Chicago All the Way

See a slideshow from BB's kitchen and colorful dining room.

I opened the white box from BB's Beef & Hot Dog first. A package weighing about half a pound sat inside. The rich smell of Italian beef hit me even through layers of carefully wrapped white butcher paper. I peeled away the layers of paper as quickly as I could; they'd become saturated with au jus and were transparent, tearing easily the closer I got to the goods inside. It was like Christmas come early.

Finally, sitting in my lap was what I'd been craving: Italian beef, dipped, with a thick mound of giardiniera festively topping it off. I started tearing off hunks of drenched bread and awkwardly making mini sandwiches with slices of marinated beef and pinches of giardiniera — Italian-style pickled vegetables — on top. There's honestly no polite way to eat an Italian beef, especially one as juicy as the sandwich that BB's serves. If it's not dripping down your arms and perhaps even getting into your hair, you're not doing it right.

Then I remembered that my boyfriend was sitting to my left. And that we were in a car, driving home. Home, where I'd intended to eat the sandwich over a plate like a civilized person. It was too late for that now.

"Want a bite?" I asked, lamely. I shoved a piece of bread at him, giving up my favorite part in an attempt to distract from my savage behavior. He took and chewed it, considering the bite before finally issuing one curt statement: "It tastes like pizza."

I could see his point. The meat is slowly marinated in a blend of Italian spices — basil, oregano, marjoram, sage — which gives it a flavor that's not far from tasting like beef pizza, hold the tomato sauce and cheese. Italian beef isn't for everyone. But for those who crave it, BB's is a beacon in the vast plains of Houston, serving Windy City food to homesick Chicagoans and nonnative fans alike.

BB's Beef & Hot Dog opened its doors in November 2009. The owners, husband and wife Charles and Brenda Rivers, moved to Houston from Chicago two years ago in an effort to find a better quality of life for their family. In keeping with the family spirit, BB's is named after Brenda and her daughter, whose names both begin with the letter B.

The Riverses are originally from the west side of Chicago, but moved to the south side and then — as Charles laughingly puts it — "kept moving south, until we got to Texas." Once here, Brenda noticed a lack of their favorite Chicago foods in the grocery stores. They couldn't find pizza puffs anywhere, for one, and Chicago-style dogs are sorely lacking on Houston's chili-cheese-dominated streets.

So when the couple decided to open the little restaurant in Stafford last year, they made sure it was stocked with all their favorites: Chicago hot dogs, Italian beef, Maxwell Street Polish sausage, pizza puffs, Italco beef tamales (these are not your Texas tamales, folks) and even Italian ice. And you can be certain that when you order a dog here, it's Chicago all the way: "dragged through the garden" with all the typical veggies, made with a 100 percent beef Vienna hot dog and nestled into a steamed poppyseed bun. All that's missing is the clatter of the El overhead and some lake-effect snow.

Brenda laughs when she discusses how she's had to talk various Houstonians into trying the Chicago-style hot dog over the months. "People come in and say, 'I just want a regular hot dog.' And I say, 'Well, what's a regular hot dog? This is a regular hot dog!'" Houstonians aren't accustomed to seeing a pile of neon-green relish and what look like sickly little jalapeños on their hot dogs; we like chili. We like cheese. Those sickly-looking jalapeños are actually spicy sport peppers — one of the most important components of a proper Chicago dog — and give it an extraordinary kick as you eat it.

The amazing thing about eating a Chicago dog is how sweet and fresh it tastes. It must be consumed with all toppings — a point on which Brenda wholeheartedly agrees — in order to achieve maximum affect. "It has to have all the ingredients," she says as she begins listing them: an all-beef hot dog, sweet green relish, chopped onions, tomato slices, a Kosher dill pickle and a dash of celery salt, all on that steamed poppyseed bun. "And no ketchup," Brenda adds, emphatically.

