by Mike Sula
There are nearly 60 Maid-Rites across the country, most in Iowa and downstate Illinois. But up until last week my first and only experience with a loose meat sandwich was at an appealingly ramshackle Maid-Rite in Macomb. The defiantly unrestored aspect of this now defunct Hopper-esque shack might have been enough to redeem the experience, but the sandwich was served to me—the only customer at the time—with such sneering contempt by the sole worker on the clock that my usual reverence for regional oddities was wiped clean by a culinary bigotry that had me convinced that a person's capacity for enjoyment of loose-meat sandwiches must be directly proportional to his level of Caucasitude.
So a few months ago, when a Maid-Rite franchise opened in a neighborhood that's nearly as white as Iowa, I took some extra time to check my prejudices before donning my wet suit and going in. Contrary to nearly every dribble of coverage the media spilled on this place, it is not Chicago's first Maid-Rite. According to the esteemed Dr. Peter Engler, that historical distinction belongs to a location on 57th Street in Hyde Park back in the 40s.
This new Lincoln Park Maid-Rite, owned by an ex-trader and native of Galesburg, is bright and shiny, with a faux retro veneer and a cheerful staff who quickly dispel any residual negative mojo that might interfere with an honest assessment of the loose meat. Oddly—and this doesn't hurt either—the place smells like barbecue (more on that later).
But still, I took the precaution of ordering a "Cheese-Rite" instead of the original unadorned version, hoping that a slice of melted Swiss with mustard and onion might lend a measure of binding (and flavor) to the exercise. Nope. At the first bite, dry, flavorless brown shingle spilled out of the bun, leaving me with a mouthful of Nerf. It's just not a good sandwich. And at $4.49, it's a terrible bargain too. But I hedged my bet and also ordered a pork tenderloin sandwich, another Iowa staple that traditionally tends to negate the bun it's served on. Another mistake: a processed pork patty with a jacket of crunchy breading that outmassed the cheap bread and molded pork slurry by a factor of four.
But it didn't feel fair to give up on the Maid-Rite Diner, or the loose meat, at this point. This new franchise is reflective of a makeover undertaken by Des Moines HQ five years ago that has the chain offering salads, wraps, breakfast, and wacky milk shakes like peach and triple berry in addition to novel variations on the loose meat. I could've gone with the Blue-Rite, but crumbles of blue cheese amid the ground beef didn't seem any more cohesive than the original. And you're not allowed to order the Maid-Rite Beef Sundae unless you're a fraternity pledge. So the Rare-Bit—a take on Welsh rarebit—seemed the way to go. Four slices of steamed marble rye—yes I watched them go in a steamer—topped with beef gravel and drizzled with a thin white cheese sauce. It doesn't get any better than that, I'm sorry to report.
I did mention the place smelled like barbecue. This particular Maid-Rite has a specials board featuring items not listed on the corporate lineup—"Ms. Kimley's homemade chicken soup," pies from Lovely, a Bake Shop, pulled-pork quesadillas, a pulled-rib sandwich, etc. I gave the soup—unnaturally yellow with mushy square noodles—a shot. Come on, Ms. Kimley! But a special brisket sandwich wasn't all that bad: thick planks of (very) lightly smoked brisket, juicy and tender, with a hint of pink smoke ring (I was told these come out of a Cookshack-brand smoker, FWIW). These are for you if you get dragged here and you didn't grow up on loose-meat sandwiches. However deep the reservoir of corn-belt nostalgia this place aims to tap, at least there's something for those who haven't been indoctrinated.
Maid-Rite Diner, 2429 N. Lincoln, 773-687-9250
*Most visible purveyor except for the Lanford Lunch Box.
** Apparently there is no loose-meat analogue to the Italian Beef Stance.