Where’s the Corned Beef?

Michael Nagrant / 07.14.11

Forget Mayor Daley. Gino Gambarota is the dude who holds the real power in Chicago.

As the custodian of corned beef at Manny’s Cafeteria, he’s the only guy who can keep those celebrated pink ribbons of garlicky perfumed brisket out of Da Mare’s hands.

Red light camera violation or property tax increase for Gambarota? NO MEAT FOR YOU, MAYOR! And, more importantly, by some weird transitive property, i.e. I love Manny’s corned beef, live in Daley’s city and don’t quite have the corned beef clout of Richard M., well, Gambarota can definitely keep it from me.

Considering that Gambarota also wields a sharp, two-pronged fork like the trident of Neptune, holds court over two madly rotating glinting Berkel deli slicers that could reduce a man’s errant hand to pastrami in seconds flat, and slings a wit sharper than a low-blood sugar Rosie O’Donnell, he’s downright terrifying.

Of course, that’s absurd. For Gambarota, with his twinkling eyes and salt and pepper dappled walrus-worthy mustache might be the nicest counterman in the world.

But, just in case, I’m always on my toes around the guy. I bark my order with purpose and perfect elocution so as not to annoy him. I stand at military attention waiting for him to fling the ceramic plate like a wicked baseball closer, side-arm with a touch of backspin, so it lands on, but never cascades over, the lip of the glass countertop. For if he misjudged, and he never would, to drop such precious cargo would definitely be my fault.

This time I’ve shot the gauntlet of Gino, can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray in hand, fluffy potato pancake intact, with more purpose than ever before. For, despite the migration of Jewish folks from Maxwell Street to Dempster Avenue and beyond, the Chicago Journal reading area retains some of the greatest corned beef, save Kaufmann’s hand-cut deckle (the fatty point of a brisket), this side of Manhattan. And I’ve been asked to crown the best.

I start at Manny’s because if you ask 10 people in Chicago, nine of them will tell you it’s the best. In fact, on my most recent visit, it seemed as if all nine of those people were in line and whispering that fact to all the newbies flashing a skeptical eye at the vanilla swirl formica, laminate plastic trays and film-noirish steam rising from hissing short rib and spaghetti laden hotel pans.

Of course, that other guy was in line too, that nattering nabob of negativism: me. To those other nine folks: I hate to splash Russian dressing on the whole affair, but you’re wrong. Manny’s is at least the third best corned beef in Chicago.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Manny’s, and were I to be elected leader of the free world, like Obama, I too would celebrate here with a slice of cherry pie, natch.

When my son was eight months old and he’d moved beyond mother’s milk, I did what any responsible Chicago father would do, as I’m sure originating owner Manny Raskin likely did for his son Ken, who in turn did for his boys Matt and Danny: I made sure one of the first pieces of solid food to grace his lips was from Manny’s (Gino didn’t disappoint. He took one look at my son and said, “What a cute boy. Thank God he takes after your wife.”)

What my son ate was not corned beef, however. For, as the leanest around, Manny’s version yields its precious few bits of fat to the heat of constantly running angry slicers and exhibits a touch of dryness. That’s nothing that can’t be cured with a dollop of brown mustard and a flick of horseradish from the tableside tubs, but compared to other local options, it is relative health food, the Calista Flockhart of Near West Side corned beef. Thus, my son scored a peppery moist side of pastrami instead, of which I’m positive Manny’s is best.

But, I am not here to speak of pastrami and so I moved on to Moon’s, opened in 1933. Like Manny’s, it is a place that lacks no character(s).

Original owner Anthony Gambino allegedly was a moonshiner during prohibition, hence its name. With its rich wainscoted walls and metal accents, Moon’s dining area looks like a state room on an Art Deco-era cruise ship. It is the culinary analog of the African-American barber shop, where West Side gentleman gather around the counter, jawing at one another, owner Jimmy Radek, or at the television flickering over the head of Moon’s grill man Henry James. No, it’s not that Henry James. But this H.J. is so ever-present that when he passes on he will no doubt haunt this grill like the apparitions in The Turn of the Screw.

The men come here though not for a shave, but a cut of corned beef, the hunks of which serve as meaty pillars upholding a roof of crispy iceberg lettuce, crunchy pickle chips and yellow mustard slathered across two planks of seeded rye. As with the defunct McDLT, the cool side stays cool, the hot side hot, and by virtue of the strands of fat running through it, this corned beef trumps Manny’s offering.

While Moon’s corned beef is Jack Black pudgy to Manny’s svelte Flockhart, Eleven City Diner’s version is the Fat Albert of brined beef, its ruddy façade sporting a blizzard of snowy swirls that recalls the cross-section of a pink-marble quarry. Almost important as fat in the superior corned beef formula is serving temperature, and while Moon’s has a nice schvitz going, Eleven City’s moist batch feels like a soothing hot towel treatment for your tongue.

And, if you still dig a side of attitude with your sandwich, though he’s only in his late thirties, Eleven City owner Brad Rubin kvetches like a Palm Springs retiree with a twitchy lumbago whose stock portfolio just tanked. Though his shtick rankles the occasional diner or employee, Rubin’s vigilance ensures a level of detail, say overflowing milkshakes served alongside mixing tins holding leftover ice cream, that generally delights.In the end, such focus ensures that the corned beef here is the best, and so what’s that Rubin guy worried about anyway?

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal in a different form.