Gumbah's Italian Beef, Vallejo, why it is worth a trip
I finally made a long planned trip to Gumbah's in Vallejo. I am already a convert to Chicago style food of this type, but one of the best things about different regions of this big country is local variety, and Gumbah's gives a nice window for us in the Bay Area into what is second nature for Chicagoland residents.
My wife is from the Chicago area, and has had a long standing love of Italian Beef sandwiches. I have always loved Chicago-style hot dogs, but have have gained an affinity for Italian Beef as well. Being a kind of diffuse Chicagoland tradition, these types of restaurants are wonderful for finding the little things on the margins of orthodoxy, because they are not yet dominated by conformist chains. Some of these little things of which I speak are what kind of french fries, etc. that can make every place different even though they are giving you basically the same meal, the exact flavors of the ingredients, the preferred sausage/dog provider, the recipes for the seasoning, etc.
I will start my report with a brief discussion of what an Italian Beef sandwich generally is (the reference point) and where the variability can be. I will not use the A-word (authentic), instead I will describe the traditional version, because there are just too many ways that roast beef can be delicious.
Italian Beef sandwiches start out with a cooked through, seasoned roast, seasonings being of the italian variety, the most prominent flavors being oregano and thyme. The meat is usually sliced as thin as possible, which makes the actual tenderness of the meat less of an issue. The meat is served on a spongy/chewy Italian roll that is never crusty (although this sandwich on a crusty French baguette would be awesome, if heterodox). The key to the sandwich, though, is the natural gravy, which is basically the juices and fat from the roast (degreased) and maybe concentrated. This gravy, which is more like an oilier jus, is almost never as salty as a jus for a French Dip, and always has an Italian herb flavor, plus some beefy notes from the roast, but not usually the strong boulliony taste of the French Dip jus. The sliced meat is usually heated up in the gravy and transferred to the sandwich, meaning you have a juicy sandwich that gets harder to eat as the bread basically dissolves. The bread is not usually toasted, so there is no defense from getting soggy, although in this case, soggy is delicious. Many places will dip the entire assembled sandwich in the gravy before serving, but these you have to eat really fast. Finally, the sandwich is topped with either sauteed sweet peppers or "hot peppers", which come in the form of a hot pepper salad known as giardiniera. (MW and friends on giardiniera here http://www.chowhound.com/topics/11336...) Chicago-style giardiniera can have chopped up "sport peppers" (of Chicago hot dog fame), marinated carrot, celery and cauliflower. This mix can be vinegary, salty and spicy (usually all three). Oh, you usually can get mozzarella cheese melted on (I don't like cheese all that much, so none for me).
Here's where you can see things vary:
1) The beef.
Obviously, many places make their own beef, so spices can be stronger or milder. I have had many I-beefs where the roast beef had a decent beefy flavor, but wasn't quite different from roast beef in a French Dip, the strongest difference being in the "gravy" or jus, which usually has the Italian flavor. Many places in Chicago get their beef from a larger producers, and this has a more uniform taste and is usually sliced the thinnest.
2) The gravy (they do call it gravy, but it is a natural gravy, no thickener, much closer to jus).
I have had gravy that has had so much oil and visible Italian seasoning it looked like beefy Italian dressing, or has not been salty at all, but I have also had gravy that was darker and saltier and tasted like French Dip Jus, quite beefy, quite salty. This is the dominant taste determinant in the sandwich, usually.
I usually don't get sweet peppers because they are usually sauteed/roasted down to nothing and don't have a lot of pepper taste, but I always get the hot, and here giardiniera can have different ingredients and be different levels of spicy. I prefer medium spicy depending on how much flavor there is in the other components.
Most places offer a Beef and Italian Sausage combo. The sausage can be spicy or "mild" or "sweet"- this is not to say weak flavor. A griddled/grilled sausage is usually served nestled in between the beef. Since most Italian Beef/gravy I have had is on the less salty side, I like how a flavorful sausage can add some savory and grilled punch. The sausage can be all over the place in strength of flavor, and it is really the flavor balance that controls what the sandwich tastes like, because most of the components can vary across the spectrum. If the beef is not strong, I like the peppers and sausage to pick up the slack, especially if the gravy is weak as well.
