Sandwich of the Week: Windy City style

I long ago said my piece about cheesesteaks. This thing is clearly Chitown’s answer to that sandwich, only, as you’ll see, there’s more to it than that. But there’s a baseball game going on so let’s cut the nonsense and get at it.

The sandwich: “The Regular Al” from Al’s Beef, several locations in Chicago.

The construction: Thinly sliced, Italian-seasoned beef on a soft Italian hero roll with giardiniera — a spicy pepper relish — provolone and sweet peppers, all dipped in the gravy in which the beef was stewing. Marinara was listed on the menu board and I ordered one “with everything” because I didn’t know how else to play it, but if I got red sauce on mine it wasn’t enough to notice.

Important background information: I can’t figure out why Chicago has such tall buildings. Manhattan makes perfect sense — it couldn’t spread out anymore, so it went up. In Chicago, you walk past these huge skyscrapers, and then like right down the block there’s adequate parking and restaurants with drive-thru windows and gas stations. What’s that about? Based on the map and its proximity to our hotel, Al’s Beef should have been a hole in the wall in a row of stores. But it stood alone, with a parking lot and some outdoor tables and a drive-thru. Right in the middle of a city with all these massive, massive buildings.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m for it. If I had my druthers, I’d replace my tiny house with a 110-story superstructure in the middle of suburban Westchester just for the sake of awesomeism. But often building codes and market forces prevent people from doing stuff like that, and it seems weird to just keep going skyward when there’s ample parking about and all. I don’t know. I still have a lot to learn about Chicago. One sandwich at a time.

What it looks like:

How it tastes: Good. Spicy. Beefy. Like oregano.

It’s definitely an improvement on the regularly Philadelphia cheesesteak. I need to make that much clear. The seasoning of the beef might be a little heavy on the oregano, even, but it’s tasty nonetheless, and there’s way more going on here than just cheese and meat. Not that there’s anything wrong with cheese and meat but those are lilies appropriate for gilding. Actually to be perfectly honest, the cheese kind of got lost in the mix. But whatever, the rest of the mix was good enough to make up for the lack of cheese flavor. Unlike Philly’s offering, where the cheese flavor is the only flavor.

The giardiniera is great — a nice spicy peppery kick to go with the sweetness from the roasted peppers. And dipping the whole thing in the gravy worked well to keep the whole thing juicy. I was concerned that it would make the bread soggy and the sandwich mushy and hard to handle, but it withstood the pressure somehow. Just a wet-tish sandwich is all. And a good one.

But I’ll say it was lacking a certain depth of flavor I wanted to put the thing over the top into true sandwich magnificence. I think “spicy oregano bomb” is a fine treat, it’s just not something I’m nominating to the sandwich Hall of Fame anytime soon. I added a little ketchup, which sweetened the affair and helped a bit, but it was not enough to make anything explode with awesomeness in my mouth like previous sandwiches I have loved.

I will add, though, that for a sandwich that appears so unhealthy, I found the Regular Al surprisingly digestible. Cerrone and I walked the mile back to our hotel after eating, and I didn’t at all endure the greasy feeling I normally expect after eating a giant beefy sandwich. So good for you, Al. I think that signifies quality ingredients. Or maybe I’ve just developed an iron stomach.

What it’s worth: I can’t remember exactly what I paid for the Regular Al, which is as good a way as any to know it was real inexpensive. Like $6 maybe? Plus we walked about a mile there and back, like I said, but that seemed as good a way as any to explore the city and wasn’t much of an investment. So it was absolutely worth that, and I’d probably recommend checking it out if you’re in Chicago. Actually, if you asked me for advice — and I hope you might on these matters — I’d tell you to get an Italian beef sandwich from Al’s instead of bothering with the whole deep-dish pizza and the hours of investment that go into it.

Oh because that’s the other thing! We walked right up to the counter and ordered at Al’s, even though it’s supposedly over 70 years old, famous, and a bunch of magazines say it serves one of the best sandwiches in America. It is a terrifying indictment of humanity that the line wraps around the block at Pat’s King of Steaks in Philly, where they treat you like crap and serve you overpriced Steak-Um with Cheez Whiz, and there was no wait at all at Al’s.

The rating: 84 out of 100. A very good, but not exceptional sandwich. At times I thought it might be more, at times I thought it might be less, but it was definitely an above average sandwich that has been putting in solid work in the Second City for a long time now. The Ryan Dempster of sandwiches.

3 thoughts on “Sandwich of the Week: Windy City style

  1. guess you have been to the corner down in south philly.

    you are correct though. I also forget which is the bad one, pat or ginos, but I know that one is lousy and living off the name, but the other is much better.

    neither one though is close to being the best in the philly area. there are some really, really good ones if you know where to go.

    even Tony lukes (they also have a stand at CBP) is much better. just more out of the way.

  2. This sandwich sounds like an 84, but I’m not convinced that Ryan Dempster is an 84. Derrek Lee would be a better analogy if he hadn’t just gotten traded.

  3. I moved from NY to Chicago years ago. The one thing you missed (or maybe you wrote about it but I missed it) was a Chicago hot dog. I grew up eating hots dogs with mustard and saurkrat, and Chicago hot dogs just looked strange. It took me about two years to be willing to try one, but I have become a fan. It is a hot dog on a regular roll but with poppy seeds, with ketchup, mustard, tomato, onions, a pickle spear, bright green relish (I’m still not comfortable with something the color of toxic waste), bannana pepers (hot), and celery salt. Not every place puts celery salt on, but, for me, this is the part that makes it a really special taste.

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