Publican Quality Meats is Worth Planning Your Day Around, But it's Not Required
Out of town guests and a limited Saturday afternoon lunch window to nourish and impress—this is the all too familiar situation I found myself in recently. What to do... With Union Station a relatively close jaunt for the Metro bound guests, a West Loop destination is in order. Putting our name in at Au Cheval, 11:15 a.m. arrival time and blustery temperatures be damned, means a two hour wait. More of the same nearby at Little Goat Diner, and we can't take them to J.P. Graziano again, lest people start thinking we only know one restaurant in Chicago. But up the street at Publican Quality Meats, they're just waiting for the big party in the back to pay the bill and we can be seated right away. Bingo.
At its heart, PQM is a butcher shop that happens to serve sandwiches. But as we've discussed before, these aren't just any sandwiches: built on bread baked in house and stuffed with meat butchered/cured/roasted/etc. downstairs, these are sandwiches worth going out of your way for. Like the Saturdays-only Porchetta Sandwich ($12.00), which is served until it runs out. And if others respond to the barrel-sized roast perched innocuously on top of the deli counter, run out it will—the rosemary and thyme rubbed tenderloin and loin wrapped in belly and roasted for ten hours bundle is a sight to behold.
The sandwich itself (minus the meat) is built on a less is more philosophy: there are just enough sliced onions and pickles, and just enough dijon mustard, to enhance and cut through the rich pork. The chewy ciabatta base is up to the task of keeping everything together, and all in all, this is a sandwich that warrants a return.
There are two ways to write about the PQM's Combo Beef ($11.00): the first way would be to go on about how this untraditional take is not your father's beef, dipped, with hot. An Italian beef flavored emulsified sausage, thinly sliced and crisped on the griddle, has been swapped in for paper thin beef and gravy, and unholy additions like provolone, caramelized onions, and pickled peppers have been added to the mix as well. Sacrilege!
The other way would be to actually focus on how awesome a sandwich this is. The texture of the beef sausage is reminiscent of Kronos coned gyro meat—if said cone were flavorful, with a black pepper nuance, that is—and all the components work together to create a sandwich that respectfully nods back while still looking forward. And you don't even have to pull out the "Italian stance" to prevent wearing it for the rest of the day.
Sandwiches come standard with a very nice bag of chips, but upgrading to the Potato Salad ($2.00) is worth it, if only to see just how refined the picnic staple can be. Mustard yellowed mayo is replaced with an orange parsley-heavy harissa yogurt sauce, and it's up to you to stir it into the toothsome potatoes. I liked it so much I ate half before I remembered to snap a photo.
If you can tear yourself away from the sandwich menu (no judgment here if you can't), the Warm Lentil Salad ($12.00, on special that day) won't let you down. Said lentils are added to the classic frisée Lyonnaise formula, and everything, from the poached eggs to the thick bacon lardons to the crunchy greens, are expertly proportioned and satisfying. This is hangover food worth tucking your shirt in for.
If you're coming in, as I was, with a hungry young mouth to feed, PQM serves a mean Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($5.00) Built on a top-split hot dog bun and filled with good old American cheese, this is no frills- though I'd be lying if I didn't admit to sneaking a few bites myself when my daughter wasn't looking.
When all was said and done, we were in and out of PQM in under an hour, leaving plenty of time to run off lunch at the park before saying our goodbyes. For that sort of quality time, I'll pass up mile high bologna sandwiches and kimchi bacon pancakes any day.