Standing Room Only: Tastee Freez
2815 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-507-7477; tastee-freez.com
The Short Order: Classic seasonal ice cream stand in Logan Square.
Want Fries with That? Skip the savory items, and head straight for the dessert.
Seats? No tables inside, but some picnic tables outside.
By the end of summer, I start to get nostalgic. Mentally blocking all the excruciating 100-degree days and the snarling traffic jams, I instead reminisce on the simple pleasures of the season, like long walks that often ended with ice cream. And though I recognize that the brilliance of the homemade ice cream, and prefer it nine out of time ten times, I also have a soft spot for soft-serve. I blame John Mellencamp. I grew up less than 40 miles from the hometown of the man formerly middle-named Cougar, and I know that the Tastee Freez mentioned in "Jack and Diane" is not a metaphorical stand meant to symbolize the innocence of small town life, but a very real place.
So imagine my surprise when I found an outlet of Tastee Freez smack dab in the middle of Chicago, less than a few blocks from my place. Only open during the warm months, it calls out to me from time to time, even if I've never been particularly impressed with anything I've tried. In fact, I'd never even sampled the savory items, a fact I decided to correct on a recent visit.
Let's start with the Big-T Burger ($3.80). As the employee taking my order explained, this is basically a Big Mac clone—you know, two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, all on a sesame seed bun. How does it compare? Though the original is better in theory than in practice, even at its worst, the Big Mac is meticulously proportioned and oddly satisfying. The Big-T is not. The frozen patties have little flavor, the bread is too thick, and the sauce and condiments never gel to create a singular bite. In other words, this is more Big Mc than Big Mac.
The pork chop sandwich ($3.19) is marginally better, probably thanks to the caramelized onions and mustard. But while thick, the chop had been cooked ahead and rewarmed to order, leaving the texture of the meat almost mushy.
The corn dog ($1.80), well... I am not sure what possessed me to order it, and let's just say that I deeply regretted the mistake.
But you don't go to Tastee Freez for dinner; you go for dessert. Sure, none of the options are exceptional, but if you have a soft spot for all-American drive-ins, towering cones of soft-serve, and massive sundaes, then you'll probably leave happy. Take the simplicity of the dipped chocolate cone ($1.45 for a small cone, $.60 for the dip). Smooth vanilla soft-serve gets a brief dunk in warm chocolate sauce, which hardens on impact creating a delicate chocolate layer. The soft-serve could have more flavor—it's advertised as 96% fat free—but the chocolate helps.
Less successful, though satisfying in its own way, is the Snicker sundae ($4.20), which features chunks of Snickers, along with the separate elements of the candy bar (caramel, hot fudge, and nuts). It's good for a few bites, but the elements aren't quite good enough on their own to justify eating the entire thing.
In the end, perhaps I shouldn't have written about this place. I never expected the Tastee Freez to have great food, but the savory items are a real letdown. But while the desserts aren't destination worthy, there is something about visiting this stand on a summer night. Does anyone else feel this way about Tastee Freez, or have a place close to them that feels this way?