THE CHICAGO BEAT :: Hot Dog!! Wiener Wars – A Chicago Story

by Paul Ciminero on August 18, 2011

As a battle begins to take shape in court between Oscar Meyer and Ball Park Franks over false advertising in a $2.1 billion hot dog industry, I decided to weigh in on one of Chicago’s favorite passions (and mine as well)…the hot dog.

As quintessential as the corner tavern is to beer in this fair city, the hot dog shop is to food; especially fast food. There are diehards who swear by their favorite neighborhood establishment, stopping by each day for their daily “fix” (or should I say “fixin’s” — another point of contention to be mentioned later). In recent years the foodie scene has invaded this hallowed ground and added “gourmet” hot dogs and sausages.

New York has always declared itself as being the best at everything; the best pizza, the best restaurants, the best hot dogs, and on and on.  Papaya King and Nathan’s are their claim to fame in the world of the frankfurter. Chicago seems to relish (pun intended) it’s second city status in many areas, but for the mighty dog this town is second to none. The city has hundreds of local mom and pop hot dog stands, many with a rabid following. Each has its own specialties; one may do your basic “garden” dog, a hot dog with all the condiments except ketchup. (How did ketchup become so ostracized in this town??), another has a grilled polish better than others, and yet another may do a “char dog.”

One thing that many of Chicago hot dog establishments have in common is the use of a hot dog provided by the company, Vienna Beef. In fact, most attribute the rise in popularity of the frankfurter to the two founders of this company, Emil Reichel and Sam Landay, who in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, introduced their family sausage recipe to the world, and the Vienna Beef hot dog was born. In 1894 they opened their first shop and by 1900, the company was supplying the city’s dining establishments and local retailers as well. When the depression hit, the hot dog became even more popular being sold out of hot dog carts as a filling meal on a bun for only a nickel. Some vendors advertised it with a “salad” on top and the Chicago Style Hot Dog was born.

The true Chicago style hot dog (according to Vienna Beef and most local aficionado’s) is a steamed hot dog, on a steamed poppy seed bun, and the “salad’ consisting of green relish, tomatoes, chopped onions, dill pickle spears, Italian pepperoncini peppers, celery salt, and yellow mustard. Most hot dog shops in Chicago scoff at the idea of putting ketchup on a hot dog in any form, which I find utterly ridiculous. (There are some in fact that may refuse to serve you if you ask for ketchup on your hot dog).

So where do I “stand” on this issue and what are my favorite haunts? Read on to find out. When ordering a famous Chicago Style Hot Dog one usually gets a side of French fries, and a “pop” (soda). Here are my favorite places to have a Chicago Style Hot Dog.

Superdawg  — The original hot dog shop that is closest to the heart of most Chicagoans, Superdawg was opened in 1948 by Maurie and Flaurie Berman on the corner of Milwaukee and Devon on the far northwest side. Two iconic 12 foot high hot dogs, the Maurie adorned in a Tarzan like wrap, and the Flaurie in a Tutu, stand atop the roof of the building, beckoning all those who’s hunger overwhelms them. It opened as a traditional car hop style restaurant that has remained true to its roots serving a special recipe all beef hot dog, with all the trimmings including a tangy piccalilli slice (green tomato to go with their green tomato relish) and their famous crinkly fries in a small box. Order the chocolate malt instead of soda pop and be magically transported back to another time.  It is quite simply a legendary shrine to the mighty dog and a “must” on the list of places to bring your out of town friends to.

Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore — More than just your average hot dog shop, Hot Doug’sis the city’s top haunt for the “haute cuisine” of the tube steak kingdom, and the daily hour plus long line to get into this joint can attest to that. (Hint: get there by 10:00 am and you’ll be fifth in line, by 10:15 you’ll be in for a wait of at least an hour — they open at 10:30 am.) Does it live up to all the hype? You bet. Your basic Chicago Style dog is just $2.00 with all the trimmings. It’s juicy, savory texture has just the right amount of spice, and the toppings are fresh. This is a great interpretation of the classic Chicago style dog. Add either $1.25 for small fresh cut fries (daily) or $3.50 for large “duck fat” fries (Friday and Saturday), and a soda and you’re in heaven.

Hot Doug's "Joe Moore"

But wait, there’s more! Doug has interesting specials, including his “Game of the Week” sausage (this week’s selection is the “Mountain Man” with five types of exotic meats ground together in an unholy but delicious manner). He was the first hot dog shop owner to bring unique culinary styling’s  to the sausage, elevating it to an art form. At one point some years back Doug was fined by the city for violating the ban on “foie gras” (duck/goose livers usually seared in a pan with fresh butter) by serving his legendary foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with foie gras mousse and Fleur de Sel for $9.00 and calling it the “Joe Moore” (after the alderman who sponsored the foie gras ban — a ban which has since been repealed). I love this guy (as do all of the Food Channel, Travel Channel, and various “—oodie” channels). The very first time I visited, Doug had Pere Ubu’s “Cloudland” blasting over the speakers. Don’t be surprised to hear Joe Strummer, The Ramones, or Elvis on the shop’s speakers as well.

Flub a Dub Chub’s Hot Dog Emporium — This place could be owned by Mr. Magorium! It’s located on Broadway in the Lakeview neighborhood in the basement of a townhouse style building with psychic readers shop above it. Flub a Dub Chub first garnered my interest when my friend Debbie and I were on a “Burger Crusade” to find Chicago’s top burger and travelled down to street vault level in search of their highly prized “Roe” burger. The “Roe” continues to be one of our favorite burgers (3/4 lb. monster topped with bacon, avocado, and cheddar) but their Vienna beef “Flubby” (or ¼ lb. “Chubby”) Chicago-style hot dog is nothing short of perfect. Fresh crunchy dill pickles and chopped white onions, yellow mustard, fresh tomatoes, and luminous green relish on this succulent, meaty steamed dog is a delight in every bite. That, plus a healthy helping of deliciously crunchy, crisp, flavorful French fries and Flub a Dub Chub is an establishment after my heart pump. CLEAR…1…2…3…CLEAR!

