I finally made a long planned trip to Gumbah's in Vallejo. I am already a convert to Chicago style food of this type, but one of the best things about different regions of this big country is local variety, and Gumbah's gives a nice window for us in the Bay Area into what is second nature for Chicagoland residents.
My wife is from the Chicago area, and has had a long standing love of Italian Beef sandwiches. I have always loved Chicago-style hot dogs, but have have gained an affinity for Italian Beef as well. Being a kind of diffuse Chicagoland tradition, these types of restaurants are wonderful for finding the little things on the margins of orthodoxy, because they are not yet dominated by conformist chains. Some of these little things of which I speak are what kind of french fries, etc. that can make every place different even though they are giving you basically the same meal, the exact flavors of the ingredients, the preferred sausage/dog provider, the recipes for the seasoning, etc.
I will start my report with a brief discussion of what an Italian Beef sandwich generally is (the reference point) and where the variability can be. I will not use the A-word (authentic), instead I will describe the traditional version, because there are just too many ways that roast beef can be delicious.
Italian Beef sandwiches start out with a cooked through, seasoned roast, seasonings being of the italian variety, the most prominent flavors being oregano and thyme. The meat is usually sliced as thin as possible, which makes the actual tenderness of the meat less of an issue. The meat is served on a spongy/chewy Italian roll that is never crusty (although this sandwich on a crusty French baguette would be awesome, if heterodox). The key to the sandwich, though, is the natural gravy, which is basically the juices and fat from the roast (degreased) and maybe concentrated. This gravy, which is more like an oilier jus, is almost never as salty as a jus for a French Dip, and always has an Italian herb flavor, plus some beefy notes from the roast, but not usually the strong boulliony taste of the French Dip jus. The sliced meat is usually heated up in the gravy and transferred to the sandwich, meaning you have a juicy sandwich that gets harder to eat as the bread basically dissolves. The bread is not usually toasted, so there is no defense from getting soggy, although in this case, soggy is delicious. Many places will dip the entire assembled sandwich in the gravy before serving, but these you have to eat really fast. Finally, the sandwich is topped with either sauteed sweet peppers or "hot peppers", which come in the form of a hot pepper salad known as giardiniera. (MW and friends on giardiniera here http://www.chowhound.com/topics/11336...) Chicago-style giardiniera can have chopped up "sport peppers" (of Chicago hot dog fame), marinated carrot, celery and cauliflower. This mix can be vinegary, salty and spicy (usually all three). Oh, you usually can get mozzarella cheese melted on (I don't like cheese all that much, so none for me).
Here's where you can see things vary:
1) The beef.
Obviously, many places make their own beef, so spices can be stronger or milder. I have had many I-beefs where the roast beef had a decent beefy flavor, but wasn't quite different from roast beef in a French Dip, the strongest difference being in the "gravy" or jus, which usually has the Italian flavor. Many places in Chicago get their beef from a larger producers, and this has a more uniform taste and is usually sliced the thinnest.
2) The gravy (they do call it gravy, but it is a natural gravy, no thickener, much closer to jus).
I have had gravy that has had so much oil and visible Italian seasoning it looked like beefy Italian dressing, or has not been salty at all, but I have also had gravy that was darker and saltier and tasted like French Dip Jus, quite beefy, quite salty. This is the dominant taste determinant in the sandwich, usually.
I usually don't get sweet peppers because they are usually sauteed/roasted down to nothing and don't have a lot of pepper taste, but I always get the hot, and here giardiniera can have different ingredients and be different levels of spicy. I prefer medium spicy depending on how much flavor there is in the other components.
Most places offer a Beef and Italian Sausage combo. The sausage can be spicy or "mild" or "sweet"- this is not to say weak flavor. A griddled/grilled sausage is usually served nestled in between the beef. Since most Italian Beef/gravy I have had is on the less salty side, I like how a flavorful sausage can add some savory and grilled punch. The sausage can be all over the place in strength of flavor, and it is really the flavor balance that controls what the sandwich tastes like, because most of the components can vary across the spectrum. If the beef is not strong, I like the peppers and sausage to pick up the slack, especially if the gravy is weak as well.
FINALLY, how does Gumbah's stack up to the traditional framework? First off, it has already been clear from the boards, and a friend's visit, that these guys are both the real Chicago deal, but also good too. Walking into this restaurant in a house, I had feelings of excitement start to build. Chicago-style hot dog/Italian Beef places usually have menus that you can recite. Hot dogs, polish dogs, italian beef, italian sausage, beef and sausage combo. Gumbah's had all of these things. I noted right off the bat that Gumbah's sells combo packs of Italian beef by the pound with gravy with rolls and Italian sausage and fixings. (31.50 for a pack with 1lb of meat, 4 sausages, bread, peppers). I looked at the menu- completely traditional, with the addition of Philly-style cheesesteak sandwiches and Chicago-style thin crust pizza. I think they only offer one style of this pizza (sausage, cheese and tomato from my recollection) but we didn't try it- they had some pics of it and it looked great. Everyone thinks deep dish when they think Chicago pizza, but there is an equal tradition of thin, crisp crust pizza as well.
