Of all the regional foods out there, the one that's mystified me the most is the hot dog.
Yes, hot dogs have deep roots in Chicago. A version was served during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition; they were popularized on countless street carts throughout the city's wide span of ethic neighborhoods, particularly during the Depression; and, thanks to proximity to the stockyards, the wieners' primary producers have been based here: Vienna Beef, Oscar Mayer (now part of Kraft Foods), Ball Park Franks (part of Hillshire, which was acquired by Tyson last week), David Berg (now part of Vienna Beef) and Red Hot Chicago. Still, we're talking about … hot dogs. You generally can buy the same sausages, buns and condiments in a grocery store as you can consume in a restaurant. The dogs are precooked, and you can steam, boil or grill them and get fine results.
So why should they be any better in Chicago than anywhere else — and why, for that matter, should they be any better from one restaurant to the next — when the ingredients are so seemingly simple to obtain and prepare?
Purveyors and connoisseurs offer a host of answers.
"It's the insane garnishes," says Anthony Bourdain, who visited several Chicago hot dog destinations for his Travel Channel shows "No Reservations" and "The Layover." "They shouldn't, by anything resembling logic, work. Yet, they do. Also, generally high standards for the actual sausage (snap, flavor, fat content) and a solid antipathy ketchup make for a good hot dog environment."
Gene & Jude's second-generation owner/President Joe Mormino cites another factor in his 64-year-old River Grove stand's much-acclaimed dogs: "It's the timing."
Says Doug Sohn, whose May announcement that he's closing his Hot Doug's gourmet hot dog shop in October was front-page news in this very newspaper: "To me it's no different than any other dish, that if you give the same cut of steak or the same piece of salmon to eight different restaurant chefs or home chefs, it's going to taste different."
In fact, Sohn says, that question of why hot dogs vary so much from place to place is what launched him on his own encased-meats journey.
"The exact reason I started Hot Doug's was a co-worker of mine came in one Monday and said, 'I had a bad hot dog this weekend. How do you make a bad hot dog?'" Sohn recalls. So he and three colleagues set out to visit 40 local hot dog stands over two years and wrote up little reviews of each. "There were noticeable differences from place to place."
Let's look at some of the factors that add up to the quintessential Chicago dog, starting with …
Many of the Chicago area's most celebrated stands use Vienna Beef. Gene & Jude's does. Portillo's, started in Villa Park and now all over the place (and, as was reported last week, in talks to be acquired by or at least partnered with Berkshire Partners), does. Gold Coast Dogs, downtown and at the airports, does. The Wieners Circle in Lincoln Park does. The major ballparks — U.S. Cellular Field, Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and the United Center — do.
Even though Sohn custom-orders sausages through various suppliers, he still uses Vienna Beef's natural-casing hot dogs for his classic Chicago-style offering called simply The Dog. "Every time I travel, I try to have a hot dog somewhere, and it's like, no, Vienna hands down, that's still my favorite one," Sohn says. "That's what a hot dog tastes like."
Vienna Beef marketing Vice President Tom Pierce says the company still uses the same recipe it devised in 1893 — "that spice blend, the Vienna flavor that we've had since the beginning" — despite fluctuations in the prices of beef and seasonings that can make such consistency challenging. Because Vienna Beef also makes corned beef, Pierce says, it can blend the brisket trimmings in with lean meat, "and the combination of those two things plus our spices and all that stuff gives it a very unique bite and a very unique flavor."
Although Vienna Beef's filling doesn't change, a key distinction lies between dogs that come with a natural casing (primarily sheep intestines, Pierce says, if you must know) and those that are skinless (i.e., cooked with an inedible covering that is removed before it's sold). The skinless ones are more uniform and cheaper both to produce (they're stuffed by machines instead of by hand) and to buy, as well as more popular. Pierce says about 75 percent of stands, including those at the ballparks, use the skinless ones, which are also prevalent at supermarkets.
But Pierce prefers the natural-casing dog because "it's got more snap, it's juicier, and it keeps a lot of the flavor of the product in instead of losing it to water." Portillo's spokeswoman Patty Sullivan cites the "nice snap" as the reason her chain uses natural-casing dogs, which others, including Gene & Jude's, serve as well.
Then again, John Pawlikowski, owner of Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots on Western Avenue at 73rdrd Street, uses skinless Red Hot Chicago all-beef dogs because "people like them better." Pawlikowski says when he opened this tiny pick-up-window-only business in 1972, he served David Berg dogs, but after that company was bought by Vienna Beef he switched to Red Hot Chicago because "it's the closest I could find so far to David Berg's product."
Superdawg, which opened in 1948 on Milwaukee Avenue at Devon Avenue and still features car-hop service and those male and female red hots posing atop the building, uses its own recipe made by a private company that second-generation owners Lisa and Don Drucker won't name.
