As much as I love food and restaurants and cooking, I’ve never worked a day in the food service or hospitality industries. For me, eating, cooking, and even grocery shopping are necessities I’ve turned into hobbies. We have to eat to survive, so I do what I can to make the experiences enjoyable, but I’ve never had to work at it. As a result, I have nothing but admiration and awe for everyone who works in restaurants. It’s a hard, hot, and dangerous job, and too many people take it for granted when we get delicious food we didn’t have to make ourselves. Even I have been guilty of this in the past, but I have so much appreciation, and I always try to show it, including by writing this food blog. I hope it comes across in my words, as I try to boost the signal for local restaurants here.
This past week my wife and I binge-watched a new show called The Bear, which consists of eight half-hour episodes streaming on Hulu. The Bear is about Carmy, a world-renowned chef who returns to his family’s divey restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide and leaves Carmy the restaurant in his will. Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s cramped, chaotic kitchen, and the writing, acting, directing, and editing work in perfect tandem to create a feeling of unhinged uneasiness — a “sense of urgency,” as Carmy calls it. All the restaurant people I know who have been watching it say they get the details almost too perfect, to the point where it is too real, too uncomfortable to enjoy. But it’s really good, so you should watch it if you’re looking for a new show you can knock out in a weekend.
Anyway, the main specialty of Carmy’s family restaurant is a real Chicago classic: Italian beef sandwiches. We watch them preparing hundreds of “beefs,” and before the end of the intense first episode, I was craving one here in Orlando. The Chicago/Italian beef isn’t as ubiquitous a sandwich as the Philly cheesesteak, but there are a few places around town to find them. My favorite local food writer, a woman who serves as a constant inspiration to me, who I am honored to think of as a friend (albeit one I have yet to meet in real life), Amy Drew Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a guide to Italian beef sandwiches in Orlando earlier this year, which pointed me to the subject of my latest restaurant review.
Chicago Dog & Co (https://www.chicagodogandco.com/) is located in Altamonte Springs, Florida, west of I-4, close to where Altamonte starts blending into Apopka. Sandra (a practicing attorney!) and Monica, two Chicago-born sisters raised in Central Florida, opened the restaurant just over a year ago, in April 2021, and they have been going strong ever since. Open every day except Monday, Chicago Dog & Co has covered outdoor seating, but no indoor seating. You walk up to order at a window, and they call your name when your order is ready. They specialize in Vienna Beef hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns, and you can get them with a number of toppings, including the Chicago way, “dragging it through the garden,” with yellow mustard, diced onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, a pickle spear, “sport” peppers, and celery salt.
But as much as I enjoy a good hot dog, I’m more of a devotee of a garlicky New York-style dog, as typified by Sabrett, Nathan’s, and Boar’s Head, topped with spicy mustard and sauerkraut. I have no doubt the Vienna Beef hot dogs are bringing back happy Chicago memories for thousands of Central Floridians, but I went there for a different reason: to get my post-Bear Italian beef fix. And did I ever!
This was the Italian beef ($8) I brought home for myself, the tender sliced beef topped with sweet peppers and spicy giardiniera vegetables, a blend of carrots, onions, and green peppers. (The more traditional Chicago version has carrots, celery, and cauliflower!) It is served on a soft Gonnella roll, either dry (no au jus, or au jus served on the side), wet (au jus poured over the sandwich), or dipped (the entire sandwich, roll and all, dipped in au jus to create a real fork-and-knife experience). Since I was bringing it home, I opened for au jus on the side. I thought it was really good, and better once I poured the jus over the meat and bread. The actual beef in an Italian beef isn’t super-moist or fatty, so the jus helps lubricate the sandwich, in the best possible way. It was definitely a WAS (wet-ass sandwich) by the time I was through, and it definitely fulfilled my Italian beef craving.
Knowing my wife the way I do, she isn’t into toppings, condiments, sauces, or even sandwiches all that much, so I ordered her a plain beef ($8) with jus on the side, and also giardiniera on the side (since I knew I would get to eat hers). Here’s the unadorned, unadulterated beef:
Since they serve chili dogs and I love chili, I asked if I could try a little side order of chili, and they were kind enough to fill a small cup for me. Here it is with the side of spicy giardiniera.
In addition to the dogs and beefs, Chicago Dog & Co also serves burgers. I haven’t had a tasty burger in quite a while, so I couldn’t resist this double smash ($6) — a very reasonable price for two beef patties smashed thin with sautéed onions and melty American cheese on a soft bun. The bun got steamed in the aluminum foil wrap on my 20-minute drive home, but I imagine it would be a lot less wrinkly if you enjoy yours at the restaurant.The burger had a great “fresh off the grill” taste, and I’m a sucker for American cheese and sautéed or grilled onions on my burger. I added a bit of the chili once I ate about half of it at home, but it didn’t need any other adornments to improve it.
Finally, I brought home an Iltaco Pizza Puff ($4) for my wife to try. These things are awesome — another Chicago snack that is like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever had, or more like a small, flat, pizza-filled chimichanga or empanada.
The crispy, bubbly, fried shell is like a flour tortilla — hence the chimichanga comparison — and it is stuffed with tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and sausage or pepperoni. I love these things. My wife wasn’t interested in trying it, so I ate both halves myself.
So if you also watched The Bear and have been asking “Where’s the beef?” ever since, Chicago Dog & Co is the place for you. Since I started this blog in 2018, I’ve tried (and reviewed) two other Italian beef sandwiches in and around Orlando: Rosati’s Pizza (a Chicago chain) in Winter Park, and Christo’s, the diner in Sanford. There are one or two other options I’m aware of, thanks in part to Amy Drew Thompson and the good people of The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, but as you might have realized by now, they aren’t nearly as easy to find around here as other sandwiches. I’m happy I had time on a lazy Sunday to finally check out a new(ish) local restaurant owned by two women who deserve our community’s support. Hopefully their kitchen is a lot more copacetic than the one in the show! But if you go for a beef or even a Chicago hot dog, don’t forget that Pizza Puff too — trust me on that. That thing is magical.