Monday, June 23, 2008

Chicago's foodstuffs lose something in their translation to other locales

I have eaten the attempts by people in other cities to create the concept of a “Chicago-style” hot dog and the “deep dish” version of pizza that our residents like to brag about. “Ugh,” is all I have to say.

The culinary attempts at Chicago impersonation are so far removed from what can be found here, and usually are third-rate insofar as being edible food.

SO I WASN’T the least bit surprised when, while scouring through the Internet, I found a restaurant review published Sunday in the Times of London that says the Chicago Rib Shack stinks. It’s not just because the restaurant has an unpleasant aroma.

Apparently, the new London-based restaurant produces a version of pork remaining on the bone that is quite unappetizing. How else to react to a review that says the ribs tasted as though they had been “boiled in an ashtray” and were “glutinously awful pig-swamp bad.”

Now I have never been to the Chicago Rib Shack in London, so I have no way of knowing whether the food is really that bad – or if this particular food critic is just full of it.

But I am more than willing to give this critic the benefit of the doubt. As I said before, I have never had a pleasant dining experience when eating something that is supposed to be modeled after the food of the Second City.

SOMEHOW, FOODSTUFFS DON’T translate very well when they are made in a place where the native experience is radically different. I wouldn’t expect people in Jolly Old England to be capable of creating the dishes that were devised in Chicago, any more than I would expect an “English-style pub” in Chicago to be the least bit authentic.

Should we Chicagoans consider it defamation of our city’s character for some other place to peddle substandard takes on our city’s food, thereby giving people the impression that they are somehow experiencing a taste of what makes our city unique?

Ribs in particular are tricky to recreate, in large part because few people can agree on how they should be cooked or seasoned. Who knows exactly what this restaurant thinks is a Chicago version of barbecued ribs.

I know some people who insist that boiling the ribs first before cooking them is nasty, while others insist on it to make the meat more tender. There are questions over whether they should be cooked in an oven or over an open flame – or should be smoked.

WHAT KINDS OF seasoning were rubbed into the meat before they were cooked? Was anything rubbed into the meat? I know people who are absolutely mortified at the thought of adding anything, while others insist true barbecue needs their “secret seasonings” to be even the least bit edible.

Then, what about the sauce?

Should the sauce be added during the cooking process, or should it all come after they are finished? Should that sauce have anything resembling a spice, or should it be sweet-tasting (almost sugary) in flavor?

Should we really expect a Chicago Rib Shack in London to be worth anything? Or are they just pushing rubbery pork on bone with an icky-sweet sauce poured all over them to cover up the fact that any flavor in the meat has been cooked away?

NOW ONE CAN argue that the locals who visit the restaurant likely have never been to Chicago. They likely don’t have a clue as to what barbecue (and I refuse to spell it Bar-B-Q) in this city tastes like. Maybe it is harmless to let them have their delusion that they are somehow eating “Chicago-style” food, even though anyone who seriously enjoys Chicago barbecue still mourns the loss of the Tropical Hut restaurant on Stony Island Boulevard – which mixed a tacky Polynesian theme with some of the best barbecue ever.

But then I think of some of the nasty concoctions I have tried in other cities across this country, all of which entailed some sort of Chicago theme. Thick, overly cheesed takes on pizza in a pan, and rubbery hotdogs without poppy seed buns and totally lacking in much of the way of fixings aside from pickle relish (but too quick to slop on the ketchup).

How about Italian beef sandwiches (that concoction sort of inspired by Italian cooking but created in working-class Chicago) without anything in the way of juice?

The idea that people don’t appreciate that it is the meat and vegetables stuffed into the cheese that make a good Chicago pizza or the pickle spears and tomato slices that turn a hot dog into something worthy of this city (instead of that horseradish-slopped concoction peddled in New York) is just evidence that people outside of Chicago are lacking in a certain culinary common sense.

THIS IS WHY I shudder when I am traveling somewhere (or when I have lived in other cities) and see a restaurant that includes “Chicago” or “Windy City” or something else in its name meant to conjure up images of our beloved home.

What they usually consist of is a local owner hanging up a picture of Mayor Daley (as in Richard J.) and a couple of shots of Wrigley Field, and trying to claim that his restaurant peddling third-rate food has a Chicago “theme” to it.

It didn’t work in the instances I have seen in places ranging from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., and not just because any Chicago restaurant that shows off Wrigley Field will lose the business of about half the city’s population. It just feels too fake.

I’m not the least bit shocked to learn Chicago imitations don’t work in London either.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Comparing a restaurant’s food to photographs of your girlfriend ( from the 1980s is about as harsh a judgment as I can imagine. Remember some of those funky “New Wave” styles of hair and clothing, or the music of Boy George and Culture Club?

What are the best places to find “Chicago-style” food? Through the magic of the Internet, one ( can see for themselves.

If you really feel the need for a Chicago-type barbecue, are not fortunate enough to be in the city but are willing to spend some money (, this is the closest you will come to finding happiness. If you want to scour around town, then check out some ( of these places.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Chicagoan now living in London, I can firmly agree that the "Chicago-style" ribs and food on offer at Chicago Rib Shack misses the mark by several hundred miles. God, what I wouldn't give for a delivery of Robinson's right now...