Not for the fussy or neurotic: Chicago-style, late-night fast food

Eating on the Edge: A Windy City transplant brings his hometown hot-dog style to the U District.
A Taste of Chicago hot dog, with beef, Italian sausage and the works

A Taste of Chicago hot dog, with beef, Italian sausage and the works Hugo Kugiya

Taste of Chicago co-owner Andrew Matson serves up a Chicago-style hot dog

Taste of Chicago co-owner Andrew Matson serves up a Chicago-style hot dog Hugo Kugiya

About 3,000 foreign students are enrolled at the University of Washington, the largest number from Asia, particularly China and South Korea. Italians, Germans, Spaniards and Brits also attend the school in great number. Australians, Iranians, Israelis, and Brazilians are well represented in the university community. Africans, Eastern Europeans, and Central Americans are not. Nonetheless, just about every country has at least one student that goes to school at the UW.

And with enough students will come, eventually, a restaurant to feed them.

University Way Northeast, like other busy streets near large universities, is home to a great variety of restaurants serving food from faraway places. On the three blocks north of Northeast 50th Street, for instance, there is both a Brazilian restaurant and a Brazilian coffee shop, as well as establishments that serve Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Caribbean, and Persian food. Within staggering distance of each other are both English and Irish pubs.

In the middle of this stretch of the “Ave,” a new restaurant called Taste of Chicago opened in October and began serving a particular strain of American food. Open late, with a tendency toward large portions, Taste of Chicago requires a category of its own. One could call it regional fast food.

“We serve Chicago-style fast food,” said Andrew Matthews, a fourth-generation Chicagoan, who owns the restaurant with his brother-in-law Derek Scott. “When I ask my son where he wants to go out to eat (in Chicago), he doesn’t say McDonald’s or Burger King, he says Portillo’s or Dillingers.”

Which is to say that fast food, in Chicago, as it tends to be in older cities, is personal, and the devotion to it serious. Whether the same sentiment exists here in Seattle for fast food or casual food is debatable. Long, late-night lines at Dick’s hamburger stands are common. The Ezell’s fried chicken chain has a reliable following. But these institutions are probably not deeply embedded in the culture of Seattle. (Ezell’s was started by a man who sought to recreate the cooking of his Texas childhood.)

At least not the way Pink’s (famous purveyor of hot dogs) or Phillipe’s (which claims to have created the French dip sandwich) are embedded in the culture of Los Angeles, and not the way the Primanti Brothers and the restaurant’s signature sandwich — it contains French fries — are a part of Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia has its cheese steak, and the two reigning institutions that make them, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks. Buffalo has Schwabl’s and the beef on weck sandwich (a variation of French dip served on a Kaiser roll with caraway seeds). In Baltimore, the quintessential, working-class meal is the pit beef sandwich (made with slices of grilled beef), and the most popular place to get it is Chaps.

New York has its ubiquitous pizza slice, the pastrami sandwich at Katz’s or at the Carnegie Deli, and like Chicago, is a city serious about its hot dogs. Gray’s Papaya is the preferred outlet, Nathan’s the preferred brand. Variations of barbecue are a culinary anthem of most of the South and Southeast. The plate lunch (a meat of choice served with a side of rice and macaroni salad) is practically a sacrament in Hawaii.

But here in the Northwest, we do not seem to have a casual-dining ritual we claim uniquely as our own. We have taken modestly to burgers and burritos, a habit adopted from California. It can be argued that teriyaki, found nearly everywhere, is the Seattle version of the plate lunch. But rarely do you see lines of customers out the door, waiting at 2 a.m. for a plate of chicken teriyaki. Furthermore, one could argue that a plate of teriyaki is not nearly unhealthy or decadent enough to qualify as a serious, fast-food passion.

What our lack of fast-food culture suggests about us is also debatable. This type of cuisine tends to correlate with a town’s working-class population, and a need for eating late at night or even in the middle of the night. Seattle has, or at least had, both.

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