"You can't get a Superdawg anywhere but Superdawg," Don Drucker says, noting that it has "a little bit more garlic, a little bit more smoke flavor than some of the other dogs."
The Superdawg is skinless, he adds, "but because of the recipe and our cooking methods, you really get the 'snap' like a natural casing."
Which brings us to …
The cooking method
Many stands serve some kind of char dog, which gives you a crispy crust and that grill flavor. But hot dog purists, those who want to get intimately acquainted with the sausage taste and texture, tend to boil or steam their wieners, as folks with carts did for decades.
"With boiling and steaming you get more of that classic snap," says Sohn, who'll boil, grill or even deep-fry your dog.
Superdawg boils. "It brings out the flavor and the juices within the dog," Don Drucker says. "It plumps them up. It doesn't dry them out."
"We know how long to cook them," Lisa Drucker adds, noting that each Superdawg is made to order. "There's a science to it."
Gene & Jude's also boils. "That's where timing is very important," Mormino says. "If you use the water, it's got to be something that's really looked over carefully. There's a couple secrets in that process."
Speaking of secrets, Pawlikowski won't even say how he prepares his Fat Johnnie's dogs. "We cook 'em. That's all I can tell you. That's where the magic comes in," though he eventually acknowledges: "You could consider it a steamed hot dog."
Portillo's boils some and steams some, Sullivan says. As an experiment I sampled a Portillo's dog and then went to the place that claims to sell the most hot dogs in the U.S.: 7-Eleven, which notes on its website that it serves "approximately 100 million fresh-grilled hot dogs every year."
The 7-Eleven dog, which is Vienna Beef and skinless, had been sitting in a steamer when the clerk microwaved it briefly in its bun before presenting it to me. The Portillo's dog was silkier, smoother; the 7-Eleven dog more rubbery and with a tougher exterior even though the Portillo's dog was the one with the natural casing.
Dogs heated on a flat-top grill, such as at Wrigley Field, also tend to come out a little thicker on the mouth even if they're skinless — and also may seem saltier if a recent sampling is any indication.
The traditional Chicago dog comes on a poppy seed bun. The Chicago-based Alpha Baking Co., which produces the S. Rosen's and Mary Ann brands, dominates among the local stands. Freshly delivered buns are a key component. So is not oversteaming them.
Let's move on.
The traditional "dragged through the garden" approach to dressing a Chicago dog is said to be a remnant of the Depression, as the bountiful toppings plus sausage made for a cheap, filling meal. Ask for a Chicago dog with "everything" and you're likely to get all or some of the following: yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish (often bright neon), chopped onions, tomato slices, sport peppers (bite-size hot green peppers), a dill pickle wedge and celery salt.
Hot Doug's specifically uses Roma (Italian plum) tomatoes ("I think they taste better than the beefsteak tomatoes," Sohn says) and doesn't include peppers unless you ask ("The spice can overwhelm some of the other flavors of the dog"). But its biggest detour from tradition is caramelized onions. "You lose a little bit of texture because you don't get that crunch, but you have other crunchy things in there, and it adds a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of butter," Sohn says.
Superdawg's key topping variation is the substitution of pickled green tomatoes for fresh ones. Fat Johnnie's red hot swaps cucumber for pickle (while its nontraditional, award-winning Mighty Dog includes a tamale, chili and cheese). Gene & Jude's uses regular sweet relish and not the neon stuff, and it doesn't include tomatoes, a pickle wedge or celery salt because, Mormino says, that's how his father, Gene, liked it. Gene & Jude's and Superdawg also serve French fries atop the dogs, which adds another flavor combination as well as a certain messiness. (Gene & Jude's keeps no ketchup on the premises, prompting the McDonald's next door to sell packets for 20 cents apiece.)
Tastewise, Gene & Jude's dog is more on the mustardy side, and the Superdawg offsets its sweetness with the pickled tomato's tartness. Fat Johnnie's red hot, with its large cucumber slices and celery salt coating, brings out the garden flavors, while the precisely assembled Hot Doug's Dog bite for bite may offer the most complexity.
A so-called bad hot dog may have toppings spilling out of a soggy, collapsing bun that holds a sausage the texture of a bicycle tire. A really good one, served at the right temperature with fresh ingredients, is nothing less than a compact, composed dish in which the flavors and textures balance out sublimely.
"We have these wonderful colors, and it comes to your table, and it looks great, smells great. You've got sweet, you've got salty, you've got fat, you've got tangy, you've got the acid from the tomatoes, the sour from the pickle, the sweetness from the relish and the onion, and with the caramelized onion you get some butter in there, so it plays on your entire palate," says Sohn, who sells his Dog for $2.50. "I think when done well, it's truly one of the great sandwiches."
Even if it is just a hot dog.
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