Burger Nights: Depot draws hungry hordes from far and wide

Save the kale flaxseed tofu stew for another night. Instead, head for Maxwell Street Depot and ask for extra onion garnish on that cheeseburger or polish sausage to fill your veggie quota. The organic-obsessed or calorie-conscious would be wise to venture to Depot only after numerous glasses of sulfite-free wine. They’ll have company: come twilight, after Bridgeport bars close and Sox games end, gaggles of tipsy friends gravitate like zombies towards Depot. And if your beef concerns “local” food, take comfort in Depot’s offering of polish sausages, fresh from Cicero Avenue.

At Depot, greasy fried onions are the closest (and only) item on the menu reminiscent of earth’s bounty. If a land without vegetables sounds like paradise to you, you’ll admire the only apparent rule governing Depot: fries are a must–a compulsory side order (and the only side order for that matter) to complement all fare. Yes, now that you know every order comes with a side of fries, don’t hold up the line of decreasingly patient customers, because the cashier’s made no mistake: “fries” include fries, so you’re in for twice the potato–make that three times if you’ve ordered an otherwise main dish. Let’s hope those potatoes are local.

The simplicity of Depot’s “Fries Law” reflects the straightforwardness of Depot’s business procedures on the whole. Business at Depot is quick and efficient, with customers gliding in seamlessly throughout the night. Depot turns over hundreds of customers in a twenty-four-hour rotation, and unless they are hunching over the slender shelf that makes up Depot’s “seating” area, most take out the already take-out-packaged food. The menu is limited to a selection of five entrées, and Jaime, who was working the cash register last Friday night, denied the existence of any “special” or VIP menu, a la California’s In-N-Out. Plain for all to see, Depot keeps its entire stock visible behind the service counter where two other employees continuously prepare, clean, and reorganize the space smaller than the size of a studio apartment.

A friendly anonymity pervades the fragrant Depot air. The iconic yellow shed-like abode squats four blocks west of the Dan Ryan Expressway’s 31st Street exit. Around midnight last Friday, Depot’s clientele was a steady stream of locals, and most customers claimed to have a “usual” even if on this occasion they purchased the contrary. For George Arozola of southwest suburban Bolingbrook, a trip to Depot always ends with the pork chop sandwich–and now, “a Polish for the missus,” too. Born in Mexico and raised in Bridgeport, near Chicago’s former stockyards district, Mr. Arozola frequented the joint in his youth and stops by when he visits friends in his old neighborhood. Despite a neighborly vibe, not a lot of socializing goes on within Depot (save that induced by drunken delight sometime before dawn). Mr. Arozola’s long-standing connection with Depot is not acknowledged by employees, who haven’t memorized his “usual” or his own behavior in the establishment.

The simplicity that characterizes Depot may be reminiscent of another era and thus appear kitschy, but in fact it does not pretend at anything–its aims are genuine and reliable. The fonts of window signs that advertise Depot’s low prices are, for example, as straightforward as the convenient, fast, and fresh food that comes with those prices. What you see–the prep kitchen behind the counter and the two doors, one to a bathroom, the other to a room with a few small stock fridges like ones in the main room–is really what you get. Depot’s customers don’t imagine the “Fries Law” as a gimmick but simply an excellent policy, one they’ve come to expect and appreciate. If you wake up craving a pork-chop sandwich, take a pregnancy test, and then head to Depot.

411 W. 31st St. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (312)326-6733

Photo by Ellis Calvin