If I’m anything at all, then I’m certainly a creature of habit. And while in Chicago, I formed one hell of an Italian beef habit. (It was an Al’s habit, really—and I formed it not because of the Italian beef itself, but because of those chili-cheese fries, to which I haven’t yet found a local alternative.) I just kept eating Italian beef after goddamn Italian beef—and so I guess it’s not all that surprising that I ended up spending most of my ride home from the airport plumbing Googling for a local alternative.
It’s not that I think Italian beef is worth missing. It’s not even that I missed it. I just don’t like having foods taken from me—especially the foods I’ve gone through the trouble of verifying as safe, and double-especially the foods I haven’t yet had my fill of. If I’d lost McDonald’s right after my third McDonald’s meal, I would’ve been one grief-laden four-year-old. But am I saddened by any of those recent articles whining about how McDonald’s might soon start rolling out a few menu items that call for nuts that aren’t pre-packaged, thus (likely) rendering the whole stupid-ass chain unsafe for me? Uh, not really. I’m saturated.
And fortunately, it looks like I’m going to be able to get saturated on Italian beef, too—thanks to Hank’s Juicy Beef, a mini-menued restaurant that’s evidently been doing business in my neighborhood for a whole year now. There are no tree nut (or peanut) products in the kitchen, and the bread, which comes from Turano Baking Company, should be totally safe, too. (According to the representative I spoke with, Turano’s bread doesn’t share equipment with anything nutty, and if there are nuts in the same facility, they’re nowhere near the bread. I think Hank’s uses these particular rolls, but I’m not 100% sure. All that’s good enough for me—and though I understand everyone’s standards, etc., are different, I’d venture to say it’s probably good enough for most.)
Now. Contrary to what anyone trailing me would’ve had to conclude, I was rather unimpressed with the various Italian beef sandwiches I ate in Chicago. I didn’t dislike them—how could I have, given my unchecked love for the combination of bread and meat?—but if I didn’t always insist on writing home about each and every food I ate, they wouldn’t have been anything to write home about. Each time, I came away with the same complaints: The watery, flavorless gravy didn’t do enough to make up for the ultra-mushy bread—and despite all that wetness, the beef somehow still managed to tend dry. Plus, all that overbearing, soggy giardiniera? No, thanks.
Of course, I didn’t stop eating Italian beef. I didn’t even consider it—partially because I saw potential in it, partially because I half-liked it as it was, and partially because, uh, When In Chicago. I just kept eating (and eating, and eating) it. And then there I found myself, in the backseat, Googling. On a mission.
Once I got to Hank’s, it took me all of two bites to decide that my search needn’t continue. Hank’s isn’t as good as any Midwestern Italian beefery, nor does it wish it were; it’s at least three times as better (just click it), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Owner Hank Tibensky—born and raised in Chicago, of course—insists on using only the highest-quality (grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free) beef, and honestly, it shows. That beef’s good, man. And the jus is plenty flavorful, too, which really helps the sandwich as a whole.
What’s more, the bread’s not half bad, either. I’m always skeptical of that sort of crustless “French” roll, but Turano’s actually have some structural integrity to them. Sure, they aren’t crusty; but they’re dense enough and rather chewy, and they do manage to hold their own against the wetness of the ingredients they sandwich. (Some of the best bites of a Hank’s sandwich are what I’ve come to call the “sweaty armpits”: the soggy crooks of bread on one side of the sandwich or the other where the jus has pooled and turned everything to pudding. Sounds gross. Isn’t. The bread’s just tough enough to withstand the assault, and those wet, sloppy bites are mighty satisfying. The name stays.)
The giardiniera’s fine—it’s firm and snappy, and it even adds to the sandwich, flavor-wise (!)—but it’s just too salty, so I usually end up going without. Instead, I add provolone, which gives the whole sandwich a cheesesteaky vibe. It’s good. Surprisingly good. And formidably filling, too. (Plus, for an extra $4—hardly a deal, I know—you can make it a meal with fries and a drink. Not any old fries, but curly fries. Fresh, crisp curly fries: residents of my dreams, fixtures of my heart. Or, uh, steak fries, if that’s what you’re into. But if that’s what you’re into, we probably wouldn’t get along.)
I’m also somewhat of a fan of the hot dog, which actually managed to startle me with how undeniably decent it was. I absolutely loathed Chicago’s Chicago dogs—the dogs themselves had such a dreary texture, and their flavor was nowhere near strong enough to handle the absurd, insecure, attention-needy checklist of (very fucking overbearing) toppings they went ahead and attempted to handle nonetheless—but I must say: the Hank’s version is all right. Yes, the dog itself is boiled/steamed (don’t know which, but it doesn’t matter either way), and yes, it tastes like it’s been boiled/steamed. But it doesn’t taste like dog-boil (so there’s that), and its texture is passable, at least. Plus, the bun’s fluffy enough (though I so wish Chicagoans would take to toasting), and no one topping threatens to overpower the others. All told, not bad. It’s actually sort of fun.
If only I had such nice things to say about the beef bowl. Like the sandwich, it costs $10—but unlike the sandwich, it’s not even close to worth it. It’s served not in a bowl, but in one of those paper trays usually reserved for, like, fries or onion rings or whatever, and that, combined with the small portion, makes it come off more as a side—an afterthought, a “well, I guess we can sell this, too, can’t we?”—than a main dish. The beef itself is still fine, but with a little (still-too-salty) giardiniera as its only partner, it does end up falling flat. And the same goes for the rice bowl (beef, giardiniera, and sautéed green peppers over very, very mushy white rice): a nice idea, but not worth the order.
Anyway, I like Hank’s. It may not be the world’s most authentic Italian beefery, if we’re (still?) defining “authenticity” as total adherence to the way things are done in a dish’s region of origin—but that’s fine, because if it were, it’d be worse off. Hank’s makes Chicago-style food, no doubt; but it’s ever-so-slightly New York–ified Chicago-style food, and that’s for the best. It’s not New York–ified enough, I don’t think—I could use some better bread, or a hot dog with some snap to it, or, you know, some flavors with a little more nuance than super-sweet or super-salty—but it’s not straight-up Midwest, either, and I’m going to have to call that a blessing.
Find Hank’s at 84 Chamber Street, between Church Street and Broadway.
[P.S. I’m liking this slowed-down posting schedule a whole lot—so much, in fact, that I’m going to be slowing it down even more. At this point, my plan is just to play it by ear and, uh, see how much longer I can fend off this burnout, because while I do like blogging, there are few things I dislike more than (a) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when I’m busy with school, life, etc., and (b) feeling pressured to churn out blog posts when there’s nothing I want to say. So. I’m going to be aiming to publish a post every 14 days or so, but…we’ll see. They’ll come when they come.]