August 1, 2018

You Just Can't Beat The Real Thing

In yesterday’s post about the Chicago classic Italian beef, I joked about Portillos being the favorite Chicago restaurant of suburbanites and non-Chicagoans because it’s kind of true! Portillos is fine and dandy (and a little expensive, if you ask me), but did you know it wasn’t until 1994 that they opened their first restaurant within the city limits? There’s nothing wrong with it, of course. But if you ask us, the experience of the Chicago specialties like the Italian beef, polish sausage, hot dog (*inhales*mustard-relish-tomato-onion-salt-pickle-peppers-poppyseedbun), and slice of deep dish is just so much better when it’s coming from a place with that kind of authentic local color and flavor.

That doesn’t mean you have to go super out of your way to find something that genuinely embodies Chicago’s cuisine, though. Portillos may have opened a couple downtown locations over the past twenty years or so, but if you go just few blocks away from their restaurant on Canal and Taylor street, you’ll find the last surviving remnants of the old Maxwell Street Market (pictured below, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune), which was a hub of Chicago cuisine and shopping for decades. If you head down Union Street just south of Roosevelt Road, you’ll find Jim’s Original and the Express Grill, two of the most storied hole-in-the-wall fast food joints in the whole city.

Way back in the early 20th century, the area a little bit south and west of downtown was a thriving community of immigrants, many of whom were of the Jewish and Eastern European cultures that had been arriving in Chicago en masse since the 1880s. One of these was a kid named Jimmy who found work at a hot dog stand at the Maxwell Street Market, and after opening his own in the late 1930s, the Maxwell Street Polish was born. It’s just a kind of kielbasa with some extra spices, usually eaten on a bun with mustard and onions, but thanks to a million different local stands that unfortunately didn’t survive as long as Jim’s Original, the Polish, as it’s called colloquially, became a special part of Chicago cuisine and lore. So while you might attracted by the kitsch and brand name of some places that specialize in our food, just remember: the real original might be just around the corner!