The Maxwell Street Market is home to some of the best street food in Chicago. (Archival image: © Chicago Sun-Times Media, Inc. All rights reserved.)

City of big sandwiches

A whirlwind tour of Chicago street food—and why it matters.

It’s late winter, 2021, and I’m waiting for a Sweet Steak sandwich in the small, dimly lit Home of the Hoagy, packed with some two dozen hungry people standing quietly, sometimes sharing pleasantries. The predominant sound is the dull thumping of a meat cleaver in the kitchen. We wait 90 minutes (!) for a hoagie bun filled with hand-chopped beef, cheese, tomato slices, sweet and/or hot peppers, and relish. It’s all drenched in mild sauce, the barbecue sauce/ketchup combo that’s standard at places like Harold’s Chicken on the West and South Sides but generally unknown on the North Side.

The Sweet Steak—or Sweet Steak Supreme—was first served by Ed Perkins at Taurus Flavors in 1971. According to Ed Perkins II, “My dad would go to Philly all the time. … He tried hoagies and Philly cheesesteaks, … but he had to come up with a version [of the Philly] that people here in Chicago would like.”

One way Perkins modified the sandwich to appeal to the local community was to add the mild sauce. The sandwich was a huge hit. At one point, according to the Chicago Crusader, there were 13 Taurus Flavors locations on the South Side. Now Taurus Flavors is no more, and those who crave the remembered taste of this unique sandwich must go to Home of the Hoagy or one of the other three places that still sell Sweet Steak.

It’s a cliché to talk about Chicago as a food mecca, and such hackneyed praise is usually given in reference to North Side restaurants with James Beard recognition and Michelin stars. But street food, served by mom-and-pop vendors throughout the city, can be just as satisfying and creative, and it’s usually more reflective of the culture that gave birth to it than any food served on a white tablecloth.

Anthony Bourdain called the Mother-in-Law “perhaps the greatest, most uniquely Chicago food invention.” This strange sandwich is found at several locations, including Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots in Marquette Park. It’s a poppy seed bun with a Chicago corn roll tamale inside, slathered in chili, dressed like a Chicago Hot Dog, with sport peppers, blue-green relish, and so on. It may have originated south of the border; I had a similar sandwich in Mexico City, where it’s called the guajolota, and it’s possible this sandwich concept, like the Chicago corn roll tamale, was inspired by Mexican immigrants.

Honestly, this is not, to my taste buds, an awesome bite, but Fat Johnnie’s has been serving Mothers-in-Law for 50 years; it has its fans. Alas, the counterman squished my last Mother-in-Law while wrapping it, making it a soggy mess. I posted a photo on Facebook and a former client of mine, who grew up in Marquette Park, pronounced it a “thing of beauty.” With some of these sandwiches, to know them is to love them. If you don’t know them, they seem just weird.

If you’re wondering about the name, well, the joke is that it, too, will give you indigestion (apologies to mothers-in-law everywhere).

The creation of the Mother-in-Law was probably driven by the urge to make something novel with the humble ingredients on hand at old-timey hot dog stands, pushcarts, and sandwich shops. Same goes for the Jim Shoe (also known as the Gym Shoe), available at places like Avalon Park’s Stony Sub. Legend has it a stoner rolled up late one night and asked for a lot of meat, adding something like, “I’m so hungry, you can just throw the meat on a gym shoe, and I’d eat it.” So, the Jim Shoe was invented, a sandwich of corned beef, gyro meat, and roast beef, with giardiniera, lettuce, tomatoes, and a tzatziki-like sauce.

There’s a certain joyful disregard for convention in these culinary creations, and the Jim Shoe is a good bite. You’ll find it only on the South Side, and like the Sweet Steak Sandwich, it reflects the continuing racial divide in Chicago, with distinctly different food cultures on the South and North Sides—some original creations, others loosely inspired by foods that immigrants remember from their homelands.

Abdul Wajid, owner of Southtown Sub, says he believes the Jim Shoe may have originated in Pakistan, perhaps by someone from his hometown of Karachi. The meat and peppers are chopped on the griddle in an onomatopoeically named Karachi street food style called katakat. “Katakat,” says Wajid, “is famous in my country.”

Many Chicago original foods are born of the immigrant experience, though what arrivals to this country created had little resemblance to any foods from their home countries. The Italian Beef sandwich, a powerful signifier of Chicago original food, is nowhere to be seen in Italy. Chris Pacelli Jr.’s family started Al’s #1 Italian Beef in Little Italy in 1938. He explained the beef sandwich was originally offered at “peanut weddings”—when there wasn’t much money (“peanuts”) for the wedding reception, beef, bread, and a lot of gravy could make many substantial sandwiches. According to Pacelli, his uncle Al Ferreri made the sandwiches as a front for a gambling operation, though he soon went legit and started his own place.

In the 1970s, Juan Figueroa was one of many Puerto Ricans to arrive in Humboldt Park, where he opened Borinquen. Figueroa served his own creation, the Jibarito, two fried plantain slices cradling griddled beef, lettuce, and tomato. “It’s about layers of flavors,” Figueroa once said, and his undeniably tasty sandwich can now be enjoyed at multiple locations.

The Chicago sandwich with the most renown is probably the Chicago Hot Dog, a juicy sausage with piquant condiments and dragged-through-the-garden color. The Chicago Hot Dog was likely born at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, which started up in the 1870s in a neighborhood that was home to many European immigrants. It’s still open every Sunday and Friday. Chicago food historian Bruce Kraig explains that the Chicago Hot Dog is a cross-cultural mash-up, with sausage from German immigrants and poppy seed buns and pickles from Jewish Eastern Europeans; the tomatoes and onions might have been a contribution of Maxwell Street’s Greek and Italian produce vendors, and peppers probably came north via the railroad from Mexico, built in the 1870s.

Here and abroad, many restaurants offer exceptionally high-quality versions of relatively uniform international cuisine: gorgeous and glistening sushi rolls and many variations on foie gras, none of which anyone in their right minds would complain about. But, alas, these high-end foods usually do not reflect local culture and history. For that, look to street-side vendors and eat the simply delicious foods enjoyed in those humble spots by thousands every day. There are times when I’ve tucked into a multicourse tasting menu and wished, instead, that I were getting ready to bite into a Chicago Hot Dog. Or two.

David Hammond, AM’75, is coauthor of Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites (3 Fields Books/University of Illinois Press, 2023) and dining/drinking editor at Newcity/Chicago magazine. He has written about food for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and National Geographic, as well as in books including Street Food Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2013) and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia (University of Illinois Press, 2017).