It's not exclusively Chicagoan, nor is it clearly Romanian, as we'll see. But at one time Romanian (or Roumanian) skirt steak was a famous dish in Chicago, and dining at Manny's the other night, where it's been added to the new dinner menu, I was surprised that it was unfamiliar to my dining acquaintances who grew up here, though less surprised that it was scarfed happily and admiringly.
The supposed Romanian-ness of Romanian skirt steak baffled a few folks, particularly those who've actually been to Romania, and didn't think it especially resembled anything eaten there. It baffled this newspaper reporter for the Hudson Valley Journal News, too:
Even Google doesn't get you a clear answer as to what makes a Romanian skirt steak Romanian. Ken DeNicola, owner with his partners of Frank's Steaks, isn't sure either - even though it has been the signature dish at Frank's in Jericho in Long Island for 20 years... Whatever the origin, this chewy steak, accompanied by onions, is intensely marinated in a secret formula of garlic, soy, duck sauce and Worcestershire sauce, according to the menu.
Even Google, she said... ah well. In fact it is no mystery at all to those who know urban history. Here's a clue: a pair of famous Dutch comedians, Weber and Fields. Do a quick search and you should turn up a few clips from their recordings.
Dutch comedians, you say? They sound Lower East Side Jewish. And so they were, a famous Jewish vaudeville team. Dutch in this context actually comes from "Deutsch," German, and German in this context actually means Jewish. But on the vaudeville circuit in those days of widespread casual anti-semitism, "Jewish comics from New York" was thought to be too sensitive and might drive audiences in the sticks away, so "Dutch comic" was the euphemism. Which everyone knew meant Jewish comics from New York, not jokes about Rembrandt and wooden shoes, but no one ever said prejudice was rational.
Vot de hell am I talkink about mit de Dutch comics? Vere did mein shkirt shteak go? you ask. Well, here's my point. Like "Dutch" in vaudeville, "Roumanian" in the restaurant biz was transparent code for "Jewish." To this day "Roumanian" retains enough of a meaning of Jewish food that, of course, there's a kosher meat shop up on Clark called Romanian, selling things you presumably don't see much of in Bucharest, like hot dogs and bologna. (And, of course, in New York there's Sammy's Roumanian.)
So where does skirt steak enter this picture? Well, it's an inexpensive cut, a bit of a throwaway today since there's not that much of it per steer and thus it's inefficient for modern meat counters to sell (hence its relegation to restaurants where it gets chopped, like fajitas). But marinate it to tenderize it, then grill it and it's a very tasty piece. And as a long thin cut that covers a lot of plate, it always looks like a good value as steak goes.
A whole genre of "Roumanian" restaurants serving it grew up in places like the Lower East Side in New York and the Maxwell Street area here, back when that neighborhood was widely known as Jewtown-- and was conveniently close to the stockyards, making it easy to pick up a scrap cut in quantity. I doubt that modern ethnic food afficionados will have difficulty projecting themselves back into the mindset of the kind of customer who would have passed by the proper dining rooms at the Loop hotels, to venture instead to a bohemian hole in the wall in Jewtown serving inexpensive steak with, probably, a violinist playing Humoresque, a mural of Old Country scenes painted by an itinerant artist, and a interestingly bohemian crowd.
Next the question comes: were there actual Romanians involved? It seems that there must have been at some early stage in the dish's existence, else it would be Russian skirt steak or Warsaw skirt steak, but to judge by John Drury's Dining in Chicago, a 1931 guide to Chicago restaurants, it's fairly impossible to tell how Romanian the Romanian places really were, or if they were no more Romanian than the famous Hollywood restaurateur Mike Romanoff was Russian nobility. In fact, he lists without noticing the contradiction a Jewish restaurant and a Romanian one side by side, both serving "Roumanian steak," and to modern eyes the distinction seems hard to spot, since it's the "Jewish" restaurant that seems to have the more authentically Romanian proprietor (Papa Elias Strulevitz), while the Roumanian place has a decidedly Germanic name (Goldstein's), and in any case they're within a couple of blocks of each other in the Jewish part of town.
He finishes by noting that Goldstein's was "the favorite eating place of Tine Bimbo, the king of the Gypsies," which is one of those sentences that conjures up an entire world in which the king of the Gypsies is somebody reporters like Ben Hecht and Walter Howey would have run into during a night on the town. Even if Drury made all that stuff up ("The apple strudel at Klamminger's is so renowned that Lin Yi-Chao, legendary warlord of Mongolia, had it flown it by dirigible to his troops before his siege of Nanking"), it is a joy to read, and makes our modern era seem so colorless by comparison ("Shaw's was a favorite eating place of Richard Notebaert, former CEO of Ameritech").
This distinction between a Jewish restaurant and a Roumanian one is likewise muddied in the discussion of Cafe Royale, where "Jewish, Russian and Roumanian dishes tempt your palate" amid the bohemian (but not Bohemian) revelry. Most likely, the so-called Roumanian restaurateurs were merely savvy sorts who saw a good thing and figured, Polish, Roumanian, who's gonna know? They had Roumanian chefs from Minsk by way of Brooklyn, we have sushi chefs from Seoul-- and Guadalajara.
You can pretty much guess where Roumanian skirt steaks survives-- Manny's, Myron and Phil's, and other old school places in suburbs with high Jewish populations. Have one at Manny's and you will be eating, quite literally, in the footsteps of urban adventurers 70 and 80 years ago who made a similar trek to the vicinity of Halsted and Roosevelt, to pay a little less for a steak with a lot of flavor and an extra side of atmosphere from the old countrywhichever old country that actually was.