March 21 was the launch date for Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites. In the book, my co-author, Monica Eng, and I examine the origin stories of foods that were first found on Chicagoland menus.
Odds are good you’ve eaten a Chicago-style hot dog, deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef. In our book, we cover these three, plus 27(!) other Chicago original foods, many of which you probably haven’t eaten. For each of these sometimes-eccentric edibles, we provide color photos and a backstory, a list of local restaurants where each food can be found and, whenever possible, recipes.
Here are six local foods you’ve probably never eaten, and these aren’t just daily specials: they’re on the regular menus at Chicago restaurants.
Akutagawa is hamburger meat with chopped onions, green peppers, bean sprouts and scrambled eggs, with a side of rice and gravy. Akutagawa was first served at Hamburger King in Wrigleyville, where owner Tom Yamauchi made it for his friend, George Akutagawa, who had asked for “something special.” The resulting dish is hearty, with the beef and gravy balanced by fresh veggies.
Gam Pong Chicken Wings are bathed in a slightly hot/sweet sauce, with meat pulled to the end of the bone, which becomes a kind of handle that allows for less messy eating of the saucy meat.
Mother-in-Law is a Chicago corn roll tamale, in a poppy-seed hot dog bun, covered in chili and dressed with sport peppers, onions, mustard, and sometimes pickles, cucumber and/or blue-green relish. Anthony Bourdain pronounced it “perhaps the greatest, most uniquely Chicago food invention,” but he also called it the “evil stepbrother of the hot dog.”
Taffy Grapes are sometimes spotted at places like Baba’s Steak & Lemonade on Laramie near Madison. These grab-and-go confections are simply fresh green grapes, dipped in frosting or chocolate, sprinkled with nuts. We like these treats so much we’ve made dozens at home.
Jim Shoe is a sandwich of corned beef, roast beef, and gyros meat, in a submarine roll, with giardiniera, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise and cheese, splashed with a sauce that’s something like tzatziki.
Breaded Steak Sandwich, served at Ricobene’s in Bridgeport, is a pounded steak, breaded and fried, ladled with red gravy, laid into Gonnella bread, with mozzarella, sweet peppers and/or giardiniera — a huge mouthful of food. About the sandwich, a friend of mine said, “There were moments when I was absolutely convinced I was eating breaded carpet padding.” Still, in 2015, a writer in USA Today dubbed it “the best sandwich in the world.” You decide.
There are many more foods and their backstories in Made in Chicago, and what many of these foods demonstrate is that even with relatively limited resources, human creativity will shape simple ingredients into dishes that reflect local tastes and become beloved in local communities, even when — and perhaps because — they are largely unknown to the outside world.
Our book is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble … and we encourage you to buy local at Book Table. If you’d like to hear us talk about some of the foods we present in the book, Monica and I be speaking at the Oak Park Public Library on May 26 at 6:30 p.m.