Serious Eats: Chicago
Meet the Great (Well, Pretty Good) Unknown Chicago Chicken Sandwich
Okay, America, it's time for a little talk. Something has been happening on the food scene and we need to do something about it. It's a food that has been popping all over America, yet it has no name, like we don't want to admit it exists. People go into a sandwich place and they want something light. No, actually they want something Lite™. They want a Healthy Choice™. So they get a sandwich made with a chicken breast. But being factory farmed chicken breast, it has no flavor. And so to give it flavor, the restaurant tries to make it seem Gourmet™. They put cheese on it. Maybe one of the real classy ones you get at Panera, like asiago. Or maybe just lots of gooey melted mozzarella. And to make it more Gourmet™ they don't just put mayo on it, but something even more classy, like balsamic vinaigrette or sun-dried tomatoes or barbecue sauce.
Okay, stop. Just stop. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, this Lite Italian Gourmet Chicken Sandwich™ is none of those things—it's fat, faux, and doesn't even really taste like anything. It's as authentic as a frozen bag of Olive Garden breadsticks, yet you see it popping up all over America, from chains to small town sandwich places sadly imitating what people eat at chains. It must stop. It must be shunned. We probably can't reverse its spread, but we might be able to slowly make it unfashionable, like egg salad.
I was thinking about this, not only because I see these nameless monstrosities all over, but because there is an alternative in Chicago which is superficially similar, but differs in one small degree—it's not a shameful lying mockery of a sandwich. It is, in fact, the great unknown Chicago sandwich, except for the being great part.
If it has a name, it's "Grilled Chicken Sandwich." An actual chicken breast is marinated in some kind of Greek seasonings (a la the Greek diner staple "Athenian chicken") or Italian dressing. It goes on the grill and picks up a little char flavor. Then it goes on a bun, or French bread, or pita with lettuce, tomato slices, and mayo.
That's it. There's not much room there for inspiration or artistic vision, so I'm not going to claim that it will ever be a great, beloved Chicago sandwich like the Italian beef. It lacks depth. No one will obsess over finding the best one. It's Jennifer Aniston, not Cate Blanchett. But sometimes, as food writers, we overdo it. Our minds need calming from the dazzling tasting menus forced upon us. Our tastebuds have flown too close to the sun. And at that moment, the plain simplicity, the essential honesty of the Chicago Greek grilled chicken sandwich, white meat and mayo and a hint of seasoning and char, is a balm. Which it wouldn't be if some jackwad slapped oily melted cheese and BBQ sauce all over the damn thing and called it Tuscan Jackwad Chicken With Sun-Dried Asiago Pesto Il Magnifico.
Some places where I'm perfectly content with the resplendent okayness of the Chicago Greek grilled chicken sandwich:
"Oh yeah, that's what I eat every day," says the owner of Beef & Burger, enthusiastically. This above-average Greek burger joint marinates theirs ($6.99) in Greek spices and serves it on French bread, bun or pita—thick fresh-cut fries included.
LIke a gas station on a desert highway, Art's Drive In sits on a blank stretch of Elston (and closes early, so don't count on it for dinner), with Art and his sons the living image from Saturday Night Live of a Greek diner family. The chicken sandwich ($4.59 with crinkle cut fries) is basic, marinated and grilled; pita is the default but I go for "French" (i.e. Gonnella) bread.
Mr. Zee's is one of the few that actually mentions char-grilled chicken on its sign, and it's aggressively enough Greek-seasoned and char-grilled that it almost disqualifies from the genre for insufficient blandness. The sandwich ($5.75 with fries and drink) comes on a croissant, but maybe you can talk them into subbing the garlic bread from Mr. Zee's Special Charbroiled Chicken plate ($5.95).