Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Katharine Shilcutt