FINALLY, how does Gumbah's stack up to the traditional framework? First off, it has already been clear from the boards, and a friend's visit, that these guys are both the real Chicago deal, but also good too. Walking into this restaurant in a house, I had feelings of excitement start to build. Chicago-style hot dog/Italian Beef places usually have menus that you can recite. Hot dogs, polish dogs, italian beef, italian sausage, beef and sausage combo. Gumbah's had all of these things. I noted right off the bat that Gumbah's sells combo packs of Italian beef by the pound with gravy with rolls and Italian sausage and fixings. (31.50 for a pack with 1lb of meat, 4 sausages, bread, peppers). I looked at the menu- completely traditional, with the addition of Philly-style cheesesteak sandwiches and Chicago-style thin crust pizza. I think they only offer one style of this pizza (sausage, cheese and tomato from my recollection) but we didn't try it- they had some pics of it and it looked great. Everyone thinks deep dish when they think Chicago pizza, but there is an equal tradition of thin, crisp crust pizza as well.
ITALIAN BEEF AND SAUSAGE COMBO
1) The bun:
Absolutely expected spongy/chewy Italian roll, about 6-7 inches long and not especially pointy on the ends.
2) The beef:
You can tell Gumbah's makes their own (obviously there are not Italian beef distribs around here like Vienna Beef or Scala for them to easily order from) because the beef is sliced slightly thicker than at the places that serve the super thin stuff from the big guys. On the weak to strong scale, I would say that the Italian seasoning was the strongest I have had- a very strong oregano flavor was the most pronounced I have had, the meat was not especially salty, and didn't seem too tough for well-done roast beef, however, if you are only used to the shaved, super thin stuff, you will notice more heft in the bites, or perhaps more to chew on.
3) The gravy:
Not too oily, not too salty, but definitely some salty/savory flavor which puts it in the stronger, more robust end of the scale, which is how I prefer it. If the gravy isn't salty enough, the giardiniera and sausage become required for me to round out the flavors. Could not tell if the strong Italian seasonings were coming from the meat or the gravy or both because I had them put some on the sandwich to serve it, and then got more on the side. Gumbah's will also dip it if you ask. For novices afraid to dive in, you can get it on the side and control how fast your sandwich disintegrates.
Nice and spicy, with some vinegary bite and some saltiness. Pretty standard.
5) Italian sausage. I can't remember if they make there own, but this is exactly how I like sausage that is destined for a bun. It was griddled so it had some charring and firmness to the outside with beefs up the flavor and was very strongly seasoned with the usual fennel and other ingredients. It seemed in between a spicy Italian sausage and a mild. Many more traditional Italian sausages are not strongly seasoned and don't have that fennel bite that I love. This sausage tasted like a Johnsonville Italian sausage on steroids. I think this would be great alone, which Gumbah's also does.
This particular day was a perfect day to visit Gumbah's. We had great weather and we sat outside. Because on this day, all of the key individual components came out on the strong/robustly flavored side, the beef and sausage combo with hot peppers might be too much for some palates. I mean, I am always gonna get a Italian Beef and Sausage combo with hot peppers no matter what, but sweet peppers without sausage might be a great option here because the beef/gravy is pretty strong and certainly doesn't need the flavor backbone of the sausage to back it up. I started getting the combo because I wanted savory insurance. Since I was used to French Dips, I always was expecting more salt flavor from I-beefs, especially from places with the weaker or less salty gravy/beef, and I found it by adding sausage and giardiniera into the mix.
Note, my wife says they use jack cheese and not mozzarella, and she said she wouldn't dock them points for that, because she was so happy to be having a good beef.
This is most enjoyable variable, because in any particular Chicago place, the fries can be different. My absolute fave kind of fries with a Chicago style meal like this are these:
Gumbah's doesn't have those, but they serve a nice little shoestring fry with the extra potato stuff or light batter on the outside making them crunchy yet airy and fluffy. Really good for this sort of thing. I never expect gourmet pomme frites in this situation, but these were yummy for what they were.
Since this report is already turning into a novel, I'll just briefly discuss the Chicago dog at Gumbah's.
