"It was my first Chicago stand, and I've been in love ever since."
Gene and Jude's
2720 River Road, River Grove IL 60171(map); 708-452-7634
The Short Order: Classic Chicago hot dog stand with Depression Dogs.
Want Fries with That? Come heaped on every dog. Savor every one.
Want Ketchup? No no no no no.
This marks my last Windy City post for Standing Room Only. I made it over nine months, though I really didn't think I'd even make it that long. But every week, when I thought I had exhausted all the random seatless eateries in the city, I'd find some other gem.
While I constantly worried about what place to feature next, I always knew where I'd end the series. I was saving Gene and Jude's for my last post—there isn't a better stand around. Gruff and a tad rough around the edges, Gene and Jude's sits just outside the Chicago city limits in River Grove, and yet it still encapsulates everything I love about the city's hot dog stands. Let me count the ways.
1.) Natural Casing Vienna Beef Hot Dogs
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the best hot dogs in Chicago are all-beef natural casing wonders from Vienna Beef (with Superdawg being the one glaring exception). Their snappy exterior gives way to a phenomenal beefy punch. You can dress them up to the nines for a fully loaded Chicago dog, or clad them simply for a so-called Depression dog. But the fact remains the same: If the Vienna Beef flag ain't flying out front, then walk away. That's true from Hot Doug's to Portillo's.
Gene and Jude's subscribes to the Depression Dog standard of mustard, onion, relish, and sport peppers. This was also the first place where I saw the use of "double dog," which will net you two dogs in one bun. I'd stick with the singles.
2.) Freshly Cut and Fried French Fries
For me, the properly steamed dogs at Gene and Judes are simply flawless. If you have any doubts about Chicago's unparalleled hot dog culture, then check it out.
This was one aspect of Chicago stand culture I wasn't prepared for. I expected to eat a lot of fries when I started this column, but I didn't expect that most of them would be this good. I've had great fries at hot dog stands, beef stands, hamburger joints, and even Cuban grocery stores. The only genre of food that didn't play along where barbecue and fried chicken joints, which seemed to focus solely on the meat. You really can't blame them.
Gene and Jude's doesn't have any issue with their fries. They are some of the best I've ever encountered. The fries are cut often throughout service and fried to order. They are perfectly crisp on the outside, and strangely creamy when you bite inside. It's almost like mashed-potato-creamy. They are unbelievable.
Luckily, they come piled-high with every order, right on top of every hot dog. This may sound like a greasy mistake, but they come out perfumed by the onions and mustard from the dog. They are also properly salted, and in need of no embellishment. Ketchup is banned from the premises.
3.) No Frills
There are exceptions (notable ones) but still, my classic Chicago stand looks a little dated and intimidating from the road. There are no kids' meals or any fake plays made at pleasant service.
Like Jimmy's Red Hots, Gene and Judes is known for its matter of fact service. There are no decorations; no accommodations. Don't want fries with your hot dog? Then pick them off yourself. For the first 25 years, they didn't even have napkins.
4.) Limited Menu with One Oddball
The best stands do a few things and do them well. However, there always seems to be that one item on the menu that doesn't seem to belong. Sometimes it's fried shrimp at a hot dog stand or pizza at beef stand.
At Gene and Jude's they have tamales, but not the authentic corn husk-wrapped ones. These are wrapped up in plastic and come out smelling surprisingly good. If you're interested in their history, check out Anthony Bourdain's crazy Chicago episode of No Reservations. I'm sure they have a storied history in the city. Unfortunately, they simply can't complete with the dogs here. And they look silly next to the real deal at places like The Tamale Place. Still, you have to kind of admire a place that serves these with a straight face.
There's something comforting about the cocky attitude here. They know what's best and they're not afraid to tell you so (even if their punctuation is questionable from time to time). In a time where fast-food restaurants have dizzingly large menus that try to appeal to everyone, it's oddly reassuring that places like this, which stubbornly refuse to play along, still pull in huge crowds.
For me, Gene and Jude's also holds special significance. I first visited it a few weeks after moving to Chicago, having read some insane reviews about a restaurant without seats that wouldn't let ketchup in their doors just because they hated it. I expected a ridiculous experience that was good for a laugh and not much else. I surely wasn't ready for it to be so delicious. It was my first Chicago stand, and I've been in love ever since.