City of the big sandwiches: Four uncommon Chicago meals on a bun
The big baby at Nicky’s – The Real McCoy (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)
Classic, uniquely Chicago sandwiches you may never have tasted
When it comes to sandwiches, Chicago is not polite. We don't settle for dainty bites coolly eaten with little finger cocked. Chicagoans go for big, sloppy meals on a bun — hot, two-fisted, lean-forward food that leaves you licking your fingers.
The Chicago-style hot dog, of course, is nationally famous, and hard to miss, sold everywhere around the city, piled high with its colorful, characteristic toppings of neon-green relish, yellow mustard, chopped onions, fresh tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. And anyone who's been in Chicago for long knows about Italian beef, drippy and delicious, with its spicy giardiniera or sweet peppers and its combo version topped with fennel-laced sausage.
If you've a little more local sandwich savvy, you probably also know that gyros came out of Greece by way of Greektown, and that the cone-shaped gyros loaves now upright on rotisseries around the country were developed and are manufactured in Chicago. The Maxwell Street polish, plump and greasy under its stack of sauteed onions, is also widely known.
I hope I don't need to tell you where to find those.
But if you're a real Chicago sandwich connoisseur, then you're also hip to the jibarito, the big baby, the Freddy and the mother-in-law.
The jibarito (pronounced "HEE-bar-ee-toe") is newest in the pantheon of messy Chicago sandwiches, and therefore its history is easy to trace. Juan C. "Peter" Figeroa developed this sandwich in 1996 at his Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park. It's a steak sandwich with a twist — the grilled steak, typically teamed with melted cheese, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato and a garlicky mayonnaise, is placed between two planks of hot, crisply fried, flattened green plantain in lieu of bread.
The Spanish name translates as "little hillbilly." "I came from a farm" in Puerto Rico, Figeroa said. "We grew bananas, and this is like a steak sandwich from the country."
Figeroa created his sandwich after reading about a restaurant in Puerto Rico that served a similar dish called emparedado de platano. Today, his original restaurant sells hundreds of them daily — and fillings have branched out to chicken, pork, ham and vegetables.
Moreover, at least a score of other Latin-American restaurants throughout the city have picked up the dish for their menus — not only Puerto Rican places, but Cuban and Mexican eateries, too.
At first glance, the big baby, a cheap double cheeseburger served at dozens of fast-food joints mainly on the Southwest Side, doesn't seem unique. Once you've seen a few of them, though, its distinction becomes clear: It's not the ingredients so much as how they're put together.
The standard big baby starts with two thin beef patties, 1/8 to 1/6 pound each, cooked well-done on a griddle with a slice of American cheese sandwiched between, so it melts into the meat. A sesame-seed bun toasts on the grill alongside, to be layered with ketchup, mustard and sliced pickles, and then the burger pair. The crowning touch is a tangle of grilled onions under the upper half of the bun. The sandwich usually costs about $2.25.
Sometimes you'll see variants with added lettuce and tomato, but aficionados consider these anathema, like ketchup on a hot dog.
According to Chicago food-history buff Peter Engler, who's spent considerable time researching the origins of South Side fare, the big baby began at Nicky's, a mini-chain of hot dog and gyros spots launched about 1967 by Nick Vaginas. Vaginas sold out a few years later and went back to Greece, but the restaurants bearing his name multiplied under numerous owners, so now you have Nicky's Drive Through, Nicky's Carry Outs, Nicky's Grill, Nicky's Hot Dogs, Nicky's Gyros, Nicky's Chicago Style Foods, Nicky's System and Nicky's –The Real McCoy — all serving big babies — while grill men from various incarnations have gone on to introduce the double burger to non-Nicky eateries, as well.
It's unclear whether Vaginas himself or one of his employees or successors, originated the big baby. The owner of Nicky's – The Real McCoy, Jim Maneri, told Engler that he coined the burger's name in 1969, but who knows?
The Freddy sandwich is less common, but its history is much easier to track.
This far Southwest Side specialty begins with fennel-laced Italian-style sausage, formed into an oblong patty and grilled or griddled. One or two of these is laid out on French bread or a long roll and smothered in red sauce and sauteed green peppers, with mozzarella melted over the whole.
Benito Russo at Chuck's Pizza in Beverly created the freddy in the early 1970s, naming it for his son, according to Engler. It remained on the menu after Russo moved on to found Calabria Imports and brought his sandwich with him.
From there, the Freddy has spread to other nearby pizzerias and Italian sandwich counters.
The mother-in-law, a tamale on a hot-dog bun, covered with chili, is even more obscure in its origins. This gloppy sandwich — essentially a chili dog with a corn-roll tamale standing in for the frank, enhanced with doggy condiments like chopped onion, pickle and sport peppers — is sold almost exclusively at Southwest Side hot-dog stands.
Though it's rarely seen, the mother-in-law has gotten some national attention in recent years, in part because Engler's exposition on it was picked up by historians interested in tracing African-American migration via Mississippi Delta-style tamales. Yet what few of the media discussing the mother-in-law have pointed out is that the Chicago "tamale" and our native form of "chili," as served in local hot dog stands, have only a glancing relationship to what most other parts of the world think of in those terms.
No one has so far found the direct link between the Mexican tamal — masa (limed-corn flour dough) and seasoned meat wrapped in a cornhusk and steamed — and the spicy cornmeal variant boiled up by Southern-U.S. blacks. The gap between either of those foods and the Chicago corn-roll tamale — a bland cylinder of salty cornmeal with a core of colored soy protein or hamburger, rolled in paper and cooked in a hot-dog steamer — seems even vaster.
The three principal manufacturers — Supreme, Tom Tom and Veteran — remain family-owned, but the heritage of those families is Armenian, Greek and Polish, respectively. The mother-in-law's neighborhoods are white-ethnic, as well.
Just when the Chicago hot dog and the tamale began to be sold together is also lost to history, but the connection certainly goes back at least to the 1930s, when vendors sold both items from pushcarts. No one knows who first put the corn-roll on a bun or doused it in the mild, soupy brown sauce Chicagoans call "chili," either, but the concoction dates at least to the 1950s.
How the mother-in-law got its name is equally obscure, beyond jokes about what gives you indigestion. The name, more firmly than the dish, is Southwest Side idiom. Perhaps other parts of town are more respectful of their mothers-in-law — when you find the sandwich farther north, it's apt to be less colorfully termed a "tamale on a bun," a "tamale in a blanket" or, as at Maxwell's in West Dundee, which serves a cheese-topped version, a "tamale dog." A few places dispense with the bun and call a tamale drowned in chili a mother-in-law, but this is a story about sandwiches, so we'll leave them out.
Buy a big baby