Serious Eats: Chicago
Sausage City: Presenting the Natural Casing Hot Dog Map
Over 100 years after Upton Sinclair muckraked Chicago's stockyards and frightened the world, and in spite of the general wisdom that "laws are like sausages; you never want to see one made," Chicago is a city proud of its sausages. Sausage City is a weekly chronicle of the best encased meats in the Windy City.
View Chicago Natural Casing Dogs in a larger map
The hot dog is iconic to Chicago; there's no question about it. We take them very seriously, defend our style of dressing them, and would pit ours against any in the world. I mean, take a look at the Serious Eats Chicago logo. What do you see?
Sadly, you can't walk into any old stand in Chicago and necessarily get a properly made hot dog. Sure, it will probably be good. But a great Chicago hot dog is slightly harder to find.
What do I mean? It's simple. The best Chicago hot dog comes with a natural casing -- and a natural casing is not a given anymore. So I've created a map for finding one when the need arises. For now, the map only includes stands that serve Vienna Beef hot dogs within the city limits, but more maps are on the way. It's by no means definitive, but I'll get to all that later.
What's a natural casing? It's just what it sounds like, usually made from sheep intestine, and, sometimes with larger ones, from a pig's. It's the way all hot dogs used to be made, and it's the way almost all other sausages still are.
You can tell almost immediately whether your hot dog has a natural casing or not. The natural casing dogs are usually smoother at the end, and sometimes come to a point where the casing has been twisted.
But other than looks, what's so special about natural casings? A good hot dog is about "snap" when you bite into it, a pleasing resistance to the teeth that gives way to juiciness and flavor (and helps hold that flavor in during cooking). A "skinless" hot dog -- the kind you mostly see in every grocery store -- will never snap. Skinless dogs are cheaper and ubiquitous (they're cooked inside a synthetic tube that's peeled off after cooking, invented, ironically, in Chicago) and inside they're the same. But the experience of eating a hot dog is never quite right without a skin. They're prone to mushiness and flavor leaches out during cooking.
But natural casing hot dogs are still being made. In fact, outside the Vienna Beef factory in the heart of the north side, where over 250 million hot dogs are produced every single year, plant workers sit on picnic benches and order a lunch of what they just made: a natural casing hot dog stacked high with toppings. What else could be the ultimate vote of confidence of the care and passion that Chicago puts into its sausages?
I'm proud of our tradition, and Sausage City will be a celebration of it in all forms: from a butcher with his housemade polish, to street carts, to high-end dining. I'll be eating every sausage I can find, and when it's delicious, telling you a good story about it. It will be an enthusiast's opinion, for sure. But I also have high standards. I'm after the best encased meats in the Windy City.
But back to the map. It wasn't easy to make, and I'll be the first to say that it is just a start. I called Vienna Beef, thinking that they'd simply be able to hand over a list of the stands that use natural casing hot dogs, but they were unable to. Red Hot Chicago's owner quickly offered up three stands, but then (politely) refused to release the names of any more. Why is this such sensitive information?
That's when SE Chicago's editor Nick Kindelsperger and I decided to call over 100 stands to find the answers for ourselves. Unfortunately, many of those calls resulted in silence, confusion, and sometimes suspicion. Some had no idea what the heck a natural casing dog was.
So this list certainly isn't complete, but these are the ones that can be reasonably confirmed from visits, photographic evidence, or from conversations with the owners. The list has erred on the side of caution.
Now I'm going to ask the burgeoning Serious Eats community of Chicago for help. Report your their findings, and help make this map a true resource. Help hone it into accuracy for locals and tourists alike: anyone should be able to pull up this map and be reassured that a true Chicago Dog is never far away.
Have you seen a natural casing dog that's not on this list? Think we included a place that serves skinless dogs? Send in photographic evidence to this address and I'll add it to the map.
And don't forget to meet me back here next week for the first featured sausage.