I've been thinking lately about the term "fast food." It seems to me that we call the quick snacks that we pick up on the run "fast food." This term can have a negative connotation. When we travel in other countries, we're more inclined to think of the food that we get from a cart or a stand as "street food." And when street food is good, it's very good.
Today I'm writing about my street food tour in Chicago. It started accidentally, on the way to the bus stop. We saw a big sign above a small place called Fast Track, proclaiming that they were "#1 in Chicago." We had to go in to investigate.
The gentleman behind the counter told us that they were number one in hotdogs. Chicago hot dogs, naturally. We hadn't planned to get anything to eat but there we were, and were their hotdogs really outstanding?
After a brief discussion, we decided to put them to the test. We were going to try the footlong hotdog with everything. In case you're uninitiated in the ways of Chicago hot dogs, that means pickle, tomato, onions and hot peppers.
I sat down to wait as my husband placed our order. A big guy with a shaved head, who looked like he could've played for the Bears, came in. Chicago is a city of big personalities.
"I see you have your big coat on today," he said as he walked past.
"Yes sir," I replied.
He reached the counter where my husband was in the midst of ordering. "Aren't you going to get the fries?" he asked.
"No, we hadn't planned on it," my husband said.
"You gotta get the fries." He looked at the lady behind the counter, "Give him some fries."
"Okay, we'll have fries too," my husband said.
He detailed the wonders of Fast Track fries. "They make them here. See this machine -- they come out of there. They're made fresh. See, they have the skin on -- that's the machine where they come out."
Soon our food was ready and the plate with the hot dog was put on a tray.
"Where are the fries?" our new friend asked, a little heatedly.
"I'll give you some fries free of charge," the lady behind the counter said quickly. I think she thought that we were being railroaded.
"Yeah, she'll give them to you free," our friend explained. "Just like the drug dealers. Then you'll be hooked."
Our footlong was outstanding. It was a giant hotdog, cradled by two regular-sized, wonderfully soft buns. Everything was fresh and good. When the peppers were too hot, that's when the fries came in to cut the spiciness. I happen to be a french fry connoisseur. Our friend was right -- the fries were delicious and we were hooked. I confessed my new addiction to the lady as we left. She giggled knowingly. She has probably seen this many times before.
The next day we took a trip to Al's, home of the best Italian beef, according to our Chicago sources. I ordered it with a mix of hot and sweet peppers, because I couldn't decide what I wanted. I live in LA, the land of customization. I think that my mother was a little embarrassed by my request.
Al's is a bare bones, stand-at-the-counter-to-eat kind of place. The Italian beef was hot, juicy, shredded goodness. The combination of peppers was an inspired choice. The fries were delicious here, too. In between gobbling our food, we talked with our counter-mate. He turned out to be a former Central American diplomat and street food aficionado. He was there for his Italian beef fix. We talked about favorite street foods around the world. He agreed that our next stop was an excellent choice.
We were on a roll. Jim's is the place for Polish sausage. It's basically a stand overlooking the expressway. We got Polish sausages (sauteed onion with mustard) and a pork chop sandwich. We took these home and polished them off later. Delicious.
I wish I could say that we didn't eat for a week after our street food tour, but we had Thanksgiving dinner the next day.