A member of local online food message boards recounts multiple marathons of endurance eating in preparation for the biggest "beefathon" yet.
When I was a boy, I used to think that the trip to the Roy Rogers breakfast bar for my tenth sausage link constituted a daring exercise in excess. Little did I know that once I arrived in Chicago I’d become part of an online community of eaters at LTHForum.com and Chowhound.com, collectives that have turned excess into an art form and gluttony into a group activity. With regularly scheduled “eatathons”—epic culinary expeditions to every corner of the city—they’ve added rigor and fun to what might otherwise be considered mere bingeing.
The first recorded Chowathon was an ambitious 24-hour eat-stravaganza that took place in 2002. ’Thon organizer Rob Gardner says that the idea sprang out of an online discussion of the midnight clientele at San Soo Gab San, a 24-hour Korean barbecue joint. The discussion eventually led to a punishing greasebomb of a day, a celebration of Chicago food at all hours. Before eventually getting to kalbi, bulgogi and oysters with bacon at San Soo, we started with a lunch of corned beef and latkes at Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli. Then it was off to La Milanese in Bridgeport for breaded steak sandwiches, then artisanal root beer at Filbert’s family soda factory, cinnamon-spiced chili at Ramova Grill and soup-filled dumplings at Ed’s Potsticker House. Two large orders of rib tips, three pitchers of Leinenkugel’s Red, a gelato and a slice of pizza later (from Alice’s BBQ, Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap and Freddy’s, respectively), the ’thon paused for a moment (pacing is important) to play the ponies at Maywood Park. Consumption resumed at Johnnie’s for an Italian beef sandwich and didn’t stop until noon the next day.
From that first ’thon, dozens of ’thons have been born. We’ve traversed Western Avenue from Fox’s Beverly Restaurant to Ghaseeta Khan north of Devon Avenue. We’ve compared carnitas from five different Pilsen specialists, all before lunch. We’ve walked and eaten eight miles of Milwaukee Avenue from Blommer Chocolate to Superdawg. In a city like Chicago, the possibilities for ’thon themes are endless.
One cold Sunday in 2005, I made a beeline down Harlem Avenue with a crew of Espressothoners to execute a vertical tasting of authentic Italian espresso at bars in the Bell’Italia Belt of the near West Suburbs. I personally tasted 11 espressos, which turned out to be seven espressos too many. By the end of the day, from my fetal position on the bathroom floor, I was listening to an unsympathetic poison-control specialist explain through the phone that I had ingested a toxic dose of caffeine. (Other participants with milder symptoms agreed that Bar Café San Francesco pulled the best espresso of the day—rich, concentrated and delicious.)
The most ambitious of the ’thons is the Beefathon, a systematic seven-part exploration of the finest Italian beef sandwiches in the Chicago area, complete with score sheets and formal rankings. At the first stop on 2004’s Beefathon No. 2 in the West Suburbs—Carm’s in Hillside—veterans of Beefathon No. 1 explained the judging criteria to the newbies in the crowd while dissecting sandwiches. We recorded scores for each component—beef, bread, gravy, hot and mild giardinieras—and then scored it as a whole. Carm’s overall sandwich earned a respectable 7.8 out of 10.
After Carm’s, we headed to Johnnie’s, known for its fresh-tasting beef and flavorful gravy. After three beefs (score: 9.1) we drove to Buona Beef and found “slick, corporate” results (6.8), then to Frannie’s, where the beef sucked (6.4), but the skin-on fries rocked. By then, nobody was hungry anymore, but in the name of beef science, we headed to Jay’s for one last sandwich (no score posted) that left us wishing we’d stopped eating at Frannie’s.
So far, the Beefathoners have bestowed ratings on Italian beefs at 35 shops. The finals, in which the winners of the seven preliminaries will be compared in one day, are scheduled for October 28. (Johnnie’s is heavily favored to win.) Think you can stomach joining in on the next ’thon? Want to propose your own endurance-eating adventure? Visit the events board at LTHForum.com (www.lthforum.com/bb/viewforum.php?f=19), and I’ll see you at the starting line.
San Soo Gab San (5247 N Western Ave, 773-334-1589)
Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli (1141 S Jefferson St, 312-939-2855)
La Milanese Special Deli (3156 S May St, 773-254-9543)
Filbert’s (3430 S Ashland Ave, 773-847-1520)
Ramova Grill (3510 S Halsted St, 773-847-9058)
Ed’s Potsticker House (3139 S Halsted St, 312-326-6898)
Alice’s BBQ (65 E 43rd St, 773-924-3843)
Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap (1172 E 55th St, 773-643-5516)
Freddy’s (1600 S 61st St, Cicero, 708-863-9289)
Johnnie’s Beef (7500 W North Ave, Elmwood Park, 708-452-6000)
Fox’s Beverly Restaurant (9956 S Western Ave, 773-239-3212)
Ghaseeta Khan (6334 N Western Ave, 773-338-1020)
Blommer Chocolate Factory Store (600 W Kinzie St, 800-621-1606)
Superdawg (6363 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-763-0660)
Bar Café San Francesco (3815 N Harlem Ave, Elmwood Park, 773-283-1117)
Carm’s Beef Original (1801 S Wolf Rd, Hillside, 708-449-0125)
Buona Beef (7025 W North Ave, Oak Park, 708-383-1800)
Frannie’s Beef & Catering (4303 N River, Schiller Park, 847-678-7771)
Jay’s (9372 Irving Park Rd, Schiller Park, 847-671-0033)