I pontificate about Al's Italian beef on Taylor a fair amount, but I rarely eat there. I recently had the chance to get a product update. I can safely report that Al's remains my favorite Italian beef, the best example of this sammy around. The beef itself was soft and throroughly saturated with their gravy. The sausage is dense and fine ground, heavy in taste and actually needing to be eaten seperate from the rest of the sandwich. The giardinara remains singular, the ultra-thin slices of celery supporting a mess of chili flakes. For the sake of science, I picked out a few of the celery flakes to see what specifically they brought to the party, and it was basically, nothing. They are just base, but the giardinara itself is much hotter than the green based one more typical. Together, all these elements produced a sandwich with multiple flavors in each bite. The best.
Al's is in no way a pefect restaurant. The best thing at Al's, besides the beef, is the location, it justs feels Italian beef like pretty much no where else. When you can look out the window in between bits and see the old ladies on the stoop and Mario's Lemonade stand, it is nearly a Scorsese movie scene. The parking lot also proves the other great attraction of Al's, the scene. There was one out of state license, perhaps a tourist drawn in by the praises of the Stern's, a few high roller cars, a city truck with a pro-union sticker and an unmarked cop car. Al's. What I did not like about Al's was the price and the service. My combo hot, fries and drink cost over $9. I usually spend about $3.75 at Johhnies, so we are talking major difference. At Johnnies, your order comes in seconds as the effiecent staff are constantly wiping and filing, filing and wiping. Johnies is both clean and quick. At Al's, it takes several minutes, for no apparant reason, to get your order. And speaking of those fries, they were not nearly as good as before. Still fresh cut, but no longer fried in peanut oil, they lack any real punch.
I picked up chicken from 3-D last night on North Avenue just east of Central. I was highly dissapointed upon entering, that they no longer had the jerry rigged Weber under the hood for cooking. Instead, they had a big old professional half wood Southern pride cooker. The chicken still tasted pretty good, but it was more like a dark roasted chicken than anything too jerky. Nice sauce with a heavy soy flavor, but lots of spice underneath. Good sides and especially good doughbread. It is fine chicken but perhaps not destination chicken (just like Tropical Taste!)
The other night, out of curiosity, I popped into Balkan Flavor on Irving Park near Elson. Aaron has already reported on this place as well (see link). I really liked it. There were two men drinking tea at a small table when I entered. As Aaron noted, the place does not quite look like a food store, the carpeting is an oddity. One spoke to me in Bulgarian. When he realized I was not, he decided to give me a quick immersion in Bulgarian meats. He sliced me off samples of several sausages, an oblong shaped salami with a white skin like Zim's Bende, a magenta shaded dry beef, and a course sausage link similiar to what you see at Italian deli's as "dry sausage." He explained to me that the sausages were for drinking. When I asked about the feta, he reacted a bit derisive. "Everyone has feta", he said. Instead, he cut me off a chunk of some kind of yellow cheese imported from Bulgaria, not rip-roaringly stong, but no swiss either. Slavko, as I eventually learned his name, recommends Chicago by Nights, on Central and Belmong (and thank you ver much, another exhibit in my case for greatest chow block) as the best place to eat Bulgarian food. Slavko made Balkan Flavor a highly enjoyable stop for me.