The People’s Butcher

With a hint of sadness in his voice, John Schultz confesses that the heyday of the classic neighborhood butcher shop is past. Gone are the stores you could depend on to just “get a good sandwich, get a good salad, and get some good meats.” But Mr. Spanky’s, Schultz’s sandwich and butcher corner shop on the eastern edge of Bridgeport, hints at a possible second coming. Schultz gets his meat exclusively from local purveyors, and he oversees every step of its preparation with the careful eye of a connoisseur. Whereas most modern butchers only buy specific portions and cuts of meat, Schultz goes for the whole hog. “Butcher shops–they aren’t like that anymore,” he opines.

Yet Schultz’s vision is not quite as aged as his meats. His place is meant to also be “small and cool; small and different.” The portions are modest and focused on taste, and Schultz preps them all in small batches, right in front of your salivating eyes. What results is a delectable mix of farm-to-table inventiveness and straight-up nostalgia. Whether it’s the old or the new or a little bit of both, Mr. Spanky’s method makes for fresh, no-frills, high-quality stuff.

The highlight of the menu is what Schultz calls “the Badass BLT”: a Chinese bun stuffed generously with bacon, spinach, and sun-dried tomato aioli. Schultz spent almost six years perfecting the curing process for his bacon, and it shows. Each strip is sliced thick and cooked to a uniform heat: slightly crisp, delectably tender. Moderate notes of sugar and salt complement the natural savoriness of the bacon, but yield the meat its proper respect. This is bacon that’s been crafted so well that it would be a disservice to call it greasy. That’s pork fat on your fingers, in all of its tantalizing glory. The rest of the sandwich isn’t half bad, either: the spinach wilts nicely nestled in with the warm bacon, and the flavorful aioli provides a welcome creamy touch. The whole thing is one very tasty mess, but it’s a mess that brings nobility to the BLT genre.

The other sandwich mainstay is the applewood-smoked pulled pork. It’s almost as messy and stuffed–and arguably just as tasty–as the BLT. Pickled red onions bring a touch of bitterness, homemade barbecue sauce a sweetness that befits pulled pork. Schultz also offers a different special sandwich every day–Sicilian sausage the day I tried it. The sausage came as one lavish hunk, and each bite offered a mouthful of tender, zesty meat. But the peppers and onions managed only a quiet presence, and they failed to produce the balance of flavors that made the other two sandwiches so satisfying. It didn’t help that this particular bun was cold and hard, formidable to chew. After taking a first bite, I left the larger bottom half alone.

To accompany the sandwiches, Schultz offers sides of macaroni and cheese and root beer baked beans. The beans come cooked with bacon, but the flavor is surprisingly hard to discern. What really stands out is the root beer reduction, which gives the usual sweet element of beans a unique and subtle twist. The other flavors you’d hope for are all there: a hint of barbecue acidity, sweet ketchup, and a smoky backdrop. All in all, it’s a worthy cup of beans, and the mac and cheese is even better. The Monterrey Jack and sharp cheddar cheeses each pack their own pop-in-your-mouth punch, but they don’t overpower. Many of the elbows were well browned and charred around the edges. To top it all off, fresh chunks of Schultz’s signature bacon lend their hog-inspired savor to the side. My one complaint is that before I had eaten my way to the bottom of the dish, I had run dry of the bacon. But even that spoke to what was perhaps the dish’s most signature achievement: in spite of its richness of flavors, the whole thing avoided coming off as overly heavy.

Even if it turns out that your eyes had been hungrier than your stomach, you’ll be hard pressed to fall into a bad mood. The corner space is cozy and inviting; three stools and the L-shaped counter make for the entire seating area, and various posters for meat enthusiasts lend color and friendliness to the walls. Schultz himself is good-humored and affable, and from his place behind the window he exudes cheer. The secret to his success is a commitment to keeping things simple, and making a good time of it. “I went out and had too many drinks last night and I’m still standing here,” he told me on my second visit. “You gotta love the daily grind or get out.”

Schultz has cooked out of this same kitchen for the past five years–he and a partner are responsible for Foodism, which sends ready-made lunches to locations such as the University of Chicago–and he doesn’t want to work anywhere else. Bridgeport is his favorite neighborhood in Chicago, and it’s not hard to see why. What Schultz likes about Bridgeport–its down-to-earth attitude and caring people–is exactly what he strives for in his store.

“It’s a neighborhood, man,” he says simply. “These are real people.” John Schultz wants to be their butcher.

Mr. Spanky’s Farm Fresh Artisan Foods, 335 W. 31st St. Wednesday-Saturday, 10:30am-9pm. Hours subject to change. (312)450-3059. mrspankys.com