Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli is at the edge of Chicago’s loop, not far from where the everything-goes bazaar known as Maxwell Street once thrived. Maxwell Street is tame today, but the restaurant Manny Raskin opened just after the Second World War bursts with the personality of downtown Chicago. A big, cafeteria-style eatery frequented by cops and wise guys, politicians and business people, and cured-meat lovers from the distant suburbs, Manny’s is one of Chicago’s grandest eating experiences.
“Step around for corned beef!” calls Ken Raskin, Manny’s son, to the hundreds of customers who crowd through the line at lunch hour, “Step around for sandwiches and latkes.”
Corned beef sandwiches are Manny’s signature dish. Gino Gambarota, Manny’s corned beef man for as long as anyone can remember, will cut the meat the way you like it — lean, fatty, or regular — but he will not cut it thick. “The art of cutting corned beef is to cut it as thin as possible, and against the grain,” Gino says. His slices are shaved so thin they verge on disintegration; but they stay intact and miraculously succulent.
Handfuls of this magnificent meat are stuffed into sandwiches so large that many customers eat one half and take the other back to the office. When a diminutive woman in a business suit asks Gino if he can make her only half a sandwich, he sasses back, “Lady, this isn’t Highland Park!” (Highland Park is a hoity-toity suburb on the North Shore.) The sandwiches get made and sold so quickly that during busy mealtimes Gino always sets up four or five ready-made with a potato pancake on the plate, so customers in a hurry can bypass the hot food at the beginning of the cafeteria line and nab what they want without fuss at the sandwich counter. No prepared sandwich remains on the counter longer than forty-five seconds before a customer speeds past and pulls it down onto a tray.
There is a huge menu beyond corned beef, including daily specials by which many Chicagoans arrange their culinary week. Monday, count on corned beef hash, stuffed green peppers, and breaded veal chops. Wednesday is the day for chicken pot pie or turkey drumsticks and mushroom barley soup. Friday is fried smelts, perch, and macaroni day. Thursday is a thrilling day for oxtail stew aficionados because Ken Raskin can make only a limited amount, which usually sells out by noon.