Standing Room Only

Standing Room Only: Pop's Italian Beef

"This impossibly tender beef is one of the best I've sampled in Chicago."

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Pop's Italian Beef

10337 South Kedzie Avenue, Chicago IL 60655 (map); 773-239-1243
The Short Order: Succulent Italian beef with crunchy giardineria .
Want Fries with That? Like the ideal McDonald's French fry: small, salty, and crispy.
Want Ketchup? To help relive those McDonald's memories of your youth, dunk those fries.

I've said it before, and I'll just jump right in with it this week, but I'm astonished by the fries I've sampled at Chicago stands. Even curmudgeonly Alan Richman, who trash-talked our entire hot dog culture, loved our fries.

So I knew I had to make it down to Pop's Italian Beef & Sausage, because they are supposed to have some killer fries. Fellow Serious (Chicago) Eater Michael Nagrant wrote an article for Time Out Chicago where he crowned Pop's fries as the fifth best in the whole city. The final straw came after I received an e-mail from a fellow Chicagoan who recommended it above all other beefs (thanks Andrea!).

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Pop's Italian Beef & Sausage has a few locations, but I settled on the one in the city limits, if that's what you want to call 103rd Street and Kedize. It's the most southernly Standing Room Only I've written about in the city—it beats Calumet Fisheries by eight blocks or so. But as opposed to the decayed industrial wreckage at Calumet, Pop's rests quietly in the very middle-class Mt. Greenwood neighborhood.

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It looks like any old fast-food joint—a few stools inside and no tables unless you count the picnic tables outside. (By the way, it was 11°F in Chicago this weekend.) Inside, the storefront is surprisingly clean and efficient, with an army of teens shuffling around filling orders. I'm used to huge men with surly attitudes manning my beef and hot dog stands, so I found this part kind of fascinating.

Instead of just a regular beef, I decided to go with a peculiar mutation called "the combo" which buries a whole Italian sausage underneath an Italian beef. The most famous practitioner of the style is Johnny's Grill in Elmwood Park.

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The Italian sausage here is fiery and fatty with a huge snap and a monumental chew. It's the kind of sausage you simply can't ignore. One proper bite contains shards of beef, hunks of sausage, along with the bread and hot peppers. It all adds up to one truly meaty sandwich (which is honestly a little too much for me). An Italian beef to me should be tender and succulent—you shouldn't have to chew too hard. While the Italian sausage is tasty, I kind of felt like it got in the way. After a few bites I simply slid the sausage out and went with the beef.

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And I'm really glad I did. This impossibly tender beef is one of the best I've sampled in Chicago. It reminds me the most of Chickie's, with its very thinly sliced meat and strongly flavored (oddly beefy) gravy. It helps that both of these places use bright green giardiniera, which tastes fresh and spicy and helps cut the fat, giving the sandwich some much needed crunch. If you only order this, you'll almost feel like you could devour another one when you're done.

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But what about those fries? They are skinny, pipping hot, and tossed with an aggressive amount of salt. They look and taste strikingly like McDonald's fries did when I was eight years old. There are rumors that they actually buy rejected McDonald's fries, but I can't back that up.

I tend to prefer the character of the thicker-cut style found at most Chicago stands like Gene and Judes, Jimmy's Red Hots, and 35th Street Red Hots, but if your platonic ideal of fries are the ones found under the Golden Arches, then these may be worth the trip alone.

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The only disappointment is, like so many stands around the city, the fully-loaded Chicago hot dog. While you can find a bunch of great places serve a Depression-style Chicago dog with a Vienna Beef natural casing hot dog, most of the seatless eateries around serve the skinless kind when it's the "Chicago-style." It wasn't bad, and the toppings were right-on (except for the poppyseed bun), but it wasn't great either.

But that's really the only complaint I have. Besides the fact that I'd love to see an outpost on the northwest side. But I'll be glad to make the trek down here occasionally.

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