Thursday, September 23, 2010

Al's #1 Italian Beef

A while back I told you about the Travel Channel show "Food Wars." The premise is to have competing restaurants have a showdown over some specialty dish for the city. The Chicago food war was between Mr. Beef and Al's Beef for the title of best Italian beef in the city. My plan was to recreate this food war and see for myself. Mostly, I wanted to do this because I couldn't believe how badly Al's lost in this competition. I'd been to Al's a bunch of times before but not in a few years. Finally, Lisa and I ran over there after volunteering last week.

Logistics
Al's Beef has multiple locations throughout the city with the main spot on Taylor in Little Italy. We didn't want to schlep out there, and we were right next to the River North spot which is why we chose that location. It's a simple order at the counter operation. They have a parking lot in an area where parking is scarce, and they have a drive through. However, I wouldn't recommend the drive through because the meal can get pretty messy. It wasn't very crowded when we went, and we got our food within 5 minutes of ordering. They also have this interesting awning in the middle of the parking lot with a bunch of tables for outdoor seating. Although we basically ate next to large buildings and a traffic jam, it was still nice to be outside. One time my parents went to Al's on Taylor, and because of the lack of outdoor seating they ate on the hood of their car. From then on the hood had a permanent grease stain.

I thought the cost was maybe a little pricey, but I mostly didn't like the upcharge for peppers. They have combination meals where you can get a sandwich, fries, and a drink for around $8, so I guess it's not so bad.

The Food
They've got lots of options, but really the only reason to go is for the beef. We each ordered an Italian Beef Sandwich with both Sweet and Hot Peppers, and we got them dipped. We also got an order of French Fries.
The flavors are right in your face with the first bite. Honestly, I could've had a meal with just the dipped bread. The jus came pouring out of it with every bite, and it was packed with herbs and spices. The sweet peppers were pretty normal, but the hot peppers/giardiniera were exceptional. It added a hearty crunch and a tolerable spicy kick to the sandwich. The meat was juicy and flavorful, but the one flaw was that it was a tad grainy as if it had been overcooked (the sandwich could have been fuller too). Of the many times I've eaten at Al's, this was the only time I had an issue with the meat. Some people say that the location makes a difference, and that the one on Taylor is the one worth going to. Still, I thought that this sandwich held it's own in complexity and taste. The fries are awesome. They have a really nice crisp with a soft center, and there are still some remnants of the skins.

The Italian Beef Sandwich (Hot, Sweet, and Wet)
The French Fries

Overall
Mr. Beef was all about large amounts of meat without an interesting additional flavor. Al's on the other hand brings it all to the plate. The jus is in a whole other ballpark, and the giardiniera would be good on practically anything. As I said, this time the meat wasn't as up to snuff, but I've been here enough to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even with the meat issues, I still thought the sandwich was significantly better than Mr. Beef. I'm giving Al's #1 Italian Beef 4 out of 5 Pearls. If you recall, I gave Mr. Beef 2.5.


I'm not convinced that either of these places is the best in the city. I've gotten some good suggestions from you guys, and I'll take them to heart as I keep on searching.

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

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