We love it when someone sets out to give Chicago something authentic that we’ve known the city’s been lacking, like Neapolitan-style pizza before Spacca Napoli et al. came along. But we love it even more when someone gives us something we didn’t know we were missing till they made it essential, like a Boston clam shack. Duran European Sandwiches Cafe in West Town just did that with small, exquisitely simple and balanced open-faced European sandwiches, a familiar sight in Central Europe. We set out to show you a bunch of their still-expanding offerings, and we have a slideshow of what they have to offer. But in talking to owner Tracy Miller about how she sourced ingredients to get just the right Viennese taste for each of her products, we also discovered a story about the whole overlooked culture of Eastern European food in our city, too.
It started with Miller and her husband, art curator Stanislav Grezdo, stopping in Vienna on their way to and from his native Slovakia, mainly for the purpose of getting their European sandwich fix. With experience of her own in Eastern Europe (including as an aid worker for Chernobyl victims), she understood the primal power of food from home that drew her husband there, and how every ingredient had to taste exactly right. Eventually she had the idea of starting a cafe here and struck a deal with Duran, a four-decade-old chain with outposts in Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul. She spent six weeks in Vienna learning the intricacies of the business and its recipes, and save for a few additions for the American audience (such as a turkey sandwich), she came back determined to reproduce the European recipes as closely as possible in Chicago.
The first challenge was bread. The recipe itself is not unusual— it’s a typical soft European bread with milk and butter in the recipe— but it had to be baked in special iron-lidded molds to ensure that every slice was of a uniform size. She talked to numerous bakeries who weren’t interested in helping her until she found La Fournette’s Pierre Zimmermann, who knew exactly the kind of bread she wanted and agreed to bake it if she could source the molds from Vienna.
Then it was a matter of the ingredients— which meant rounds of tasting for each sandwich. For instance, for the ham sandwich, she started with Polish-style hams, but eventually settled on a Montreal-produced French style ham called Madrange as having just the right flavor.
Though Miller started looked for ingredients with standard Chicago restaurant suppliers, she was soon turning to Eastern European grocers and meat markets. Chicago’s Polish and Eastern European meat markets are often associated with conventional produce and industrial meat, and there can be truth in that, but the best ones occupy an entire alternate universe of simple, naturally-produced food which has never been contaminated by the American industrial food system. She cites Andy’s Deli, a nearly 100-year-old sausage maker, distributor and grocer on northwest Milwaukee Avenue, as an example of a supplier who, though they may not drop the same farmer names as downtown restaurants, source their meat directly from high quality farmers and produce largely natural products.
So she began sourcing salami and mortadella from Andy’s. She found one particular brand of Polish pickles which not only taste as fresh and complex as anything made by a trendy chef, but come with comparable bona fides— the maker in Poland only buys from one farm he trusts, and if there’s a bad cucumber harvest, there won’t be any pickles that year. She gets the red pepperoncinis for her ajvar from Bulgaria. Her desserts come from both La Fournette and JR Dessert Bakery on Howard (though they don’t include the thing they’re famous for, cheesecake, but instead some very nice European-style desserts).
And so on for virtually every ingredient on the menu— because if it tastes even slightly different than it does in Europe, someone will know, and not quite have the Proustian-rush-of-home-flavor that she wants them to have. Miller feels she’s as close as she can get, though there are some things affecting the final product— like Chicago’s harsher cold, or the much lower temperature her cooler case must be kept at than in a Vienna cafe— which she’s still wrestling with.
The most typical way to sample their offerings is via the $10 special, which gives you three sandwiches of your choice and a coffee. The sunny, open cafe offers La Colombe coffee, wi-fi, and a selection of art by Chicago artists, some of it dating back to the 1970s (and restored by her husband) and definitely reminiscent of Eastern European avant-garde art of the era. And by the time you can reliably sit outside, the parking lot will become an outdoor patio. Located at 529. N. Milwaukee Avenue, right at the beginning of Chicago’s gateway to Eastern Europe, Duran European Sandwiches Cafe is all just far enough out of the Loop— physically and tonally— to seem like a taste of another world.