Monday, February 23, 2004

Chicago Hot Dog Primer

Strangers may think pizza the archetypical Chicago food (in its pan format), but locals know the true Chicago food is the hot dog. When asked, the local will describe the Chicago hot dog as thus: a chubby, beefy, slightly spicy sausage manufactured by the Vienna company, taunt from its natural skin, boiled, served on a steamed poppy seed bun and widely garnished with mustard (smooth, yellow, mild), relish (Halloween green), dill pickle spear, chopped onions, tomato, sneaky hot "sport" peppers and a shake of celery salt. The leading source for all things hot dog remains Hot Dog Chicago, a 1983 frank field expedition by two Loyola professors, Rich Bowen and Dick Fay. The fact that conventional wisdom is best represented in a twenty year old book demonstrates the current state of Chicago wieners. (Although in 2001, Rich Bowen claimed that 75% of the places reviewed still existed)

It is my contention that for all its connection to and glorification of, the Chicago hot dog is a fading star. The claim that Chicagoans do not seek dogs often can be epitomized by the fact that within the Loop, the central business district, where tens of thousands of workers need lunch daily, nary a decent hot dog can be found. Ten years ago, the Loop had fine standard bearers in Irving's, U Dawg U, Michael's and Little Louie's. These are all gone. There remain a few outposts in places like Union Station, combined with a Popeye's, and such, but nothing great. And it is not just central, a rather spontaneous hot dog survey produced a lot of so-so results (here and here ). Other reports of decline can be found here ( the mediocre Polk and Western). No one captured better possible state of the Chicago dog than Harry V's take on the Bunny Hutch.

But let us not mourn the Chicago hot dog's decline. Let us lead a revitalization. Let us eat hot dogs again! After all, we have been eating them since the 1893 Colombian Exposition when two immigrants offered a sausage with the flavors of Austrian Hungarian empire. A few years later, these brothers formed the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing company, named after their inspiring city. Today, Vienna claims that over 80% of Chicago's hot dog stands serve their product. A heavy majority, but not a monopoly, GWiv points out some of the other hot dog brands, prompted by John Fox, a New Jersey hot dog freak who brings this topic up every so often. Interestingly, I've had a hard time getting specific information on the history of the other two definitive aspects of the Chicago dog. I do not know when or why Chicago dogs were served boiled and not griddled or charcoal grilled as you find most other dogs around the USA. In addition, for a long time, I did not necessarily know who started dressing Chicago dogs in the classic manner or why they did it as such. Still, as described below, I think I may have an answer to the dressing issue. The Chicago dog, of course, does not include ketchup or kraut (see here for some ketchup discussion). The Chicago hot dog vendor also does not operate from the street .

One subtext of the Chicago hot dog that is seldom spoken out loud is that the Chicago hot dog is Jew food. The Vienna dog is not kosher, but it is all beef, "kosher style." For many years, Vienna's chief rival was the Kosher Zion hot dog produced by David Berg. (For a while, Vienna owned their rival, but David Berg as a competitor is alive and well). No hot dog stand stands more for Jewishness of the Chicago dog than Fluky's, a Jewish owned establishment serving food to Jewish customers in the very Jewish neighborhood around Maxwell St. Fluky's followed the Jews south, Blackstone and 63rd, west (Roosevelt and Central Park) and finally north (Western and Pratt). My hunch is that Fluky's created the MRPOTPCS configuration. When I first start researching this, I could not confirm this, but via a link by the ever astute ReneG, I found an article by Leah Zeldes. In this article, she claims that Fluky's did in fact start dressing the dogs the Chicago way:

The “banquet on a bun” had its origins in the Great Depression, when greengrocer Abe Drexler decided his 18-year-old son, local sports hero Jake “Fluky” Drexler, needed an occupation. That was in 1929, when jobs were hard to find, so Drexler converted the family's Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot-dog stand, and began offering the “Depression Sandwich,” which sold for a nickel. “He built it like a vegetable cart would do it,” says Fluky’s son, Jack. (Also called Fluky, he likes to say he was “born in a bun” and is today proprietor of three North Side and suburban stands.) “It was an instant success.” The only change since 1929 has been the relish, which turned its distinctive “nuclear green” color in the 1970s.