Steamed/boiled 1/4 lb or so dog (bigger than the standard dog). Most likely as usual all-beef. I don't think the Gumbah's had a natural casing but we kind of wolfed it down. Standard Chi-dog toppings- the greenish bluish sweet relish with flavors of some sweet spices, maybe cardamon/coriander, the chopped white onion, the mustard, two sport peppers (short hot peppers discussed http://www.chowhound.com/topics/37958...), one dill pickle spear and two tomato slices (many places will do two tomato wedges). The dog was on the standard poppy seed bun (usually they come steamed and can be so soft that by the end of the dog, the bun has compacted to a tiny layer of densely packed bread around the dog- be prepared to lose toppings with these things). I didn't notice the bun being especially steamed or too soft. Finally, the usual topping is celery salt, but Gumbah's does a shake of celery seed, which gives the dog a similar flavor but actually highlights the other tastes. I kind of love the celery salt, but if Gumbah's didn't have this one difference, they might taste exactly the same as everywhere else, and I like the excitement of trying a new place. My fave version of a Chicago dog is from Chicago-style places that also have flamed-broiled burgers, because they will usually have the option of a char-grilled dog instead of the steamed.
136 Tennessee St.
Hours 11-2:30 Monday-Saturday
Gumbah's Menu and Clearing House of Chow Reports
Bonus for those that made it to the end:
The slab of ribs and hot links I got from the guy with the smoker in the parking lot next door. Report to come.
As far as I know, there are only 3 places in the Bay Area-
Chicago Deli in Pleasanton (their beef and sausage combo comes with sausage in marinara, but the beef might be OK, I got one without marinara and they must have had to cook a sausage to order for it (it was boiled), and it wasn't cooked all the way through)
And I saw a place by AT&T park that had it on the menu, but wasn't a Chicago style place (I don't remember the name)
Wow, what an impressive report. Your first picture made me smile -- the incongruity of a sign for Italian beef on a little Bay Area Victorian-style house.
Would the folks working there understand a concise request like "Gimme a beef, hot and dipped."?
Also, have you read the accounts of the Beefathons in Chicago, posted on Chowhound and lthforum.com over the past three years? Here's a link with further links to all 7:
This is one of the places in Vallejo I really miss when I head off to work from here to San Francisco. It's nice to hear a detailed report from someone who really knows their stuff.
Thanks for this report!
Can you also get the sweet peppers there? (I'm thinking yes, but...)
We've had the most authentic chicago style hot dog around here at Lowe's (I think it's Lowe's). in SSF. There's a vienna beef hot dog stand outside. (well, that is ever since Chi-Dogs closed down...)
Well, it's close to an authentic Chicago dog at the Woody's hot dog stand outside Lowe's in San Bruno. They have steamed poppy seed buns, Vienna dog, self-serve condiments including chopped onions, neon-colored relish, sport peppers, mustard, celery salt, but no tomato and no pickle spear. At least it tastes fresher than Windy City's in SM.
I went to Windy City for a Chicago dog on Saturday after avoiding them for 3 years following disappointing visits. This time, I was pleasantly satisfied by the taste which wasn't stale like before. It had all the toppings except celery salt. Their Vienna dog is larger but shorter than Woody's. $5.50 with a bag of Lays chips though their menu said Chicago's Jays.
Being on a hot dog roll, I then went to SF's Moishe's Pippic on Hayes for the first time. Their Vienna dog was smaller than Windy City's but same length as Woody's. Bun tasted a bit stale. They had all the toppings except celery salt. But, the tiny tomato slice and puny pickle spear were pathetic. At $5.75, dog deserves better.
FYI about Chicago Deli- they serve their Italian Beef and sausage combo with marinara sauce. I ordered without and they had to cook a sausage to order (I think they must have it already prepared with marinara) and got a boiled sausage that was not even close to fully cooked. Luckily for me I have the habit of tearing sandwiches in half before I bite into them. I tossed the sausage and I guess the Italian Beef was OK. I don't think Chicago Deli is worth going out of your way, but if you are passing through, we'd appreciate an update.
I'm pretty sure when I had a Chicago Dog at Hot Dog City it was a poppy seed bun, but regardless everything else was just right, and they had celery salt.
Gumbah's has recently been sold -- just last week in fact. It had been for sale for several years, I'm told, as the previous owner has wanted to retire. Good News: The new owner is a former partner in the business, and promises he's not going to change anything at all. My own sampling has shown that so far the food hasn't changed a bit. This is a Good Thing.
