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Chicago Blues Cafe in San Leandro has Italian Beef Sandwiches

Took a ride on the first Slurpee day of the year over to the East Bay to try a newish little cafe, Chicago Blues, in San Leandro. They had been mentioned previously on the board as having Chicago-style hot dogs and BBQ. It is in a funky little building in the Palmas Plaza on E. 14th near a Popeye's, Starbucks, Walgreens and Ono Hawaiian BBQ place.

I want to be as fair to these guys as possible:

What they have:

1) Full Vienna Beef Brand Chicago food, quarter pound all beef Vienna Beef natural casing hot dogs prepared in the Chicago style- steamed dog on steamed poppy seed bun, green relish, tomato, onion, pickle spear, mustard, hot sport peppers. They give a choice of yellow or brown mustard. 4 bucks.

2) Maxwell St. Polish hot dogs, served with grilled onions or sauerkraut.

3) Vienna Beef Brand Italian Beef sandwich. Exactly as Melanie has described for the one served at Hot Dog City in Santa Rosa.

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/476276

Long discussion about Italian Beef here:

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/380830

Chicago Blues serves theirs with sweet red peppers and has giardiniera (hot pepper and vegetable mix) available at 50 cents extra. The menu says the sandwiches are served "dipped" which means they get dunked in the natural gravy/au jus. I always get mine on the side. Vienna Beef Italian Beef is sliced very thin.

They also have the Italian Beef and Sausage combo, which I ordered. Comes with a hot italian sausage. This version of Italian Beef is definitely standard Chicago style and properly prepared. Vienna Beef is not my favorite brand of Italian Beef, I like the jus to be a little beefier and the giardiniera to be a little spicier. I also prefer a mild sausage to a hot, sometimes mild italian sausage has more flavor than hot. Maybe 7.99 for the combo. Pricey, but it's a big sandwich.

4) BBQ- brisket, tri-tip, chicken and baby back ribs.

They we out of brisket and ribs when we went. So people don't go and then are disappointed, I'm gonna just describe the BBQ and you can decide if it is up your alley. This is meat that is heavily sauced. They have five sauces available, but you get once choice for your platter. They are called if I remember "traditional, southside, southside hot, chicago fire" and I can't remember the 5th. Most of the sauces tasted like straight ahead sweet midwestern BBQ sauce. I think the "southside" variations had more bite from vinegar, while the "chicago fire" had visible crushed red pepper in it. The try tip was labeled as "sliced" on the menu, but came as large chunks that fell apart with on the fork into shreds. The meats are all smoked for "16 hours" and had the consistency of being cooked in that fashion. The chicken was dry-ish but fell off the bone and the try tip was very tender and fell apart. There was no smoke taste in evidence. The primary seasoning evident under the sweetness of the sauce was black pepper. 1,2,3,4 meat plates available in lunch and dinner portions- dinner plate has two sides and a roll, lunch plates have one side and a roll. Didn't seem to offer BBQ meat sandwiches.

I thought the BBQ tasted very much like that at BBQ Man in Menlo Park. It is what it is, but is not liable to satisfy many of the tastes present on this board.

The sides are made in house, but I think are liable to disappoint. They have yams, potato salad, cole slaw and maybe mac and cheese. The yams were standard boiled yams with marshmallow topping. Cole slaw was standard.

5) Fries and onion rings and other things- these are not on the menu, but are on the take out menu. We ate outside and got some fries at the Popeye's next door. Our server mentioned they had fries and I pointed out that we saw this on their take out menu after the fact, and that it wasnt on their display menu.

6) Full coffee shop. I think this place must have just been a coffee shop before they added the kitchen/menu.

They were kind of busy when we went and service was definitely scattered as I think they don't have a lot of restaurant experience and are relatively new at it.

Some people will like their BBQ, I suspect that if you like sauce-on-the-side, thick smoke ring traditional BBQ, this isn't the BBQ you are looking.

All the Chicago stuff is prepared exactly as it should be with good quality Vienna Beef brand components shipped from Chicago. So if this is what you are jonesing for, or would like to try, this is a place to get it.

I want this place to stick around because you just can't get Italian Beefs in the Bay Area outside of the West Side Cafe (former Gumbah's) in Vallejo and Hot Dog City in Santa Rosa. Places not exactly close to South Bay/Peninsula.

-----
Hot Dog City
631 4th St Ste 1, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

Hot Dog City - CLOSED, moved
804 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Gumbah's Italian Beef (see West Side Cafe
)138 Tennessee St, Vallejo, CA 94590

Chicago Blues Cafe
13802 E 14th Street, San Leandro, CA

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  1. How did you feel they compared to West Side Cafe ... aka Gumbah's ... seriously, they need to keep the old name, I'll never remember the new one.

    Was it neon green relish or just regular green?

    4 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Neon green- everything from Chicago- just straight Vienna Beef everything (except the buns, but likely the buns are from Chicago too- they are the appropriate poppy seed).

      I like the sausage better at Gumbah's- more flavor. Vienna Beef Italian Beef is strong on the italian seasoning (thyme, oregano etc) but Gumbah's is overseasoned. Gumbah's beef is more beefy and not sliced quite as super thin as Vienna Beef brand. It is possible that Gumbah's/West Side gravy/jus is just a tad bit more flavorful. I like it a little bit salty, closer to au jus, but many Chicago places it is thin on the beef flavor and just is a watery oily mix of Italian seasonings. FOr example the famous Portillos chain, their gravy/jus just has no taster to me.