The Jewish connection can also be seen in the fact that good hot dogs remain in the Jewish suburb, Skokie.

Fluky's long ago left Maxwell Street, Chicago's version of the Lower East Side, but the hot dog remained a Maxwell Street staple. Until misguided urban planning and a greedy University destroyed the Maxwell St. area, hot dog stands operated on and around the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell. The Maxwell St. stands became more known, however, for an offshoot of the hot dog, the spicier, "Polish" sausage (not necessarily related to true Polish sausage, i.e., kilbasa). The polish sausage inverted a lot of the rules. The thing gets griddled, producing a greasy, unctuous sandwich ("a tiny thrill in the gall bladder" they say in Hot Dog Chicago). Sharing the griddle with the Polish sausage are piles of soft onions. A healthy portion of onions becomes the dominant accessory to the Maxwell St. Polish. The heavier, zestier Polish, SOULFUL, Polish, appealed to the later day denizens of Maxwell St., African Americans. Ironically, Maxwell street operators added to their menu's, that most un-Jewish of foods, the pork chop. Several places following in the Maxwell tradition have popped up around Chicago, pretty much entirely in areas with African American populations (here here and here).

For a while, there existed a strong counter-school to the Chicago dog, what I call the "tastee" school centered on the now defunct Tast-e Hast-e. The tastee dog differed firstly by the base and then secondly by the toppings. The meat in the tastee sausage comes from Leon's Sausage Co., a dog both squishier yet spicier than the Vienna hot dog. The soft base supported a full garnish. More than the usual topping: lettuce, green pepper, cucumber with the other toppings, called a garden on a bun. Because the Leon's sausage textually seems like a pork wiener, even an Oscar Meyer "kiddie" dog, I always associated this school of hot dog as the "gentile" school. Today, I appreciate an occasional Leon's dog (although I skip the lettuce). They are, however, hard to find. A very fitting lesson on Chicago politics can be found in this post on the closing of Wally's, a tastee place (). My report on one of the few remaining tastee place can be found here. Byron's (several locations including the original at 1017 W. Irving Park) serves a Vienna dog with the tastee garniture.

Even though I speak somewhat pessimistically about Chicago hot dogs, they remain, probably my single favorite food to eat. The greatest hot dog in Chicago is still Gene and Judes (2720 River Road, River Grove). The Gene and Judes dog ignores the rules willy-nilly. It is skinny and minimally dressed (no tomato, pickle or celery salt), but the dogs are cooked absolutely to perfection. Perfect (almost always) fries add to the experience. Eat two or three. Another favorite of mine, Wiener Circle (2622 N. Clark). Don't believe me, read what some other chowhounds say.

A place that sounds worth visiting for many reasons is Jimmy's (4000 W. Grand). ReneG captures it well. Rene also does an authoritative take on hot dogs (3425). Seth gives a good perspective from someone who grew up eating another style of hot dog. Andy O'Neill gives an impassioned defense of Chicago hot dogs here . Another outsider, John Fox, mentioned above, has weighted in a few times on Chicago hot dogs. Finally, for an idea of what a Chicago hot dog stand should look like, see this post by Gary .

Many of the hot dog places around Chicago have become Mexican places. The taco and burrito in many ways are the spiritual descendant of the Chicago hot dog. Yet, this being Chicago and America, there is surely a Mexican hot dog. These days, even chef's are taking over hot dog stands. Some reaction to Hot Doug's can be found here (positive) and backlash. MikeG in his superb guide to Chicago Chowhound lists Superdawg as his hot dog selection, but not everybody likes it. But how can you not like a Chicago hot dog!

UPDATE: In going through a big rash of Chowhound listserv mail, I came across this bit from Cathy2. She reports that her friend and hot dog historian, Bruce Kraig "claims it was Greek street vendors who developed the concoction know as the Chicago Hot Dog in an effort to please various ethnic groups. I.E. Germans favoring sausage and mustard ... which may explain why ketchup is considered heresy in this region."

As Matt Drudge would say, Developing....

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