Sunday, June 24, 2007

(Dis)comfort Food

Over the years, when people asked me, "What's your favorite hamburger?"--and, believe it or not, this question came up more often than you'd think--I'd always direct them to a small, old-fashioned little-bit-of-everything joint on the corner of Damen and Melrose called Man-Jo-Vin's.

I was introduced to Man-Jo-Vin's--so named, I gather, because the three original owners were named Manny, Joe and Vinny--by my best friend from high school. We'd hang out at her place with her husband and kids, then head over to Man-Jo-Vin's and pick up a huge order, which we'd eat there in the summer (they had picnic tables along the Melrose side) or take back to her place. They did everything well, as far as I could tell (I never tried their fish sandwich or shrimp, because seafood and I don't get along like oil and water, Republicans and Democrats, cats get the idea), but invariably I'd get a couple of double cheeseburgers.

I went there for something like 20 years, and always the double cheeseburgers were the same. It wasn't that the burger patties themselves were so great--nothing more than standard foodservice-issue beef. The buns could have come from the corner grocery store (if you even have a corner grocery store near you--those are vanishing, too).

The onions were shredded, though, and grilled (along with the bun) before being laid atop the single slice of American cheese and thus melting into it. Once you took a bite, strings of onions and cheese connected your mouth to the burger. You had become one, whether you wanted to or not. And with the flavors and textures and scents involved, you definitely wanted to.

One Sunday, I was in a bit of a mood (not that that ever happens) and while out and about, I thought I'd swing by Man-Jo-Vin's and grab a couple double cheeseburgers--comfort food does wonders for dispelling moods, no?

In this case, "no" is right: Man-Jo-Vin's was closed. Not "closed" in the "Gone Fishin'" sense or the "Damn, I missed their closing time by five minutes" sense, but in the "There's a paper, hand-written sign in the window and dust gathering on the counters" sense. Man-Jo-Vin's was closed. For good.

Yesterday, I passed the old corner where Man-Jo-Vin's had been. A condo development is currently being constructed there. Don't we have enough of those in this city? Do we don't need anymore?

The same thing happened not too long after to Toot's, a small stand on the corner of Central and Montrose. Who knows how long it had been there, dishing out good burgers, great fries and awesome cheesy beefs? Seemed like forever. But even forever, it seems, has an ending: One day, I saw a banner on the side of the stand announcing its imminent closure and thanking customers for their years of patronage.

The next time I saw Toot's, it had been pretty much dismantled: The big yellow sign on the corner was gone; the smaller signs over the doors that said "Lick me!" and "Bite me!" had vanished; even the siding was peeled back. The next time I pass that corner, I'll bet you all the money in my wallet that there'll be a condo complex popping up there.

And now comes word this past week that that Harry's, the hot dog hole in the wall at Randolph and Franklin, is in danger because of a construction project to its immediate west. I used to go there when I worked at Ameritech. Harry, the owner, was always there, and he was elderly then. Now, I hear he's 98. His wife died recently. And now the city is considering using its eminent domain powers to acquire the building housing Harry's (and two more buildings on that block), all to make a plaza and appease a prominent developer.

Very nice, City of Chicago. How sweet, Mayor Daley. You sure there aren't some puppies you'd like to drown or children you'd like to take candy from instead? Or is kicking a 98-year-old when he's down the most pressing issue you have to worry about these days?

In all of these cases, I was saddened, but hardly surprised. This is an old story in Chicago: It's there for decades, and then, suddenly, it's not. Why go to a neighborhood burger joint when McDonald's, Subway and KFC are everywhere? Who cares about getting coffee at the local diner when Starbucks is on the way? That movie theater down the street is small and old--isn't the stadium seating at the megaplex so much nicer?

There's this little fast-food place on Irving Park Road not too terribly far from La Casa del Terror. A nice old couple runs it. They make good gyros. I hardly ever see anyone else in there.

Think I'll stop by there on the way home tonight. While I still can.