Friday, May 21, 2010

Italian Beef At The Dog House

My fascination with the Italian beef sandwich stems from a PBS documentary called Sandwiches That You Will Like. In it, the author travels all over the country looking at local sandwiches that make each area tasty and unique. Maine has the lobster roll, Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, Buffalo has the beef on weck, and Chicago has the Italian beef. Originally started by Italian immigrants as a way to use cheaper, tougher cuts of meat in the first quarter of the 1900's, this sandwich has been feeding hungry Chicagoans for quite some time. At its simplest form, an Italian beef sandwich is composed of a nice Italian sandwich roll, thinly sliced cuts of tender beef, topped with either a mild sweet pepper mix or spicy giardiniera, and is optionally dipped in the jus in which the sliced beef sits waiting for service.

It's an intoxicating mixture of textures and flavors and once you've had the real thing, impostors are easy to spot. Soon after moving back to Akron several years ago, I learned of a place called Nicolino's on Route 91 in Tallmadge that had brought several Chicago classics to the area. It wasn't until I actually stopped in one time to pick up a deep dish pizza that I learned that they also served Italian beef sandwiches, too. The next time I stepped in, you can guess what I ordered. Being a tad on the pricey side, I was disappointed with what I received. Essentially a salt lick on soggy, disintegrated bread topped with peppers and onions, this sandwich was a disaster. It wasn't until I traveled to Chicago back in August 2007 that I finally had a chance to try the real deal. And it was GOOD. The bun, while dipped, still held together. The salt level was much more controlled and the balance of spices and heat were spot on.

I recently received a tweet from another Cleveland foodie, @kyleroth, who mentioned in passing about a place serving Italian beef in Cleveland. We messaged back and forth a bit and I quickly learned that The Dog House located near the intersection of Coventry and Euclid Heights Boulevard was serving not only a selection of hot dogs (as the name would imply), but also Italian beef sandwiches. While I had @kyleroth's assurance that it was a good sandwich, I continued to put off a visit for a while until I could stand it no more.

I charged up the battery on the cellphone, grabbed the $1.00 off coupon for Grum's and headed up to Cleveland. The Dog House was located at 2767 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44118 and can be reached at 216-321-0717. At the time of this writing, there appears to be no website associated with the restaurant. Parking was whatever was available on Coventry Road. I choose to park in the parking garage located across from Big Fun. The first thirty minutes were free and the addition of a quarter extended your time by another thirty minutes.

Here was a shot of the exterior of The Dog House:

Once inside, I quickly looked around to discover a quaint little shop with two small two-top tables and a bar seating area along one wall with stools that could seat another five to six guests. Fortunately, at 2 PM on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the place was pretty quiet. As I walked through the front door, I noticed a wall menu posted on the left wall:

This menu was repeated on the right wall, although individual hot dogs were also advertised, some classic, some made up specifically for the store's location (Case Dog, John Carroll Dog, Coventry Dog, etc.). For me, however, the menu was almost irrelevant as I knew why I was standing inside the restaurant. I placed my order for an Italian beef and a bottled water. The man working the counter asked if I wanted it sweet or spicy. Good sign. I ordered it spicy. He started to assemble the sandwich in front of me. The second good sign was that the beef was already ready to serve in the jus. At Nicolino's, they actually reheated the beef from cold for each order. After filling the bun with slices of beef, he topped it with the spicy giardiniera. I was beginning to wonder whether or not he was going to ask me if I wanted it "dipped." Fortunately, he gave me a variation of dipped, "wet." Of course I agreed. Sadly, here was where things started to go south. Instead of quickly dipping the entire sandwich in the jus, he ladled about a cup of broth around the sandwich. I innocently asked him if they made their own gardiniera. He looked at me a bit quizzically and stated that they don't make anything from scratch except the barbecue sauce. As is so often quoted from the Star Wars movies, I had a bad feeling about this.

I took my tray to the tiny table by the front window:

Here was a close-up shot of the Italian beef sandwich itself:

Notice how dry the bun is? That's because all of the jus was at the bottom of the styrofoam container:

The implication of this was that only the spine, or the bit of bread holding the two halves together had touched the jus. And even in the relatively short period of time between him ladling on the jus and me picking it up to eat it, the spine completely disintegrated. This meant that each time I tried to pick it up and take a bite, I had pieces of meat and giardiniera falling out every which way. Fortunately, these pieces fell back into the waiting styrofoam below. As for the bread itself, it wasn't the sturdy Italian roll I had eaten in Chicago. It was more like the Orlando Italian Hoagy rolls you can find at your local supermarket.

The beef was tender and juicy. The giardiniera was good and spicy. However, the same problem that had plagued Nicolino's version from several years ago also seemed to beleaguer this sandwich, too: WAY too much salt. There was so much salt, in fact, that it was hard to taste anything else. From first bite until last, all I could taste was salt and heat. I normally don't drink an entire bottle of water with a single meal, but in this case, it was a requirement.

I threw away my garbage, returned the tray to the front counter, thanked the gentleman who took and filled my order, and walked out into the still rainy and gray Sunday afternoon. While I would probably be curious enough to return and try one of the specialty hot dogs, one thing I am sure I will not be returning for is the Italian beef. I'd rather wait several years to have the real thing than a pale version I could get more often. I would hate for someone who had never actually tried this sandwich to eat this one and think it was representative of what you receive when you order this in Chicago.

Dejectedly, I walked away from the restaurant towards Coventry Road until I remembered that I still had that $1 off coupon for Grum's in my pocket. I might not be hungry now, but I certainly would be later and a Turkey Ridge might very well just hit the spot.

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