More than just any other place in Little Italy—even Al's #1 Italian Beef—Carm's Beef and Italian Ice on Polk St. feels like the kind of place I imagine could have been around when the neighborhood actually deserved its ethnic moniker.
Much of that has to do with its location on a quiet tree-lined street, two blocks north of the traffic on Taylor St., which makes the shop feel like a corner store that just happens to kick out a solid Italian beef. But it's also legitimately old: according to its website, the shop began as a grocery store back in 1929. While much of the area has changed, Carm's still continues on.
Of course, the first question most people will want to know is whether the Italian beef ($5.20) here is as good or better than the one a few blocks away at Al's. I'll save some of our time and admit that, no, Al's version still wins easily. But if you're a fan of old-school Chicago stands, Carm's still deserves your attention.
Carm's Italian beef is no slouch. Though the meat is slightly overcooked, it's still thinly sliced and very tender, with an extra beefy gravy that gets soaked up by bun. It's enhanced by a bright and crunchy giardiniera. So while it might not win a taste test against nearby Al's, the beef at Carm's is still one of the better versions I've tried recently.
For its hot dog ($2.15, with fries), Carm's goes minimalist-style, topping the dog with only mustard, onions, relish, and sport peppers on a plain bun. I'm a big fan of this style, but the whole package is held back by the skinless Vienna Beef hot dog. Sure, it's beefy enough to stand up to the assertive toppings, and it will certainly do in a pinch, but a natural casing dog would be a huge improvement.
As the minimalist-style usually warrants, fries come wrapped up with the hot dog. But instead of hand-cut and thick, they are skinny and slender, a variation that I actually like now and again. It also helps that they are hot and well salted. Still, I could tell that they were previously frozen.
Fortunately, even subpar fries can't knock the sense of history that comes with visiting Carm's, making me feel genuinely embarrassed that I've never visited here before. That sense of discovery also adds to the allure. Sure, there are some better stands, including some very close nearby, but Carm's has a character and feel all its own, and it's worth seeking out.