There’s a “Chicago Pastrami Dog” on the menu at 3 Squares Diner that sounds tempting. Just imagine: an encased farce of brined and smoked brisket dragged through the garden of the orthodox Chicago condiments. Sounds simultaneously delicious and dangerously provocative.
The pastrami dog is currently being served in this ersatz corner diner on the ground floor of the beautifully restored Lawrence House, in Uptown, home of the nifty little cocktail joint Larry’s and 344 apartment units whose tenants tend to have a lot of complaints about their noisy neighbors, judging from the building’s Yelp reviews.
Yes, the building has a Yelp page, and so does 3 Squares Diner (five stars!), a new outing from the folks who brought you the longtime Wicker Park (now Logan Square) breakfast-lunch crowd-pleaser Jam. Jam chef Ian Voakes dreamed up the pastrami dog, but it isn’t at all as I expected.
Instead it’s simply a pastrami sandwich dressed up in a Halloween costume of Chicago-style hot dog toppings—not even a combo of the two meats, a la the jumbo pastrami dog at Herm’s Hot Dog Palace in Skokie. I must admit that this violated even my sense of orthodoxy, and I wasn’t just upset about the MIA wiener. The pastrami itself is sliced thick and seems undercured, halfway between brisket and heaven. The slightly flattened brioche bun I ate it on seemed old and unimpressed with what it had become: a bed for confit tomatoes, “Dijon onion jam,” pepperoncini, and a fair approximation of that hideous neon-green relish that makes this classic so revolting. (Forgive me. I’m a Depression-dog kind of guy.)
I was so unnerved by the Chicago Pastrami Dog I was prepared to ask for ketchup, but then I noticed the small tub of it—a molasses-colored version with a deep sweetness that seemed to terrify the thick and nicely crisped fries.
The pastrami dog is on the lunch menu and only nettling the dining room between 11 AM and 9 PM each day. But you can have breakfast all day at 3 Squares Diner—or 3SD, if you’re nasty. Both menus are studded with intriguing accents on familiar items. Biscuits and gravy are anointed with coconut-mushroom gravy, French toast with coffee anglaise and doughnut glaze, and a fried chicken thigh is mounted on a sourdough waffle.
Like the pastrami dog, the last suffers from false advertising—it’s billed as hot chicken but is barely so; on the contrary, it’s pretty sweet despite or perhaps because of the application of a pimenton gastrique. Still, it’s one of the better things you can eat at 3SD. Another is a bowl of red grits that present as grayish, crowned with a mass of soft braised lamb neck and a sunny-side up egg tarted up with an acidic gremolata.
But the latter demonstrates an aesthetic problem with much of the food here that’s at odds with the bright, white-tiled cheeriness of the room. A lot of it is heavy and gray in appearance, from the small patties on a burger ordered medium rare to a duck confit hash with a huge pile of fried potatoes that don’t harmonize with the bird meat. A side of lamb bacon in no way resembles the belly of an ovine but instead consists of scraps of irregular, gnarly flesh that appeared to have been reheated. Same goes for an arid crock of cavatappi mac and cheese.
The menu at 3SD is a focused one, and there are enjoyable items on it, including some nicely cooked flaky rockfish fillets and tiny white peas bathing in a delicate “ginger-Sichuan broth,” which fails to resemble anything I’ve tasted from that cuisine. The drop biscuits are good—moist and warm—and there’s a thick, delicious, and pretty convincing vegan chocolate-peanut butter milkshake made from soy milk, dates, cocoa, and maca root.
Apart from milkshakes 3SD doesn’t do dessert, but you can add its proprietary distillations of vodka, gin, and rum to them as well as to the classic cocktails.
But there’s something about the food at 3SD that on the surface appeals yet consistently fails to live up to its promise, no better demonstrated by a romaine salad with dry chunks of corn bread, corn, and tomatoes served in late June and tasting that way. Like a sandwich in an iconic hot dog’s clothing, not much at 3SD is as it seems. v