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O.C. Eats

It's Almost the Windy City

Giorgio's of Chicago serves up authentic versions of fast-food favorites, especially the Italian beef sandwich.

September 21, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If any city can match Los Angeles' contributions to the American fast-food diet, it's Chicago, home of electric blues, losing baseball and about the best pizzas and hot dogs in the country.

Chicagoans take fierce pride in their food, even when they've moved to California. Many Chicago-themed restaurants have failed around here because they do not meet the stringent quality standards of the transplants.

In my inexact research, I've found one restaurant Chicago food mavens say is the real thing: Giorgio's of Chicago, a Laguna Niguel hot dog/sandwich/pizza joint that takes authenticity very, very seriously.

Owned by Creig Mullikin with the assistance of his wife, son and mother, who all moved here from suburban Chicago 10 years ago, Giorgio's is a quaint, family-style restaurant with many touches of a pizzeria from their old hometown: deep red vinyl booths and old black-and-white photos of family and city scenes he purchased from the Chicago Historical Society. Frank Sinatra's greatest hits play almost nonstop.

To be a real Chicago restaurant, it's not enough to make hot dogs and pizza the right way. The definitive barometer is in the quality of an obscure sandwich little known outside of the Windy City but highly revered by the natives: the Italian beef sandwich.

Because these folks are very, very picky about this jazzed-up roast beef sandwich, Giorgio's needs to make an extremely good one. I, born and raised in L.A., have no long history with this sandwich, but I've eaten what I've been told are the best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago, so I can say that Giorgio's rendition is not just good but quite exceptional. It's easily one of the best I've come across.

When properly done, the Italian beef sandwich is quite a treat. The seasoned roast beef is marinated in its own juices, combined with a hot pickle mix called giardiniera, and jammed into a French roll. Giorgio's Italian beef is no sandwich for the faint of heart; it's a sloppy mess (the beef juices make the roll disintegrate), and the giardiniera--chopped hot peppers, celery and carrots in olive oil--adds a sharp, snappy flavor. But if you want to taste the essence of Giorgio's, order the Italian beef--or a Chicago dog.

If you spend any time walking around Chicago's old neighborhoods, you'll always see a Vienna hot dog stand. To his credit, Mullikin re-creates the classic Chicago dog the honorable way, by importing the vital ingredient from the Vienna Hot Dog Co.: a steamed kosher beef dog that snaps when you bite it.

The dog is set in a poppy-seed bun and piled with onions, tomato wedges, small green peppers, a dill pickle spear, mustard and a fluorescent green relish that seems to be found nowhere else on earth but in a Chicago dog.

Finally it's dusted with celery salt. Like the Italian beef sandwich, this is a jam-packed messy meal, and it's the real thing, just like the ones you'd find in Lincoln Park. Giorgio's also sells the same hot dog with two sausages in the bun, which is a bit of overkill. One dog does fine.

Chicago-style hot dogs and spicy beef sandwiches may be acquired tastes, but most everyone likes pizza, and Giorgio's serves some of the best in South County.

A range of pies are offered, from the standard thick crust to nouveau creations topped with barbecued chicken and roasted chicken and potato. But the standouts are the Chicago-style thin-crust and deep-dish versions. The thin-crust is cut into squares and, as authenticity dictates, the cheese is laid on top of the toppings. The rich, gooey mozzarella and savory Italian sausages are all imported from the Midwest. (The best thing about these pies, though, is the zesty sauce made my Mullikin's mother, Angie.)

The deep-dish version features the same thin crust with the edge folded up a couple of inches to allow for a more substantial piling of cheese and toppings. Instead of pizza sauce, it uses a layer of crushed Roma tomatoes infused with minced garlic, and the entire pie is cut into eight slices. Depending on how many toppings you order (there are 16 choices, each an additional $1.50), this can make for a massive pizza, from which one slice will more than satisfy.

Outside of the Chicago big three--hot dog, beef sandwich, pizza--there's nothing really distinctive about Giorgio's menu. The most memorable of the seven entrees is the barbecued baby-back ribs, which are so tender the meat falls off the bone. Mullikin achieves this by steaming the ribs before grilling them. There's some barbecue sauce (there should be more, really) to give the ribs kick.

Giorgio's serves both baked and roasted chicken: adequate but utterly forgettable. There are several Italian entrees notable for a very fresh and tasty homemade marinara sauce. The best bet is the sausage platter featuring savory Italian links grilled with peppers and onions and buried beneath a flood of marinara. Al dente rigatoni comes on the side.

Since the City of the Big Shoulders is also known for big bellies, Giorgio's portions are huge, and you may want to pass on dessert. But remember that Angie Mullikin, who makes the accomplished pizza sauces and the marinara, also makes the tiramisu and cannoli. You can't go wrong with her cannoli, stuffed with sweetened whipped ricotta and chopped nuts. It's a fine way to complete the Chicago culinary experience.

Giorgio's is affordable, with hot dogs and sandwiches running $2.95 to $3.95, pizzas $7 to $21 and entrees $5.95 to $12.50. Catering is available.

BE THERE

Giorgio's of Chicago, 27000 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Niguel. (949) 448-9899. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

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