These Sandwich Shops Show That Midwestern Food Is Far From Basic

Although Midwestern cuisine is both admired and scorned for its simplicity and straightforwardness, Chicagoans wholeheartedly embrace sandwiches rooted in Midwestern comfort. Some of the city’s most talented chefs apply their years of culinary training to create sandwiches that transcend their sweet cultural perceptions. And don’t get me wrong: in this case, simple doesn’t mean “basic”.

What constitutes a Midwestern sandwich is based on history. The region’s predominant European settlers arrived from northern, central and eastern Europe in the 19th century, and flavors of Ireland, Germany and Poland have taken root in the palace of the Midwest. Although the Midwest is often defined by what it is not — not on an ocean, not perpetually warm, not mountainous — early European settlers were content with what was available: pasture and farmland. The fortuitous biodiversity of the Midwest, coupled with long, cold winters, led settlers to raise cattle and farm as much as possible during the growing season, then save enough of each harvest for the winter with preservation methods. such as canning, pickling and fermentation.

The growing number of sandwich shops in Chicago dedicated to creating great meals on bread only with a focus on the locally sourced meat quality of every menu item, pickles from scratch, and farm-fresh produce exemplifies further the unpretentious nature of Midwestern cuisine and its resonance with Chicagoans.

Most interesting, perhaps, is that these sandwich shops are often run by chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants. For example, Tim Flores and Genie Kwon – both Oriole, two-Michelin-star alumni – enjoyed national success with West Town’s Kasama, which cemented their reputation as the world’s only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant. Before Kasama launched its tasting menu, the restaurant offered plates of rice and delicious sandwiches that remain on its day menu at the counter. The duo put their own mark on Midwestern comfort food with a Filipino-style Italian beef combo made with shaved adobo pork and a longganisa link replacing traditional Italian sausage.

Sarah Mispagel, co-owner of Avondale’s new Loaf Lounge sandwich shop and formerly of Michelin-starred Sepia, now also serves up comforting sandwiches made with the knowledge and experience of an expertly trained chef. “It doesn’t have to be just a sandwich shop,” says Mispagel. “I love that this kind of cuisine showcases talented people who can do more than make very small dishes on very large plates.”

Mispagel’s husband and Loaf Lounge co-owner Ben Lustbader also boasts an impressive culinary resume, including his work at Pilsen’s much-missed Nightwood and Giant in Logan Square. Together, Mispagel’s background as a pastry chef and Lustbader’s demonstrated passion for unpretentious Midwestern cuisine have made Loaf Lounge a destination for simple, comforting sandwiches, including a BLT made with fresh ingredients from the locally sourced farm on homemade jalapeno cheddar bread and a turkey. sandwich with local bacon, farm tomatoes, house pickled peppers and red onions. Loaf Lounge’s goal is to maintain a small list of sandwiches that locals can familiarize themselves with to create cohesive experiences for their guests and become a neighborhood spot.

Loaf Lounge’s husband and wife team of Ben Lusbader and Sarah Mispagel.
Garrett Sweet / Chicago Eater

The trend of professionally trained chefs from some of the highest echelons of the restaurant industry applying their expertise to making artisan sandwiches has captured national attention with the bear, a hit series from FX streaming on Hulu. The show honored one of Chicago’s most famous bread dishes, the Italian beef sandwich. Its plot revolves around chef “Carmy” Berzatto leaving his Michelin-starred career as a chef to return to Chicago to run his late brother’s Italian beef shop. It takes the restaurant’s popular Italian beef sandwich and changes the way it’s made, from the processes used in the kitchen to the quality of the ingredients themselves. Carmy applies her Michelin cooking skills to set up a French-style brigade, teaches her staff how to manage a quality-focused kitchen, and in the process transforms the restaurant and its Italian beef sandwich into something new and unique. distinct. Although the details in real life in Chicago are different when it comes to sandwich shops like Kasama, Loaf Lounge and others, the bear captures the hard-earned skills Chicago chefs are implementing in their sandwich shops — like making bread from scratch and using exceptional local ingredients — to demonstrate that something as humble as a sandwich can indeed be a spectacular meal. (In fact, Loaf Lounge’s double chocolate cake is the cake made on the show.)

Ever since the COVID pandemic kicked in and threw the service industry on its side, restaurant professionals have either gone on their own or left the industry altogether. Journalists and former service industry professionals shared stories of low pay, long hours, bad temper and other widely documented abuses at all levels of the restaurant industry, corporate frequented locally to global culinary destinations. the bearThe trend of classically trained chefs quitting their jobs at some of Chicago’s top restaurants is contributing to the phenomenon, with some of them abandoning prestige to focus on simple cuisine that nourishes their bodies and souls while continuing to achieve institutional recognition.

“I’m very grateful for the gastronomic part of my career,” says Mispagel, “And there are times when I miss it, but I’m very, very happy to do it. It’s not because you you’ve done once that’s the pinnacle of your career. People can look at fine dining and think it’s more technically focused or more important than a sandwich shop. That’s not necessarily – it’s just different.

A shelf full of bread

Loaf Lounge breads fuel its tasty sandwiches.
Garrett Sweet / Chicago Eater

In Irving Park, JT’s Genuine Sandwich Shop has been serving up hearty, nostalgic Midwestern fare, including the shop’s steak and potato sandwich, for nearly three years now. Owner Chris Cunningham actually created JT out of what he calls a selfish motivation to make a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich that reminded him of his childhood in western Illinois.

“I knew we had to have a tenderloin sandwich on the menu, not just for me, but for anyone who moved here from Iowa, Indiana or other parts of the Midwest, who couldn’t find a comfort foods that reminded them of home,” Cunningham says.

JT’s prepares all of its sandwiches with ingredients that are homemade or sourced from local suppliers – including regional farms – to best capture the distinct flavors and cultural phenomena of the Midwest. JT’s Made Rite sandwich, an homage to the decades-old version of the Maid-Rite franchise popular in western Illinois and Iowa, makes that especially true. Like the original, the “loose meat sandwich” is essentially a sloppy joe without the sauce. JT’s makes their Made Rite with seasoned ground beef, diced onions, dill pickles, ketchup and mustard on a bun. Unlike the original, their version is made with ingredients that make each sandwich greater than the sum of its individual parts.

“I think simple, accessible, humble Midwestern food is very comforting and nostalgic for people,” Cunningham says. “For the past few years, we have all been locked up and sought comfort in different ways. When people find a place like JT where they can order a coney dog ​​like they did in Detroit or Flint, I think that speaks to people.

“People know what a BLT looks like and they know they like it,” says Mispagel. “Having places in their neighborhoods that do versions of things they know they love with farm-raised tomatoes and local bacon, and even homemade bread, is really comforting but also really special.”

Other Chicago cafes and restaurants that dedicate their skills to making nostalgic Midwestern sandwiches include TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop in Avondale, which serves its version of a bulk meat sandwich affectionately known as “Maidwrong.” Their iteration includes loose meat, as well as Muenster cheese and steak aioli sauce. Lola’s Coney Island in Humboldt Park, a Detroit street food love letter, also serves up its bulk meat sandwich, as well as the iconic Italian beef.

Talented and experienced chefs switch gears to make sandwiches influenced by regional flavors and Midwestern idiosyncrasies that perfectly align with diners’ interests in foods that both taste great and are reminiscent of the familiar cuisine of the Midwest. These intentional sandwiches bring to mind the Midwest and all its simple yet delicious flavors. Indulging in something so comforting and familiar feels like everything is fine.

About Octavia A. Dorr

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