      Gumbah's homemade giardiniera is spicier than the Vienna Beef mix (or other brand) that Chicago Blues uses. There is no way giardineira should be 50 cents extra, either. If I ran the place, I would also have a LARGE SIGN explaining what it is and why it is good- people do not know what these things are, or what to expect, because they haven't grown up with them, so you have to help them out. They both use the right bun. In terms of authenticity, I think they are about equal. Chicagoans would probably be more used to the super thin Vienna Beef mass produced product than the homemade Gumbah's. They are both on the pricey side, but I love my Italian Beef and Sausage combo, and 40 minutes is closer than 65!

      1. re: P. Punko

        Since were getting into the esoterica of proper beefs and combos, are the sausages chargrilled or fried? I'm looking for the crunchy bits on the ends that spell combo nirvane for me.

        You're right about Portillo's, great for dogs, not so much for the beef. I lived close enough to his original trailer growing up that we used to get 5 dogs for a dollar on a Saturday special, I don't think they've changed a bit in all this time. I can't say the beef was ever in the top 10 of all the stands I use to go to.

        1. re: Scrapironchef

          I really prefer the chargrilled sausage like you, but many places don't do it. The char works best at places where I think the beef is not too strong tasting and really becomes a vehicle for giardineira. Part of this comes from coming to Italian Beef from French Dips, you always think there should be more salty/beefy flavor, which is why I always get the combo- the sausage adds a lot of lfavor.

          Chicago Blues does not gril their sausages. They might grill their polish, though. My favorite Chicago style places do the traditional but offer a char option even on the hot dogs- I like to mix it up like that.

          1. re: Scrapironchef

            Any places around here that deep-fry a Polish?

      2. I haven't been into the Chicago Blues yet, so thanks for the report -- I'm amazed they have so much on the menu because the place is tiny. You are correct, it was a coffeehouse in a prior life. I lived in San Leandro nine years ago (and just returned in December) and it had just opened up. Nothing special but there was hardly even a Starbucks in SL in those days, so it seemed to do decent business. Then Palma Plaza, which was a very shabby little strip mall, burned down; the building that houses the Blues Cafe was apparently not damaged, since it looks much the same. The only other part of the original Palma Plaza to survive is the fabulous vintage neon palm tree sign out front.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Nina

          Hey thanks Nina- I was wondering why the sign for the strip mall looked so old school when everything in it was new!

          Chicago Blues still has all the coffee stuff and it was nice to see a bunch of people in there for coffee even with a Starbucks across the parking lot. I think they also do Italian sodas, because they did have Torani syrups on display.

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          1. The original comment has been removed
            1. Thanks, Candus, we really appreciate your response, and we do know that you are trying- I think your customers will appreciate it.

              Just for your information, every place I have ever been for Italian Beef, including places in and out of Chicago, giardineira is a standard option ("hot or sweet" is the question asked- meaning sauteed sweet peppers or hot giardiniera is the choice)- also, a lot of people are not familiar with Chicago-style Italian beef or even what giardineira is, so if you could have some sort of sign explaining what those things are, I know you'll get some people to try it that have never had it before.

              As for the BBQ, I can tell you what a lot of people on this board really want to see from their BBQ- they can be deeply traditional, and therefore the flavor from the slow smoking is of primary importance to a lot of them, and they are probably expecting their sauce on the side, so it does not overpower the meat and the smoke can be appreciated. After this, of course, the meat being cooked long enough so it is tender is quite important. I am used to BBQ from all over the US, and am sometimes fine if it is swimmin' in sauce, because I like BBQ sauce, and your sauces were just fine, but this will be a minus to some people (I know there are traditions where the sauce is the star). The tri-tip was very tasty, and cooked just right, but not smoky at all, and not sliced like the menu stated. The chicken had clearly been cooked in a smoker, but was not smoky tasting, and was dry. This happens with chicken a lot, so it is not unexpected from most people, and what I would love is if you had sandwiches with BBQ meat- for example, you could do a pulled chicken sandwich that would be a way for your sauces to shine and dryness won't be a problem.

              We'll be back because we love our Italian beef, and we still need to try your fries.

              1. re: P. Punko

                Just a few facts I learned about

                - They use the Vienna Brand Poppyseed Bun from Chicago
                - They started making Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza
                - Both Italian Sausage and our Polish Sausages are grilled
                - The Palma Plaza sign is actually a replica - they accidentally tore down the original, and the City forced them to build a new one.
                - BBQ sides are made "in house"

                1. re: rworange

                  Thanks RW- you know you are my chowhound hero.

                  I also learned that the reason the fries/rings/etc. aren't on the main menu is that they just added those last week. I hope they'll be on the menu soon.

            2. PS. Downhill alert on BBQ Man in Menlo Park. The sign now reads "BBQ" (the man has been removed) and the owner appears to be a very slim and trim asian woman (I saw her write a check out of the business account, dealing with some vendor) - BBQ Man was rather large and white.

              I had a brisket sandwich and it tasted like minute steak with a decent sauce - BBQ that ain't! The quirky touch of a slice of vidalia onion is no more. I will likely give it one more try, but... you've been warned.

              And yes, this message has nothing to do with Chicago or Italian sausage, but the OP did mention BBQ Man, and I just had this experience a few days ago.

              2 Replies
              1. re: bbulkow

                Well that is a bummer. I tried them once, for my birthday curse three years ago (I feel like great BBQ and get not so good).

                To reiterate, I thought Chicago Blues tasted like BBQ Man used to- lots of sauce, no smoke, but meat reasonably tender and definitely slow cooked. The "man" was on the sign as of a couple of weeks ago, so it must have been pretty recent. The place has looked nice and kept up. Even if they are not for me, I don't like to see places go downhill. I think I will try them again, maybe for lunch or something.

                1. re: bbulkow

                  You might want to post that in a topic without "San Leandro" in the title!