By Peter Engler (Rene G)
People eat differently on the South Side. If you don’t believe that, try to find a Mother in Law, Big Baby, or Freddy north of Madison Street.
Another sandwich, also likely unfamiliar to most Northsiders, is currently spreading around the South Side and beyond.
Ten or fifteen years ago I found a menu from a South Side sub shop slipped into my front gate. It listed all the familiar local treats: subs stuffed with beef (either “roast” or “corn”); gyros (usually pronounced GUY-ro); and super tacos (ground beef, lettuce, and tomatoes, all folded into a pita). But there was also a sandwich I’d never heard of then: the Jim Shoe.
In the next few years I would notice that name on menus or window signs of other sub shops. Clearly the Jim Shoe wasn’t found at only one or two places. After I had completed an initial investigation into the Mother-in-Law (a tamale with chili, usually served on a hot dog bun), I decided to take on the Jim Shoe. Where did it originate? How did it get that peculiar name? Little did I know that after nearly a decade and dozens of Shoes, I’d still be asking those same questions.
To view a slideshow of places the author visited while in search of the perfect Jim Shoe, click the button.
What is a Jim Shoe?
A Jim Shoe is a submarine sandwich made with roast beef, corn(ed) beef, and gyros meat, topped with chopped iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, squirts of GUY-ro sauce (ersatz tzatziki) and often mayonnaise or bright yellow mustard. Cheese, onions, giardiniera, or other garnishes are sometimes added. Although it’s not a classic Jim Shoe ingredient, giardiniera can add greatly to the finished product.
With few exceptions, Jim Shoes come with fries and “can pop.” If you want to do things right, order your fries with “mild sauce,” a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce.
Jim Shoes can be divided into two types: sliced or griddled. Often the three meats are simply sliced and layered on the bread but sometimes the meats get chopped while they are heated and crisped on a flat-top griddle. When carefully made, the sliced version can be tasty – but almost all my favorite Shoes are of the griddled variety. That’s not to say all griddled ones are worthwhile; a poorly made Shoe is a complete disaster.
Sub shops, many offering the Jim Shoe, are a common feature of the South and West Side dining landscapes. Indeed, in many neighborhoods they are almost the only dining option. They tend to be Pakistani-owned, with similar menus prominently featuring gyros, Chicago-style Philly steaks and other meats, but never pork. Seating is rarely available and the ordering area is almost always separated from the kitchen by a thick bulletproof shield. Many keep very late hours.
I lost track of how many owners or workers at these types of stores I asked about the origin of the sandwich and of the name — a few dozen at least. But the thing that stands out is how little most knew, or cared, about the Jim Shoe. Few had given it any thought, despite selling the sandwiches for years. The project became frustrating and I almost gave up – but in the last few years, I was helped immensely by LTH Forum users PIGMON and tatterdemalion.
One day, I asked yet another owner where the name came from. He didn’t know, but his young assistant – who had been listening intently – came over to the glass and confidently told me he knew where the name came from. At last, I thought, my quest will be over. He pointed to his head and announced dramatically, “It comes from the mind.”
That was actually more helpful than most responses. I’m still looking into various origin stories, most probably completely fabricated. My working hypothesis is that it was simply named after a customer, Jim, or an employee, Jamshed.
It seems fairly clear the sandwich is of relatively recent origin and is spreading quickly. Evidence for this can be seen on store signs. At quite a few shops the Jim Shoe is advertised only by a separate sign attached to the wall or window; it’s too new to have been included on the printed menu or professionally-made menu board. When asked about this, one owner explained that his customers expect the Jim Shoe and he was happy to oblige by recently adding the sandwich.
A worker at a well-established Bronzeville sub shop seemed to be an authority on the subject and was happy to share his knowledge of the Jim Shoe. He believed the sandwich originated in the 1980s, at a long-closed gyros shop on the far South Side. I can’t corroborate the story myself, but it seems that the Jim Shoe does have a long history in the area. In support of this notion, the name is found on an obviously old, professionally-painted menu board inside a nearby sub shop.
Where to Find One
Don’t be confused if you see references to “Gym Shoe” or “Jim Shoo” instead – while “Jim Shoe” seems to be the preferred spelling by a wide margin, it isn’t the only variation. These alternate spellings may be more common the farther one gets from the South Side. I’ve found three shops on the Evanston border that offer the Shoe. Two spell it “Jim Shoo” and the other calls it a “Gym Shoe.”
By far the highest concentrations of Jim Shoes are on the South and West Sides but a few can be found on the North Side – in Uptown and on Howard Street. It seems that the Jim Shoe can now be found even in Milwaukee. A year ago, tatterdemalion and I stopped at a so-called Chicago-style fast food restaurant in Milwaukee that looked like it ought to serve the Shoe. It wasn’t on the menu, but the Pakistani owner knew exactly what we were talking about and offered to make one for us. Last month Da Beef posted a picture of the same place, now sporting a Jim Shoe sign.
The sandwich sometimes changes as it spreads. One of the more creative offshoots is the Super Jim Shoe Taco at Super Sub in Marquette Park, the perhaps inevitable hybrid of two South Side fast food favorites.
But where to go for the best Jim Shoe? A difficult question. Super Sub can be recommended, both for its unorthodox taco as well as an exemplary standard-format sandwich. Another excellent, somewhat restrained rendition can be found at Bronzeville’s Southtown Sub (240 E. 35th St., 312-326-1890)
However, I most often choose Stony Sub (8440 S. Stony Island Ave., 773-978-4000), which is conveniently open 24 hours a day (Jim Shoe cravings often hit early in the morning). Stony Sub’s sandwich is exceptionally generous, well chopped and griddled, extremely juicy, and bursting with giardiniera.
A bit over-the-top perhaps – but then, I suspect most people wanting a Jim Shoe aren’t in search of subtlety.