Who spends time thinking of coleslaw? Well, I do. That probably has something to do with the fact that I’ve had the best coleslaw there is. So, since summer is upon us, and slaw is such a summer staple, let me tell you about the greatest coleslaw I’ve ever had.
When someone asks you your favorite food, what do you think of? Probably a main dish, cuisine, or a meal. You might hear things like pizza, breakfast food, steak, or Italian. Occasionally, you’ll hear someone throw in something like a salad or dessert. Every once in a great while, you might even hear a side, like a twice-baked potato, stuffing, or something like that. Coleslaw never comes up, though. It doesn’t matter how long you wait, or how much you prompt. Coleslaw is an afterthought. Unless, of course, you’ve had the greatest coleslaw there is, like me.
I grew up in Skokie, Ill., a near-north suburb of Chicago (so close, it’s accessible to the city via the L system). In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were several local spots worth frequenting for a nice meal. Among my favorites was the first outpost of Carson’s Ribs, a Chicagoland barbecue staple. As a kid, I remember walking into the crowded restaurant and helping ourselves to their complementary chopped liver and cheese while we waited for our table—a white tablecloth table at that. Imagine, white tablecloths at a rib joint. Imagine, a kid eating chopped liver!
When we were seated, we were left with big circular menus that had everything from steaks and seafood to exceptional barbecue. I can’t say that I looked at those menus much. In those days, when I went to Carson’s, I went for one thing, and I meant business. I’d order the full-slab of ribs. The server would ask, “Side?” and I’d reply, “Au gratin potatoes.” Then, he or she would conclude, “Is coleslaw okay? If you’d like, you can substitute a house salad for a small upcharge.” Without hesitation, I’d reply, “Coleslaw is great.”
Let that sink in for a minute. I’d reply, “Coleslaw is great.” I didn’t even think of ordering the house salad as a replacement. Ever. Now, there may have been a time or two when I wanted a salad in addition to the coleslaw (especially in my teen years when I consumed enough food for a family of four), but I never skipped the slaw. How often can you say you’ve done the same? Seriously. Most of the time, the decision is an easy one in the other direction. Salads are fresher, crisper, and larger. They’re served on plates, with savory dressing, while the coleslaw is served in a tiny plastic condiment cup, soggy and sad. Not here. Not at Carson’s. Known in Chicago as “the place for ribs,” it just as easily could be known as “the place for coleslaw.”
I know what you’re thinking. It can’t be that good. After all, it’s only coleslaw. But it is that good. In fact, Carson’s, and particularly their coleslaw, has been a part of many memorable moments in my life. For my high school graduation, we had a party at the house. I made sure the menu included Carson’s au gratin potatoes, and their coleslaw. In college, when my friends wanted to try some classic Chicago restaurants, I’d take them to Carson’s and tell them, “Wait till you have this coleslaw.” When I graduated college, my party was at one of their former locations on Ridge in Chicago. Among the menu requirements? Coleslaw (or “cole slaw,” as they spell it). And when my buddies took me to Carson’s for my bachelor party dinner, after I had already been to the restaurant twice already during that week, I still had plenty of room for, you guessed it, the coleslaw.
The thing is, Carson’s Ribs has the greatest coleslaw I’ve ever had, and it’s not even close. Occasionally I’ll encounter one that is ever-so-slightly inspired, but it’s still a letdown in comparison. Always fresh, always crisp, and served in a large bowl, this ain’t your typical run-of-the-mill slaw. It’s sweet, yet tangy, with a hint of horseradish. It’s never soggy, soupy, bland, or intense. It’s just right. It’s the way coleslaw should be. This is a legitimate side item that can not only hold its own with a fantastic rib entree, but truly partner with it to create a great all-around meal.
In talking with Dean Carson, the owner of Carson’s Ribs, I learned this is no accident. He said, “When you think of a steak dinner, you think about a steak, a Caesar salad, and a baked potato. When I think of a rib dinner, I think of the ribs, some au gratin potatoes or a twice-baked, and coleslaw.”
When I asked Dean what makes his coleslaw so special, he said, “It’s been a staple at our restaurants since day one. It comes from a family recipe that’s at least 60 years old. America has turned coleslaw into a garnish, just like parsley. Do you eat parsley? No. And a lot of people don’t eat that little plastic cup of coleslaw they find on the side of their plates at a lot of other restaurants. That’s what I mean when I say that stuff is a garnish. Our coleslaw is not a garnish. It’s a side. A terrific side!” He continued, “There are 15 ingredients in the recipe, and they’re all important in their own way. Plus, our coleslaw is made every day from scratch.”
As with anything else, I don’t care how basic you think it is, when the ingredients are fresh, carefully selected, and carefully prepared, you can turn something ordinary into something extraordinary. You can turn a garnish into a side. You can turn an afterthought into a highlight. You can turn coleslaw into wonderful. If I’ve piqued your interest and you find yourself wanting to try it, visit Carson’s the next time you’re in Chicago. If you can’t wait that long, you’re in luck—you can have it shipped to you, wherever you are.
Now, for those of you still having a tough time believing all this, I’m going to leave you with a story Dean shared with me. I asked him if there were any celebrities that came into the restaurant who particularly loved the coleslaw. He said, “So many celebrities have complimented the coleslaw—hundreds, maybe thousands of times throughout the years. But one celebrity stands out. The late Dennis Farina was a fantastic guy, a Chicago guy. When he was filming, I would ship him food a lot, particularly the coleslaw. Once, I was joking around with him on the phone and I said, ‘This is a lot of trouble to go through just for coleslaw.’ Dennis said to me, ‘This my favorite coleslaw in the world. And you know something? I don’t have a second.’”
Header image by Chowhound.