By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
CHICAGO Street food is often considered déclassé, but not in the Windy City. In fact, it is so cherished there that restaurants are designed for it. These brash canteens have no tables, just waist-high counters where you stand and unwrap your meal, then eat leaning forward so that dripping juices hit Formica rather than lap or shoes. The counters not only divert the inevitable spillage that cascades off hot dogs, gyros, Polishes, and breaded steaks; they give diners quality time with the meal. Chicagoland’s street food is not slapdash fare to be consumed on the stroll. You wouldn’t want to do anything while enjoying it other than contemplate its excellence.
The city’s stand-up paradigm is a hot dog—known as a red hot, as valued for its condiments and steamed-soft bun as it is for its beefy snap. There isn’t a dining place on earth more perfect than the counter of Gene & Jude’s (2720 North River Road), where connoisseurs lay waste to braces of taut-skinned pups fully dressed with mustard, relish, and sport peppers, and buried in french fries.
The ultimate Chicago street food, though, is Italian beef. A Near West Side invention, it is a mighty sandwich of roast beef shaved so thin that it is tender as hash. It lolls in a pan of garlicky natural gravy and is loaded into a chewy torpedo of Italian bread. To top it, bell peppers or a spill of the incendiary marinated-vegetable mélange known as giardiniera. Mr. Beef (666 North Orleans) will give it to you double dipped, meaning the whole sandwich gets a quick immersion in warm juices, or as a combo, which adds a muscular length of charcoal-cooked sausage. Italian beef is the street food expat Chicagoans miss most. There is nothing like it anywhere else.
NEW YORK CITY
As you stroll along the Riegelmann Boardwalk, which has a view that stretches from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, it’s hard to imagine that Coney Island was once America’s wealthiest seaside resort. Frowsy cinder-block snack shacks painted with colorful depictions of cotton candy, hot dogs, popcorn, soft-serve ice cream, and fried shrimp and clams flank the boardwalk now.
During its heyday, a century ago, Coney Island was celebrated for its clams. The tender, small ones were eaten raw with a squeeze of lemon, while the larger kind fortified thick chowders. Nathan’s Famous (1310 Surf Avenue), founded in 1916, offers a pair of serviceable clam chowders, creamy white New England and tomatoey Manhattan, as well as raw clams on the half shell for the old-timers. But it’s more famous for its hot dogs. You can buy the weenies in supermarkets nowadays, but they never taste as good as they do with salt spray in the air. First sold by founder Nathan Handwerker, the hot dogs (franks to New Yorkers) are pricey ($2.25), but the pop of the skin and the sweet saltiness of the pink flesh make for a sensual eating experience. Next door is Williams Candy (1318 Surf Avenue), a sun-faded storefront from a bygone era. Displayed in its disorganized interior are paper sacks of roasted peanuts in the shell, boxes of saltwater taffy, little jelly rings coated in chocolate, and candy buttons mounted in orderly rows on white paper strips.
Coney Island’s charms extend, on the flip side, to Brighton Beach. With a mainly Ukrainian population, the area thinks of itself as a port on the Black Sea. Makeshift counters in front of groceries and cafés hawk piroshki, doughy turnovers stuffed with ground meat, sweet-sour cabbage, or oniony potatoes. Some of the best can be found at M & I International Food (permanently closed: 249 Brighton Beach Boulevard), which also sells dozens of varieties of house-smoked pork and fish.