In the Midwest, you need a bib to the deep dish pizza and hot dogs with 'the works.' In Marin County, it's vegan soul food and other organic edibles.
Mill Valley, Calif.
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."
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