Custom Steaks and Killer Service at Chicago Chop House

How to order a custom steak and what happens when you do

I’m sitting in the Chicago Chop House’s second-floor dining room at a table draped in white linen, with glimmering wine glasses lined up, framed historic Chicago images looking down from the forest green walls, eyeballing their menu. There are some serious steaks staring back at me from the middle of the page. These steaks have attitude. These steaks mean business. These steaks want to defeat me.

But I’m not here for them. As much as their Mishima American Wagyu 20-oz. Tomahawk is giving me strong feelings; as much as the 64-oz. grand porterhouse is practically throwing down a gauntlet, I’m ignoring them entirely. I’m only looking into the menu for comfort and support. I already know which cut I want and it’s not on the menu.

I want a steak that makes me question my life decisions. I want a steak that has an entourage. I want a steak that smokes a cigar. I want a steak that drives a Mazeratti. Down its driveway. To its Lamborghini. I want a heroic steak.

Which is how I find myself in the Chicago Chop House an hour or so before they open, closing the menu, turning to Chef Hector Villegas to order a custom cut. Actually, two.

chicago chop house steaks

A Double Tomahawk, USDA Prime, wet aged 5 weeks, then dry aged 55 days.

I follow Chef Villegas into the Chop House’s immaculate walk-in. Chef Villegas grabs an absolutely Flintstonian rack of beef long ribs. He carries them to the band saw in the kitchen. He slices off a four-pound steak. Trims the edges and lays a double Tomahawk down before me like it doesn’t matter and here is where I realize that no matter how high-roller you think you are at your table, you’re still I-drive-a-Beemer high-roller, not I-manhandle-enormous-sides-of-beef-rendering-them-into-priceless-steaks high-roller.

Lying on the cutting board before us is 48 ounces of Midwestern hoof. It is an exquisite cut of beef: ruby grass fed muscle streaked with alabaster striations of fat throughout with 18 inches of rib sticking out like a war club. Hence the name, Tomahawk. You could wield this steak in battle. You’d win.

I ask Chef Villegas how often someone orders such a Neanderthalian hunk of beef.

“A couple of times a week,” he says. “Some guys just want to see if they can do it. We had a kid come in on his 17th birthday and wanted to prove to his parents he could finish one.”

A 48-oz. Porterhouse, USDA Prime, wet aged 5 weeks, then dry aged 55 days.

Next, Villegas hauls out what appears to be an antique, well-worn travel bag, something a 19th-century botanist might carry onto a steamship, but it’s actually 40-odd-pounds of loin, just coming onto its 55th day of dry aging.

Villegas turns on the band saw and carves off a slab of beef that surely has its own field of gravity, a steak so big other steaks slide helplessly toward it across the kitchen to drop into orbit around this magnificent blood-red cornerstone of the Chop House menu. I am drawn to it like a satellite. I can’t stop staring down at it like it’s some kind of high altitude map of terrain. It’s too big. No one could actually eat it. Maybe a small village of starving mountaineers but not a normal person who walks into a restaurant. I check with chef.

“Actually, we cut them even bigger,” he says. “We had this guy come in recently and ordered a 102-ounce Porterhouse.” I ask him what hospital the man is in now. “He ate the entire thing with two beers and a loaf of bread. We barely fit it into the broiler.”

Chef Hector Villegas

That’s over five thousand calories which means this customer, whom Villegas described as perfectly normal, was either a competitive eater or Wolverine.

What Wine Do You Have with 4 pounds of steak?

Whatever you want. I mean, you’ve already stepped confidently outside the perimeter of sanity, so go crazy. The wine list at Chicago Chop House is deep and worthy, with affordable reds from Europe and America but you’re about to plow through a cow, then please, for the sake of decorum, go large. Get the Château Margaux 2003 if you’re feeling French or go for broke and have them pull a 2011 Bond Estates “Pluribus” from Napa Valley. Get two, because that’s a lot of steak.

Matthew McCahill

The Chicago Chop House is changing under McCahill’s watch, morphing from a somewhat neglected piece of Chicago’s restaurant history to a wide-shouldered contender with the white tablecloth steak joints in this city. They’re finishing out a third-floor event space with a killer bar, they’re adding outdoor seating and better wheelchair access, and they’ve added American Wagyu to the menu. There will still be tourists running across Ontario to take a selfie in front of the 39 Ford parked out front because they think it’s from the Blues Brothers or Al Capone, but inside, the Chicago Chop House will have woken up and resumed its role as an iconic steakhouse run by someone who sweats the details and lives and breathes incredible service.

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