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The big banger theory: Irish breakfast gains fans

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The people behind the Irish breakfast at Kappy's (front row, left to right): Niles butcher John Diamond, who supplies the restaurant with sausages and black and white pudding; Gus Alpogianis, Kappy's founder; son and owner George Alpogianis; and his daugher Kiki, 11. Behind them (left to right) are cooks Manuel Reyes, Andy Bregiannos, Chiano Castillo, Raul Cisneros, Rudy Garcia and Luis Vale.

I think I'm spotting a trend. The humble little Irish sausage and the "full Irish breakfast" - and I do mean "full" - seem to be spreading. I've been seeing Irish breakfast items at Greek and Ecuadorean coffeeshops and German butcher shops.

When I was a mere slip of a colleen growing up in Chicago, you could get Irish sausages, or bangers, only at Irish import stores. You bought them and took them home to fry.

They were juicy and addictive. Their spicing was mild - they didn't assault your palate with sage and salt and hot pepper. Compared with the coarse texture of American breakfast sausage, their pork was finely ground.

Irish sausages are the star of their extended family, the Irish breakfast, also known as "the full fry." (Other than fettucine Alfredo, it is the only meal I have heard called a Heart Attack on a Plate.)

It usually consists of the aforementioned bangers; Irish bacon (a k a rashers); white pudding (the second light-colored sausage on the plate); black pudding (a dark sausage made of pig's blood); fried eggs, and baked beans.

Oh, and grilled tomatoes. You've got to have some roughage.

Customer melting pot

So what's behind the apparent spread of the banger- My sausage sources say it's simple.

In addition to the obvious fact that the Irish have moved all over, out of the old neighborhoods like Bridgeport and Canaryville, the reputation and tastiness of Irish food has improved tremendously.

The little island about half the size of Illinois produces some of the world's finest dairy products, fish and lamb.

"They're not a particularly complex sausage, but they do have universal appeal," says Irish food maven Darina Allen of County Cork's Ballymaloe Cookery School. "And you can have them for breakfast or for dinner. They're juicy and succulent and delicious."

And, the American melting pot is always ready to absorb a new ingredient. I'm hearing these breakfasts are becoming a hit with Korean and Puerto Rican diners.

Irish breakfasts are being served at at least two Greek coffeeshops, Chicago's Blue Angel, 5310 N. Milwaukee, and Kappy's Restaurant, 7200 Dempster in Morton Grove. They're also on the menu at the Lucky Grill - 4454 N. Milwaukee and 7779 W. Talcott - run by two brothers from Ecuador.

The Blue Angel has had Irish breakfasts on the menu for 30 years, says staffer Sarah Noll.

When the Irish were more tightly packed in the neighborhood, they were the main customers. But now, the eaters are "kids like the college students who are always looking to try something new. The Polish people order it just as much," Noll says.

Kappy's owner George Alpogianis put the full fry on the menu after a request from an Irish-American customer.

"I said, ‘I'm a Greek boy with Mexican cooks. What the heck do I do with an Irish breakfast- ' " he said.

The customer showed up with sausages and black and white puddings made by Niles butcher John Diamond.

"He showed up with all the products and we grilled the tomatoes and did everything we're supposed to do," Alpogianis says.

And then, "Everyone fell in love with it," Alpogianis says. Now, "people are ordering Irish sausage with their eggs - ‘two scrambled with Irish sausage.' "

Some Korean customers are partial to the Irish breakfasts, he says. He speculates it is because the breadth of Asian cooking is so sweeping that those customers are open to trying new things.

At both Lucky Grills, "We serve Irish breakfast all day long," says owner Claudio Loja. The filling breakfast is a hit with their clientele of "city workers, the garbage truck drivers, the water department, they come over here, the police officers."

Loja says his Puerto Rican customers especially like the Irish blood pudding, because it reminds them of a Spanish blood sausage called morcilla. He and his brother Felix say photos on the menu help sell customers on the value of a huge Irish breakfast.

As for Irish sausage, "I love it," Claudio says. "It's sweet. It's got a totally different flavor from American sausage."

More sausage makers

In Chicago, there are two well-known makers of Irish sausage: John Diamond and Winston's Sausages. They're the banger version of Microsoft and Apple.

John Diamond, a native of Roundstone in County Galway, sells his sausage to wholesale customers including Happy Foods, Irish import stores and pubs, the Lucky Grill and Jack and Pat's market in Chicago Ridge.

Winston's sells to wholesalers like import stores and the Curragh pubs, and also to walk-in customers at its shops at 4701 W. 63rd St. in Chicago and 7961 W. 159th St. in Tinley Park, as well as Ashford House restaurant next to the Tinley Park store.

Winston's also makes its own Irish bacon, which, in my opinion, stands head and trotters over other bacon. The Irish call American bacon - made from pork belly - "streaky" bacon. Irish bacon is made from pork loin and is less fatty. It's also more tasty than Canadian bacon.

Nowadays, "I'd say it's more the American people eating it [Irish breakfast meats] than the Irish," says co-owner Mike Winston.

But other meat purveyors are vying to get their slice of the pig.

A German meat market that's been in business since 1951, Schmeisser's Home Made Sausages, 7649 N. Milwaukee in Niles, is making "English" bangers. Their taste is closer to American breakfast sausage than what is made by Diamond and Winston's. Owner Kurt Schmeisser said the decision was customer-driven - lots of Irish tradesmen asked him to make the sausages. He also makes a tasty Irish bacon.

Then there's Harrington's, at 5685 N. Milwaukee, long famous for its corned beef. Now Harrington's is making Irish bacon and bangers. Winston's and Diamond's put out fine products, says owner Ken Harrington. "It's just a matter of giving people another choice," he says.

The famed Paulina Meat Market, 3501 N. Lincoln, is also making Irish sausage and bacon. They're hits in a neighborhood full of young urban professionals who like to entertain.

"In this area where we're at, everybody has a grill and everybody's on their deck," says owner Bill Begale.

Still, what makes the sausages so addictive-

Diamond won't divulge his seasonings. "If you want to put it in the paper, it's a ‘special blend,' " he says. Irish sausages also contain a cracker meal the Irish call "rusk."

Mike Winston will only say they have a hint of clove and allspice.

"When people taste them, everyone loves them," Allen says.

"As the Irish people say," says Harrington, " ‘It's brilliant.' "