|Gene & Jude's, 2720 N. River Road, River Grove.|
Google Map offers alternate routes if traffic gets bad. But I'm more of a stay-the-course kind of guy. So when it suggested Friday that I slip off 294 and onto Mannheim Road in order to save four minutes on a trip to Oak Park, I ignored it.
At first. But I could see traffic building ahead, and four minutes is four minutes. So I touched Manheim Road on the little map and the directions reoriented themselves, taking me overland, down River Road and, to my surprise, past Gene & Jude's.
It was about 10:40 a.m.
I knew it was somewhere. I had been hearing of Gene & Jude's for years, as a mecca not only of franks and fries, founded by a city worker in 1946, but the center of the High Church of No Ketchup, an orthodoxy that I have always met with fierce apostasy. But I never expected to roll right past the place. To be honest—and this is embarrassing to admit—I always assumed the place was in a distant corner of the map, way to the southwest, down by Oak Lawn somewhere, by the "Here Be Dragons."
Of course, I felt unease, a vague concern. I had heard—or read, or perhaps just imagined—something about hectoring signs. At Gene & Jude's, you couldn't even get ketchup for your fries. The idea being that some might then contaminate your hot dog. I don't think I've ever eaten a french fry without ketchup. What would be the point? I love ketchup. There, I said it.
The Oak Park interview went well, was over in about 45 minutes, and I was on my way. I got there shortly after 12 noon. Prime time.
The place was mobbed. Twenty people in line, all salt-of-the-earth sorts. An Elmwood Park police officer with bright pink handcuffs on his belt. There seemed to be a story behind that and I almost asked him about it, then thought better. The line moved very fast.
"It's almost like a shrine in here," said an egg-shaped guy in front of me, to his buddy. That is true. A certain purity. The choices are "Hot dog & fries," "Double dog & fries" or a corn tamale. Or you could get just fries, and a variety of drinks. That's it. No burgers. No brownies. You could dress your dog with mustard, relish onions or a sport pepper. Your choice.
I could paint myself as a weisenheimer and lie, and say I considered asking for ketchup, just to go with the fries. But that wasn't happening. The clerk repeated my order back to me: "hot dog, mustard and relish," and a Diet Coke with a tone of ... I'm not sure what. Questioning, or censure. I almost thought I did it wrong somehow. "It's my first time here," I explained, sheepishly, and he reassured me that I had done fine. Maybe I under-ordered. Most people seemed to be getting double dogs, but I wanted the basic Gene & Jude's experience.
|You can catch a glimpse of hot dog to the upper right.|
I liked that; it showed spirit.
I took my brown paper bag and repaired to the white formica counter. The fries were hot and good and perfect, slightly well-done to give them flavor and interest. They looked like they should taste greasy but they didn't.
The hot dog had snap to the casing. To be honest, I inhaled it all so fast—hungry—that I barely had time to register the details. I was also listening to the conversation all around me.
"I told her, 'You're too young to be unhappy,'" a man explained to his buddy—paternal advice to a teenage daughter, I would bet. I considered intruded with, "And how well did that work?" but thought better of it.
What surprised me about Gene & Jude's is that there was no harsh sign condemning ketchup. I somehow expected that. "NO SEATS," is their slogan online, "NO KETCHUP NO PRETENSE NO NONSENSE." But I didn't see that at the stand. True to their beliefs, they didn't make a big deal about it. Also good. Nobody wants to be yelled while they're eating.
There was a sign saying that they take cash only, and that is something to bear in mind if you go. Bring cash. My lunch set me back five dollars.
I left the placed buoyed, thinking I have to bring my wife here to try those french fries. She loves fries. I really don't love them, generally, though I liked these fries very much. Very very much. I even felt as if my mind was expanded a little bit. Make no mistake; I still believe that condemning people who use ketchup is unbefitting the proud citizens of a free nation. But Gene & Jude's french fries are so good, they can be consumed without ketchup—easily. That's the way they should be served. I found myself picking up every crumb of potato, down to the last speck.