Notice the African bazaars, Asian markets and Mexican panaderias around town. The white-bread woebegone Minnesota fare is being replaced by new tastes from far-off lands. We think this is the best idea anybody’s had in a long time, and want to make sure that—in our brave new Exoticland—you don’t miss this particular foreign treat.
It’s just seven hours away, give or take a Wisconsin trooper, but Chicago might as well be the moon as far as street food goes. Yet on the civilized streets of South Minneapolis, we found a little bit of Chicago, like a cyclone dropped down from Wrigleyville. Chris and Rob’s has it all: the tough but friendly counter crew, the Chicago sports stuff on every wall, the softball team trophies in the windows. It’s a Formica place, with a few newspapers lying around to read, and ESPN blaring from the TV bolted to the wall. The menu hits all the Chicago buttons. They serve hot dogs. They serve thin-crust pizza. (Ignore the pizza.) And they serve Italian beef.
Italian beef is one of Chicago’s lesser-known native fast foods. It’s basically roast beef, slow-cooked in beef broth, usually served in a long roll with various toppings. Italian beef joints are not as common as hot dog stands, but they still dot the Chicago landscape, providing comfort food to the cognoscenti, Italian or no. When Bruce lived in Chicago, he regularly ate Italian beef sandwiches. Italian beef with sweet peppers and red sauce, to be precise.
They’re a messy delight and unbelievably better than corporate fast food. Walk into Chris and Rob’s, and act like you’ve come home. Order from the overhead menu at the counter. Grab a seat outside under the shade umbrellas if you like; they’ll find you when your food is ready. Inside, there’s a long counter at the windows to watch the world go by as you eat. That’s the Chicago hot dog experience, right there. They’ve also got a small dining room with tables and chairs, and several hard-seat booths. On the tables, you’ll find squirt bottles of ketchup and rolls of paper towels. This is the perfect setting for Italian beef.
But you have to order like a Chicagoan. Order Italian beef, and you get a pile of the stuff, dripping wet, in an Italian roll. Order Italian beef with red sauce and you get the same with mild tomato sauce on top. Order Italian beef with hot peppers and red sauce, and they’ll add a few hot giardiniera peppers on top. If you order an Italian beef sandwich with tomato sauce, you’re obviously not from Chicago.
Get some fries. These are not the thin, effete frites we love elsewhere, but a thick, almost chewy, stick of fried potato. One order is big enough for two, if you don’t mind fighting over the last few. Or get the onion rings. These are done in beer batter, which you can really taste, and they’re big, sweet, and juicy. The order is huge, but you’ll end up devouring them all. If you don’t want Italian beef, you’ve got other options. Try ordering a Polish loaded. That’s the Polish sausage with mustard, violently green relish (called piccalilli), diced onions, sliced tomatoes, a kosher pickle, and small mildly hot peppers (called sport peppers), the whole seasoned with celery salt, all on a poppy seed roll. Notice the list does not include ketchup. There’s a bottle on your table, so you can have it with your fries. The roll, like the roll served with your Italian beef, simply won’t be able to answer the call to duty. It will disintegrate during your last few bites, but take it in stride. It’s the authentic experience, and there’s a whole roll of paper towels at your elbow.
Their hot dogs are Vienna, Chicago’s most popular brand. Order a dog loaded; it comes with the same mess of toppings listed above, and with cheese if you want. You can also order a chili dog, with or without onions. Don’t order a dog plain; they’ll laugh at you. The Italian beef can also come with barbecue sauce or cheese.Honestly, we prefer it without.
You can also order a Maxwell Street Polish, which is a deep-fried Polish sausage with mustard, onions, and peppers. Or a meatball sandwich, served with a hot marinara sauce, and mozzarella and peppers if you want. Or an Italian sausage, spicier than the Polish and a bit salty, and served with either sweet or hot peppers, and cheese and tomato sauce if you want. Remember to order it right; it’s an Italian with hot peppers and red sauce.
Can’t decide? Order the Chicago combo, Italian beef and an Italian sausage in the same roll. We think this is a bit much, but there are people who love it. Sandwiches run about $5, hot dogs and sausages around $3. Add another $2 for fries and $1 for a can of pop, and you’ve got yourself a nice little meal. Chris and Rob’s also sell Italian beef, Italian sausages, and Vienna hot dogs by the pound, if you want to serve them at home.
Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper are longtime food lovers and occasional food writers. They live in South Minneapolis.
Chris and Rob’s Chicago Taste Authority
3101 E. 42nd St., Minneapolis, 612-729-5507
603 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-228-9347
7429 E. River Rd., Fridley, 763-571-0288
Cuisine Type: American | Reservations: None
Diet Choices: Meat, and plenty of it