Poochie's, your classic Chicago-area grill
Grilled salami: The char salami sandwich, above, raises the question -- why don't other places serve this meat? (Andrew A. Nelles/Photos for the Tribune)
If you plotted every Chicago-area hot dog/burger/Italian beef quick-serve on a graph, the dots would line up along a bell curve. "Extraordinary" or "awful" aren't words associated with such restaurants, with the majority occupying the "they do a decent job" bulge.
So we highlight Poochie's because it rests in that comfortable median — not worth the drive if you live in Downers Grove, but a fine template of the no-frills, Greek-run, Chicago-style of chargrilled fast food immune to criticism, unless you're a snob or killjoy.
Several friends with respected palates grew up near Poochie's — 43 years on Dempster Street this year — and they call it their favorite restaurant of the breed. The restaurant spent 42 years at its original location before moving five blocks east last year. It's still wedged in a strip mall, but now in a gleaming space with three enormous flat-screen TVs and newspaper front pages of local sports championships.
I came here alone one afternoon and ordered a half dozen things off the menu, because I cared about being inconspicuous. "You must be hungry," said the girl at the counter. I didn't respond, because "yes" would've been an embarrassing answer.
Burgers and hot dogs were compulsory. You'd have to try hard to screw up a hot dog, and this by-the-books Chicago version tasted exactly as you'd expect.
Burgers were the higher-risk, higher-reward proposition. Granted, its margin of error is forgiving — if you remove from heat in that 90-second window between bloody raw and overcooked lump, you're considered Wolfgang Puck. You're judged first on keeping the patty juicy, then, on how you dress it.
Poochie's cheddar bacon burger ($5.29) aces the grill test, the sirloin and chuck one-third-pounder char-licked with a sufficient level of backyard barbecue burn. Salty, tangy, velvety cheddar bears Merkt's calling card. Now here's the revelation: Ordering "everything on the burger" means the condiments of a Chicago-style hot dog, down to the nuclear relish and sport peppers.
I've frequented many corner grills, and I've never seen those seven specific toppings assembled under a hamburger bun (I was told The Wieners Circle does this). It's a sweet and pickley melange that's (bless me, Lord, for I'm about to commit heresy) so much better on a burger than a hot dog. My worldview had forever been altered.
It's curious why Poochie's would advertise itself as "home of the cheddar burger," when one out of seven items ordered at the place — according to owner Chris Christou — is its char salami sandwich ($5.79). It's the only dish with an accompanying "You gotta try this one" command on the menu. I am easily swayed.
Why more restaurants don't use salami as a hot sandwich protein is baffling. Here is hickory-smoked salami from Vienna Beef, dried for 30 days to attain a firmer texture. Poochie's grills the salami sliced lengthwise. The surface turns dark and crisp, magically amplifying that significant-others-repelling cured meats aroma, which burrows deep into you and turns every exhale into a garlicky superhero trait. On top of the salami hunk is mustard and sweet onions grilled into silky strands, between a chewy French roll. It's among the most masculine sandwiches I've encountered.
There were a few other things I ordered: a cooked-through skirt steak sandwich with teriyaki glaze ($7.49), a 1950s-transporting chocolate malt shake ($3.79), and french fries that while crisp and occasionally crunchy, lacked that waxy mashed potato interior I covet ($1.99). I could have eaten these at any of hundreds of restaurants around Chicago, each one 95 percent like Poochie's, each one somebody's favorite. So why Poochie's? A first-class cheddar burger and a salami sandwich justified writing it up in today's newspaper.
3602 Dempster St., Skokie
Open: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday