Baba’s, Bubbas, and Firehouses—Oh My!

A tour of the South Side’s steak and lemonade restaurants

NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN
NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN

We’ve all seen them. They’re colorful take-out-only shops, holes in the wall on street corners or in shopping centers, usually named after the arbitrary combination of foods you can buy there: Steak and Lemonade. For whatever reason, there are a dozen or more of these restaurantswhich seem exclusive to the South Sidescattered as far north as Pilsen, as far west as Cicero, and as far south as 115th Street. No one at any of these restaurants, be they patron or manager, is sure which restaurant—Bubba’s, Baba’s, Babas [sic?], Firehouse, and the others —came first, even though most of them claim to be the “original.” Nor could anyone provide a theory or even a guess as to why steak (which here means a Philly cheesesteak-style sandwich, though some restaurants are known for fish or chicken instead of steak) was originally paired with lemonade (which here means anything from pulpy true lemonade to slushies of various flavors, including piña colada and blueberry). However, in spite of our failureto solve the steak and lemonade mystery, the Weekly has rounded up some of the steak and lemonade restaurants on the South Side to highlight the best and worst places to quench your thirst (and, uh, get thirsty again?) this summer.

Firehouse Steak & Lemonade [13th and Ashland]
As far as steak and lemonade restaurants go, Firehouse in Pilsen offers a pretty relaxed dining experience. Sandwiched (get it?) between a vacant storefront and a Foot Locker in one of those desolate subur- ban-feeling shopping centers that’s mostly parking lot, Firehouse is the only store in sight with a consistent stream of patrons entering and exiting. Inside, surprisingly, is a generous array of seating, enclosed by a low wood-paneled wall. As is characteristic of most S&L joints, the walls are plastered w ith brightly colored posters that scream bar- gains at you. You can get NOT ONLY a traditional Philly sandwich, but also a Southern BBQ Philly Sandwich, a Wild West Philly Sandwich, a Ruben Philly Sandwich, a Ragin Cajun Philly Sandwich, and three types of chicken Philly sandwich. If you came to Firehouse look- ing for something other than a Philly sandwich, don’t worry: they also offer thirteen different types of burgers, five other non-Philly sandwiches, three varieties of hot dogs, “Buffalo Thunder Wingz,” three salads, and the entire menu of “Captain Hook’s Fish and Chicken,” which is contained within the restaurant in combination Pizza-Hut-and- Taco-Bell fashion. The Original Philly sandwich is exactly what it claims to be—a large quantity of steak stuffed between two soft yet hefty pieces of bread and garnished with cheese, onions, green peppers, and mayonnaise. The sandwich is both unremarkable and unpretentious. The lemonade, however, (which, it should be noted, is actually a sixteen- to twenty-ounce. lemonade slushie in a plastic cup topped with a domed plastic lid and swathed in plastic wrap) strikes a perfect, mouthwatering balance between sugar, lemons, and Yellow No. 6, elevating Firehouse to a top-notch steak and lemonade restaurant. 1600 W 13th St, (312) 226-1188

NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN
NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN

Baba’s Famous Steak and Lemonade [51st and Indiana]
Baba’s was the most unwelcoming of any steak and lemonade restaurant we visited. Sitting on the corner of 51st and Indiana, it is a large but strikingly empty room. Because of its size, the space seems quite well suited for furniture, which makes its absence particularly unsettling. Behind a thick and soundproof wall of bulletproof glass (you have to poke your head through the space created by the revolving, dog- gie-door sized food-dispensing slot to or- der), two employees cooked sandwiches at a leisurely pace. Th e food emerged hot but bland, and the lemonade slushie tast- ed half-melted and wholly artifi cial. 130 E 51st St, (773) 548-6288

Babas Original Steak and Lemonade [71st and Michigan]
Just a short walk from the 69th Street Red Line station, Babas is a cramped take-out joint with a menu so large and confusing that it lines about seventy percent of the store’s walls. Its tiny, boiling-hot waiting area is usually filled with people waiting for their orders. Babas (“the original,” of course) sells classic Philly cheesesteaks, slathered with mayonnaise and green peppers, for $3.99, but many customers opt for the more expensive Super Philly sandwich, which for some reason is made with chicken. The sandwiches come out of the kitchen piping hot in about forty-five seconds, and should be eaten immediately: the steak is juicy and flavorful, and the cheese is gooey and delicious. Steer clear of the flavored “lemonade,” though: it’s just ice with a dollop of artificial flavoring. Call ahead to place your order and skip the wait. 7100 S Michigan Ave, (773) 873-0676

NOTE: Babas on 71st and Michigan is not to be confused with Bubba’s on 71st and Clyde. Despite its continued presence on Google Maps, the latter was closed down a few years ago and was replaced by a health clinic in the strip mall at that intersection. However, if you do find yourself near the now-defunct Bubba’s with a sudden craving for cheese and steak, there’s a shop called Hungry Hoagie’s nearby on 71st and Exchange that serves up an “authentic” Philly cheesesteak. No lemonade, though.

NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN
NICHOLAS CASSLEMAN

Firehouse Steak & Lemonade [87th and State]
This particular iteration of Firehouse is probably the most expensive (relatively speaking) of the steak and lemonade joints on the South Side, but it’s worth the money. It’s buried in a plaza in the shadow of a fairly large Staples, but they’ve got a phone number you can call to arrange a delivery (alternatively, you can use Grubhub). Here, as in some other steak and lemonade joints, it’s actually the chicken that’s the best item on the menu. (Why, then, are these restaurants all called “Steak & Lemonade?”) Firehouse’s classic Philly, however, also hits the spot. Really, though, it’s the fresh-squeezed lemonade that makes this particular place worth a stop on a hot day: the pulpy goodness and huge portions put most other steak and lemonade restaurants to shame. Make a delivery order by calling 100 W 87th St, (773) 874-3732. 

Chicago Steak and Lemonade [Roosevelt and Pulaski]
Chicago Steak and Lemonade in Lawndale shares a corner with a gas station and its accompanying food mart, and is about half the width and length of one car of the Pink Line train that will take you there. It is utterly free of furniture—a deliberate choice on the part of the restaurant owners, says Wally, the manager. Their menu is slightly more modest than most, which relieves customers of some of the mental gridlock that can be brought on by the incredible variety at places like Firehouse. Like Firehouse, however, they offer a curious and somewhat inexplicable selection of seafood, in addition to the standard Philly sandwiches and multi-colored, plastic-wrapped lemonade slushies. For Wally, the crowning achievement of Chicago steak and lemonade, despite the “steak” in its name, is not a bovine product at all: “The best sandwich is the one I marinated since 1992, the garlic chicken sandwich, it’s a very good sandwich, an extremely delicious sandwich.” 4000 W. Roosevelt Road, (773) 638-6400

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