CHICAGO: DOG EAT DOG
Well, I am back.
I have submitted about 30,000 words of the EAT MY GLOBE book to the UK publisher and await their comments with considerable trepidation.
However, it does mean I can do a bit of catching up on the blog.
I am slowly beginning to evolve a theory about food in America
It is by no means fully gestated but goes along the lines that the The USA’s greatest contribution to world cuisine is……. The Sandwich. This is, by the way, by no means a criticism. I think the UK’s contribution to the world is the pie and that is equally as good a thing.
Oh, I know the Americans didn’t invent them, but I think it is in America where the concept of slamming something amazing between slices of bread has reached its highest point. It is in fact an art form.
I am not talking about sandwiches as we know them in the UK. I am talking about food originally designed to feed honest, hard working folk for relatively little money. I am talking about The Po’Boy, The Mufaletta, The Philly Cheesesteak, The Pastrami on Rye, The Texas BBQ Brisket Sandwich and The Hamburger.
I am also talking about The Hot Dog and I am talking about it particularly now, because, after Kansas, I headed off for three days in one of my favourite cities anywhere on earth, Chicago.
Chicago, to my mind, is the truly great American city. Its architecture, its location, and, of course, its food make it stand out from any other city in the USA. At a guess, I have been there ten times and every time I find my self stopping, dead in my tracks and staring at the buildings which represent America’s time of greatest achievement.
The people too have a uniquely American perspective of brashness mixed with a child like enthusiasm for their own town even to the extent when it becomes patently absurd. I recall once, when taking the Architectural Boat Tour, the guide described, and I kid you not, a building as “ The tallest in the world under 1000ft” a quintessentially American and Chicagoan way of looking at things.
Most of my trips have been for business. This time, however, was purely for pleasure. A pleasure not being shared by the poor saps who had signed up to take part in the Chicago Marathon which was being wound up as I arrived due to the excessive heat and the lack of liquids for the runners.
My own experience of the NYC marathon was hard enough and that was in cool weather. This must have been hateful and it was little surprise to find that there was a related death. A real tragedy.
My hotel in Chicago this time was a little way from my previous Michigan Avenue addresses. Now, I was in Lincoln Park staying at a place that was jolly proud of the fact that it had been voted best Days Inn 2004.
I am not sure how great an achievement that is, but it was clean and comfortable and had free wi-fi, so I had no complaints as I dropped off my bags and headed out for an early lunch.
I am not sure if it is a result of my journey or a result of getting older, but, increasingly I am find I a hugely less than whelmed by restaurant meals, particularly those where ingredients are, to put it bluntly, fucked around with. I find myself more and more attracted to simple food, street food and food which has passed the test of time.
As it has been everywhere else, so it was in Chicago. My restaurant choices, while not troubling the high end (Charlie Trotter, Alinea etc) all came quite well recommended and all managed to fail to please with unerring accuracy.
My first meal at NORTH POND was the perfect example. It gets good crit and everyone I spoke to said that, while it would not be on anyone’s “must do” list, it would definitely be worth a visit. They were wrong.
They said the same too about AVEC and about THE WEST TOWN TAVERN which I visited during my stay and they were wrong there too.
It is not that any of them were bad (although the service at AVEC was the most charmless I can recall in all my travels to date) but they left me coming out of the restaurant wanting to get “bleh” tattooed on my forehead just to save time.
And, this is where my introduction about the sandwich may begin to make sense, because, in my whole time in Chicago, the two best things I ate were the two times I ate hot dogs and, do you know what, I am not ashamed to admit it.
The first was at a legendary Chicago joint, The Weiners Circle. Legendary not just for its dogs but for the abrasive nature of the staff who are well known for abusing customers.
After my “bleh” meal at North Pond, I found myself still feeling hungry so walked the short distance from my hotel to the shack that is The Weiners Circle and began to look at the short menu on the wall.
“Big ears!” Shrieked a woman behind the counter.
I decided quickly, afraid of the consequences if I did not
“A red hot with everything” I offered up trying not to sound too British. It did not work
“What the fuck kind of accent is that? Are you retarded?”
“No” I stammered “I am British”
“Same thing” she countered in a voice that made me think it was not worth the risk of arguing.
I handed over $10 and waited for my change. Instead of handing it over, she put it in a large jar marked “IT’S FOR THE TIPS BITCH” and glared at me “that Ok Big Ears?”
“Yes ‘m” I whimpered and stood to one side to wait for my dog like a good little boy.
It is schtick, of course, but that only matters if the dog is no good. I need not have worried. It is a great dog and, with everything, worth all the abuse and the 90% service charge extracted from me for the pleasure.
Perhaps, I am funny that way and just like being abused. Any takers form an orderly line.
If that dog was good, the next proved to be one of my top ten tastes from the whole trip to date. It will take something special to displace it from that lofty position by the end of the trip too.
I was lucky, in Chicago to have contact with Adam, the American guy who had been unlucky enough to share a room with me in Japan and who had seem me in nothng but a variety of robes.
He lived a short distance from my hotel and joined me at a number of meals.
Even better, and I am sure he wont mind me saying this, was the fact that, during the day I was joined by his, quite frankly, gorgeous girlfriend, Saritha, who had some spare time while she waited for the start date of her new job.
So, I did what any gallant chaperone would do when accompanied by a lovely young lady. I walked her through a rough old part of town in search of another hot dog.
In this case at the equally legendary, HOT DOUGS.
When I did my initial dog based research, everybody, but everybody said I hat to go to HOT DOUGS. My own net trawling found that, not only was his place reasonably close to my hotel but he also named his hot dogs after obscure people, including wonderfully, members of power punk superstars, The Buzzcocks
There was no way I was going to miss this.
Saritha squealed a bit in a girly way, but soon agreed to join me as we headed through some areas that would be described as filled with “do-er up-ers” if I was being kind.
We soon found ourselves outside Doug’s
Doug himself was seated behind the counter and, as the line shortened, I took in the menu. The “ Pete Shelley” was a temptation until I realised it was a vegetarian option. I just couldn’t do it.
Saritha could though being of that odd persuasion.
I went for a standard frank with everything, some fries and a diet coke (well I am having to watch my weight on this trip) and we took a seat in the cheerful little dining room and waited.
We did not have to wait long. About three minutes later, our food arrived. There is a sign on the window which says something like there is nothing in this world that is better than an encased meat sandwich, i.e. a Hot Dog
Man, they are not wrong. This was fabulous even when splashed with that hideous green relish that Americans love.
The chips were good too although not the ones fried in duck fat which are only available at the weekend.
I ate quickly, too quickly which led to lots of dog scented burps for the next few hours which I approved of and Saritha definitely did not.
And that was it. I could tell you about the other restaurant meals I had in the city, which were fine. I could tell you about the poorly made cocktails of which I had a few. I could even tell you about some of the sights I went to see.
But, what I really want to tell you about was a hot dog. A simple sandwich which made me begin to form a small, unimportant theory of my own about what makes this country such an amazing place
For that alone, I am glad I went to Chicago.
Oh, I did have “A burrito as big as your head” before I left town.
Well, you are forced to aren’t you?