‘The Bear’ effect: Can Italian beef thrive in Los Angeles?

Most days, Michael Walker can’t move his Italian beef sandwiches easily — he can sell 10 all day at the Los Angeles pop-up, Comfy Pup. Then, on June 26, he sold out of his beef within two hours of opening his food stall.

Such was the power of “The Bear,” the FX series that had premiered a few days earlier and quickly became the center of an ongoing discourse about chef life, pain, PTSD in the kitchen and of course, Italian beef, Chicago’s favorite. featured prominently in the program. Southern California chefs already in love with soggy, savory sandwiches want to believe that real popularity is simply the growing allure of one of Chicago’s most iconic dishes, and they hope it stays in LA

Chicagoans like Walker – to whom Comfy Pup is devoted to Midwestern fare – can ruminate on the essential ingredients of “beef” as easily as they can extract the qualities of the hot dish. Pickled Chicago dog: Beef should be grilled, thinly sliced ​​and briefly soaked in flavored water, then rolled into a 6- to 8-inch long bread roll of super-specific origin and topped with Topped with sweet (grilled) or spicy peppers, later nicknamed the aromatic giardiniera, add a splash of bright vinegar to another heavy, luxurious meal. Sandwiches can be “dry”, “wet” or “dipped”, depending on how one likes the soaked bread, which determines how delicious and messy the experience will be.

Historically, very few restaurants in the LA area offered real beef, though that is changing, thanks to the show’s popularity. Just ask Walker.

“The weekend it came out, we sold 250% more than usual,” he says of his stand, which this year mainly featured at LA Arts District’s weekly food festival, Smorgasburg . This Sunday marks its final appearance there, with new locations to be announced later on Instagram. “It went crazy. It went up immediately. I can tell that maybe in the first three weeks after the show came out, we sold out instantly. I can still hear people talking. That’s when they walk by: They’ll look at my menu and say, ‘Italian beef. Yes, chef!’ And I just think it’s funny because people don’t know what Italian beef is. Now people are quoting the show when they see the sandwich.”

The sandwich is at the heart of the comedy and sets up a power struggle that unfolds throughout the first season. High-end chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White) returns to help run the family beef store following the death of his brother. Wanting to reimagine their simpler, tried and true recipes to incorporate a little more of herself and her culinary prowess, Carmy changed the recipe for the restaurant’s rice paper, water red sauce and beef portions, and introduced the French-based hierarchy of brigade operating a kitchen, including requiring each person to acknowledge every command with the affirmative “Yes, Chef!”

A man stacks sandwiches under a tree.

Michael Walker reaches for some tongs to load a sandwich with Italian beef at the weekly food festival Smorgasburg. In October, the Comfy Pup will continue to appear elsewhere in the city.

(Annie Noelker / For The Times)

He immediately throws the employees — including his fellow leader of the fictional Beef sandwich shop, Richard “Richie” Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) — into chaos. Real-life sandwich fans feel the same way; one simply doesn’t mess with beef, and if you’re going to “improve” it, you better bring your A-game.

That Sunday in June, Walker couldn’t tell where all his new business was coming from. Later that evening, he realized that the show had aired last Thursday; then he indulged in the entire series and saw most of himself in Carmy.

Walker, who grew up in Buffalo Grove, a suburb just outside of Chicago, wanted to put his own stamp on the beloved beef he grew up eating all his life. At first, he slow-roasted beef bones as an ingredient, spending hours creating a flavor that was more unique than the Viennese braised meat and beef that many beef shops offer. He sees Carmy as the leader in the direction of head chefs, the new guardian of fine dining techniques and celebrity-meeting creativity.

“When I saw that I said, ‘Yes, exactly, Carmy,’ but things don’t go that way,” he said. “I would say that 90% of people like my homemade Italian beef, but that 10% comes along and they say, ‘This doesn’t taste like Portillo’s.’ But it’s the people that I don’t want to be upset about because, you know, it’s the men who come to me looking exactly like all the dads of my best friends.”

Although the sandwich was very popular, that feedback left him crushed, and due to time and space constraints on beef, Walker opted to swap the meat for Viennese products and mix it up. rationalize its activities – present. After his final appearance on Sunday in Smorgasburg, the Comfy Pup will return to appear at bars and events throughout the county, giving Walker a chance to catch up on much-needed sleep. The chef dreams of serving his more gourmets with burgers, roast beef and stew, at a chain of stores called Fancy Pup.

Along another section of downtown, a nearly century-old deli has started offering Italian beef for the first time.

Billy Astorga also sees himself in Carmy. In February, Le Cordon Bleu graduates with a background in fine dining and their own cheffing joined the team at Eastside Italian Deli, a business with a more aesthetically oriented mindset for snacks, salads and spread dishes.

