New Yorkers will try to tell you that they can make a better hot dog than Chicago, as if a gray, rubbery frank served by some guy in a dirty apron on a street corner is better than a Chicago-style garden on a bun. And don’t you dare let them tell you their pizza is better. Folding a cardboard-thin slice in half to drain the grease and make it edible is not a selling point. But they might have us beat in one food category: the deli.
For such a big city full of huge appetites (and huge bellies), the deli lineup in Chicago is surprisingly thin. The classic Jewish delis are either take-out style groceries like Ashkenaz or antiseptic, yuppie facsimiles like Eleven City Diner or Max & Benny’s. But what we lack in good places for lox and schmear, we make up for in one magnificent sandwich: the corned beef at Manny’s.
Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen in the South Loop on Jefferson near Roosevelt doesn’t qualify strictly as a deli. The “cafeteria” part of its name is more apt. They serve everything from short ribs to spaghetti and meatballs, and while you can get smoked fish and chopped liver, it’s not why you go there. Manny’s is best known for its heaping corned beef sandwiches, a pile of sliced meat so huge that the bread is a mere afterthought, something placed on top not out of necessity but mere custom, like a paper umbrella in a tropical drink. Throw in a potato pancake the size of your hand and a couple dill pickle spears, and two adults could split the plate and still leave fully sated.
The corned beef at Manny’s is so epic that I feel the need to offer this guide to ordering it properly. If you just want a sandwich, go to Jimmy John’s or *shudder* a Subway. Don’t waste your time at Manny’s, for this is the corned beef of statesmen. Mayor Daley was a regular there, hosting his “corned beef and a handshake” fundraisers. Our current honey badger of a mayor Rahm Emanuel frequents the place, and President Obama himself gets the corned beef and cherry pie to go when he’s in town. No, you don’t just saunter into Manny’s and ask for a sandwich. You conduct yourself with the gravitas it deserves, nay, demands.
When you first enter Manny’s, you’re confronted with a large menu board listing the selections for the day. You can disregard this sign for now. While the other food at Manny’s is delicious too—I personally recommend the beef stew and a knish with gravy—you can branch out later once you’ve mastered the corned beef.
Pick up your tray and utensils, and slide them down the aluminum railing in front of the steam table with the various hot entrees and sides. A man with a mustache will greet you and ask you what you would like. He might be black, he might be white, he might be Hispanic, but he will have a mustache. This is a recurring theme at Manny’s. Tell the man with the mustache no thank you, you’re here for the corned beef, and keep sliding your tray down the line.
At the middle of the line, another man with a mustache standing by a meat slicer will greet you. Take a moment to watch him work, moving the steaming slabs of corned beef and pastrami back and forth across the spinning blade, collecting the glistening, scarlet morsels for each meal with a fork. This isn’t mere food service, it’s craftsmanship. Look the man with the mustache in the eye and tell him you’d like a corned beef sandwich. Be assertive. He will then ask what kind of bread you want: rye or an onion roll. Personally I prefer rye, but it doesn’t really matter because the bread is secondary once you start eating.
At this point you should also ask for a potato pancake. Pickles come standard, and requests for additional spears are welcome, especially if you’re dining with children. The man with the mustache will also be happy to give you an extra plate if you’re sharing with others, just don’t ask him to split the sandwich for you. He’s standing next to a razor-sharp spinning blade, slicing the corned beef of presidents. Hasn’t he done enough for you already?
Once you’ve collected your offering, keep walking down the line toward the cold sides and desserts. What you choose here is up to you, but keep in mind the sheer quantity of meat you’re about to consume. Barack Obama might order the cherry pie, but I bet Michelle doesn’t let him eat the whole thing at once when he brings it home. The point here is to enjoy a meal, not rupture your colon.
Next come the drinks. You’ll see different types of Coca Cola products, lemonade, etc, but the only acceptable thing to get is a can Dr. Brown’s cherry soda. True, most of the time the can isn’t very cold, but you can get a cup of ice if you’re going to be picky. Besides, you’re missing the point if you get stuck on this.
Turn the corner, and at the end of the line a woman in a hairnet (and possibly a mustache) will tally up your order and hand you a receipt. Do not attempt to pay the woman in the hairnet, and don’t lose this receipt. You’ll need it to pay at the cash register by the door as you leave. I like to think the woman in the hairnet is there to judge your food selections. If you’ve done it right, she’ll hand you the receipt and give you what we’ll call “the Chicago nod.”
Eating the corned beef at Manny’s could take up another 1,000 words of instructions, so I won’t go into details now. What I can say is that there’s no wrong way to do it. You’ll quickly realize that you need to eat at least half the corned beef with a fork before you can attempt to pick it up like a proper sandwich. Yellow mustard is supposedly the standard condiment, but I prefer the horseradish or brown mustard for a little kick. Take your time. Enjoy your meal. No one is rushing you. They even have Wifi at Manny’s now if you want to post a snapshot of your meal on some trendy social network.
When you’re finished, leave your tray and another man with a mustache will bus the table for you. Pay your tab at the cashier, leave a big tip, and grab a pack of gum or some Mentos for the road. Walk out onto Jefferson Street and listen to the throb and hum of your city. You’ve just eaten the best sandwich of your life.
Watch me read this piece at Tuesday Funk, a monthly reading series at the Hopleaf in Chicago