You should not expect a smile from the man behind the counter handing you the Italian beef sandwich (with extra giardiniara and meat juices) at Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street in Chicago.
There will not be an exchange of first names. And definitely no mention on the brief wall menu that the cattle were grass fed, the roll filled with multiple grains, and the peppers grown organically. Yet it's hard not to smile as you rest your elbows on a counter while you clutch the stack of thinly sliced meat nestled inside a crunchy roll soon to be soggy with beef juice.
With each deliciously drippy bite, a pepper or two is guaranteed to squirt onto your shirt. But then most of the food for which Chicago is justifiably renowned requires a bib. From the juice-spitting jumbo hot dog topped with "the works," to the deep dish pepperoni pizza dripping with cheese and a produce rack of tomatoes, my hometown's food has always been guaranteed to leave a trail on your clothing.
But then, seven years ago I discovered mess-less eating by moving to the San Francisco Bay area. Specifically, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, and the epicenter of incredibly neat and extremely organic food served by very happy people. The move did wonders for my dry cleaning bills. But then it's hard to leave spots on your shirt when you're eating a salad of youthful, pesticide-free organic greens with a slice of Japanese radish.
Like so many transplanted Chicagoans, I missed the mess at times. But when I went in search of a traditional overfilled Chicago sandwich, like corned beef on rye, I had to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Berkeley to find a delicatessen, Saul's, that serves anything close to an authentic version. But unlike the venerable Manny's in Chicago, the meat in the Bay Area deli comes from Marin's Niman Ranch, where the cattle are not only "vegetarian fed" but raised "traditionally, humanely, and sustainably."
The bread is from the Acme Bread Company, home of the "artisan" loaf. And the sandwich is assembled so the meat actually stays between the slices of bread! The potential for fatty corned beef cascading into your lap is minimal. The same emphasis on neatness applies to the local version of the Italian beef sandwich, the French dip. The beef juice arrives in a smallish cup, apparently so eaters can daintily dip their "humanely" raised meat and artisan bread without fear of staining their hemp pants.
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I'm not the only Chicago expatriate who misses eating food that requires a bath afterward. For California horror novelist and Chicago native Robert Masello, it isn't the Midwestern sandwiches that he yearns for so much as a slice of New York-style pizza. The type that folds over, thus giving you a 50 percent chance of dripping sauce down your chin. "Out here," Masello moans about his adopted state, "the crust is so thin and crackly it's like eating papyrus."
Retired advertising executive Larry Moss, who moved from Chicago to Marin County 29 years ago, says one of the first things he noticed about the cross-country change was that there were "no plates overflowing with food." Merle Gordon, a dedicated "foodie" who spent a number of years living in northern California before relocating back to her hometown of Chicago, agrees. "They're as concerned with how the plate looks as how the food tastes," she says of California. "It's elegance versus free form."
Of course, vegetarianism, or its less strict off shoot pescatarianism (in which eating fish is allowed) lends itself to the whole concept of neat dining. A medley of steamed vegetables or a piece of broiled fish rarely threatens to leave its mark on clothing.
Yet even ordering a simple piece of fish can cause problems in ecologically aware California. Recently I had dinner with a friend who just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia, sponsored by an organization, Seacology, which monitors threatened fish species. Thus, trying to order dinner with my friend became an exercise in "No." As in, "Is it OK to have the tuna?" "No." "The Chilean sea bass?" "No." "The salmon?" "Definitely not." After five minutes of denial, I was ready, as another friend at the table suggested, to "kill off the species" – any species.
No such worries about endangered fish arise at Marin County's Café Gratitude. This vegan restaurant – one of four in the Bay area – not only serves extremely "neat" food, it believes "our food and people are an expression of our aliveness."
This means that not only are all the dishes made with raw ingredients, each is given a name that reflects the affirmative philosophy of the restaurant. A pecan porridge for breakfast becomes "I Am Bright-Eyed." A marinara pizza is "I Am Passionate." Even a slice of onion sunflower bread receives a designation rarely found on a loaf of Pepperidge Farm, "I Am Fun."
This Deepak Chopra-like menu comes as no surprise to personal trainer Chris Kahn, who has lived in California all his life. "We're easy on people who want to reinvent both themselves and the food they create," he says.
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This is not to say you can't find any of those "old-fashioned" meals in northern California that make Chicago the messy food capital of America. The kind of meal that offers no assurances as to the provenance of the ingredients and contains few of the government's recommended daily nutrients. Mexican food is still, for the most part, authentic.
Once you get past the untraditional burritos, like the curried Punjabi version served at Avatar's in Marin County's Mill Valley, you can still find classic burritos stuffed with juicy strips of carne asada, squishy pinto beans, ripe avocado, sour cream, salsa, and enough hot sauce to stain your eco-organic linen dashiki.
That's the exception, though. More prevalent is the kind of fare you find at the Marin Farmer's Market on Sunday morning, which includes hemp ice cream (surprisingly, it tastes worse than it sounds) or something called vegan soul food – a cuisine as unlikely to be found in Chicago as a mayor not named Daley.
But there is some light at the end of the tofu tunnel. Tyler Florence, celebrity chef and star of the Food Network's "Tyler's Ultimate," recently moved from New York to Marin County. A native of South Carolina, where, like Chicago, they serve their barbecue with bibs and towels, he has brought hope to local lovers of messy cuisine.
Mr. Florence recently won a sandwich contest on the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" by assembling a dish that would make drippy food lovers lick their fingers: pulled pork on a buttered Parker House roll with caramelized onion cranberry jam and melted talleggio cheese.
Start tying on those bibs, Marin.