I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Street (Food) Fight: Part 1, Beef Injection!

First things first, street food is usually served in shitholes (in fact, if you ever find yourself in a place that's not a shithole and claims to serve "authentic street food" count to 3 and hightail it out of there). This term can be misconstrued as negative when taken out of context. For the record, I love shitholes, especially when it's late and especially when I'm slightly under the influence, because they serve greasy hot food for cheap and they do it quickly. Shithole, in my personal dictionary, is a place that 1) specializes in one type of food, 2) is not considered "fine dining" by anyone, including the proprieters, and 3) is relatively small in size.
Al's Beef Regular with giardiniera
Now then, when it comes to italian beef people think first of Al's*, then they think of Portillo's* (and then they think of Mr. Beef, but I can't compare three places, it's too much). Both these places have drastically expanded their menus over the years to include hot dogs, tamales, chicken and for some godforsaken reason, salads (it's really getting out of control), but what they do best is beef.

Both restaurants bombastically claim to have the #1 beef sandwich (Al's even goes as far to put it on their sign). Well, as Silvester Stallone once said in his sci-fi action epic Judge Dredd, "I'll be the judge of that." And here's the decision: Al's is better.

The difference comes down to baptism. Al's submerges the ENTIRE sandwich in the jus, a technique they call "baptizing" (thanks to my roommate Michael for that fun fact), and it makes not only the beef but the bread a vehicle of flavor. When you bite into an Al's beef your mouth is overrun with hot juice (laugh now, now stop), spice and the thought that you're doing something wrong. As a bonus if you keep the wrapping on the sandwich while you eat a pool of jus will accumulate at the bottom making for either a digestivo of beefy liquid that nicely caps your meal or an outfit staining broth bomb that disgraces you in the eyes of your peers for the rest of the afternoon. The choice is yours.

Portillo's is good, don't get it twisted. But the bread is dry in comparison to Al's, and the beef was a bit stringy. 

As a consolation prize, Portillo's giardiniera is spicier and has a better, crispier texture to it than Al's, but it's the beef and the jus that make a sandwich great NOT it's toppings.

So, go to Al's, order the Regular Al, get the giardiniera, get a root beer and get out before the cops come.

*Just so we're clear, both Al's Beef and Portillo's are shitholes. Al's unabashedly embraces this image. Portillo's does not. It's River North location is a monstrous, Disneylandesque tribute to themed restaurants of old (equipped with memorabilia, animatronic figures, and inexplicable dixieland front porches in the restaurant!). Don't let this distract from the fact that they still serve, and are good at making, shithole food. 

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon
Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon

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