There are several hallmarks at a classic Chicago street food stand. The food centers around hot dogs, Italian beef, and the occasional pizza puff. The letterboard menus (often featuring a soft drink sponsor) make natives feel they are in a safe space, a place where they can find an affordable and quality meal. To honor these restaurants, Eater Chicago has launched a regular feature called Standing Rervation highlighting some of the more noteworthy stands around the city and suburbs.
First up, Al’s Drive-In in Maywood, a special hot dog stand. How many hot dog stands have been written up in the New York Times?
Let Eater know about your favorite street food stand by emailing email@example.com with the subject “Street Food.”
When Burton Boonma sat down to watch The Bear, the enormously popular Hulu series about an ambitious young chef who leaves the fine dining world to save his family’s struggling River North Italian beef stand, he was shocked. Not only did the show introduce millions of viewers to the city’s humble and resilient street food scene, but it also featured a stand that bore a striking resemblance to Al’s Drive-In, an unfussy suburban Maywood establishment his family has owned for more than four decades.
“It’s kind of like home,” he says of The Bear. “I went to culinary school, worked in bistros, fine dining, and on well-run lines. Then I went back home and tried to manage the stand, so I understand that chaos.”
Originally founded in 1955, Al’s Drive-In has earned a significant fanbase over its tenure, particularly among students at nearby Proviso East High School. Boonma answered a series of emailed questions. Below are his lightly edited responses.
Eater: Who are you and what is your relationship to Al’s Drive-In?
Brandon Boonma: I’m Brandon Boonma and my mom [Sue Rapanavanich] owns the business. My father was the owner; he bought it in 1979. He was an entrepreneur and understood the business, but he passed away when I was nine. My mother basically took over when he passed away.
I worked at Al’s since I was a little kid. I can remember when I was little — 7 or 8 — helping out in the back. I moved out of the house around 19 or 20, went to culinary school, and came back when I was 22 to work there for a few more years before I joined the military. Now I work full-time as a firefighter but I still do a lot of the shopping [for Al’s]. Whatever they need.
What’s the one thing that customers would notice if you changed?
Mild sauce. We put it on pretty much everything. We’re right next to a big high school and the majority of the time these kids come over and order small things like cheese sticks and french fries, [and] sometimes pizza puffs, but the number one thing they put on everything is mild sauce.
There was one time my uncle tried to change the sauce. He decided we could save some money by changing it up and putting some ketchup in it. Customers figured it out right away. They were like, “This is not the same!”
What is the best-selling item at Al’s, and what do you think makes it special?
It has to be the fried rice. A lot of people love our fried rice because we make it to order and it’s seasoned to taste. My father was full Chinese but he was born in Thailand and none of the rest of us are Chinese, so when we make fried rice, it’s with more of a Thai twist. Salt, pepper, MSG — even our dark soy sauce is our own little mixture with Golden Mountain sauce. When Chicago’s Best aired us on WGN, demand jumped from 10 quarts a day to 320 quarts of fried rice.
How have price increases for food affected Al’s in recent months?
I know from doing purchasing that everything costs a lot more and we’ve had to increase prices a few times to make sure ends meet. You can see it across the board, 20 to 30 percent increases in Vienna beef — even rice on its own. We’re a stand, so obviously we’re not doing profit margins like sit-down restaurants. We’re based on volume, so we’re just trying to meet the demand.
What do you think makes Chicago street food special?
I’ve traveled to every state for [military] training — New Orleans, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York — everywhere. Every one [of those cities] has its own uniqueness, but I feel like Chicago has a lot of hidden gems that aren’t publicized to the rest of the country. That’s one thing I know for sure because I talk to a lot of people in the military when I travel, and I always ask, have you ever had an Italian beef dipped with giardiniera? They have no idea what that is. They are dumbfounded. There’s a lot more to Chicago than deep-dish and Chicago-style hot dogs!