Al's Beef - a greasy, gooey wonderful Chicago tradition you shouldn't miss
CHICAGO - It's great going to a city and trying out high-end restaurants. A perk of this terrific job of mine, for sure.
But sometimes a travel editor - or you or anyone else - doesn't feel like a white tablecloth and French wine. Sometimes we want something down and dirty, like a pulled pork sandwich or a great burger or a chili dog.
Luckily, there's no shortage of such spots in Chicago. I had intended on checking out the Billy Goat Tavern downtown, a joint made famous (and, yes, I'm dating myself here) by John Belushi and the Saturday Night Live gang with the skit about the diner where the cooks yell "Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger" and "no fries, chips" and "no Pepsi, Coke!." But, sadly, I only passed by in a rush one day and thus will have to save that experience.
Likewise, I didn't get to Hot Doug's, a spot known for legendary hot dogs. Or to any deep dish pizza joints, partly because I've had Chicago deep dish pizza before and you can get it in many parts of the world.
Instead, for my decadent load of lunch grease I opted for Al's Beef on Jackson Blvd. in downtown Chicago, where they serve one of the city's best Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches.
You line up at a counter and get a choice of several sandwiches. You can get chipotle chicken or even a sausage, but the whole point of visiting Al's is to try the Italian beef; something you don't see in New York or Seattle to my knowledge (but the website says they have one in Scottsdale, Ariz. and also in Athens, Georgia, that they're heading to San Jose and to Las Vegas). So that's what I did.
I elbowed my past the throngs of DePaul University students (the campus is next door) and stood at the front, finally figuring things out. I got the medium Al sandwich for $5.99 and got it with a mix of mild and hot (quite hot!) peppers, plus provolone cheese. They dipped it in some sort of gravy/au jus as well. I also ordered the cheddar fries.
The sandwich was quite good; very thin slices of seasoned/spiced beef and lots of peppers on a soft, white bun. It was a greasy, gooey, oozy, wonderful mess of a sandwich, I must say. They have regular tables upstairs but I opted for the standup, communal tables off to one side of the joint for a more authentic experience.
It was good at noon, but I think that after a night of clubbing or, God forbid, drinking, it would be even better.
It's a huge mess, so take eight or twelve or seventeen napkins with you when you go to your table. I quite liked the sandwich; very flavourful and messy and fun with good peppers. The cheddar fries? Maybe decent if you're the sort of person who likes those hideous ballpark nachos, but I'd rather have had them naked and unadorned.
It's hard to stay clean with a sandwich like this, and we travel writers hate giving our bosses a bill for dry-cleaning. So I followed the instructions posted on the wall, where there's a local guy with a big gut shown leaning over a table and wolfing down an Al's sandwich. The instructions, as I recall, say to place your elbows directly on the table and to position your feet some 2.5 feet behind the table for maximum leaning position.
Great stuff, and a good sandwich at a Chicago institution. Even if you're going to just split one, it's a definitive Chicago experience.
I went to the one at 28 E. Jackson Blvd. in downtown Chicago, but they have them spread all over town.
www.alsbeef.com. 28 E. Jackson Blvd. 312-461-9292