Building the perfect Chicago hot dog

Is there really any difference among local red hots?

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 …

The wiener

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."

CHICAGO

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