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Al's Under the "L" Hot Dogs & Polish
2908 W Lake St, Chicago, IL 60612 (map)
The Short Order: Natural-casing Minimalist hot dogs and fried Polish sausages.
Want Fries with That? Fries come with every order. Make sure to ask for them "extra crispy."
How many seats? Zero
As you can tell, Al's Under the "L" Hot Dogs & Polish isn't literally underneath the L, but the whole building does shake when the train rolls by, and that's good enough for me. Featuring a menu of Chicago classics, including minimalist-style hot dogs and Polish sausages loaded with caramelized onions, Al's feels like the kind of place that's been around for years—right down the bare room and complete lack of seats. And it kind of has been...
A joint named Al's Red Hots has been in the location since 1953. After a particularly torturous past decade (which has been chronicled in depth on LTHForum), the hot dog stand reopened as Al's Under the "L" in the fall. Luckily, the food is still prepared the old way.
The minimalist-style hot dog features just mustard, relish, onion, and hot peppers. Most importantly, the stand uses a natural-casing Vienna Beef hot dog, meaning each bite has the requisite snap that every good hot dog should. Not the best in the city, but solid and worth a detour if you're close.
The Polish sausage is a whole other beast. While waiting for the food, I noticed a worker pick up the sausage with a pair of tongs and then toss it into the deep fryer. I mean, this is a fried Polish sausage! Sure enough, it came out with a sheen of glorious grease and a very crisp exterior. The onions weren't quite as caramelized as I would have liked, but this sausage was definitely worth the insane number of calories wasted on it. (I'll probably keep my intake to one or two a year.)
I'm probably going to put a ban on ordering burgers at stands like this one, as this is the second time in a row the burger has been the least impressive offering. No kind of cooking technique will rescue a frozen patty. Still, I can't quite explain why this picture just makes me want to try it one more time. (What's wrong with me?)
Like all good stands, fries come with every order, which means I ended up with pounds of fries in my car. Considering they were hand-cut and double fried, this should have been a blessing. But while they had some good potato flavor, they were a little limp. Next time I'll just order them extra-crispy. (That always seems to do the trick.)
So, is Al's Under the "L" worth adding to the list of classic Chicago stands? It doesn't quite have the same kind of quality control of Gene and Jude's (reviewed here) or the unmistakable atmosphere of Jimmy's Red Hots (reviewed here), but Al's is doing most things the right way, and that should count for something.