Badass Roller Coaster

Photo by Jeanne RiceFor years, a guilty pleasure involved driving to Orange County's Deep South for an Italian beef sandwich at a Chicago-style restaurant called Giorgio's.

An Italian beef sandwich, for anyone untutored in Windy City eats, is filled with jazzed-up roast beef dripping in its juices and bursting with spicy pepper flavors. It's one of those locals-only foods, like a Philly cheesesteak—meaning you can't get the real thing here in Orange County—but the Giorgio's version is deliciously messy and decadent in a beef-eating kind of way, and driving to Laguna Niguel is a lot less expensive and slightly less annoying than flying to Chicago.

Big problem, though: last week, I drove 20 miles only to read the note posted on the front door saying, “Starting Aug. 28, Giorgio's is closed.”

How could this happen? Giorgio's was one of the few places in that entire Laguna Niguel-Aliso Viejo nexus to rebel against the chain-restaurant mentality, and the pizzas, sandwiches and hot dogs had the hard-earned seal of approval from Chicagoans I know. I loved the place. And worse yet, I really wanted an Italian beef sandwich.

So I drove sadly back along those black asphalt autobahns winding through the Aliso Viejo housing tracts, trying to find my way out of there without having to fork out $2.50 to the toll-road authority.

Yes, I got lost, and while trying to find my way toward El Toro Road, I saw it to my left: a neon sign reading, “Luke's Chicago Pizza” shining out from some strip center. So I stopped to see if, perchance, they had an Italian beef sandwich.

Compared with its manicured, master-planned surroundings, Luke's looks run-down—but in a way that assures you the food there is the real thing. The place reeked with the odor of an overwhelmingly rich pizza sauce, and Pink Floyd blared from a radio. A cheaply framed, typed copy of Carl Sandburg's famous poem “Chicago” (“Hog Butcher for the World . . .”—you know the one) was propped up on a table by the front counter. As I grabbed a can of Pepsi out of the cooler, I noted a bullet hole in one of the windows. So of course Luke's has an Italian beef sandwich. The question was whether it'd be any good.

When properly done, the Italian beef sandwich is like the most badass roller coaster you've ever ridden—intimidating, slightly nauseating and ultimately fantastic. Seasoned, moist roast beef is combined with a pepper mix called giardiniera (chopped hot peppers, celery and carrots swimming in olive oil; you can get it sweet or spicy) and jammed into a French roll. Haute cuisine this isn't.

Luke's version features drippingly moist roast beef in a chewy French roll. I got it with hot peppers, and the first few bites nearly blew a hole out of the back of my head. The thing was a meaty mother, a (to paraphrase the poem) stormy, husky, brawling Sandwich of the Big Shoulders. Just like Sandburg's Chicago. Perfect.

Luke's is a pizza place, and I have since discovered that it serves up a mighty fine thin-crust, which is the Chicago-style pie I prefer. The deep-dish variety is the anti-Gertrude Stein of pizza—there's too much there there. Luke's thin crust is as crisp as a cracker and topped with that wonderfully acidic monster sauce you find only on good Chicago pizza. The cheeses and toppings make most delivery pizzas taste like tofu.

Yes, Giorgio's is no more, but in Luke's I have found a new place to answer my periodic cravings for Italian beef sandwiches and thin-crust pizza. All I have to do is find it again.

Luke's Chicago Pizza, located at 23411 Laguna Hills Dr., Ste. M, Aliso Viejo, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 2-11 p.m.; Sun., 2-10 p.m. (949) 362-4060. Italian beef sandwich, $3.79; pizzas range from $5 to $29. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.

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