Byron's "Chicago Style"

Byron’s  — Located just west of Ashland Avenue on Lawrence in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, Byron’s has been my go-to place for an out of this world Polish Sausage and a side of thin cut fries. They grill the ½ lb. Polish, which at six plus inches sticks out of both ends of the steamed poppy seed bun. It’s crunchy, char-grilled goodness explodes with subtle spiciness when bitten into. I add mustard, ketchup, and onions and it’s bliss on a bun. (They make no judgment on the addition of ketchup here, and for that I thank them). The fries are thin cut and come in a bag and are poured into the fryer. They come out slightly crunchy, very tasty, with just the right amount of salt added. Ask for a cup of Cheese Whiz to dip them in and you’ve got a pretty good meal.  Their Chicago-style hot dog is a steamed Vienna beef dog, and their trimmings include dill pickle slices, jalapeño or Italian yellow peppers, green peppers, tomato wedges, and lettuce if you so desire. A true “garden” on a bun!

Franks 'n Dawgs' Brunch Dog

Franks N’ Dawgs — As advertised on their website, Franks N’ Dawgs is “Five Star Dining on a Bun” and is a serious contender for Chicago champion of “Haute Dog” cuisine. Almost everything here is house made. All the sausage specials, there custom made hot dog buns, the amazing “Brussel Sprout salad” (a hot dog shop with Brussel Sprout salad?? Yup…and yum!), and a selection of fries that will leave you standing at the counter saying “oh god…which one…the Lyonnaise…the “Triple Truffle”…the regular…decisions, decisions… They are double fried for just the right amount of crunch. The line is never very long here and the quality every bit as good (if not BETTER) than Hot Doug’s. They make an extraordinary Lamb Sausage (this month it’s garnished with black pepper oyster sauce, buttermilk vinaigrette, macerated figs, red onions, and basil) that you must be sitting down to eat or you’ll fall over in amazement. Peruse the menu on line and narrow your selection down or get the “Dawg Flight,” a chef’s selection of three sausages and fries for $15.00. Their “Chicagoesque” dog is the closest thing to the Classic Chicago-style hot dog; 100% beef (no nitrates or fillers) topped with crunchy house-made pickles that ooze freshness, cherry tomato relish, caramelized onions, and beer mustard that cuts the mustard in every sense.

God, all this writing about hot dogs is making me hungry. It’s now 3:10 pm, if I get in the car right now I can be at Hot Doug’s by 3:30 and there won’t be much of a line. And his Duck Sausage with Foie Gras is back on the menu. I’ll order that and a Chicago-style dog, a small fry, and a diet soda. Bye!

Ed.: Paul received this response and welcome contribution from our Beer Doctor, Carol Westbrook —

Great article Paul, and those are great spots, some of which I’ve never visited but will do so very soon. I’ve been to some, but this calls for a pilgrimage.

Vienna Company Store

However, you missed Ground Zero: The Vienna Hot Dog Company, at Damen and Fullerton. Here you can eat in the factory store, getting a dog with all the trimmings, excellent fries and a soft drink for under $5.

Or a variety of other Vienna Beef products, including Eye-talian beef or cold cuts. Eat alongside the hard-hatted and hair-netted factory workers on their lunch breaks, some of whom bring their lunch from home and warm in the microwave.  There is also a factory store which sells inexpensive seconds (hot dog rejects), as well as large boxes of their best, not to mention T-shirts, hats and posters.  We always bring visiting tourists to the store, since it is a Chicago institution.

I will also add a comment about beer, which is the PERFECT accompaniment to a PERFECT Chicago hot dog. (Ever try pairing wine with a dog? Hah!) I’d go with an IPA, to balances the tart and pungent toppings. In Chicago, Half Acre makes a great, hoppy IPA (Daisy Cutter) and it comes in a can. Hot dog + beer in a can = perfect picnic. Alternatively, others favor a nice light Kolsch, such as Krankshaft Kolsch from Metropolitan Brewing. The sweet maltiness of a Kolsch brings out the sweetness of the pickle relish, the bun, and the hot dog itself. The die-hards at Wrigley Field prefer an Old Style in a waxed paper cup, with a ball park dog, dressed only in mustard.

Hot Dog for you, Paul!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rick R. August 20, 2011 at 8:23 am

I loved your article because it introduced me to places, other than Byron’s and Super Dawg, that I hadn’t been to.

But, venues aside, when it comes to the hot dogs themselves, your article is about distinctions without differences: these are all Vienna Beef hot dogs!

As for the basic Chicago weiner, I prefer Chicago Red Hots http://www.redhotchicago.com/  to Vienna any day.

I know your article was about Chicago-dogs, still keep in mind the other interesting national dogs: Pittsburgh’s Oakland Original (My Best-Hot Dog in America pick); Rutts Hut (Home of the ripper in Clifton, NJ); Fenway dogs in Boston; Pink’s in LA; or those thoroughly mediocre but wildly popular Sabretts in New York Sitty and Wurtz sold up and down the east coast.

Never liked Oscar Meyer or Ball Park Dogs personally. Opinions vary; I respect that.

Hats off to you for a damn fine article that will have me travelling around dining at the places you wrote about.

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