“That was the hard part for me,” he said. “With over 10 years as an artist and having to put that first, and now being in a place that doesn’t matter, sometimes makes me feel like ‘Am I dropping the ball?’ But it shows in the little things that I do.”

So Astorga improved on some of the more classic Eastside menu items, such as potato salad, and introduced newer, more flavorful options to the catering menu. It’s also why he’s added his Italian beef to both Chinatown and Los Feliz.

The cook watched the pilot of “The Bear’s,” which he said made him nervous, then got to work and told co-owner Vito Angiuli how much he liked it. Astorga finished work at 2:30 p.m., went home, raved about the series until about 3 a.m., and went to bed dreaming of beef. He woke up at 5:30 a.m., went to the deli at 6:30 a.m., and an hour later, the two were planning new sandwiches.

The deli’s home roast beef – an all-day process devised by a longtime employee – is available for hot and cold roast beef sandwiches, the latter including provolone and roasted peppers. The new Italian beef dish, called Bear, has an extra slice of provolone (an ingredient not used in classic Italian beef), giardiniera, and a ladle of jus made from a dripping roast beef pan. For Bear bread, they put thinly sliced ​​beef in and cook for up to 15 minutes (the meat is thicker than traditional Italian beef, so it can soak in the steaming sauce longer). It is not served on Turano Baking Co rolls. – the gold standard for beef purists which is a near-impossible bread that originated in Los Angeles – but a soft Italian roll manages to stay firm with loads of chunks enough bread.

An overhead photo of Bear bread at Eastside Italian Deli, with provolone cheese, giardiniera and roast beef

The Bear Bread at Eastside Italian Deli is chef Billy Astorga’s interpretation of Chicago’s Italian beef.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a tribute not only to his shared experience with Carmy, but also one of the only shows he’s seen that encapsulates the pitfalls, climax, and anxieties of working in Professional kitchen.

“For me, it was the fact that they were able to convey frustration so well, and how stressful kitchen life can be for people,” Astorga says. “A lot of people don’t realize how intense it is and how it intrudes into your personal life. A lot of hard jobs tend to do that, but the industry is really hard; a lot of the chefs I work with are divorced, they have problems with drugs or alcohol. “

In Buena Park and Moreno Valley, a little slice of Chicago attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with the aroma of aged roast beef and some of the world’s most iconic hot dogs. Portillo’s is a popular Chicagoland chain that has expanded to 9 – coming soon to 10 – since humble beginnings as a hot dog stand in 1963, and like many other Italian beef purveys, pie sales Sandwich noodles have skyrocketed since the show’s launch in late June.

Garrett Kern can’t say for certain whether “The Bear” is entirely responsible for the recent popularity of the Portillo sandwich, but the company’s vice president of strategy and food division says it is. could be the cause.

“I have had countless people — close friends, family, acquaintances, etc. — contact me,” Kern said. “People in the office talk about the show all the time. I think there will be some people [customers] Ask about it, because if you’re in a place like LA, our locations are probably some of the closest places where you can legally buy Italian beef. “

They are few and far between, especially from big-name brands. Other major Chicago beef producers have tried moving to Los Angeles – some with more success than others. At Gino’s East, which opened in Sherman Oaks in late 2019, beef sales also increased; Al’s Beef establishment closed in Alhambra in 2016.

Close-up shot of Portillo's Italian beef with celery-heavy giardiniera.

Portillo’s Italian beef took years to become popular with customers outside of the Chicago area. Since “The Bear’s” debuted, the national chain says sales of the item have increased nationally.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

At Portillo’s, home to one of the gold standards of Italian beef, the meat is grilled in a casual kitchen, with home-made ingredients. All are scooped into Turano rolls and topped with Marconi’s exclusive giardiniera blend of carrots, celery, peppers and cauliflower diced and portioned in Portillo’s way – including a variety of ingredients. carrots and celery a little more than the kind on store shelves.

The sales spike of these sandwiches after the premiere wasn’t reflected in locations in the Chicago area, but, Kern said, it was nearly everywhere else. Kern, who grew up in Chicago and eats Italian beef, is delighted to see it take off elsewhere in the country – a far cry from the brand’s initial efforts to introduce the sandwich, which is often met customers who would return to the counter claiming the bread was soggy and asking the staff to make them again. He is optimistic that the “Bear” wave of interest is just the beginning.

“I hope that one day it’s at the top of Rushmore with the beef bun that other people are used to,” says Kern, but it is highly regional, and I think it just started to dip its toes in. country and introduce yourself. the folks. “ ‘The Bear’ effect: Can Italian beef thrive in Los Angeles?

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