However, on my most recent visit, there was a crew giving the indoor eating area a (very welcome) scrubbing down. Much of the Chicago memorabilia hanging from the ceiling (flags, banners, pennants and so forth) had been taken down. Dunno if it will be back. The extensive collection of the previous owner's wood carvings were gone also, but I'm told that a small selection will return, and be offered for sale as before.
I understand that Gumbah's used to make their own sausages years ago, but now has them made locally to their recipe. Except the hot dogs, which are brought out from Chicago. I think I was told the Polish are brought out too, but wouldn't swear to it. Giardiniera is house-made. The beef itself is also very definitely house-made; you can often see it being prepared in the kitchen.
The Cheesesteak is the best in the area --yes, in my view, better than The Cheese Steak Shop; larger and meatier, with just the right blend of beefy, cheesy flavors.
I'm on a quest for a terrific meatball sandwich, and so far Gumbah's has that sewn up as well. It's quite spicy, and very close to my Platonic Ideal. Still, there may be better around here somewhere, and if so, I intend to find it. But Gumbah's is a damn fine example, and worth a visit in itself.
Yes, they have sweet peppers. They always ask "sweet or hot" when you place your order. The sweet seem to be a mix of pickled peppers and grilled fresh bell peppers. Plenty of flavor, color and crunch.
Yes, they understand concise orders. One of my faves is "combo, hot, splash of red"
Great post. Gumbah's is absolutely worth a trip.
Many thanks to the two P's for the 1, 2 punch in reporting. I was just about it ask what the ownership status was and if sold, what has changed.
I love Gumbah's and am so happy to see that it thrives under the new hands. And, yes, it needed a good scrubbing down.
Since my last post some time has passed and the dust of New Ownership has settled. Brother and I have paid a few visits, so I think we can make reasonable comparisons.
The indoor seating is much improved. It's cleaner, brighter and more open; less crowded and claustrophobic. A few of the Chicago sports banners and flags that used to hang from the ceiling have returned, but most of that extensive collection is now gone, as are all but a few of the previous owner's wood carvings. Gumbah's is now open later in the afternoon: hours are posted as 11:00am to 5:30pm 7 days.
The Italian beef sandwich has not changed noticeably, and that's very good news. The new owner *might* use a lighter hand with the herbs and a pinch less salt when making the beef, but without a side-by-side comparison it's hard to tell.
The Combo (Italian beef with the addition of an Italian sausage) is also unchanged, except that the sausage is now grilled a bit to brown it on a couple of sides. Brother noticed that it's not twisted into discrete links any more, but is apparently cut from a longer rope. The cutting could use some improvement in consistency; Brother's sausage fell a couple inches short of the end of the roll, while mine was a little bit over. I think the lightly browned sausage is an improvement.
Sadly, I have to temper my former enthusiasm for the cheesesteak and the meatball sandwich. The cheesesteak has been downsized, and although perhaps more "authentic", is less delicious. It's on a smaller, narrower roll, and the portion of meat and cheese has shrunk to fit. I'd rate it on a par with The Cheesesteak Shop, and in fact it's now a lot like that sandwich. Still a pretty good cheesesteak, but a disappointment when compared to its former glory.
The meatball sandwich, formerly listed on the menu as "Great Balls of Fire" has been renamed simply "Meatball Sandwich" and the sandwich itself reflects this shift toward matter-of-fact blandness. The meatballs and the red sauce accompanying them have been toned down considerably. The meatballs are still firm and meaty, without all the filler that ruins so many competitors; they and the red sauce are still made in-house, but the flavors are calibrated to offend no-one, and so to truly please no-one. What was once a distinctive standout with real personality is now merely a face in the crowd; likeable, but neither better nor worse than average. A sad loss.
Both the Italian beef and the Combo are still outstanding, and easily worth a trip to Gumbah's. The fries and onion rings are just the same, giardinera is still house-made and hasn't changed. So customers who stay with the most popular menu items will find little changed except a brighter, friendlier dining area, and new hours. Those who stray off the beaten path menu-wise may be disappointed to find some of their old friends have changed, and are no longer their robust, hearty selves.