Route 66 people:  Lou Mitchell’s Heleen Thanas remembered

Back after Thanksgiving while we were still partying with our friends and families over the long weekend, we were on holiday hiatus and missed something.  Mind you, it wasn’t at all well publicized; in fact, it happened in the background, under the radar.

Yesterday, I ran across the news while searching online for something else:  Heleen Thanas, doyenne of the famous Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago, had died on Halloween last year of complications following a catastrophic stroke.  There hadn’t been a death notice under that name in the local papers, only a Chicago Tribune obituary in late November for a Heleen Thanasouras-Gillman, nearly a month after the private funeral.

Thanasouras-Gillman … That might be the reason I wasn’t the only one who missed it.

Heleen Thanas was her work name.  Even though Thanas is the surname her mother, Kathryn, and brother Nick use at the restaurant – the one on the deed and other legal documents – Thanasouras-Gillman was the name by which Heleen’s immediate family and close friends knew her.  She was proud of her heritage and her accomplishments.

Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on Jackson Boulevard (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

Lou Mitchell’s on Jackson Blvd.  (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

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Route 66 road food:  where did all those Chicago foods for your playoff party come from?

Last time:  part 1 – What to put on a Chicago-style payoff party menu

Warm greetings on this cold, cold day, fellow roadies!  So:  did any of those brands on our Route 66 Chicago-style party menu surprise you as being from Chicago?  They shouldn’t, if you’re from hereabouts.  And yet, only one of them is made anywhere near Route 66 these days; a pity.  We thought about including Route 66 Soda (honest, we really, really did; but the company is based in Lebanon, MO and was never a Chicago brand – sorry, guys).  Route 66 Beer, on the other hand, was a no-brainer:  it’s made a few states west of here, so it’s out of the question.  Only one beer brand is actually brewed near Route 66 in Chicago – Lagunitas! – but even though its CEO was born and grew up here, the company is a very recent arrival … and Chicago makes too many good craft brews these days in addition to selling Berghoff’s beer, anyway, so we didn’t want to choose one.  You do that.  (We also didn’t want to have to choose between Eli’s and Sara Lee cheesecake, so we stuck with other desserts.)


A classic Chicago-style accompaniment to Italian Beef sandwiches:  giardiniera mix.

We wrote about Vienna Beef franks and the Chicago-style hot dog recently, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.  If you don’t know about Chicago’s Italian beef, though, then Scala’s, Al’s No. 1, and Mr. Beef would all be news to you.  Most people order it with fries and Italian lemonade, preferably from Mario’s on Taylor Street.  Italian beef originated in Chicago, though nobody remembers quite how.  The beef is first oven roasted to rare inside and cooled; then it’s sliced and simmered in a savory beef-broth ‘gravy’ that has oregano and sweet green peppers in it for that characteristic flavor.  The gravy’s so good that many folks like their Italian beef ‘wet’ – with the cut-open side of the bread briefly dipped in the gravy before the beef is piled on.  You can take your peppers sweet or hot, on the beef or on the side, with or without the hot pickled Italian vegetable mix called giardiniera, which is added for extra oomph.  But the bread must be sturdy as well as tasty to stand up to all that, which is why you must use Gonnella bread for Italian beef. Continue reading

Route 66 road food:  What’s on a Chicago-style sports playoff party menu?

Hello again, fellow roadies!  It’s January, and we’re moving into playoffs season.  The hockey players and basketball guys are just hitting their stride, whereas the football players are tiring (oh, the Bears; don’t get me started).  The next several weekends will be full of playoff games.  Before you know it, the Super Bowl will be here … which means there are playoff parties in the offing.  And once you’re past football, can NCAA’s March Madness, the NBA finals, and the hockey playoffs be far behind?  This prompts us to ask, Route 66 fans:  what will people be eating at your playoff party or parties??  Not that we want to second-guess or jinx anyone on the home team, mind you; but those of you who are sports fans know very well you’ll be watching the playoffs no matter who’s in the lineup.  The inclusion of a home team simply makes you cheer louder and mouth off at the coach more belligerently.  Well and good.  Be that as it may …

Last time, we told you the history of the Chicago-style hot dog.  That’s a must if you begin your road trip here.  When people think of road food on Route 66 in the Chicago area, the Chicago-style hot dog is a big item.  However, a few other things naturally come to mind as well:  breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, brunch/lunch at Henry’s Drive-In (that’s if you’ve been making all the stops that we recommend upon leaving the Loop, since we know there’s lots to see before you get to Joliet and pass I-80), fried chicken for dinner at either Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket or White Fence Farm, and maybe some of those heavenly angel-creme donuts and great coffee for the road at Home Cut Donuts in Joliet, for those of you who are either overnighting in Joliet or intend to drive through the night (but why would you?).  Or, if you’re coming from the West Coast to the Third Coast, traveling eastbound, you might consider Berghoff’s for dinner, over on the Adams Street alignment in downtown Chicago, before you find a bunk for the night.

None of that works for a playoff party, however (unless you’re eating at The Berghoff or Dell Rhea’s, which do have TVs in their bars, instead of watching at home).  Rather, we must look to the cuisine of cities along Route 66 that might actually have a contending team in the playoffs.  At the Illinois end of the route, that means either Chicago or St. Louis (unless you’re a transplant from somewhere else).  And since St. Louis is Missouri’s property, that leaves only Chicago.  So what would a Route 66 roadie in Chicago serve?  Why, some Chicago favorites and local brands, of course (more about those below, after we suggest a menu). Continue reading

Route 66 history:  the origin of the Chicago-style hot dog (yum!)

Hello again, dear roadies!  We mentioned recently that we visited Henry’s Drive-In in Cicero last month after having been on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago.  Naturally, we had Chicago-style hot dogs.  So you’ve probably been wondering how that tasty Chicago hot dog with the ‘Garden on a Bun’ got started.  With Chicago Restaurant Week afoot, this is an apt discussion.  You’ve seen the yellow Vienna Beef signs, right?  There’s even a seasonal hot dog stand right on the SE corner of Jackson and Michigan in Grant Park, right where Route 66 begins.  Anyone who’s traveled Route 66 from its eastern terminus westward surely must have eaten a Chicago-style hot dog by now – and, perhaps, has wondered about its pedigree.

Oh, it’s got history, all right.  All the way back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — you know, that original Chicago theme park and world’s fair that showed the world the city had risen again better than ever after the Great Fire?  The one for which Frederick Law Olmsted designed Jackson Park (which looked like a landfill before that), Elias Disney (father of Walt) helped build exhibits (how apropos), and none other than Daniel Burnham was Director of Works (as in: he was responsible for getting the whole thing built)?  The fair that got our town dubbed ‘the windy city’ because of all the bragging that our fair city’s boosters did in order to snatch the fair out from under jealous New York City’s and Boston’s noses (which they did)?  Yeah, that one.

A print of an aerial view of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Jackson Park, Chicago (originally published by F.A. Brockhaus, Berlin and Vienna; public domain)

A print of an aerial view of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition grounds in Jackson Park, Chicago, IL   (originally published by F.A. Brockhaus, Berlin and Vienna; public domain)

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