Elmwood Park —Most religious shrines, even the important ones that attract mass pilgrimages, are not much to look at. The Western Wall, sacred to the Jews, is just an old stone wall. And so it seems appropriate that Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park — the Mecca of Italian Beef, the Lourdes of Giardiniera, the Ashokan Pillar of Chicago Street Food — looks like a dump. The one-story building has a vaguely ’60s aesthetic, with a single counter along its length, the kitchen right behind it with its deep fryers, grills, skewers, and pans filled with peppers, giardiniera, and, of course, marinating beef. The entire front is made of glass, so anybody zipping by on four-lane North Avenue can see into the very gut of the restaurant, where the line of customers moves through in a peristaltic process, entering one end with money, exiting the other with the most ambrosial grease bombs devised by humankind, plus fries.
It’s the movement of the line that obsesses me. I do not want to hold it up. I do not want to delay the moment of satisfaction awaiting the people behind me, any more than I want to delay my own. But mostly I want recognition. I want to deliver my order in the same exact rapid-fire shorthand the counterman uses to transmit it to his associates so they can almost instantly assemble it in a paper bag, finishing so swiftly the grease from the fries doesn’t even start to stain the bag until you’ve gotten it halfway home. You only learn the code by repetition: An Italian beef is, of course, a “beef,” with sausage it’s a “combo,” and if dipped in the thin gravy (my friend Steve Dolinsky calls it “jus,” which is way too Frenchly pretentious for this place), it’s “juicy.”
My standard order is the Italian beef with both sweet peppers and giardiniera. The sandwich is a magnificent creation made more glorious by its evanescence; weighted with marinated beef and piles of oily peppers, its bun soaked with aromatic gravy, it will fall apart before you can eat half of it, but by that time its essence — of garlic, of peppers, of memories of dinners after school plays and lunches after softball games and evenings when you’re too tired to cook — has soaked through the whole thing, making it into a soggy Proustian gut volcano of past and present joy, and even once it’s devoured, you can still enjoy little aftershocks of pleasure as you down the fries that have absorbed some of its soul.
My kids want no peppers at all, though they like their Italian beef juicy. And, of course, with fries. One order of fries is plenty for two people, especially because of the delightful Johnnie’s custom of throwing a good half order’s worth of fries into the bag after everything else. So our order would be: one Italian beef, dipped, with both sweet peppers and giardiniera; two beef, dipped, no peppers, and one order of fries. I rehearse it, mouthing the words.
It’s my turn. The counterman says, “CAN I HELP YOU?”
“One beef, juicy, mixed. Two beef, juicy, plain. One fry.”
He instantly shouts out the order to his men:
“ONE BEEF JUICY, SWEET AND HOT. TWO BEEF JUICY, PLAIN. ONE FRY.”
I pay — cash only — and move along. Dammit! I thought it was “mixed” for sweet peppers and giardiniera, not “sweet and hot.” I should have known!
I guess I’ll just have to practice.