The Best of Standing Room Only (As of 2009)
Back in 2009, I started documenting the best places to eat in Chicago while standing up. Some of the stands have closed since then, but most are still around serving the food that made them institutions. Though this list is by no means complete—and I plan to visit more places very soon—take a look at some of my favorite stands in the city.
Best Minimalist-Style Hot Dog
Not every hot dog in the city is loaded with an array of condiments. In fact, I more often than not found myself digging into a minimalist-style hot dog (also called depression dog), which features a natural-casing hot dog in a steamed bun with mustard, onion, relish, and hot peppers. Each hot dog is then topped with a whole handful of hand-cut fries. There are many fine contenders for the top spot, but I am quite a fan of Redhot Ranch and Jimmy's. That said, there is something strangely better about Gene and Jude's. While writing for Rachel Ray Magazine, Serious Eats actually selected Gene and Jude's as serving the best hot dog in the whole country, and I'd have to agree. (Though I would like to point out the fact that I wrote about it first!)
Gene and Jude's
2720 River Road, River Grove IL 60171 (map); 708-452-7634
Best Hot Dog Drive-In
Not all hot dog stands go for the charm of a Depression-era establishment; others go for the nostalgia of a 1950s drive-in. The neon glow of Susie's is hard to deny (neither is its infamous corn pole—a battered and fried polish sausage on a stick) but I have to admit that Superdawg has the whole cartoonish-yet-still-authentic drive-in thing down. Sure, two enormous hot dog statues, named Maurie and Flaurie, greet you from the street, but the oddly beef hot dogs are the real deal.
6363 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL 60646 (map); 773-763-0660
Best Italian Beef
I never had a bad Italian beef while writing the column. With the exception of Chickie's, which closed this year, I'd happily eat at beef from Pop's, Roma's, or Scatchell's. They are all solid. But one stood out. Al's #1 on Taylor is both more welcoming than most and features a more distinctive and flavored Italian beef. The chain version of Al's #1, which has numerous locations around the city, is okay, but it's still not quite as perfect as the original.
Al's #1 Italian Beef
1079 W. Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-226-4017
Best French Fries
As I mentioned earlier, even the average stand in Chicago puts out some incredible fries. Picking a favorite feels strange, but when ordered extra-crispy, the browned fries at Redhot Ranch are hard to beat. Interestingly, though they frozen, the thinly cut options at Pop's bare a strange resemblance to McDonald's own specimens, albeit hotter, crispier, and with more salt.
2072 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-878-9898
Pop's Italian Beef
10337 South Kedzie Avenue, Chicago IL 60655 (map); 773-239-1243
Best Chicken Stand
Of course, it's not only about the beef. Chicken stands were not a category I was expecting to find as varied and rewarding. For every fine fried chicken joint like Uncle Remus, I was happy to locate a new Jamaican jerk joint like Tropic Island—which bathed its roasted chicken in an addictive and slightly spicy allspice sauce. But we'll also be predictable and point out that when Harold's is on—and it is more often than not—it's one hell of a fried bird.
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken
419 E. 79th Street, Chicago IL 60619 (map); 773-224-7766
Harold's Chicken Shack #36
1361 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL (map); 773-252-2424
Best Barbecue Stand
There have been dozens upon dozens of barbecue openings since I last wrote the column, and while some have been amazing, none have quite hit the spot like Uncle John's BBQ. The only time I've ever been disappointed by Mack and his smoked meats was when I trekked down there only to find the doors closed.
Uncle John's Barbecue
337 E 69th Street, Chicago IL 60637 (map) 773-892-1233
Best Sandwich Stand
I ate a lot of fine sandwiches, but the one that sticks out for me is from Nhu' Lan Bakery. The freshly made Vietnamese-style baguettes have the perfect match of crisp and crunch, and the abundance of acidic toppings makes just about all the meaty and non-meaty options worth ordering.
Nhu' Lan Bakery
2612 W. Lawrence, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-878-9898
Best Cuban Stand
I was nervous the first time I walked in Cafe Marianao. There is no line, just a huddle of mostly men standing up by the counter waiting, apparently, for their orders to be finished. But I was rewarded with one of the best steak sandwiches in the city. The only thing that makes it better is a cup of scorching hot cafe con leche.
2246 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-278-4533
Best Seafood Stand
Without getting to hyperbolic about it, Calumet Fisheries is really as good as people say. With the smokehouse located right out back, the fish options are truly worth the trek down to the far South Side. If it's fried seafood you're after, I actually kind of prefer Hagen's Fish Market on the North Side, especially the monster fish sandwich.
3259 E 95th St, Chicago IL 60617 (map); 773-933-9855
Hagen's Fish Market
5635 W. Montrose Avenue, Chicago IL 60634 (map); 773-283-1944
Best Mexican Stand
I remember expecting to eat a lot more tacos for the column, but most of the best taquerias are full service joints with loads of tables. There were two exceptions. Thanks to its convenient location and late night hours, most of my experiences at La Pasadita here have been when I'm far from sober. Unfortunately, I've had some mixed experiences recently. That's not the case with Tierra Caliente, which seems to actually be getting better.
1141 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-278-0384
1402 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-772-9804
Best Food Truck (As of 2009)
It's hard to believe, but just two years ago, the food truck options around town were incredibly meager. One I did find was the Iyanzé Truck, which served fiercely hot Ethiopian food to the cab drivers stationed near the Sheridan in Streeterville.
North Park Drive between East Illinois Street and East North Water Street, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday
Best Italian Ice
I sampled a lot of bad Italian ices around the city, all of which made the balanced options at Mario's Lemonade seem even more special. Located on the ground floor of a townhouse, the legendary stand manages to produces ices that are refreshing, but not too sweet. Too bad it's already closed for the season.
1068 W. Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-829-0672
The Best Of Standing Room Only
Back in 2009, I set out on a simple quest to find the best places to eat in Chicago while standing up. It wasn't hard. Chicagoans have a strange infatuation with stands, a connection that goes back at least to 1893, when Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany helped popularize the hot dog at the World's Columbian Exposition. (The two would later go on to found Vienna Beef.)