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Knotty Barrel

844 Market Street, Downtown San Diego




Can I wax poetic? Heed ye the words of Carl Sandburg, the poet, describing the rough, tough city he loved, Chicago.

“Here is a tall, bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities/ Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action…”

I’ve never been to Chicago. (And are you supposed to say it Tchicago or Shicago?) But I always knew it was the “stockyard of the nation,” the “hog butcher for the world,” the reason for the Chisholm Trail, the town where more meat was processed than any place on the planet, back in the day. And with first dibs on the best cuts, they say it became the gastronomic capital of the nation, just like Lyon (not Paris), my I.B. buddy Georgette tells me, is the Garden of Eatin’ in France.

Whatever. You come in to Wolffy’s Chicago Eatery, here at Market and Eighth, and you know they have a mighty, meaty rep to uphold. This is a Thursday night, around 10:00. I hoist up to a seat at the blond-wood and black-granite bar. The low ceiling is pressed tin. There’s a big photo of Wrigley Field. At the pass-through to the kitchen, stacks of mustard-colored and maroon plates wait for action. At the other end, the full-wall mural of larger-than-life Bob Wolff and his bro Steve features them chomping cigars and grinning in the middle of a ’20s getaway scene, with Chevrolets and guys totin’ tommy guns.

Gal in a black fedora and black duds comes up. Kim. “Something to drink?” she says. I ask for a root beer ($1.75 — gotta work tonight) and start perusing the menu she hands me. I see dogs, pizzas, burgers, ribs. Standard-looking stuff. But interesting things here too, like Wolffy’s original Hot Dog Taco ($3.95), along with wings or chicken pieces ($6.95 for seven pieces), and Caesar salad for $7.95. Wolffy’s Big Burger (1/3 lb.) goes for $7.95 with fries or chips; his Bigger Burger (1/2 lb.) is $9.95. Italian beef or sausage sandwich, Chicago style, costs $8.95, with fries. Half-slab of pork ribs runs $13.95; beef ribs, $10.95.

Then you get to the hot dogs and pizzas. Heartland Chicago. The pizzas are thin crust or deep dish. I always think the deep dish is the real McCoy. It was invented at the first Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943. Love the whole idea of a heavy, thick crust and stuffings of cheese and sauce and whatever, rather than the thin crusts New Yorkers always insist on.

But tonight I’m going to the dogs. Reason? Doesn’t strain the pocketbook. Could have the “Chicago Hot Dog” — all beef, on a steamed poppyseed bun — for $5.95, which Kim says is their most popular item. The “Fire Dog” is $6.50 and something called the “Johnsonville Brat” goes for $6.95. But I go for the Polish Kielbasa ($6.95), jes’ because I had a Chicago-Polish friend who told me “kielbasa’s twice the flavor.”

When it comes, first thing I notice is how bright the whole dog looks. It’s on a black-and-white checkered-flag paper napkin, and it’s cut in two, next to a pile of fries.

But before you can eat, a series of tests.

First, has it been “dragged thru the garden”? Like, does it have chopped onions, tomato wedges, pickle spear, peppers, and, most important, that nuclear-green sweet relish Chicagoans love — and a dash of celery salt? Check, check, check, check, check.

Okay, they’ve done their part. Now I’m being tested. Kim comes up real casual and says, “Like some ketchup?”

Warning! If you’re caught squirting ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago, you may as well jump off a bridge. It’s just one of those things. In Chicago, mustard rules. Remember Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, in Sudden Impact? “You know what makes me really sick to my stomach?” Clint says. “It’s watching you stuff your face with those hot dogs. Nobody…I mean nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.”

Okay, he said it in San Francisco, but Chicagoans teach their babies that line before “Mama and Dada.”

“Uh, I mean for your fries,” Kim says.

“Oh, yeah. Great.”

Whew.

So, yes, the kielbasa’s nice and smoky. And with the fries, pretty filling. Jeez. A beer would so-o-o hit the spot. Manuel the cook stops by. “We get a lot of customers from Chicago,” he says. “They are very…particular. That’s why everything comes down from Chicago. Even the rolls.” He shows me a packet of Gonnella rolls. Made in Chicago. “There’s lots of rules. Like, you never put Italian beef on a French roll,” he says. “Chicago people are tough. They talk loud. But they’re open. Good people,” he says.

“What can I say?” says Wolffy himself — Bob — when I get to talk to him later. “Chicago people love their food. They love to eat. They know what’s good.”

So, gotta come back, try the deep dish, the Chicago dog, and not forgetting that major crossover, the hot dog taco. Bet they don’t have that in the Windy City.

The Place: Wolffy’s Place, 844 Market Street (at Eighth), downtown 619-234-2626
Type of Food: American/Chicago
Prices: Wolffy’s original hot dog taco, $3.95; Chicago-style wings or chicken pieces, $6.95 for 7 pieces; Caesar salad, $7.95; Wolffy’s Big Burger (1/3 lb. with fries or chips), $7.95; Wolffy’s Bigger Burger (1/2 lb.), $9.95; half-slab pork ribs, $13.95; beef ribs, $10.95; Italian beef sandwich with fries, $8.95; slice pizza, $3.50; Chicago Hot Dog (all beef), $5.95; Fire Dog, $6.50; Johnsonville Brat, $6.95; Polish Kielbasa dog, $6.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; Friday–Saturday till 11:00 p.m.
Buses: 3, 11, 120, 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stops: Market and 8th (3, 11); 4th and G (120); Market and 10th (901, 929, southbound); Market and 11th (901, 929, northbound)

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