I’m a born-and-bred Chicago girl who has been wandering this desert now for almost a decade. Suffice it to say, there are a few food laws I have grown up with: I believe in deep-dish pizza. If I must eat thin crust, it should be cut into squares. Ketchup on a hot dog is sacrilege, and the dog must be served in a steamed poppy-seed bun and be “dragged through the garden”—that is, topped with mustard, neon-green relish, onions, tomato slices, pickle spears, sport peppers and celery salt. And there are dishes I will only eat when I’m actually in the City of Big Shoulders (see: that pizza). But recently there’s been an influx of my hometown favorites making their way to Las Vegas. I won’t make you follow all my food rules, but soon you’ll be able to get your own taste of Chicago.
While the Italian beef sandwich is not one of my hometown go-tos, it’s nice to see the familiar sign of Al’s Beef at 6840 W. Sahara Avenue. The original on Chicago’s Taylor Street is an institution, having opened in 1938 during the Great Depression, when meat, a luxury at the time, was sliced super thin. The result was one of Chicago’s iconic sandwiches, the thick bun dipped quickly into the jus, and the nearly see-through slices of roast beef topped with spicy, house-made giardiniera—that means chopped hot peppers, cauliflower and celery that has been marinating in hot oil. It’s messy and hearty, but not the gut bomb you’d think. Super fans know to opt for a combo, adding an Italian sausage to the mix. Only in Chicago do we think of a sausage link as a condiment.
The Wieners Circle
By day, this infamous hot dog stand in Chicago’s hoity-toity Lincoln Park neighborhood, near DePaul University, is family friendly, serving respectable char-dogs and some of the best, fatty, crisp fries in town. After 2 a.m., when the bars close, however, is when things get rowdy. Drunken customers and workers scream, yell and hurl insults at each other—mostly in jest—as they order and wait for the food. Stumbling in after last call, I used to think I was a deep thinker to muse that the relationship between the African-American workers in the kitchen and the young, white DePaul students was a microcosmic representation of the still-obvious segregation of Chicago. And then someone inevitably would order a Chocolate Shake, and all hell would break loose. (In a nutshell: Should a customer slap a $20 on the window separating the classes and demand a Chocolate Shake, one of the women behind the window—if she’s in the mood, that is—will lift her shirt and shake her bare breasts). When the Chicago institution opens at Red Rock Resort later this year, it will leave the abusive behavior and bringing-boys-to-the-yard behind on Clark Street, but hopefully the dogs will still have the right amount of char on them.
Chef Matthias Merges did a brief stint in Las Vegas when Charlie Trotter was at the Palazzo, and when he closed that restaurant, he said, “Never again.” Little did he know his latest spot in Chicago’s hipster ’hood of Logan Square would eventually land him front and center back on the Strip. Merges’ Logan Poser Ramen—a response to chef David Chang’s claim that anyone making ramen outside of Japan was a “poser”—his yakitori menu, crazy-good double-fried chicken, draft cocktails and late-night hours made his spot a favorite with chefs, who have made it a usual post-shift stop. Merges’ cool new space at the front of Monte Carlo, with its nod to street food, makes Yusho an easy stop for hungry passersby.
Creative Mexican restaurant brand Mercadito has a location in Chicago’s River North as well as outposts in New York and other states, and this year they’re setting up shop at both Red Rock Resort and Green Valley Ranch. Based on the Mexican markets Patricio Sandoval grew up with, south-of-the-border flavors meet family-style dining, handmade tortillas and taqueria-style cuisine. With the Sandoval brothers’ concept also comes Tippling Hall to Green Valley Ranch, a “temple to all things alcohol” by beverage consulting team Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay. Chicago’s Tippling Hall embraces drinking culture rituals from around the world, and features kegged cocktails and a globally inspired, small-plates menu to pair with the innovative, worldly drinks.
Grace Bascos talks about Chicago restaurants in Las Vegas on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.