Chicagoland is home to many local food specialties. There are, among many others, the Mother-in-Law (a hotdog bun stuffed with a Chicago corn roll tamale, as served at Fat Johnnie’s, 7242 S. Western) and the Jim Shoe (also called Jim Shoo or Gym Shoe, a bun filled with gyros meat, Italian beef, corned beef, and ersatz tzatziki sauce, as served at Stony Subs, 8440 S. Stony island).
None of these local food specialties contain ingredients that are truly special. It’s the unusual combination of very usual ingredients that makes these Chicago original foods stand out.
So it is with the Rodney Fry, as served at Cuzzo’s Pasta, Pizza & Panini (330 Madison, Oak Park).
The Rodney Fry is a mound of French fries, dotted with circles of sliced sausage, mounted with Italian beef and cheese and, if you like, giardiniera and/or sweet peppers. The counter person told me that it also contained tomato sauce, but no sauce was in evidence. The fries come fresh from the hot oil, then all the ingredients are added and the whole thing is baked in an aluminum bowl.
“Why is it called the Rodney Fry?” I asked the young man behind the counter. The origin story of the Rodney Fry, I was told, is that a “guy next store at the gaming place [Grandmaster Games, 436 S. Ridgeland] came in and asked us to make it. So, we did. I think his name was Rodney.”
Precisely how certain specialty foods came to be is usually shrouded in mystery, though Fat Johnnie will tell you his creation is called the Mother-in-Law because “it, too, will give you heartburn.” My friend Dr. Peter Engler asked a counter person at Stony Subs where the Jim Shoo came from, and the young man pointed to his head and said, mysteriously, “It comes from the mind!” (They do call the place *Stony* Subs, if you get my meaning).
At Cuzzo’s, The Rodney Fry is not on the regular menu; it’s listed on the wall under the title “Hidden Menu” (not exactly hidden, is it?).
The Rodney Fry tasted exactly as I expected it to taste, combining the familiar flavors of the fries, the beef, and the cheese. I had asked for the fries to be done “extra crispy,” but it’s exceedingly difficult for even crisp fries to maintain their delicate crunch when they’re covered in moist meat.
That such a dish would be invented, by someone at some point, seems inevitable. In fact, there have been sightings of similar dishes around the world. Poutine, the famous Canadian creation of fries covered in gravy, cheese curds and many other optional ingredients, is the closest to the Rodney Fry. Friend Dan Herwig told me about kapsalon, a “quintessential Dutch ‘loaded friets’ dish that has a similar origin story. Neighboring hair salon employee visits a shawarma shop and requests a delicious monstrosity [French fries topped with doner or gyros meat, gouda and Indonesian hot sauce].”
What I find so intriguing about specialties like Rodney Fries and kapsalon is that they spring – small “d” democratically — from customer suggestions. This phenomenon has started me thinking about unusual food combinations I might like to request. l could see a special order of hash browns mixed cheese and bacon at George’s or an anchovy-chili pepper pizza from Cucina Paradiso. Someday one of these creations may appear on local menus. You can thank me later.