Highland Park’s Real Urban Barbecue makes a 7-pound sandwich, and dares you to eat it in 40 minutes.
I wouldn’t try, fearing death as I do.
But I thought Stu Nitzkin might.
I caught him on his cell phone moments after he, coincidentally, finished lunch at the aforementioned establishment.
He said he was honored to be asked, and up to the task.
“I have these skills,” he said matter-of-factly.
We had first met, when Mega Bites was still a regularly repulsive feature in these newspapers, at Little Louie’s, his buddy Pete Weiss’ hot dog dive in Northbrook. Nitzkin had volunteered to take down one of the 16- to 24-ounce sandwiches Weiss’ crazier customers had invented.
After he ate one, he ate another. Just because it was there.
Then he went to Deerfield and, I was told, played a very good game of basketball.
That’s the guy you want in a food-filled foxhole.
Missed us? Bad aim?
Mega Bites, the series that describes Chicago-suburban food bigger than your head, has been mercifully quiet since late 2009. But since it’s still available at the click of a drop-down on pioneerlocal.com, the new Pioneer Press website, we dusted off the logo when we heard about The Hungry Home ‘Recker at the 11-month-old restaurant.
Word got around. About a dozen of Nitzkin’s friends and relatives, aware and in awe of the aforementioned skills, converged on 610 Central St. to watch their champion.
None of seven previous Homerecker challengers had won a T-shirt, a name on the Wall of Conquerors, and the return of their $29.95 for choking the thing down in 40 minutes.
We all had no doubt Nitzkin, 35, 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, would be the first.
Then we watched a ‘Recker being assembled.
The 10-inch-wide bun was covered with inch-thick andouille-like “Texas sausage,” randomly sliced. Then, a heavy layer of pulled pork. A pint of jalopeno-brined pickles was spread over that. Then a pint of cole slaw. Then the top of the bun.
It didn’t look like a sandwich. It looked like a chair cushion.
Nitzkin’s boyhood pal Brad Siegel joined us as we viewed the assembly.
“No chance,” Siegel said, shaking his head. “No shot.”
Nitzkin, quiet, spoke with his eyes.
They were the eyes of a skilled quarterback who never worries about getting sacked until suddenly seeing what Dick Butkus really looks like up close.
Finally, he said, “I’m thinking about it like a pizza. I’ll just take it down slice by slice.”
If only pizza slices were four inches thick.
I had a ‘Recker made for me, too, so I could understand the experience. Also, I get bored and envious watching other people eat.
The end of the world
Nitzkin is the national executive director of the American Friends of the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, which supports kids’ rehabilitation. I promised I’d put that in this story if he helped me out, so there it is.
But, of course, he would have done it anyway.
Real Urban Barbecue is the brainchild of Jeff Shapiro, 47, who had managed several of Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You restaurants.
In the Chicago restaurant business, that’s like a Republican operative saying he was one of Ronald Reagan’s chiefs of staff.
Shapiro lectured me at length on how the little round hickory pellets he uses in his smokers, unlike logs, never fail in their consistency, even if the gas goes off.
If everything Shapiro says is true, when H-bombs destroy the earth, the cockroaches that survive will be able to enjoy perfectly-smoked brisket at what’s left of Port Clinton Square.
There had been a lot of braggadocio among the members of the crowd, which included Nitzkin’s wife and parents and Weiss. But when the Hungry Home ‘Recker made their appearance, the excitement waned.
Bert Gilberg, Weiss’ father-in-law, pulled out a wad of cash and tried to handicap the event, but no one bit.
Nitzkin gave a show of trying to accomplish the impossible, but came close to doing what I was: having a substantial mid-afternoon meal while somebody else paid for it.
“I can’t see any way that this’ll happen, but it’s real good,” he told me.
As for me, I have always liked pulled pork, but usually left the table wanting more.
Not this time.
As Nitzkin finished the first quarter of his sandwich, his dad, Steve “Diz” Nitzkin, interceded. He encouraged his son to leave the bread off and eat that later.
Stu didn’t have the heart to tell him that it didn’t matter what order he sent the troops up the hill, none of them were coming back.
So when we quit, with about 15 minutes to go, he’d eaten one-quarter of the ‘Recker and the filling from the second quarter.
“I could eat some more of it, but there’s no point. Not in 40 minutes,” he said.
If he pushed it, he said, there was a danger — to put it politely — that he would have the after-dinner manners of a runway model.
I had semi-consciously tried to provide pacing for my champion, so when we threw in the towel, I had finished three-eights of my obscene sandwich.
The wall of losers
While I suffered with a Sprite, I had one of the cooks cut up my leftovers for the spectators. Nobody wanted any except for Shapiro’s son Max. The boy, 13, knocked off a half-pound in about 6 minutes.
Everybody else didn’t want to spoil their dinner. Several were to be the guests of Stu’s mom Susan in Mundelein — including Stu.
Are you kidding? I asked him. I’m not eating until tomorrow.
“Nope,” he said. “My mom’s a great cook.”
Four 14-year-old Highland Park boys, who’d been watching, decided to buy a The Hungry Home ‘Recker to split.
That’s the idea, Nitzkin said.
“This thing could easily feed eight,” he said. “At 30 bucks, it’s a steal.”
As for one man, “Never. Can’t be done,” he maintained.
A few days later, I asked Shapiro what the idea was of a challenge that was so hard to accomplish. He must know how hard, because he has a second wall for the hand-painted names of the guys who try and fail. He calls it Honorable Munchins.
“I think there’s somebody out there who can do it,” he maintained.
So how did you decide on the size of the sandwich?
The decision was a no-brainer, he said. That was the size roll that the bakery salesman wanted to sell.