To the untrained eye, it might look like some sort of culinary concession. The Styrofoam container holds two tamales swimming in meat sauce that suspiciously resembles the chili ladled over enchiladas throughout Texas by the ton. There's even cheese melted on the surface, and the whole thing would look right at home on a Herrera's special plate beside a puddle of refried beans and some mildly seasoned rice.
But the "tamale boat" that's served at the new Al's Italian Beef in Addison is also served at every location across Illinois, California, Nevada and now Texas. And it's based on the machine-extruded, paper-wrapped beef and cornmeal tamales that have been sold in fast food restaurants around Chicago for as long as anyone up there can remember. They're about the size of a sausage, stuffed with seasoned beef, and they drip electric-orange grease. The tamale boat is not a nod to Texans' palates, but just another gut bomb buried at the bottom of a menu board filled with so much ammunition that owner Essa Zedan could launch an offensive against some of Dallas' fattiest restaurants and come out well ahead.
Zedan moved to Dallas from Chicago a few years ago, as his family was building out a sprawling cell phone retail business. But Zedan was less interested in data rates and family plans and more interested in delicious, hot meat sandwiches. After taking a few classes in hospitality at Le Cordon Bleu, he took a stab at what he thought was a guaranteed success: a restaurant serving classic Chicago hot dogs and sandwiches under a brand name that anyone who's set foot in Chi-town would recognize immediately.
In Dallas, Tex-Mex conquers every corner; in Chicago, it's Italian beef sandwiches and hot dogs. There are restaurants and stands selling them on seemingly every block of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Mr. Beef, Portillo's, Johnny's, Jay's, Tony's: Italian beef sandwiches are how Chicagoans fight depression and guard against becoming too thin in winter. There's a lot of happiness in those soggy, paper-wrapped sandwiches dripping with gravy, and anyone who leaves Chicago will surely miss them.
The secret is the beef roast cooked over a steamy pan filled with water. The pan catches every drop of juice, fat and roasted spice as the meat cooks. Nothing escapes. When the roast is done, it's thinly sliced and tossed in the "gravy" that has collected beneath it, and the whole mess is heaped onto bread that can just barely hold it together.
At least that's how it's done in Chicago, at smaller, family-owned restaurants. As Al's approaches 20 locations, the meat production has taken a more industrial slant. Zedan's roasts are cooked in Chicago, flash frozen, boxed up and placed on a truck bound for Addison. The gravy is bagged by the gallon and frozen, too, along with bread, hot dogs, extruded meat tamales and just about everything on Zedan's menu.
Every week the restaurant receives a monumental shipment. Fifty boxes of roasts, 40 boxes of sandwich rolls and so on. It's unpacked and stuffed in walk-in refrigerators and freezers, to be portioned out over the week.
Once it's thawed here in Addison, the meat is treated just like it is at any location. A deli slicer cuts the roasts into thin folds of beef, which are floated in a steaming pan of that gravy until a customer places an order. Sandwiches can be topped with hot peppers -- a mixture of celery, oil and chili flakes --or sweet peppers, which are large slabs of bell pepper that lack spice. You can get a sandwich "dry," meaning filled with sopping-wet beef, or "wet," which includes an extra ladle of gravy from the pan. But you should order your sandwich "dipped," because Al's is not a place for restraint, and a sandwich that has been completely submerged in a rich brown sea of savory is a beautiful thing to behold, provided you're not wearing your favorite shirt and you have enough napkins. There are never enough napkins.
Also hitching a ride on what may be the most caloric truck to barrel between Chicago and Dallas are the Vienna beef hot dogs sold all over Chicago. At Al's they're dragged through the garden and wrapped up in paper with a fistful of soft-cooked french fries that are cut on-site. The horticultural reference means nothing in terms of health food or freshness, but refers instead to a hot dog that's been topped with onions, mustard, tomatoes, sport peppers and a shake or two of celery salt.
Sausages get the same treatment. Choose the Polish kielbasa over the Italian sausage for more flavor, and if you do order the Italian, ask for the "combo," which will get you a sausage topped with more of that roast meat, all of the peppers and some gravy for good measure. It's as sloppy as a beef sandwich with the full treatment, if not sloppier. You remembered to grab those extra napkins, yes? Zedan's restaurant makes use of massive, carefully designed dispensers near the soda machines that stingily offer one napkin at a time. You'll need at least five to get through a single dipped sandwich, and you'll still have to wash your hands in the bathroom afterward if you want to get that roast beef smell off your fingers, wrists and elbows.
Considering the number of Al's planned for the Dallas area in the coming years, the napkin requirements could have a negative impact on deforestation. Zedan bought the exclusive rights to any Al's opened in the DFW area, and he hopes to have five within the next few years. The next should open in Las Colinas, hopefully in time for football season, but by year's end at the latest.
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Either way, in the coming years, you'll be able to paint your face with a sopping-wet sandwich all over the Dallas area, and you'll likely be joined by a horde of enthusiasts. Judging by the amount of Chicago Bears and Cubs apparel that can be spotted at his first store, along with the number of grease-stained faces, you might think Zedan is trucking in hungry sandwich-fans alongside his beef roasts.
He's not, of course. These are just hungry diners far from home, hoping for a little taste of something that takes them back. They've found just what they're looking for with Al's Italian Beef. And there's nothing little about it.
Al's Italian Beef 5000 Belt Line Road, 972-770-0992, alsbeef.com, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, $$
Big beef $9.75 Chicago dog $4.85 Tamale boat $5.95 Original Polish $5.95 Italian sausage $4.85