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October 22, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—October 23, 2007

Chicago is renowned for its late-night, greasy fare. It’s amazing how many ways they’ve figured out to encase pork butt and heat it on a flat-top grill. You might need a car to get to some of the better-quality places, but with four years of college-level eating to fill in, there are some spots you really shouldn’t miss.

My absolute favorite is Hot Doug’s—“the sausage superstore and encased meat emporium.” Located at 3324 North California Avenue and open Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., it’s perfect for a Saturday brunch trip. They’ve really taken grilled sausage to a whole new level. In addition to the standards—hot dogs, polish sausage, bratwurst—they have lovely specials, like the “Keira Knightly” (it’s red hot), the “Marty Allen” (beef, pork and garlic), and a different game sausage each week. Don’t miss the duck fat fries, the lamb sausage with mint sauce, or the “faux gras.” And what’s more, you get gourmet sausage at a discount price: menu items are typically only $2 or $3, comparable to your standard Chicago sausage-spot prices. Check out the techno remix of the theme song on the restaurant’s website, hotdougs.com; it’s quite catchy.

Another good North-Side spot is the famed Dinner Grill, at 1635 West Irving Park Road, off North Ashland Avenue. They’re open 24 hours, and it gets pretty crowded late at night. Their specialty is the “slinger,” a heart-stopping concoction of hash-brown potatoes, cheese, beef patties, and eggs topped off with a healthy scoop of chili. Omelets are $3, and delicious truck-stop coffee with cream is only 65 cents. Basically the best drunk-food you’ll ever have. The jukebox is well stocked, too, though it is one of those new ones where some jerk can pay an extra 50 cents to jump the queue and hear his song right now. The atmosphere is fratty and jovial, though the grill guys seem to maintain solemn composure throughout.

And of course, no review of Chicago grease would be complete without at least a casual mention of the Wiener’s Circle on 2622 North Clark Street in Lincoln Park. Not that the food’s terribly good—it’s your usual “drag it through the garden” pork sausage with caramelized onions fare—but the verbal assault that comes with it is top-notch. There’s really no ethically acceptable way for me to communicate to you the unmitigated filth that streams out the little holes in the bullet-proof glass there, so you’re going to have to go yourself to find out. I don’t really know why they make such a point out of insulting and degrading their patrons, but it’s very fun to watch. When it’s your turn, though, basically just be prepared to cry—and whatever you do, don’t try to talk back.

Closer to campus, the best chili shop north of the Mason-Dixon line happens to be the Ramova Grill, on South Halsted Street at 35th Street. They make perfectly good diner food—fried eggs all the time, tuna melts, etc.—but the chili’s the reason to go. The option to take a tub home for $6 is pretty good, too.

The other great single-item place is Top-Notch Beefburgers Inc., at 2116 West 95th street. Cited multiple times by nearly all of Chicago’s newspapers as the best burger joint around, it was not in the least disappointing when I dropped in. Simplicity is its chief virtue: you order a 1/4-pound, 1/2-pound or 3/4-pound burger, and they’re all cooked to exactly one degree of doneness (that is, to the correct degree of doneness). Toppings are taken quite seriously, and must be specified individually. Be sure not to park in the lot next door, though—it belongs to the beauty bar, not the restaurant, and you will get towed almost immediately.

Also on the South Side is the Steak ‘n’ Egger, at 1174 West Cermak Road, between May Street and Racine Avenue. The company slogan is “we doze but never close,” and indeed they are open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year. The country breakfast is just spectacular—three eggs any style (including “basted eggs,” a process which involves the continual pouring of hot bacon grease over your frying eggs in order to set the yolks), three pork or beef sausage patties, and three biscuits smothered in delicious, creamy, white sausage gravy. My, my, my, my, my God. It’s a wonder they haven’t been sued. The crowd is a little raunchy, but the waitresses are extremely knowledgeable with respect to exactly what it would be a good idea to eat when you’re drunk. They’ve never steered me wrong, at least not in the short-term sense of that expression.

And, you know, you really can’t go wrong with good old Valois Cafeteria at 1518 East 53rd Street. They make delicious omelets, solid roast beef dinners, and perfectly acceptable Reuben sandwiches. The coffee is fine, the service is great, and the atmosphere is family-and community-oriented, which can be very cheering in the dreary gloom of midterm season. It took me two years to realize that they open at 5:30 a.m., meaning that they’re open just when I’m typically running out of all-nighter juice and need some salty and caffeinated refreshment. There’s definitely at least one exam I’ve taken here that’s benefited by a few points thanks to the good people at Valois. But please, don’t make the freshmen mistake of trying to pay with plastic, or hovering at the head of the line debating what to order. Stride up to that counter, order with confidence, and pay cash. Otherwise, you will just make us all look bad.