Chain Reaction: Maid-Rite
2429 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60614 (map); 773-687-9250; plus multiple locations across the Midwestern US; maid-rite.com
The Schtick: It's all about the loose meat sandwich, an interesting regional take on a hamburger that should be experienced at least once.
The Burger: A loose meat sandwich is like a soft crumbled hamburger, or sloppy joe without the slop.
Want Fries with That? Absolutely. Fast-food fries are spot-on, and the cheese curds are great when hot. Great shakes, too.
Price: Original Maid-Rite, $3.99; The Cheese-Rite, $4.49; Maid-Rite Beef Sundae (single scoop of mashed potato), $4.79; french fries, $2.49; white cheddar cheese curds, $4.99; malts and shakes, $4.99
The first time I heard that a loose meat sandwich was a real thing, I inadvertently started laughing my ass off. I mean, it's called...a loose meat sandwich. I'm even laughing now. I'm sorry, I know, I'm 12, I admit it. "Loose meat sandwich" is like a nickname I would have had in college. I have even ruder jokes up my sleeve, but I like this gig, and I don't want AHT editor Robyn to get mad at me. I like her too much. Loose meat sandwich. Loose meat sandwich. Okay. I'm done. (No I'm not.)
Some of you Roseanne fans might know that these are the sandwiches she served in her sitcom television show back in the '90s. But loose meat sandwiches (sometimes called tavern sandwiches) from regional chain Maid-Rite have been around since the 1920s. Chicago's very first outpost opened up in September, and of course, I jumped at the chance to dive headfirst into a loose meat sandwich.
The little sandwiches come neatly wrapped in paper with a spoon tucked into the wrapper's fold. Trust me, you'll need the spoon. You'll be lucky if you can eat half of the meat on the bun without it falling out, and if you want to get your money's worth, you'll need the meat shovel.
The sandwiches themselves are as simple as they look. This is 80/20 ground beef, never frozen, very finely ground, and cooked to the point where it's very soft but still retains its beefy flavor. The meat is seasoned with more than just salt and pepper (the flavor mix is a trade secret), but the seasoning is mild and serves to accent the flavor of the beef. The Original Maid-Rite ($3.99) comes without cheese, and ordered with everything is decked with ketchup, mustard, raw onion, and pickles. Upon my first bite, lo and behold, I found that it does indeed taste like a fast-food hamburger. Big surprise there. I could have sworn the meat is steamed, but the friendly and enthusiastic owner assured me that it isn't, even going so far as to show me the flat bottomed cooking vessel in back.
I know you loose meat sandwich purists might scoff at the idea, but I preferred the zany loose meat with American cheese, also known as a Cheese-Rite ($4.49). The cheese adds a sort of salty and, well, cheesy cement to the mix. It's not surprising since I prefer cheeseburgers to hamburgers anyway, but since the beef is relatively unadorned, the cheese adds flavor. The squishy white bun is relatively sweet, for bread, and does an admirable job of holding structural integrity during consumption, but the bottom bun does eventually sort of cave in from the moisture of the beef and toppings.
Don't skip the sides. The fast-food french fries ($2.49) are the relatively pale blonde kind, and they're perfectly salted with a crisp exterior and soft interior. If you like fast food fries, these are the kind for you. And the battered white cheddar cheese curds ($4.99) are great too, but eat them while they're hot as they cool off rather quickly. I found myself visiting the savory ranch dipping sauce rather than the slightly watery marinara for the curds.
Is it sad that I like animal-shaped food? For some reason a milkshake topped with a cheerful smiling bear cookie or cracker will always make me smile, and yes, I just admitted that. The milkshakes ($4.99) at Maid-Rite are pitch-perfect diner shakes with just the right thickness and sweetness. They're served with the remainder in the cold metal mixing cup in case you just can't get enough—and the pumpkin malt is a good seasonal flavor to try, adorned with a dash of fragrant pumpkin pie spice on top of the whipped cream.
I sort of blew out my budget with this one, but I couldn't help but try the Maid-Rite Beef Sundae ($4.79). Instead of ice cream, there's smooth mashed potatoes, topped with beef gravy, tomatoes, loose meat, and cheese. It's pretty much an Americanized shepherd's pie without vegetables. Plus, I get to proudly say I've now eaten a beef sundae.
And now the big question: Would I go back for a loose meat sandwich? I'm torn. For you fans, I totally see why you like, even love, a good loose meat sandwich. I respect you one-hundred percent. A loose meat sandwich presents beauty in simplicity, just like me (couldn't resist that one). I liked it. I'm fascinated by it. Even now I'm thinking about it and want just one more bite to decide how I really feel, and I think that says just enough.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.