Serious Eats: Chicago
Standing Room Only: Mr. Beef
666 North Orleans Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map); 312-337-8500; mrbeefonorleans.com
The Short Order: Peppery Italian beefs and natural casing dogs
Want Fries with That? Fresh cut and very thin, they are a must.
Seats? Check out the extra seating in the "Elegant Dining Room" (its words, not mine).
Mr. Beef sometimes disappoints, but it never completely lets you down. To see what I mean, take my very first visit to the classic River North stand. After placing my order for a hot dog, I realized I was a dollar short. Instead of kicking me out, making me wash dishes, or giving me one of those stern looks of shame—code for "never come round here again"— the employee said, "No big deal, you can pay me tomorrow." This act of kindness, more apt for the small town I grew up in than a city like Chicago, still impresses me. (For the record, I paid back the dollar the very next day.)
That it was a great hot dog—snappy and juicy from the natural casing—only made the gesture more memorable. To this day, I find it hard to speak ill of the place.
That's even though the last time I visited Mr. Beef it served one of sad Italian beef. (Actually, it came in second to last in our Italian beef tour on that day.) I was upset. The meat was dry and tough, with a weak gravy that had far more common with tap water than anything beefy. It deserved the ranking. Had that dollar clouded my judgement?
Turns out, Mr. Beef was just having an off day. Perhaps it is inconsistent, but the Italian beef ($6.50) I sampled this week couldn't have been more different. This time the sliced beef was thinner yet juicer, a strange and satisfying combination that is really hard to pull off. Best of all was the rich black pepper-laced gravy, which adds and extra beefy oomph to each bite. Yet...
I forgot how offensive Mr. Beef's giardiniera is. It's puzzlingly horrid stuff. Instead of pickled and spicy, this version features raw and flavorless slices of celery coated with oil, with none of the pleasing acidity or spice to balance things out. It's a wasted opportunity and one that holds this Italian beef from truly having a shot at being the best in the city.
Back to the good stuff. The hot dog ($4.50 with fries) is as great as I remembered—pleasingly plump and meaty. What I didn't catch the first time around is that Mr. Beef serves Eisenberg hot dogs, a local brand that I've only occasionally run into around town. The natural casing dogs are milder than those at Vienna Beef or even Red Hot Chicago, but this one seemed extra snappy and juicy. It's a fine dog, and it's satisfying to realize that there are uncharted hot dog worlds still left to explore in Chicago (and explore them, I will!). Also, hot dog chroniclers should note that while this is mostly a minimalist style Chicago dog, except that the bun has poppy seeds. Moving on.
That dog comes with fresh-cut fries. Thin and skinny, they most closely resemble McDonald's golden specimens. Mr. Beef could easily use frozen fries, but I watched as the spuds were scooped out of a container straight into the fryer. I didn't ask if they were previously fried or if they were fresh, but I'm guessing the former (they'd have turned brown if they were raw and weren't in a container of water, right?).
I'll happily put up with a little inconstancy in the hopes of experiencing a stand as distinct as this one. You want fast food efficiency and receipts printed by computers instead of scrawled by hand? Perhaps you want to skip this place. But if you want a place with an atmosphere that can't be faked, then step right up to the cash register.