A Man's Man's World

Guys' guys: Bobby and Tommy Dennis run a boy's club everyone can love
Richard Fleischman
Joey D's Chicago Style Eatery
3101 E. 42nd St., Minneapolis

"Do not write about the basement. Then everybody's gonna want to see the basement, and it's no big thing," advised Tommy Dennis, guaranteeing that I could write about no other thing.

Tommy Dennis is, of course, the co-owner of Joey D's, the south-side Chicago--I mean, south-side Minneapolis hot-dog place. He owns the sunny, sports memorabilia-packed corner joint with his brother Bobby Dennis, and anyone who's ever been to Joey D's knows Bobby and Tommy, because they are always behind the counter, in front of the counter, or, says Tommy Dennis, "chasing each other around behind the counter with our dukes up." And once the Dennis brothers have finished chasing each other around, it's pretty likely that one of them retreats down the rickety stairs, to the...basement.

The basement! A magical, secret, forbidden kingdom of the ultra-male, extra-muscular, and mega-brawny. The secret kind of place where manly men do manly things, like stub thick cigars into weighty ashtrays, while clippings from their past sporting triumphs loom above, packing-taped to the walls. A basement with a giant lounge chair splayed--nay, cratered--with the evidence of briefly collapsed, exhausted bruisers, this overwhelming chair covered by a bright red Chicago Bulls blanket, like a veritable throne of a large-sized pause in a large-sized life.

There was a time when I was growing up in the blue-collar wilds of Queens, when architectural restoration appeared to mainly involve Bondo and beer crates, and one's future ability to achieve mobility seemed to hinge on learning to suspend a tailpipe with a coat hanger, and could that be why I so often find myself at Joey D's when the chips are down? Why so many people I know keep Joey D's deep in their hearts for retreat when the chips are down?

As my friend Dennis has it: If you're sad, Joey D's will make you happy; if you're hung over, Joey D's will knit you back together; and if you're sad and hung over, Joey D's makes you feel like you're not alone, which is half the battle.

I told Tommy Dennis my counterintuitive theory that one of his pickle- and pepper-covered sandwiches works like a dozen Alka-Seltzers and a Xanax, and he gave me the fishy look such a statement deserves. Tommy Dennis is much more comfortable saying things like, "For years we didn't have any Vikings stuff up, and then we figured, okay, we're in Minnesota now, we should try to make the customers happy, and there's some room by the toilet. Hey, I'm just kidding, you're in for it now, the more we know you the more shit you're going to get." Ah, family.

But I still think those ballpark perfections have magically curative qualities--especially if you add some chili-cheese fries ($5.10). Those chili-cheese fries are the least defensible item I love at Joey D's, so I might as well start with them. They basically seem right out of the ballpark: hot, sizzling, distinctly non-gourmet fries covered with grainy, non-gourmet chili and a couple of profoundly squishy squirts of canned cheese, they transport you immediately to ballpark, amusement park, or some other site of the American Carefree. I love them. Though I admit they trouble me. Because deep in my heart I know I'll never be a fancy wine writer, wearing a monocle, touring Burgundy in the back of a chauffeured Bentley, exactly because of those Joey D's chili-cheese fries. The Achilles heel of the middle class.

The other things that are magical at Joey D's are the Italian beef and that famous Chicago dog: a Vienna Beef hot dog done with the requisite sport peppers (the green, whole, pickled chili peppers), green relish, diced onions, sliced tomatoes, a kosher dill pickle spear, and mustard, the whole thing topped with celery salt and served in a poppy-seed bun ($2.40) just like they do in Chicago. (Important trivia: Whereas the Dennises used to drive sport peppers and buns up from Chicago themselves every month, now they are so popular that the family hires a semi to do it for them. So order as many as you like!)

If you've never had a Chicago dog, I can see how you might think they sound utterly repellent, but in fact, there's something about the way the cool of the tomatoes and pickle spear, the sweet of the hot dog and relish, the salt of it all, and the spicy and sour of the sport pepper and mustard combine to give it all an almost Thai or Vietnamese complexity, hitting almost every palate note sequentially, effortlessly, and for less than three bucks. Though of course, for $3.89, you can have yours made with two hot dogs. But that's clearly between you and the length of your roommate's bachelor party.

For me, I like to get the hot dog and the Italian beef--because, now that I think about it, I clearly have the soul of a dockworker. That Italian beef is a fantastic thing. Now, you've probably had your share of Chicago beef sandwiches, the thin-sliced roast beef simmered in what is known as beef juice, but this one is better. It's the peppers, I think. There are two kinds, hot and sweet. Hot peppers are actually a variety of spicy pickled vegetables, "giardiniera" (from the Italian for gardener, I'm told), to which the Dennises add fresh cauliflower, carrots, and a special Dennis blend of spices. The stuff is great, popping and piquant, and utterly addictive.

Sweet peppers are a combination of green and red bell peppers, sautéed on the grill until soft. You know how much you like roasted red peppers in fancy Italian restaurants? These are their blue-collar cousins. Where I grew up, peppers were a passion: peppers and eggs, peppers and sausages, pepper sandwiches, and so I know of what I speak when it comes to peppers. And these are good peppers. Blackened in spots from the grill, pliant and vegetal, and only 50 cents added to any sandwich (such as the estimable Italian sausage), they are one of those little things that set a food nut's heart afire.

You can get your basic beef sandwich (normally priced at $5.10) with as many orders of hot or sweet peppers as you like, and once you go in there enough to figure out your own favorite style, you'll likely be so well known to the Dennis brothers that they'll start giving you guff if you dare eat one of their sandwiches with a knife and fork. "It kills the taste," hollers Tommy Dennis. "I'd rather see you ruin your tie than ruin a perfectly good beef!"

Then when you're inside enough, you'll get the grand tour, and the explanation behind the clippings on the wall, which tell the story of Tommy Dennis's hockey career. The family actually moved out here so Tommy could play hockey for Burnsville; he was the junior goalie who led the Burnsville Braves to a state hockey championship in 1986, and followed that with a brief career in college and professional hockey. You'll see pictures of the various Minneapolis police, fire, or emergency softball teams that Joey D's has sponsored, which is only one of the reasons there's often a cop in the joint.

If you're particularly persistent, you might even get to hear about Joey D's plans for expansion: If all goes well we'll live to see a Joey D's sports bar in Bloomington, and a Joey D's presence at the State Fair, replete with a food on a stick so media-savvy it makes the mind reel. Imagine a pizza, on a stick, but the stick is an American flag. Out of the park!

And soon enough, you'll understand why the patio is so thronged on the weekends, and why the inside rooms, with their rolls of paper towels suspended over every table, are so packed every lunch--so packed in fact that the Dennises are expanding sometime or other into the next room to boost seating space. And you begin to see that the hunger that Joey D's satisfies is one of the heart--though not a very touchy-feely heart, by any estimate.

And you begin to see why the Dennis brothers are so proud of their brother Joey, for whom the restaurant is named. Joey Dennis led his life with a crippling genetic disease, and the restaurant was partly founded so that the family could all work together around Joey, and he was often seen in the restaurant until his death three years ago; doctors had expected him to die 20 years earlier. Doctors who obviously knew nothing about the secret, magical world of hot and sweet peppers, giant recliners covered with Bulls blankets, and the sort of manly nurturing that can go on around a storefront cash register and a grill.

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