A shout out to my friend, Bes Nievera, at Music Direct in Chicago for directing me to Manny's Cafeteria and Delicatessen, an old-world deli in the south loop on the near west side of Chicago (see map). Manny's has served Chicago's famous and elite as well as the run-of-the-mill "Joe's" and "Jane's" since 1946. It was during our little "tourist" trip into Chicago that I had my first experience with Manny's Deli.
Manny's is the quintessential Jewish delicatessen featuring sandwiches piled high with kosher meats, and large portion hot entrees such as beef stew, liver and onions and corned beef dinners, soups, sides such as knish and kishke, and daily specials with such diverse items as stuffed cabbage, roasted tongue with mushrooms, fried smelts, and lamb shanks. It's truly a cafeteria where you get your tray at the start of the line, then go down and tell the guys behind the counter what you want. And you usually end up with a lot more food than you can eat.
The beginning of Manny's pre-dates 1946, but just four years before when Russian immigrant brothers Jack and Charlie Raskin opened their first deli using home-grown recipes they learned from their mother. The brothers split their business just after World War II as Jack wanted to be closer to the open air markets on Maxwell Street. He set up shop at a place that used to be called "Sunny's" at the corner of Roosevelt Road and Maxwell Street. Money was tight and Jack couldn't afford a new sign. He decided to call his place "Manny's" - after his teenaged son, known as Manny to family and friends - and it only cost him to change two letters in sign.
Manny had worked in his Uncle Charlie's deli prior to working at his dad's place and he was the first cook of the new deli. He had learned how to cook by watching his uncle cook at the old place. Manny eventually took over for his father and the location of the deli bounced around the area until it finally settled into its present day spot just north of Roosevelt on Jefferson in 1964. Manny styled the place after a New York-style delicatessen and business flourished.
Manny's son, Ken, started to work in the restaurant when he was a young kid and took over the place when Manny died in 1983. Today, Ken Raskin continues to run the place, but his sons Matt and Danny (all pictured at right) are involved with the day-to-day operation. Ken Raskin's wife, Patti, as well as their two other children, Stephanie and Jason, come around from time to time to help out when needed.
It was about 2:30 when we finally got to Manny's after a long and somewhat expensive cab ride from Navy Pier. I figured that it wouldn't be that busy at Manny's at that time and I was right. There was no one standing in line when we walked in.
The menu including the day's specials are up on the lighted board behind the counter. We made the rookie mistakes of not grabbing a fiberglass tray as we made our way down the line to see what we wanted to order. One of the line cooks asked us what we wanted and Cindy said, "Gee, I really don't know."
I really didn't know what to get either, so I took a little time to figure out the menu. We finally just decided to get a corned beef sandwich. And I knew it would be huge, so I told the guy that we'd just split it.
They sliced the corned beef on the spot with the large industrial slicer (above right). And then they piled it high on a slice of rye bread, topped it with another piece of rye and cut it in half. For good measure, we got a potato pancake as a side and a couple kosher dill pickle spears along with some cole slaw. I got a bottle of water while Cindy got an iced tea.
The next thing you encounter at Manny's as you get to the end of the line is a lady at a cash register. Only she isn't the one who takes your money. She just comes up with the ticket that you'll use to go up and pay at the REAL cash register at the front door. I thought it was a little strange, but I'm sure it's something they've been doing at Manny's for years.
We sat in Manny's main dining area, a well lit room that had pictures of famous politicians and celebrities, as well as a number of articles about Manny's over the years from local and national publications. The formica tables and vinyl padded chairs at Manny's are all right, nothing special. They're along that style of sterile cafeteria furniture.
But we were there for the sandwich and I'm sure we could have zipped it up a bit more with some cheese and maybe some veggies (spicy mustard was available on the table, so that was a plus). But it was just plain, piled high sandwiched between soft rye bread.
The meat was lean, juicy and very tasty. It was, of course, too large to take a full bite. So we just sort of nibbled around the meat and the bread, forking up the tender morsels of corned beef that fell out onto the plate. It was salty (I ended up getting a second bottle of water), but the taste was very, very good. It was some of the best corned beef I'd ever had. And having it thinly sliced as they do at Manny's made it even easier to eat.
The cole slaw at Manny's is "eh!" Nothing really special. But the potato pancake was flavorful and had a nice crust on the outside. They make it with eggs and onions mixed in with the potatoes and then they fry it up. It, too, was a damn fine potato pancake.
Before we left, we looked at all the pictures, articles and memorabilia on the wall at Manny's. Chicago politicians from aldermen to U.S. government officials have descended upon Manny's for years. But no one is more famous than President Barack Obama who has come to Manny's for years starting even before his days as state legislator in the Illinois Senate. Obama visited Manny's days after he won election to the presidency in November of 2008. Here's a picture of him ordering corned beef sandwiches at the same spot where I ordered our corned beef sandwich.
After paying at the cash register on the way out, I sort of wished that we would have driven down. (Manny's does offer valet parking, but there are parking areas on the street and on the side of the building, if available.) It didn't appear any taxi's would be driving by any time soon. I looked to the north and I noticed a cab pulling out of a gas station and heading north. A moment later, I saw another cab pulling out of the gas station and heading north. We started to wander up the street and as soon as we made it to the corner just north of Manny's, I looked over and there was a cab company right behind the gas station. It was shift change just after 3 p.m. and the cabs were gassing up at the BP station and then heading out. We flagged a cabbie at the station, he told us to hop in and he gave us a ride back to our hotel in River North. That was kind of lucky.
It turns out that a corned beef sandwich and a potato pancake is the exact thing you should order if you're a Manny's Deli rookie, like we were. Regulars usually have a good idea of what they want as they go through the line. It's not good to hold people up who are behind you and who can probably recite the menu - along with the daily specials - off the top of their heads. The corned beef at Manny's was just excellent as was the potato pancake. Now that I know where Manny's is, what they have to offer and how the drill works I'm sure my next visit will go even more smooth. I just gotta remember to get that tray before I move on down the line...