Day 4 — Destination: South Bend, IN. Dinner stop: Al’s Beef in Chicago.
Our mornings were getting later and later as our restless legs and lack of good night’s rest began to catch up with us. Not only did I manage to forget our leftover KC barbecue for lunch, we also forgot to keep up with our gas levels, leading to some stressful stops in middle-of-nowhere, Midwest USA.
After 10 hours of Kansas, I could no longer bear to photograph Missouri and southern Illinois. The cornfields blurred together, barn after barn, silo after silo. Perpetual road construction meant reduced speed limits and clogged traffic for most of the day, which left me cursing the Troubled Asset Relief Program and all its job-creating glory. Damn you stimuluusssss! Speaking of job creation, where were those hard(ly)working construction workers? Miles and miles of 50-mph zones and not a single crew member to be found…. arrrghh.
The plan was to go to South Bend, IN in time for my parents to take us out somewhere and relieve our wallets for the day. Unfortunately the late start out of Kansas City meant that we wouldn’t be in the Bend until 10 p.m. My parents’ kitchen was in the midst of being remodeled, so a home-cooked meal was out.
“Eff it. We’re going to Chicago,” I proclaimed.
Deep dish pizza seemed like the obvious choice for a foray into Chicago, but I had my eye set on another Chi-town classic: the Italian beef sandwich. Picture seasoned roast beef, dripping in its own juices, piled atop a chewy Italian roll dunked in more beef juice, then piled high with pickled hot peppers (“giardiniera” if you want to get technical) or sauteed sweet peppers. If you non-Chicagoans need an analogy, just imagine Homer at Duff Brewery.
My good friend recommended Al’s Beef, so we found one close to the UIC campus in Little Italy. The inside is much like you would expect a 70-year-old Italian beef joint to be. Sparse high counters, limited seating, signed dollar bills taped to the wall, photos of celebrities eating beef, and of course, “Man vs. Food” star Adam Richman’s smiling mug hanging from a frame.
The menu offers beef, sausage or both in Little, Regular or Big Al sizes. Add hot or sweet peppers and your choice of cheese, all extra. (Side note: you want the hot peppers. I ordered sweet but ended up going back for hot. I don’t care if you have the stomach of a pixie dust fairy, just trust me on this one. Hot peppers. Hot. Peppers.)
If you trust in the pictures of the sandwiches from the website, you’re in for a surprise. What comes out of that butcher-wrapped roll looks like a steaming pile of crap. That is, until you catch a whiff of pure juicy meaty starchy spicy delicious. And then take a bite. Is it heaven? Is this real life? A double rainbow? I dunno, but it’s dripping down my chin.
If you’re up for the calorie overload, order up the cheddar cheese fries, which are basically fries accompanied by the most unhealthy, un-organic, un-kosher, delightfully disgusting cheddar cheese sauce known to man. Or maybe add a side of chili. Or onion rings. And a chocolate drenched cheesecake for a little sweetness. It’s a shame they don’t offer Pepto Bismol as part of the menu here. They’d make a killing.
As it turns out, our little jaunt to Al’s Beef added an extra hour of driving to our 10-hour trip. But as we drove into South Bend to reach my parents’ house, we passed by our dinner options for the evening: Steak n’ Shake. Taco Bell. McDonald’s. Nick’s Patio.
Chicago? I’d do it again in a heartbeat.