To any north-sider who might think for a second that this city’s fundamental segregation problem doesn’t touch his life in ways both trivial and monumental, I’d like to pose this question: Have you ever eaten a Chicago sweet steak sandwich?
In a more just world, the “steak sweet” would be as iconic a Chicago food institution as deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, or even that weird-ass Jim Shoe (aka Gym Shoe) sandwich. But there isn’t a single street festival dedicated to it, Anthony Bourdain hasn’t offered up grizzled, tough-guy-poet wisdom about poor American folk while crushing one, and you’re not going to buy a $14 upmarket version in River North. In fact, if you’re a white person of a certain socioeconomic standing, this may very well be the first time you’re hearing of this standout sammy, seeing as it’s available mostly on the south side and surrounding suburbs.
A localized variant of the classic cheesesteak, the steak sweet consists of perfectly charred beef chopped fine, then slathered with a sugary, tangy, smoky red sauce, packed into a sub roll (usually from Gonella), and topped with green bell peppers. That famed sauce, dubbed “proprietary” on one menu, varies in sweetness from place to place and visit to visit. As it soaks into the crusty bread, the sandwich takes on a texture akin to a dipped Italian beef.
The two titans of the steak sweet are Taurus Flavors, established in 1966, and Home of the Hoagy, which opened in 1969. Both of these venerable institutions are located in predominantly black neighborhoods (Avalon Park and Morgan Park, respectively), and they’re kept alive almost exclusively by the patronage of people in those communities. For more than two decades Taurus has been my standby for killing extreme hunger. Even though I grew up in Rogers Park, making the trip down south to get a steak and an ice cream or sherbet was a special treat, a source of many memories of hanging with my dad, a go-to spot for celebrating good report cards and graduations. Later it became my first stop when returning home from college in Florida—a place that has plenty of amazing Cuban sandwiches yet is sorely lacking in sweet steak.
It’s puzzling that the purveyors of a bona fide Chicago delicacy get scant foot traffic from outside their neighborhoods and little love from the local food media, unlike, say, the Indian restaurants along Devon or the Vietnamese spots on Argyle. But what’s especially maddening is that in a city supposedly crawling with so-called foodies, I’ve met precious few in my three decades here who know the supreme pleasures of the steak sweet.
They say you are what you eat. But in this city at least, what you eat can also say a lot about who you are—especially if what you’re eating happens to be a steak sandwich smothered in sweet red sauce. v