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

Eating on the Edge: A Windy City transplant brings his hometown hot-dog style to the U District.

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 'ꀜAve,'ꀝ 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.

'ꀜWe serve Chicago-style fast food,'ꀝ said Andrew Matthews, a fourth-generation Chicagoan, who owns the restaurant with his brother-in-law Derek Scott. 'ꀜWhen I ask my son where he wants to go out to eat (in Chicago), he doesn'ꀙt say McDonald'ꀙs or Burger King, he says Portillo'ꀙs or Dillingers.'ꀝ

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'ꀙs hamburger stands are common. The Ezell'ꀙs fried chicken chain has a reliable following. But these institutions are probably not deeply embedded in the culture of Seattle. (Ezell'ꀙs was started by a man who sought to recreate the cooking of his Texas childhood.)

At least not the way Pink'ꀙs (famous purveyor of hot dogs) or Phillipe'ꀙs (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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs King of Steaks and Geno'ꀙs Steaks. Buffalo has Schwabl'ꀙs 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'ꀙs or at the Carnegie Deli, and like Chicago, is a city serious about its hot dogs. Gray'ꀙs Papaya is the preferred outlet, Nathan'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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.

Perhaps it means we are healthier, smarter, more pragmatic, sophisticated and curious in our tastes. Or maybe we'ꀙre fussy and uptight, neurotic about food, repressed, a bit joyless when it comes to indulging our appetites, prone to retiring early to bed. Whether the result of virtue or fault, this is a hard place to find a hot dog that inspires love. Into this void came Taste of Chicago.

As New York has Nathan'ꀙs, Chicago has Vienna Beef. The New York dog is a simpler creature, ordered with sauerkraut in some cases, or 'ꀜonions'ꀝ which actually means a tomato-onion sauce. The Chicago version served with sincere pride at Taste of Chicago (for $5) comes in a poppy-seed hot dog bun with an entourage of condiments — at a minimum tomato slices, a pickle spear, peppers, atomic-green relish.

'ꀜYou can go anywhere in Chicago and get a good hot dog,'ꀝ Matthews said.

The neighborhood known to have the very best is the one centered around Maxwell Street, home to a famous open-air market, and birthplace of the Polish sausage sandwich, another Chicago classic. The neighborhood is to Chicago what the Lower East Side is to New York. (Maxwell Street is to Chicago what Orchard Street is to New York.) Both were once predominantly Jewish and are now predominantly Hispanic. The Lower East Side has evolved one step further and has become yuppie.

The Maxwell Street neighborhood is still known colloquially as 'ꀜJew Town,'ꀝ a term that is comfortably used by locals (albeit less so outside of Chicago), considered neither patently offensive, nor entirely innocuous. The label is treated similarly to the term 'ꀜChinatown,'ꀝ considered antiquated by some, but harmless and free of pretention by others. But preferring to play it safe on unfamiliar ground, the proprietors of Taste of Chicago call its version of the classic "Jew Town Polish" sandwich the "Maxwell Street Polish" ($5.25).

Apart from the hot dog, the most celebrated item on the Taste of Chicago menu is the Italian beef sandwich ($7.50), a Chicago mutant of the French dip. Slices of beef poached in beef au jus are served in a hoagie roll dipped in the same au jus. Most order the sandwich with cheese, and an assortment of hot and sweet peppers. If the sandwich is ordered as a combo ($8.50), Matthews, who does most of the cooking, also puts an Italian sausage in the roll and often tops it with marinara sauce in addition to all the other toppings. All hot dogs and sandwiches are served with French fries, which can be ordered plain, seasoned, or covered with chili and cheese.

The restaurant also serves onion rings, chicken wings, gyros, pizza puffs (a Chicago version of calzone, deep fried instead of baked), burgers, and two variations of a 'ꀜWindy City'ꀝ sandwich. Made with either steak or chicken, this is basically a Phllly cheese steak with heavier seasonings and shredded, instead of sliced, meat.

Matthews cooks with both a flat-top griddle and a flame grill. He puts his burgers on both to achieve an optimum level of 'ꀜjuiciness,'ꀝ he said. Cook them on the grill and they are too dry, on the griddle too greasy.

The restaurant has a small kitchen but a large dining room with free wi-fi, a table-top chess board, domino sets, video games, all targeted to its college-age clientele. Adorning the walls are many references to Chicago: sports jerseys — both the Cubs and the White Sox are acknowledged — posters, and a map of greater Chicago with more than 200 thumbtacks in it. Any Chicagoan who eats here is invited to place a tack on the map, indicating where they are from.

By the front door are posters of Al Capone and the 'ꀜFather of Chicago,'ꀝ Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a Haitian colonist of African and French descent and a fur trader, who was the first permanent resident of what eventually became Chicago.

Matthews takes his Chicago roots seriously, visiting his hometown every three months. Most of his family still lives there. Marisa Gayden, who works the front counter, is also from Chicago and will happily reminisce with anyone who cares to. Both are still taking measure of their new home. They do not miss Chicago'ꀙs sweltering summers and frigid winters.

This week, Matthews had a run-in with the local police force a short distance from his restaurant. He was carrying a Taste of Chicago sign board to the corner of 50th and University Way in hopes of luring customers, when a patrol car pulled up alongside him — a few months ago, Matthews reported someone had taken the sign — and asked him what he was doing with the sign. Matthews provided his identification, business license, and business card, and still the officer detained him while checking to see if Matthews had a criminal record. He did not. To Matthews, it seemed like an overreaction.

Matthews presumes the treatment was not motivated by racism or bigotry; The officer, like Matthews, was African-American. It seemed more likely to him that the once-over was a Seattle thing, or a U-District thing. Gayden joked that perhaps it was because Matthews was wearing a red, button-down shirt over a red T-shirt, the color of the Bloods.

Another Seattle mystery to ponder perhaps. Matthews has learned a few local tendencies. Recently he indulged one of them by adding to his menu a vegetarian sandwich made with artichoke hearts and tofu. The act would seem like sacrilege to most Chicagoans, but Matthews said, 'ꀜI have to adapt to where I'ꀙm at.'ꀝ

'ꀜIt (eating vegetarian) is definitely not a Chicago thing,'ꀝ Gayden said. 'ꀜWe'ꀙre adapting. But we'ꀙre not looking to sell coffee or anything'ꀦ I don'ꀙt miss the winters in Chicago but I miss the people. Seattle is not the kind of place you can start a conversation with a stranger at the bus stop. When I do that people look at me like I'ꀙm weird.'ꀝ

If you go: Taste of Chicago, 5259 University Way N.E., 206-274-9999. Hours are 11 am to 1 am Monday-Thursday, and 11 am to 3 am Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at