ITALIAN BEEF AND SAUSAGE COMBO
1) The bun:
Absolutely expected spongy/chewy Italian roll, about 6-7 inches long and not especially pointy on the ends.
2) The beef:
You can tell Gumbah's makes their own (obviously there are not Italian beef distribs around here like Vienna Beef or Scala for them to easily order from) because the beef is sliced slightly thicker than at the places that serve the super thin stuff from the big guys. On the weak to strong scale, I would say that the Italian seasoning was the strongest I have had- a very strong oregano flavor was the most pronounced I have had, the meat was not especially salty, and didn't seem too tough for well-done roast beef, however, if you are only used to the shaved, super thin stuff, you will notice more heft in the bites, or perhaps more to chew on.
3) The gravy:
Not too oily, not too salty, but definitely some salty/savory flavor which puts it in the stronger, more robust end of the scale, which is how I prefer it. If the gravy isn't salty enough, the giardiniera and sausage become required for me to round out the flavors. Could not tell if the strong Italian seasonings were coming from the meat or the gravy or both because I had them put some on the sandwich to serve it, and then got more on the side. Gumbah's will also dip it if you ask. For novices afraid to dive in, you can get it on the side and control how fast your sandwich disintegrates.
Nice and spicy, with some vinegary bite and some saltiness. Pretty standard.
5) Italian sausage. I can't remember if they make there own, but this is exactly how I like sausage that is destined for a bun. It was griddled so it had some charring and firmness to the outside with beefs up the flavor and was very strongly seasoned with the usual fennel and other ingredients. It seemed in between a spicy Italian sausage and a mild. Many more traditional Italian sausages are not strongly seasoned and don't have that fennel bite that I love. This sausage tasted like a Johnsonville Italian sausage on steroids. I think this would be great alone, which Gumbah's also does.
This particular day was a perfect day to visit Gumbah's. We had great weather and we sat outside. Because on this day, all of the key individual components came out on the strong/robustly flavored side, the beef and sausage combo with hot peppers might be too much for some palates. I mean, I am always gonna get a Italian Beef and Sausage combo with hot peppers no matter what, but sweet peppers without sausage might be a great option here because the beef/gravy is pretty strong and certainly doesn't need the flavor backbone of the sausage to back it up. I started getting the combo because I wanted savory insurance. Since I was used to French Dips, I always was expecting more salt flavor from I-beefs, especially from places with the weaker or less salty gravy/beef, and I found it by adding sausage and giardiniera into the mix.
Note, my wife says they use jack cheese and not mozzarella, and she said she wouldn't dock them points for that, because she was so happy to be having a good beef.
This is most enjoyable variable, because in any particular Chicago place, the fries can be different. My absolute fave kind of fries with a Chicago style meal like this are these:
Gumbah's doesn't have those, but they serve a nice little shoestring fry with the extra potato stuff or light batter on the outside making them crunchy yet airy and fluffy. Really good for this sort of thing. I never expect gourmet pomme frites in this situation, but these were yummy for what they were.
Since this report is already turning into a novel, I'll just briefly discuss the Chicago dog at Gumbah's.
Steamed/boiled 1/4 lb or so dog (bigger than the standard dog). Most likely as usual all-beef. I don't think the Gumbah's had a natural casing but we kind of wolfed it down. Standard Chi-dog toppings- the greenish bluish sweet relish with flavors of some sweet spices, maybe cardamon/coriander, the chopped white onion, the mustard, two sport peppers (short hot peppers discussed http://www.chowhound.com/topics/37958...), one dill pickle spear and two tomato slices (many places will do two tomato wedges). The dog was on the standard poppy seed bun (usually they come steamed and can be so soft that by the end of the dog, the bun has compacted to a tiny layer of densely packed bread around the dog- be prepared to lose toppings with these things). I didn't notice the bun being especially steamed or too soft. Finally, the usual topping is celery salt, but Gumbah's does a shake of celery seed, which gives the dog a similar flavor but actually highlights the other tastes. I kind of love the celery salt, but if Gumbah's didn't have this one difference, they might taste exactly the same as everywhere else, and I like the excitement of trying a new place. My fave version of a Chicago dog is from Chicago-style places that also have flamed-broiled burgers, because they will usually have the option of a char-grilled dog instead of the steamed.
136 Tennessee St.
Hours 11-2:30 Monday-Saturday
Gumbah's Menu and Clearing House of Chow Reports
Bonus for those that made it to the end:
The slab of ribs and hot links I got from the guy with the smoker in the parking lot next door. Report to come.