I realize that anytime you include the words “hot dog” in a sentence about Chicago, there will be disagreement. People have talked until they’re blue in the face about the merits and pleasures of Gene & Jude’s, yet the fact they still use pencil-thin size 10s (10 to a pound) has always annoyed me. To really enjoy a dog that’s been “dragged tru da garden” you must contend with a size five, six or even eight, otherwise the condiment-to-dog ratio is out of whack.
I also realize that 98% of the dogs boiled, steamed, char-grilled and served in Chicago come from the exact same place: The Vienna Beef Company, at the corner of Damen and Fullerton. So saying one person’s dogs are better than the other guy’s is usually a condiment or bun or french fry argument. There just isn’t that much variation. But in my mind at least, after having lived here the past 20 years, I think I have a good handle on what constitutes a proper dog in the local style.
First, there are the Seven Holy Condiments: neon green relish; bright, yellow mustard; a pickle spear; chopped white onions; “sport” peppers (midget serranos); a healthy shower of celery salt and sliced tomatoes. This is the hot dog “wit everything” that has made Chicago famous.
There are also bun issues. Rosen’s own poppyseed – slightly steamed – seems to be the benchmark. Each hot dog joint’s proprietor usually has a theory about dog size and its source (Vienna, Chicago Red Hot, private label) but as I said, in this town, it’s usually a Vienna product that has the natural casing (not skinless, oy; a “snap” is crucial when you bite into them). As for cooking, yes, some places will offer to grill ‘em, but steaming/boiling is the classic method. Now, on to our Top 5.
1. Superdawg, 6363 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-763-0660
Was there ever a doubt? First, some major points for the 60-years-and-going-strong legendary drive-in location on the Northwest Side that makes me think of “American Graffiti” every time I eat there. Second, the fact that Maurie and Flaurie Berman are still kickin’ it with the locals and schmoozing the regulars. Lastly, I love that their dog isn’t a Vienna (it’s made by a private company to their specs, all-beef). They also forgo the out-of-season red tomatoes for a pickled green tomato wedge that holds up better year round, and offers a tart bite.
2. Allium, 120 E. Delaware Place, 312-799-4900
I know you think I’m crazy, recommending a dog that is sold at The Four Seasons, but as Dan Aykroyd said so presciently in Spies Like Us: “We mock what we don’t understand.” Michelin-starred Kevin Hickey is back in the kitchen, busting his hump with the team making their hot dogs from scratch. We’re talking grinding, seasoning, emulsifying, encasing, smoking, boiling and grilling a dog that is probably a size four or five. Not just that, but everything else is made in-house: the mustard, relish.. even the ketchup for the awesome hand-cut fries. Yes, you’ll need to valet your car, but bitch to me after you’ve tried it.
3. Wiener Circle, 2622 N. Clark St., 773-477-7444
I don’t give a shit what those foul-mouthed ladies say or do after bar time. I know they can be downright rude and a little coarse around the edges. But stop into this Lincoln Park legend (where practically everyone who ever lived in Chicago in their twenties ate on a regular basis) in the afternoon or early evening, and be blown away with a char dog that hits all of the right notes. Their cheddar fries are also spectacular, but that’s for another post.
4. Hot Doug’s, 3324 N. California Ave., 773-279-9550
Yeah, I know the line is a bummer. I also know that Doug Sohn sells a lot more than just a Chicago dog. But look past the duck and the foie butter and the aiolis, and you’ll see a shining example of what a true Chicago dog can be (steamed, boiled or grilled) and for just $2.00! This dog, after all, was the reason Sohn got into this game in the first place. Just ask him why he launched the business, and he’ll tell you (I’m paraphrasing here) “someone had a bad hot dog one day, and I said how is that possible, and so I just thought I could make a really good one.” The Kendall Culinary School degree didn’t hurt either.
5. Murphy’s Red Hots, 1211 W. Belmont Ave., 773-935-2882
I love this little joint. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Murphy’s, as it’s the place where my son (who was 8 at the time) had his Dog Mitzvah. You know, the day when your kid stops asking for ketchup on a plain steamed dog and says, “with everything.” There are few moments as precious as that. Dogs come steamed or charred and if memory serves, I think they’re a size six. You know what I think of 10s…