Well, I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but I've lived in Chicago pretty much all my life, and have never been to the original Jim's or Maxwell Express. So tonight, after finishing up work, I decided to stop by and grab a Polish from each and jump to my own conclusions.
Intrigued by this old debate concerning side-by-side sausages, I decided to do my Windy City duty and finally scarf down at Jim's and Express Grill (aka Maxwell Express), much to my personal betterment. The results were tantalizingly close. Eating at Jim's and Express was like a study of contrasts and similarities: for every likeness, there was a striking difference.
I ate first at Express Grill from roughly 10:45 to 11:00 this morning. I would have started at Jim's had I not found a parking spot so close to Express's front counter, which might help produce the larger foot traffic at the more southern location. Drivers who have never been down that section of South Union before (like me) would probably miss Jim's initially and not bother to back up the street to park closer to the Original after seeing Express. (Just a theory of mine.) At any rate, my sequence of ordering had been changed: I wanted to start at Jim's because I figured I'd have a hard time eating a worse Polish after trying Express's -- thanks to the large portion of pro-Express comments posted in this thread. Being in a rush (I had the 11:10 Illini game to catch at a friend's place), I simply stepped up to the Express counter and placed my order for a Polish with the works, preconceived notions of better or worse be darned.
$2.60 for a sausage and fries (including tax) is an incredible deal... even for this cheapskate.
Having finally sampled the Polish at Wolfy's
just the other day, I got a taste of good and was now ready for the best. What emerged was a delicious sausage with even hotter onions (temperature-wise) ladled on top. Lying next to the bun in my Polish wrapper were two large sport peppers, hot enough so I wouldn't need more than a couple bites to speed through my breakfast "sandwich." (The Express menu outside said that all sandwiches come with free fries, which were packaged below the Polish in my bag.) I consumed my sweet sandwich so quickly, in fact, that I forgot to take a sip from the can of Coca-Cola Classic which sat by my side in the car as I ate. This was surprising as I brought that drink from home explicitly to help the buns and meat go down easier; in the end, its presence wasn't needed.
Unsurprisingly, Express's weak fries -- though freshly cooked -- provided an anticlimax to the establishment's excellent entree, especially because I refused salt and ketchup when asked at the counter about them. (I didn't realize there were fries bundled free at the time.) To put it simply, the potatoes were bland; even with a bit of salt and ketchup at my friend's place, there was little to make me consider it more than an obligation to finish the package (which I did to complete the experience). Unfortunately, my time ran short as the game drew near, so I made the decision to return to Jim's later on in the afternoon or evening to at least keep the comparison somewhat close as far as the general timeframe was concerned.
Another factor in having only one Polish-and-fry combo that morning was the fact that I was planning to have Al's Italian beef with friends watching the game either at halftime or its conclusion; I needed space to finish a big beef within the next two to three hours. The beef at the half turned out great, as expected, but ordering the big beef versus the regular-sized Italian beef -- I didn't want to regret ordering the smaller size -- caused me to remain exceedingly full for well over the next four hours. This pushed my schedule back and, for a number of reasons, resulted in me returning to South Union almost ten hours after I had left. With that much time between tastings, how would the comparison be affected?
Fighting the urge to go back to Express for one more sausage, I parked right in front of Jim's before 9 P.M. and was loudly urged by the counter guys to step right up and order, in contrast to the busy folks at Express who didn't have to yell when barely anyone stopped by their competitor this morning. I didn't examine foot traffic the other way this time, instead taking a side glance at the grill inside Jim's after asking for another two-sixty Polish with the works. Remembering Bster's excoriating review of Jim's onions
, I half-jokingly asked how the onions were today. Not really receiving an answer, I took that look over to the right (of the left counter window), and it appeared that a pile of grilled onions had accumulated on the cooking surface, leading me to guess that the onions would not be as hot as the ones I had at Express. Recalling the events of this morning, the onions at Express were fairly evenly spread on the grill and were sitting around less as the turnover was higher at their end of the street. Rene G's side-by-side photos
and Gary's two picture sets
are revealing when it comes to comparing onions to onions: Express's were hot and full, while Jim's were warm and wilted.
But what about the sausage? The Polish from Jim's was incredibly hot as I tore into it in my car, even burning the tip of my tongue in the process, so we've got some temperature variances between the two competitors. Surely not eating both Polishes within the same 15-30 minute block -- as well as the possibility of having differing cooks and grilling cycles at each establishment -- could have affected this reading, but I pressed on with the second Polish, nonetheless. Jim's sausage might have been spicier, but both versions were incredibly tasty (at least, in my mind). Express's wasn't charred much, while Jim's lost a little juiciness in comparison by charring for a bit longer. On the other hand, one Polish was crispier than the other, which could work in Jim's favor here. Different, but equally valid.
The mustard was buried a bit deeper in Jim's specimen, and it had a more sour taste, matching the slightly sour disposition of the equally large sport pepper that accompanied the sausage. (Jim's only offered one pepper, placed within the wrapper, but separated by a layer from the actual "sandwich.") This could give a barely noticeable impression that spoilage might have seeped into the Original, but I simply attributed it to a different goal in terms of flavor highlights and sausage sourness. Jim's offered somewhat fewer onions as well, with the veggies easily tangling together when I bit in. Express's looser packing and fresher preparation caused its Polish to be a bit messier but not as clumpy with the toppings. The bun at Jim's might have absorbed the grease more quickly than Express's, possibly leading it to cling to the sausage sooner (via not an altogether unappealing degree of mushiness).
These differences were not deal breakers, however, as I really enjoyed the Polishes from both places. (I even prefaced the later trip to Jim's with a few well-spaced sips from a can of Coca-Cola Classic -- sorry, no Pepsi or RC -- and drank nothing with the sausage there as well.) When the two friends who accompanied me out to Roosevelt stopped by my passenger side window after picking up their order from Express (I convinced them to try the Polish they hadn't had before), I honestly had a hard time articulating which place offered the better flavor combination. If you factor in the complimentary fries that come with each sausage, Jim's wins hands down. (Jim's fries required no extra salt or ketchup -- they tasted that good.) Without the gaping gulf between sides, the horse race becomes a lot closer.
So who did I choose in the end? I think I'll have to vote for Express Grill in this comparison, as the relatively early Polish from them just opened my eyes to what's possible with a saucy sausage. The Polish from Jim's Original nearly matched Express's in overall effect, but its competition just hit every area of importance on all four cylinders, leaving very little margin for error with regards to taste. Had the hourly tables been turned, would I have voted the other way? I really don't know. I considered for a moment ordering another Express Polish immediately after finishing the one from Jim's to compare, but my capacity for minding meat was nearly gone by this time of the day.
Perhaps on another morning (or night) not plagued by other intruding business, I could try both options in quick succession and not have to rely so strongly on the fickle nature of first impressions and the unreliable gauge of potent memories. The final result, for me, must remain for now a virtual tie (allowing for statistical variances) until I can better ascertain which establishment can more consistently produce the desired results. Express gets the nod, however, for first-sampling completeness. Tough break for JO, but, all in all, a great food day for me.