#877: Finishing Moves

January 17th, 2018




“D-F-HP… D-F-HP… D-F-HP!”

And with that I spit molten acid all over my friend.

I took a day off work on Friday. No purpose other than pleasure, no goal other than rest. So of course, I soon filled it with tasks to meet.

An interview for this site with a South Side flagmaker, speaking to a School of the Art Institute of Chicago class about dark tourism, a few hours at the Harold Washington Library researching what precinct captains’ duties were in the 1930s — this is, unfortunately, how I unwind.

But then there was Mr. Beef. And trying to rip out my friend’s spine or electrocute him with lightning hands.

The friend was A.J. Kane, photographer extraordinare and the guy who shot both the Carroll Street underground expedition and the man single-handedly building an arts center in Englewood. After shooting the flagmaker down in South Chicago, A.J. and I reconvened for a quick lunch downtown.

“Well, there’s Mr. Beef,” A.J. said.

“Oh god yes.”

“Or there’s-”

“No. Mr. Beef.”

Mr. Beef On Orleans is a wonderful little shack on Orleans Street between Erie and Huron. It’s been around since 1979, serving up Italian beef, sausages, hamburgers, subs and presumably other items but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never gotten anything but the Italian beef. I never intend to get anything else there either.

The place pulls off the rare treat in Chicago of knowing its heritage but not slapping you in the face with it. When you walk in to the fluorescent-lit, linoleum-floored sandwich shop, the only nods to history are the wall of photographs of famous past eaters and framed news clippings on the wall to your right. No ponderous histories of the place, no menus clad with the Legend of the Founders. It’s a greasy spoon where you order from a long counter to the left, eat at a massive picnic table in the next room and maybe pick up a cannoli on your way out from the little deli stand in the back. No fuss, no muss, no bathrooms.

You go there for the beef.

Like Mr. Beef itself, Italian beef also manages a strong Chicagoana without being all in your face about it. The sandwich was created in Chicago in the 1930s, but doesn’t have the pretension of that big fat tourist pizza or the nose-in-the-air authenticity test of the “proper” local way to garnish a hot dog. (I honestly don’t care if you put ketchup on your hot dog. Large factories extrude pureed critter meat into tube-shaped molds. You’ve already crossed a culinary Rubicon here where you probably shouldn’t get judgy.)

The Italian beef sandwich is seasoned strips of roast beef served au jus on an Italian-style roll. You can get it with hot giardiniera, you can get it with sauteed sweet peppers, you can get it dipped in the au jus sauce or not. The only constant is that you will end up a grease-slathered mess at the end.

Sandwiches in hand and later all over our hands, A.J. and I dine/gorged in the long picnic table in the back room. We chatted. We caught up. We talked about condos and jobs. We talked about photos and families and people we know in common.

And we found out that Mr. Beef On Orleans has an arcade version of Mortal Kombat 4 set to free play. We had been men chatting about futures and real estate purchases. We instantly became boys.

I’m sure someone more savvy than I am has written odes to video games and their effects on men of a certain age. A.J. and I instantly set to killing each other in the grotesque, spine-ripping ways only Mortal Kombat can offer. A.J. pulled up a list of finishing moves on his phone so we could get to the more creative functions of murder — Reptile spitting molten acid, Sub-Zero using his Ice Blast, Sonya ripping men apart with her legs.

In a little shack where juice-drenched sandwiches come sometimes with fries and always with packets of moist towelettes, two men spent a snowy afternoon engaged in acts of loving murder. And that’s the image, that’s the Chicago I want to leave you with today.

More “authentic” Chicagoana

A long-dead restaurant in Bronzeville

And, just for fun, the days of professional pedestrianism

What's this?

You are currently reading #877: Finishing Moves by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • -30-