I place the Chicago dog very highly and confidently at the top of the world of junk food, up there with the likes of the Philly steak, the NY slice, the LA roadside taco, and NJ’s disco fries. The basic ingredient list for a Chicago dog is a dark red Vienna Beef hotdog on a poppy seed roll with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, celery salt, thin yellow mustard, a pickle spear, chopped onions, neon-green relish, and sport peppers. Starting with just the colors of the relish and the dog and moving into the fact that, except for the sausage, it is largely a hand-held salad, it is a truly unique food. Someone at some point took the direction “everything” to an existential level. There are contrasting, bold, forward flavors like the smoky salty dog, and the vinegary acerbic mustard, there are aromatic notes to the celery salt and piquant notes to the little peppers, similar flavors compare in the natural sweetness of the onions and tomato next to the sugary sweetness of the ridiculous relish. All come together to make a pretty involving portable treat.
On this trip I made four stops for dogs:
When I land at Midway airport I usually find a reason to grab a dog at Gold Coast Dogs in the little food court area. Most often I am traveling to Illinois to catch up with Bestfriend and to do some destination dining so I am never sure when another opportunity will arise. Sometimes the excuse is as simple as it’s a better use of the next ten minutes than standing at the carousel waiting for my bags. In this case, I had landed at 10:15pm and figured it was the easiest way to grab a late-night snack. When I arrived and found them cleaning the steam table I thought I had missed my opportunity, but happily came to find I could still get a dog.
I ordered a steamed dog with everything and got a pretty straightforward, sadly not exactly hot, dog. At best, it was tepid which allowed it to become mostly about the flavors of the mustard and the celery salt. Not the best dog I have had, even from Gold Coast.
Watching the Mets-Cubs game from the Sheffield Rooftop afforded another dog opportunity. Because of the nature of the open spaces around Wrigley some of the adjacent buildings have taken advantage of both their vantage and proximity by building watching areas on their roofs. Included with the price of admission to the super-fourth floor perch is all you can drink (canned beer till the 7th inning stretch) and all you can eat (grilled cookout fare, and frozen pizza).
I had a grilled dog with everything. A wide-gauge dog with that kind of plasticy bite topped more with burger fixings than dog toppings. It had chopped tomato, sautéed onions, pickle chips, sauerkraut, and raw onions, with Heinz yellow mustard in packets and ended up tasting more of bitter over-cooked white vinegar than anything else. I tossed it after two bites and got a cheeseburger, which while only mediocre by cookout standards, passed as a burger (something the dog couldn’t).
I went to Wiener’s Circle for the first time after I saw Dave Attell on his Insomniac show cutting up with the rather brash counter ladies in the wee hours of the morning a couple of years ago. This time I went because Nellie insisted after reading my Italian Dog post that it was definitely worth my trying their Char Cheddar Dog because it is one of the possibly greatest dogs in the world. I of course agreed to try it, as long as she committed to sample the wurst genius to be found at the Windmill in Long Branch, NJ.
At the Weiner’s Circle I asked the (not necessarily ingratiating but nowhere near as hostile as they are at 3am) counter lady for a Char Cheddar with everything. I was served a Vienna Dog with its ends quarter-split and nicely blackened, with all the standard accoutrement plus a double pickle spear, noticeably ripe tomato slices, and a drizzle of a bright orange sharpish cheese product. Besides violating the integrity of the bun with moisture, guaranteeing you eat 30% of the dog from the paper carrier tray, the addition of cheese brought an oleaginous salty quality that played very well, adding another dimension to a dog that already sits at a good balance point of the flavors. I have no doubt had I stopped here on the way home from some of those many “too much cheap American beer from large plastic Solo cups” nights of my youth, I would with great regularity and conviction espouse the merits of this tasty bite.
The last stop of this journey was Hot Doug’s. When Chicago area magazines do surveys, Hot Doug’s often appears on the “favorite places to eat” lists of the Chicagoland chefs I respect most. On a little corner far from the city center (the 3300 north block), across from an empty field with a crew using a backhoe to dig a hole deep enough to fit an extension ladder, is a small (about a dozen four-top tables) lunch-counter kind of place somewhat haphazardly decorated with things like pictures of Brittney Spears, an 8x12 print-out of sausage-centric German phrase translations, and in large white lettering the slogan that “the two nicest words in the English language are encased meats.” There are two menus at Hot Doug’s: one, about ten square feet painted in yellow and red on the wall, offers about a dozen options; the other, a chalkboard about a foot-and-a-half square written in all the colors of an eight-pack of chalk, offers about 8 selections. The larger menu has pretty standard options ranging from “The Dog,” a run of the mill Chicago dog, to “The Ace Patrick,” an immersion-fried corn dog. The shorter list has gourmet sausages as varied as Thai or crawfish and chorizo. All dogs are offered steamed, charred, fried, or fried and charred. On Friday and Saturday they also offer duck fat fries (this couldn’t go unmentioned).
I got The Dog, charred, with everything. Leaning more to brown than red, the link at the center was all the things a dog should be, smoky, spicy, and salty, with a snap to the casing and a juicy stuffing with a resilient chew. If there is an aspect you want to play the center of the mélange of components in a Chicago-style hot dog it is the dog, and this one does so well.
The best part of Chicago dogs is they are all over the place and are made by many people. There is no one dominant place franchising stands all over town. Without straying far from Bestfriend’s apartment, I think I could try 50 made in 50 ways by 50 people, so setting a favorite would just limit opportunities. That being said, although I probably enjoyed Doug’s most this trip, he does himself a disservice in the “best” category, because when I return I will be busy trying his other sausages; they look very interesting. When I want a prototypical, this is what I think of when I crave a Chicago dog, dog I will be heading back to Wiener’s Circle, probably for a Char Cheddar with everything, extra sport peppers (it seems to make sense with the cheese).