One of the specials the restaurant runs on a regular basis is two dogs, all the way, with fries for just $5.95. The fries almost aren't worth mentioning — they're just standard frozen french fries — but BB's takes the time to fry them twice, resulting in nicely browned, very crispy french fries that are almost as surprisingly addictive as the dogs. (Don't push your luck with the dull, flavorless onion rings, though.) I can't normally eat two hot dogs, but the plump and veggie-laden dogs from BB's are almost the antithesis of the overly fatty, heavy hot dogs of dubious provenance that you often find elsewhere.

Of course, even though the Riverses are happy to provide samples of the Chicago-style dog to potential customers, the hot dog just isn't for everyone. For those folks, Brenda simply says, "However you want it, I'll cook it." If you're longing for a simpler hot dog, the Maxwell Street Polish at BB's might fit into your happy place.

Along with the hot dog, Italian beef and deep-dish pizza, a Maxwell Street Polish is one of Chicago's signature foods, and something most Texans might find themselves more comfortable with. The "dog" inside is more of a cross between a kielbasa and a regular hot dog; it's made with both beef and pork and has the slightest hint of spice. It's something you'd grill in your backyard and top with yellow mustard and sautéed onions. Luckily, that's also how they do it up at BB's.

My dining companion one afternoon ate his in only four bites (after removing the spicy sport peppers), marveling at how well the caramelized onions mingled with the juicy sausage inside. He did mention that the bun was extremely soggy by the time it got to him, which is one of BB's slight downfalls.

Like the original Al's Italian Beef on Taylor, BB's has nowhere to sit comfortably inside its sunny, yellow interior, unless you want to belly up to the stainless steel bar that accommodates three — maybe four in a pinch — folks and their sandwiches. There's no outdoor seating, either, so you need to take your order to go or grab a stool and a spot at the bar.

This isn't a problem if you live or work in Stafford or Sugar Land. But it can present some difficulties if you're transporting your meal over longer distances, say, to anywhere else in the greater Houston area. By the time that drive is over, the food loses some of its allure — except for the Italian beef, of course, which just gets messier and better along the way.

Another caveat: Check your bag before you leave. BB's even has a sign exhorting you to do so, almost as if they're acknowledging that part of your order is likely to be accidentally forgotten along the way. I've ignored the sign once at my own peril, but didn't make that mistake the next few times I went back.

Despite these things — or perhaps because of them — I find myself more enamored of this little hot dog joint each time I go. It's bright, cheerful and welcoming. Your food is cooked to order (prepare to wait!), so you know you aren't getting a hot dog that's been spinning mournfully and half-dead on some greased-up rollers in the back, gas station-style. And you can always enjoy an Italian ice while you wait, a rare dessert item in Houston.

The flavors in the Italian ice case rotate out, but standards like strawberry and lemon-lime always seem to be waiting on a hot day. And as they have with the other products at BB's, the Riverses have made a concerted effort to bring in the real deal. In the case of the Italian ice — similar to sorbet, although not quite as dense in its texture or flavor — it's from Via Veneto, a popular brand in Chicago (although it's based in Pennsylvania). The pizza puffs and tamales? From Italco. There's virtually nothing here that's not straight from the Windy City, much to the imagined chagrin of locavores across Houston.

The rectangular pizza puffs at BB's in particular are junk food of the highest order. They're the hybrid cousin of the sausage-and-cheese pizzas you got in the lunch line in elementary school and Totino's pizza rolls. They're probably terrible for you. And yet you won't be able to stop eating them. I have a stubborn grease stain on my passenger-side seat now from where a stray pizza puff landed for all of two measly seconds. That's how you know it's good.

Despite the fact that there is one missing component at BB's that's stopping it from being a one-stop shop for Chicago homesickness relief — deep-dish pizza, of course — perhaps that's for the best. It might be smart not to pigeonhole the place, as authentic as it is, as serving only food Chicagoans might enjoy. Texans love beef, we love hot dogs and we love sandwiches; it's only fitting to love the stuff that BB's is serving up, regardless of where it originally hails from.

Brenda Rivers is quick to note that although some people might initially be turned off by "soggy" bread or a hot dog covered with vegetables, those who give them a try are usually converted rather quickly. "If I see 'em come back a second time, I know I've got 'em," she laughs.

BB's Beef & Hot Dog has got me, too.

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