OK, people from Chicago, please don’t hurt me if you disagree: This Seattle version of the sandwich made famous on the hit Hulu series “The Bear” is really, really good. Not for nothing, a guy I know from Chicago — he’s so old-school, he actually goes by “The Johnny Chicago” — is with me on this. To quote him: “Tim’s is great. He has it down.”
Backing up for a minute, the sandwich is called an Italian beef — or, in Chicago, just “a beef” — and it’s a big one for a big city, piled with thinly sliced beef that’s been slow roasted to render an inexpensive cut as delicious as a fancy steak. It’s served on a specific Italian roll, and it’s garnished unstintingly with sweet peppers and/or giardiniera, which is an old-school Italian vegetable-and-vinegar situation that can be pretty damn spicy-hot. It’s also served “dry,” “wet,” or “dipped” — that’s with no extra jus, some ladled onto the sandwich, or the whole sandwich dunked, respectively. It’s a working person’s sandwich, originally fuel for the rest of a big-shouldered day, not a problem if it gets messy.
The way to order a beef correctly is seen on “The Bear,” as the staff shouts the shorthand — sweet or hot, dry, wet or dipped. Otherwise, for a show that’s about “a beef shop” specifically selling the signature item, the beef doesn’t get a lot of play. A few moments deal directly with the namesake favorite, e.g., when chef/owner Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) has to buy meat for it out of the trunk of someone’s car (that’s Chicago!?). Later, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and Carmy agree that they should be outsourcing the bread instead of Marcus (Lionel Boyce) painstakingly making it in-house. But as customers crowd The Beef on-screen, the viewer can only wish for more shots of the big, drippy, juicy sandwich — or, better, to actually eat one.
Here in Seattle, there’s Tim’s beef. Tim is Tim Ptak, and he’s from Chicago originally, and he runs local bar and sandwich shop Smarty Pants, where they’ve been making Italian beef sandwiches ever since opening the Georgetown spot almost 20 years ago. Now, newer Smarty Pants Garage in Burien has them, too. “There’s a beef shop in every neighborhood” in Chicago, Ptak says. “When I was a kid, the beef shops would sell you their stale bread — they would dip it and call it a soaker, and for a quarter, you could pick up a little snack.”
For novices’ and simplicity’s sake, Smarty Pants calls it a Chicago Italian beef sandwich; serves it with both sweet peppers and giardiniera; and makes ’em wet, with savory broth soaking marvelously into soft bread. “I had one customer who was kind of freaking out about the mess, so I rubber-banded some napkins to his elbows!” Ptak says. Whereas, back home: “People are just so accustomed to the sloppiness of the sandwich, you don’t even think about it.”
Ptak happily gives details on how Smarty Pants makes the revered workaday Chicago special.
THE BEEF: “First off, the meat has to be seasoned right,” Ptak asserts. At Smarty Pants, the cut is top round, which gets a dry rub of herbs and spices Ptak declines to specify. Then: “It needs to be slow cooked” for several hours, at least — more if it’s a big hunk of beef. And: “Slicing the meat, like, unusually thin is key” to correct preparation as well.
THE SWEET PEPPERS: “It’s a sauteed green pepper — big slices,” Ptak says (and I can say with personal authority that even people who don’t like green peppers can get behind these). “In conjunction with a spicy giardiniera,” Ptak explains, the sweetness of the peppers “just creates a nice complex flavor.”
THE GIARDINIERA: Smarty Pants takes the extra step of making theirs in-house, so it also achieves a textural contrast that jarred giardiniera may lack — a bit of a vegetable crunch that plays off the softness of juice, meat, bread, peppers. “It’s super labor-intensive,” Ptak says. It’s his own recipe, involving carrots, cauliflower, garlic, onion, oil, vinegar and spices, and they make it by the 55-gallon drum. It’s also available jarred, to-go, “and it’s very popular,” he notes. He says his giardiniera lands between hot and mild — it’s spicy enough that heat-lovers can get behind it, but it’s not going to blow your entire sense of taste out, allowing ongoing enjoyment of all the elements of the sandwich in balance, like listening to a sandwich symphony.
THE JUS, AKA GRAVY: “We use our pan juice,” with all the lovely beef drippings, Ptak says, “and then we build the rest of it off of that.”
THE BREAD: Where’s he sourcing it? “That’s a secret,” Ptak says. And, he admits, “the bread we use in Chicago is much different, in that it’s got a super, super-high gluten content … I’ve searched far and wide, and haven’t been able to find anything that holds together quite as well for this one particular sandwich.” Nonetheless, he maintains, “The bread is wonderful … everyone that’s come in from Chicago is pleased with it.”
Everyone that comes into Smarty Pants from Chicago will also be pleased to see Malört. “It’s a liquor that’s distilled in Chicago,” Ptak explains. “It’s made from the pith and the rind of grapefruit. It’s unusually bitter,” he emphasizes. “It’s like an amaro without any added sugars — sort of a legendary Chicago liquor.” In the Windy City, he says, an old-school beer and a shot of Malört is called a Chicago handshake; at Smarty Pants, it’s the Seattle handshake, aka a PBR and a Malört. The ad campaign is Chicago-style and “hilarious,” Ptak says. “One of them is ‘Malört: When you need to unfriend someone in person,’” he laughs. “Another one says, ‘Malört: Tonight you fight your dad.’”
For what it’s worth, Ptak hasn’t seen “The Bear” yet, but his business partner, Michelle Braasch — also a Chicago transplant — “says it’s very close to reality.” The Johnny Chicago agrees: “I lived in Chicago 40 years, and I worked in that neighborhood in 1970. They shot some of the scenes at Mr. Beef on Orleans. I used to go there for lunch 50 years ago!
“I owned a restaurant in the early ’80s not far from there …” The Johnny Chicago furthers his cred. “I can’t stand strong-arm [expletive],” he says of some of the stuff that happens on “The Bear.” “But I’d say it’s realistic,” he says. “I can confirm that stuff ‘falls off the back of the truck.'”