Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Eleven City Diner inhabits an interesting space in my memory, one that I can't say I have with most restaurants, or even most places, for that matter. A former coworker of mine, his name was Joe, loved Eleven City Diner ever since the place opened. He and I spent more than a few meals there after work, making fun of each other and complaining about the office. But there was an urgency to the jokes and the laughter, since we both knew that our days as friends were numbered. He had an unrelenting form of pulmonary fibrosis which eventually was just too much for his body to take. Suddenly, just like that, he was gone.
Now, I realize this sounds extraordinarily somber, coming from a guy who goes by Fart Sandwich on Twitter. But it's not all as sad as it seems. Every time I walk into Eleven City Diner for lunch, I always remember to laugh my ass off. Eleven City is a lot of fun; it's a shiny Jewish diner with a tall, airy space, along with a soda fountain, a full bar, and enormous portions. And, hey, we all have to eat, right?
In the interest of Lunch in the Loop, I skipped out on the huge breakfast menu altogether, as much as I wanted to order a giant plate of lox or an omelet (breakfast is served all day, by the way) and just sampled the deli side of the menu.
Teri's Knish ($6.50) comes filled either with potato or brisket, along with a side of chicken gravy. We ordered potato, but received brisket by mistake. It was a fantastic mistake. This knish is like having a bun, a pastry, and a dumpling all getting drunk at a swingers party and accidentally creating a delicious food baby. The potato-based dough is thin but has a bit of dumpling-like chew and a little pie-crust flakiness, and the chopped brisket inside has that particular beef flavor that you only associate with brisket. The gravy is a lot like cream of chicken soup, only without the chicken, with tiny little lumps to let you know it's house-made, which is a good thing.
The Woody Allen ($12.99) has previously been featured on A Sandwich a Day, and there's a good reason. This is a double-decker monster ripped straight from the pages of New York City—even the menu admits it by adding a tongue-in-cheek quip, "We copied them oh so close." The top half of this bad boy is bold, salty corned beef, full of the briny cured flavor you expect, and the beef is marbled with rich veins of fat that leave your mouth slightly coated. The pastrami on the bottom is crusted with black pepper and embodies all you want in great pastrami; it's tender and it finishes with that peppery pinch at the end.
The sandwich does get a little confusing where the meats meet (meats meet, har har), and the flavors don't always seem to match. My suggestion is to get an entire sandwich of one or the other; you can't go wrong either way. And don't forget to add brown mustard.
The Moshe Cristo ($11.25) is a playful take on the classic Monte Cristo sandwich, but with the addition of turkey. The bread component is challah French toast, which has a cinnamon and nutmeg flavor that just doesn't mesh well with the thick salty layers of ham and turkey. The meat is a little dry, and in such high quantity, the dryness is fairly apparent.
Every time I visit Eleven City Diner, I want to love the fries. In fact, I'd be happy just to like the fries. But they are usually a little soft, mostly flavorless, and even with Wisconsin cheese spread (think Merkt's cheddar), they just don't do the trick.
Now what really does the trick, however, is "The Ivy" Pickle and Sour Tomato plate ($2.50). Joe used to love the sour tomatoes—for good reason. If I was sitting next to you while you ordered, I'd tell you to skip the pickles and just get a whole plate of tomatoes. They are briny and sour with a good vinegary pucker, and you really need that crisp pickled bite with your rich deli sandwiches. If that tomato looks familiar, it's a lot like the ones they serve on the side at Superdawg.
You'd be crazy if you were at a place with a soda fountain and you didn't order a soda. Along with classic phosphates and Green River floats, they serve an exceedingly rare creature not often spotted in Chicago: The Egg Cream ($2.99). As some of you food nerds know, it contains neither egg, nor cream, but rather, milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup and is stirred till frothy up top. If it's too sweet for you, the chocolate concoction is served with a sidecar of extra seltzer to spread out the sugary goodness.
It's been just over four years since Joe passed away, but the guy left me with a huge pile of memories at Eleven City Diner, some inevitably and profoundly sad. But what I remember most is all the laughter. And that's really why I got into food writing in the first place, not just to eat, but to share experiences that come with the necessity of food, and really, to laugh, laugh, laugh, until we're sore, and can't laugh any longer.
Eleven City Diner
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.