Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gene & Jude's/Bang Bang Pie Shop

One of the side benefits of traveling back to Chicago for dinner at Next (particularly when the progeny get left behind with grandparents) is that we have a little extra free time to visit other local food establishments. In this case, the missus and I arrived early on a Saturday morning, leaving us with the remainder of the day to explore before our 6:30 pm reservation. So after picking up the rental car, we headed straight down River Road until we reached the northwest corner of Grand Avenue, home to Gene and Jude's hot dog stand in River Grove. For those of you unaware, up until about a month ago, G&J was probably the 2nd or 3rd most famous hot dog place in the city; however, with the closure of Hot Doug's on October 3, the owners now have a nearly airtight claim to the title of the city's overall sausage king (they have long been the purveyor of best Depression-style dog in town, that is, a stripped-down version of the typical Chicago dog - more on that in a bit).

G&J's has been at its current location across the street from the Des Plaines River since 1950, apparently unmolested by the floodwaters that inundate the property about every 10 years or so. Legend has it that the founder, Gene Mormino, lost his original stand (which opened in 1946 at Polk & Western) in a poker game and needed a partner (his co-worker, Jude DeSantis) to help open the new restaurant as it stands today (Gene's son is now the owner).

Inside, the decor is about as stark as an operating room, with nothing on the walls except a couple of neon signs and a few newspaper clippings documenting the allure of the G&J hot dog (Rachel Ray Magazine named it tops in the U.S.A., for example). The bill of fare is nearly as sparse, featuring hot dogs, double dogs, Chicago hot tamales, and fries - that's all. Weiner toppings are limited to mustard, onions, relish, and sport peppers, the so-called Depression dog that some claim is the "true" Chicago dog. If you want tomato, pickle, or celery salt, you'll need to look elsewhere (and keep in mind that this is probably the place on Earth that you're most likely to get injured if you ask for ketchup).

After receiving our order, we moved to one of the nearby stand-up counters to eat (there's no seating in the building). Mrs. Hackknife and I both opted for the regular dog without sport peppers and an order of fries (piled high on the bun), plus a tamale for me. I've had a Depression dog once or twice before (Red Hot Ranch on Western immediately comes to mind), but G&J's was clearly the best, and the fries have to be amongst the top in the city. I have to give credit to any dining stand with the chutzpah to do hand-cut fries (we saw an employee run a few potatoes through the wall-mounted cutter every now and then to maintain the number of deep fry baskets awaiting a hot oil bath), which seems to be a dying art (many operations go with frozen fries now). G&J's sells steam-heated Supreme Tamale Company tamales (based in nearby Elk Grove Village) and they're not as repulsive as you might think - I was expecting to find a laundry list of synthetic ingredients on the wrapper and they actually consist of little more than cornmeal, lard, ground beef, garlic, and spices (whether or not they're healthy is another matter altogether). Anyway, both the missus and I concluded that we'd had nearly the ideal lunch at G&J's and agreed it was criminal that, as nearly lifelong Chicagoans, we'd never eaten here up to this point.

Since man cannot live long without dessert, we made a slight detour on our way through the city to a small bakery in Logan Square, namely Bang Bang Pie Shop at 2051 N. California. Bang Bang opened about 3 years ago as a competitor to our favorite local pie maker, Hoosier Mama, and has garnered nearly the same volume of positive foodie press. Unlike Hoosier Mama's storefront on Chicago Ave., the Bang Bang collective has a small (albeit cramped) dining room and offers a larger selection of savory dishes in addition to high-end pies. At 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the place was packed to the gills with hipsters sipping coffee and noshing on breakfast sandwiches, forcing us to head to a table in the backyard.

Although the outside air was chilly (about 45F), the sun felt warm as we sampled our pie slices, chocolate pecan for me and honey pie (a combo of honey custard and fruit compote in a Graham cracker crust) for the missus. Bang Bang trumpets the fact that they're one of the few bakeries around using non-vegetarian leaf lard (in this case, goose fat) to add flakiness to their pie crusts - the resulting product is very good, but we both found the pies to be just a notch below what we've consistently encountered from Hoosier Mama (and continue to do so - our Thanksgiving and Xmas orders with them are in the works). Next time we pop in, I'll go straight for a bacon or sausage biscuit and hope for the best.

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