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
But the network moved on, searched its foodie soul and believed its audience wanted less souvlaki and more “Survivor.” One such venture was a merging of “The Bachelor” and “Iron Chef,” a winner-take-all program called “The Next Food Network Star.” In its second season, the show birthed Guy Fieri. But a few seasons later, something changed. Jeff Mauro, an Italian kid from Chicago who grew up on saah-sidge pizza and da Bears, won the show.
“I mean, obviously I loved it. It changed my life,” Mauro said about appearing on the Food Network show, “but nothing prepares you for the unnatural experience of being sequestered with 14 other people and not [being] allowed to read books, watch TV or do anything. It would be much easier to open 10 restaurants than do that again.”
Earlier this month, the Elmwood Park native opened the doors to his first restaurant, Pork & Mindy’s in Bucktown. At first blush, you might think the former actor and wisecracking comedian was cut from the same cheesecloth as Fieri. But the blue-collar “Sandwich King” of Chicago wasn’t an act for TV audiences. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that Mauro is the real deal. He worked at a butcher shop when he was 15 and followed that up by opening Prime Time Deli & Catering in Westmont, Ill., with his cousin. Later, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and graduated as his class’s valedictorian. He wasn’t running a French prix-fixe empire, but he put in his time.
I didn’t know all of this before I ate at Pork & Mindy’s. I mostly saw the cutely named sandwiches and bottled barbecue sauces ready for primetime. But when I visited, I saw a sweating Mauro in his pink camo bandanna, dressing three sandwiches at the same time. Dude was working the line.
With seven “sangwiches” to choose from at Pork & Mindy’s, I know you probably won’t be able to try them all—especially not in one sitting—which is why I did it for you. After spending a whopping $58 on the spread (before tax and tip), I sank my teeth into every sandwich on offer. They weren’t all perfect, but they were very good. Below, you’ll find a comprehensive ranking of all seven, from favorite to least favorite, so you can preserve your bankroll for other things (like Mauro’s Holy Cannoli dessert shake).
1. Chicken Salad Roll ($8): I love pork like pigs love mud. I only order un-fried chicken when I’m forced to. If you had told me my favorite sandwich at a pork-centric emporium would be a chicken salad roll, I would have called you the worst fortune-teller since those Wall Streeters who built their companies on subprime mortgages. Chicken salad conjures up images of Miracle Whip-laden frigid poultry ruined by too much yellow curry powder and stuffed between soggy white bread. But Mauro starts with a buttered split-top bun and overstuffs it with brined, silky chicken slivers gently kissed with mulberry wood smoke. The chicken is sprinkled with a crunchy cabal of celery and candied pecans and finished with a piquant giardiniera. It’s like a menage a trois between a lobster roll, Italian beef and Mom’s chicken salad. “My mom got some recipe from I don’t know where, some old magazine like Good Housekeeping, and she made a chicken salad with cranberry and celery. My take here is a spin on that,” Mauro said.
2. Chuck ($9, pictured above): As I write this, the thermometer strikes 1 degree. In these frigid times, Mauro’s Chuck is a big, comforting blanket of warmth. Tender shards of chuck roast walloped with hickory and a river of horseradish cheddar are foiled by tangy, spicy pickles and frizzled pickled onions. The pillowy brioche roll from Turano Baking Co. glistens with butter and is dusted with a garlic, poppy and sesame “everything” crust. Its lineage is part Italian beef, part barbecue joint and part Arby’s. “In high school, I liked Arby’s. I’d team up with a buddy and we’d go for the five-for-five [five sandwiches for $5 special],” Mauro said. “Of course, I was smart, so I’d always take a skinny friend for the five-for-five. The Chuck is my homage to the Arby’s Beef ‘n Cheddar.”
3. Bao to the Pork ($8): This sandwich is essentially New York’s Momofuku pork bun jacked up on human growth hormones with a chaser of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s a catcher’s mitt-sized version of a standard dumpling in sandwich form. Stuffed inside a soft custom bao bun from Highland Baking Co. in Northbrook, Ill., sweet plum barbecue sauce, tangy pickled daikon and carrot and cooling cucumber elevate the rich, smoke-smacked pulled pork shoulder. My only critique is that there weren’t any crispy burnt ends mixed in with the pork, as shown on the website. Mauro said it’s the No. 1 selling sandwich so far and promised more burnt ends in the future.
4. Pig Candy BLT ($8): I love pig. I love candy. Put them together and you get pig candy, aka dessert jerky or slow-smoked bacon dusted with brown sugar that turns into crackling, edible stained glass so good, you kind of want to throw away the mayo-slathered bun, Roma tomatoes and butter lettuce and go to town on the bacon, which is exactly what I did after a few bites (I had six other sandwiches to try, in my defense).
5. Chicken & French Toast ($8): Originally, this menu item was supposed to be a chicken-and-waffle sandwich, but Mauro found that waffle-pressing his bread took too much time during testing. He settled instead for stuffing that mulberry-smoked chicken into a cinnamon- and maple bourbon-spiked French toast roll. The sweet and savory flavors and bursts of sour green apple slaw are catchy on the palate.
6. Smoked Mozzarella ($8): “I wanted to do a vegetarian sandwich that wasn’t an afterthought, something substantial,” Mauro said. “I tried some smoked mozzarella on the market, but it was too overpowering, so we rubbed it in barbecue spice.” Any caprese salad is the sum of its parts, and while the sandwich’s balsamic glaze offers a satisfying punch and the creamy circles of mozzarella have a nice bite, the Roma tomatoes were a bit flavorless. Most of the breads Mauro uses are top-notch, but this focaccia-style roll was too soft. I craved a flaky, crisp, baguette-style exterior.
7. Lamb ($9): For this sandwich, Mauro uses a hickory-smoked, hand-pulled leg of lamb from Taylor Street’s Nea-Agora Packing Co. It’s his take on a gyro, but instead of questionable mystery meat, you get luscious hunks of real lamb, dolloped with creamy tzatziki and a salad of diced tomato and pickled banana peppers. The essence of a great gyro is that garlicky onion fire that threatens the life of vampires everywhere. This meat only had a whiff of that and, like the smoked mozzarella sandwich, could have used a crispy baguette or fresh pita rather than the focaccia roll.
Now open: Pork & Mindy’s
1623 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-799-8759
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.