Maid-Rite's loose meat sandwich (Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
2429 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-687-9250
Rating: 2.5 (out of 4) Take it or leave it
The origins: Find a group of Hawkeyes and ask them if they've ever eaten at a Maid-Rite. You'll hear a resounding cheer. This fast-food chain has been an Iowa staple since 1926, with a few other locations dotted around the Midwest, including one in Springfield that's on the National Register of Historic Places and claims one of the country's first drive-throughs. This recently opened Lincoln Park location is the first in Chicago.
The signature sammie: Burger King has the Whopper, Culver's has butter burgers and Maid-Rite has the loose meat sandwich. I have to be honest, the name alone turned me off. Loose meat sounds pretty unappetizing, but I'm all about regional American sandwiches—shout out to New Jersey's Taylor pork roll—so I kept an open mind. Unfortunately, I still failed to see what the fuss was about. "Loose" refers to the ground beef, which is barely contained by two squishy, almost sweet white (or wheat, if you prefer) steamed buns. The loose meat sandwich ($4.49) contains pickles, onion, ketchup and mustard, though I had a hard time finding any of that under the mountain of beef crumbles. I ordered mine with a slice of cheese (American, Swiss or mozzarella), but I'm told that purists eschew this option. The meat itself isn't dry, nor is it greasy, but with just a dash of salt and pepper to season it, I didn't find it remarkable. If you crumbled up a McDonald's patty, this is what it might taste like.
The fries and shakes: A respectable retro sandwich shop is expected to have great fries and shakes, and Maid-Rite doesn't disappoint. The fries ($2.49) are the standard, thin-cut type, but they're fresh and have the crisp exterior/soft interior ratio down pat. Shakes ($4.99) are thick, whipped cream- and cherry-topped and served with the mixing cup and a spoon to ensure I could scoop up every drop. Even with chocolate and triple-berry options, the signature vanilla flavor hit the spot for me.
Everything else: A breaded pork tenderloin sandwich ($5.99) is a close second behind loose meat in the popularity contest, and there are plenty of other choices like a smoked turkey wrap, or even salads for lighter appetites. The owner told me that the racks of ribs ($13.99 for a half rack, $22.99 for a full) are knockouts, but I ate my dose of slow cooking courtesy of a side of baked beans ($2.49) which were hearty and definitely smoky. Maybe for nostalgia's sake, both sandwiches came with a small side of ambrosia salad, the '60s-era cream-fruit-marshmallow concoction that, in my opinion, belongs nowhere near a beef sandwich.
Bottom line: I'm sure Maid-Rite has a special, nostalgic place in a lot of hearts, but that Americana doesn't really come through in the brand-new storefront. The sandwiches could be a change of pace for late-night barhoppers, but I'm not convinced they're worth traveling for. Those fries and shakes, on the other hand, will be on my mind for a while.
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