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A Taste of Old-Time Chicago

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do you know what Maxwell Street is? Better yet, do you know what Maxwell Street means?

If so, you know something of the history of Chicago, and you probably know about two places in this neck of the woods that bring Maxwell Street to mind--QT Hot Dogs in Northridge and in Reseda.

If not, listen up.

To folks who live in Chicago, Maxwell Street isn’t just a street. It was the site of the old open-air Maxwell Street Market, established by German immigrants in 1871 and always a lively place where later immigrants--Jews from the shtetls of Europe, Italians and Greeks from the Mediterranean, blacks from the South, Latinos from Central and South America--stirred the ethnic stew of the city of broad shoulders.

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You could get anything in and around the Maxwell Street Market--good food, a good poker game, good booze during Prohibition, illicit sex before, during and after. You could also hear some of the best jazz in America in the neighborhood--Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and many other jazz greats got their starts there.

But the Maxwell Street Market fell into disrepair after World War II, and the wise heads who run things in Chicago decided to bulldoze it. Four years ago, over the protests of many, many people, the market disappeared.

It remains, however, a sweet memory to people like those who give Ali Esmail a steady business at QT Hot Dogs. The first QT Hot Dogs, in Northridge, opened 15 years ago. Esmail bought it in 1990 and opened a second location in Reseda in 1996.

Esmail, from India, came to the United States 27 years ago to study. He has visited Chicago but never lived there.

Not that it matters. To his customers, what’s important is that they get the real thing at QT Hot Dogs, starting with piccalilli. Chicagoans know piccalilli as a highly seasoned relish, probably of East Indian origin, served in copious quantities on Chicago hot dogs--dogs which, incidentally, no self-respecting Chicagoan would call anything but a hot dog, plain and simple, it being understood that you can’t get the real thing anywhere else.

Except, of course, at QT Hot Dogs.

Esmail brings in 80 percent of the food he sells from Chicago, starting with his piccalilli, and he serves it as they used to at the Maxwell Street Market.

For example, he doesn’t grill the buns for his Italian and Polish sausages. He steams them as they did at the Maxwell Street Market, and he serves them with a little mustard and grilled onions and real Chicago pickles and peppers.

He makes a hot pastrami sandwich with grilled onions and mustard, and an Italian roast beef sandwich on a French roll dipped in gravy, and a gyro plate just like those made by Greek vendors in the Maxwell Street Market.

He also makes sandwiches with char-broiled chicken, Philadelphia steak, grilled cheese, grilled ham and cheese, and turkey, plus 14 varieties of hamburgers and a dozen of hot dogs--a Chicago dog plain or with kraut or cheese or chili, a spicy “fire” dog similarly varied, Polish sausage dogs, even veggie dogs.

The prices max out at $4.99 for the sandwiches, $3.95 for the hamburgers, $3.19 for the dogs.

“People come here from Santa Monica and Malibu and Canyon Country,” Esmail says, “and they all remember Chicago. I have a book for people to sign their names and list their high schools, and I know people who have found old classmates in the book.

“One of my customers used to work for the city of Chicago, and he brought me some Chicago street signs and asked me to put them up on the walls. I went to Chicago myself and took some pictures of the old market, and they are on the walls, too.”

QT Chicago Dogs is at 8650 Reseda Blvd. in Northridge, (818) 993-1999, and at 19417 Victory Blvd. in Reseda, (818) 881-3666.

There’s a sentimental streak in your transplanted New Yorker, too, and it does not go unnoticed by restaurant owners in the San Fernando Valley. Take for example, Reuben Gallegos, who runs Reuben’s New York Deli in Encino.

A native of Zacatecas, Mexico, Gallegos came to Los Angeles with his family at age 9 and has worked in delis and restaurants most of his life.

He and his wife, Camelia, opened Reuben’s two years ago with a firm grasp of the wants and needs of their customers--the bankers, lawyers, accountants and other professionals who work in the big buildings clustered around Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards, the Valley’s oldest crossroads.

Many of Gallegos’ customers come from New York, and they crowd into Reuben’s for hot sandwiches stuffed with pastrami, corned beef, brisket, Kosher bologna, Kosher salami, and mortadella.

They also come for the lox and bagels and for the chicken noodle soup with matzo balls made by Camelia Gallegos--who, incidentally, is from Romania and isn’t Jewish.

Not that it matters, right? What matters is that, like any Jewish mother, she understands that only a fine chicken noodle soup with matzo balls can cure humanity of its ills.

“You should try her matzo balls, really,” her husband says. “We don’t even own a freezer here, so she makes them fresh daily--and when we run out, we just tell our customers we’ll have more tomorrow.

“I met her at a place where we both worked in the city of Commerce, and she convinced me to come live in the Valley,” Reuben Gallegos says. “I worked at the old Solly’s Deli in Sherman Oaks and at Mrs. Gooch’s before it became Whole Foods, and at Hamburger Hamlet.

“We decided to open this place two years ago. It’s a family thing for us. Her son Alex, who is 14, is helping us this summer, and my daughter Denise, who is 8, comes in all the time, too.”

Reuben’s New York Deli serves breakfast and lunch. It is at 15826 Ventura Blvd. in Encino, (818) 905-6201.

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Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at jhovey@gte.net.


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