atmosphere, like the strip of bright yellow paint above the wainscoting is radiant. Moon’s is the culinary equivalent to the African American barber shop. It’s a community touchstone, where the whole neighborhood seems to drop by for lunch and a bit of conversation. There’s an amiable but constant rumble from customers and cooks jawing at one another. A young guy sits down and works out a few bars of a recently composed rap on one of the countermen, while an older server in the back works a warbling falsetto, singing about “sunny days.” They’re both battling the corner TV, which wails like a petulant child, its volume cranked on high.

Line cooks, some wearing vintage soda jerk, boat-shaped paper hats, wield spatulas as if they were swords, hash browns are slung across the griddle, and white puffs of smoke rise from steam drawers.

Moon’s lean, moist and seasoned corned beef piled high in pink beefy pillars on airy rye, with a drizzle of mustard, crunchy lettuce, and toothsome pickles, may be the best corned beef sandwich in Chicago. Forget Manny’s and Eleven City Diner. At best, you’d have to travel to Skokie for pickled beef this good, and at $5.88 a sandwich, it would be tough to find it a better value.

Moon’s chili, at $2.39 a bowl has a richness and consistency reminiscent of a New Orleans-style red beans and rice without the spice. If you taste the house-made meatloaf, bundled in white bread and dripping in American cheese, you might not try anything else. Fortunately it’s only served on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, which gives you an opportunity to sample the sub $2 burgers, or griddle hot pancakes and smooth piping grits glistening in butter.

Moon’s, 16 S. Western, Phone: 312-226-5094.