Standing Room Only

Standing Room Only: Phil's Last Stand

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Phil's Last Stand

2258 West Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-245-3287; philslaststand.com
The Short Order: Excellent char dogs and "fatso" burgers.
Want Fries with That? Crunchy hand-cut fries come with most orders.
Seats? One long counter, and two small tables.

The first thing I saw when I walked into Phil's Last Stand on Chicago Avenue was Phil, or as he likes to refer to himself online, Fat Phil. Like Doug Sohn (Hot Doug's) and Eddie Lakin (Edzo's) before him, visiting the stand is as much about chatting with Phil as it is eating his food. But this is personality with a purpose. While his presence obviously ensures a fun and freewheeling vibe, it's main advantage is quality control. Nothing gets by Phil without his approval. That turns out to be a very good thing.

There is no doubt that Chicago is in the middle of a stand renaissance. The number of quality new stands that have opened recently is so intense that it's hard for me to keep up. But currently Phil's is leading the freshman pack. What does Phil's add to a scene already stuffed with more natural casing hot dog joints than one man should reasonably eat in a year? It's all about the grill. The hot dogs aren't steamed but charred, and that lick of the flame, along with the handsome grill marks, puts it in the similar camp as Gold Coast Dogs, but where that Loop staple seems to be coasting, Phil's is working hard.

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I've never had a dog from Gold Coast look anywhere near as beautiful as the hot dog ($3.50, with fries) from Phil's. Like at Gold Coast, the tip of the hot dog is cut, so that it flares when it's grilled. But at Phil's only the very tip is cut, so the flaring doesn't reach comical levels. The occasional drawback of the charring method is that the food can sometimes pick up sooty flavors, but while the grilled aroma was present, it never overwhelmed the natural casing Vienna Beef dog. The onions could have been chopped a little more, but that's nitpicking on one of the better hot dogs I've had this year. (Take that PCRM!)

But what's most astonishing about Phil's is that everything else coming out of the kitchen is of the same quality.

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The burger, labeled a "fatso" on the menu, is a fast food-style burger (much different than a fast food burger), which looks suspiciously like the one you'd find at In-N-Out, right down to the handy carrying case.

Of course, this one is grilled instead of griddled and far less restrained (that carrying case serves a very practical purpose). I went with the Double Fatso ($5.00), and I'll leave our burger reviewer to make the ultimate judgement, but compared to some of the burgers I've eaten at stands lately, this one is in a whole other league.

As you'd expect, the fries are hand-cut and twice fried, so that they are pleasantly crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

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But it's the veggie dog ($3.50, with fries) that is the most surprising. It's been my experience that veggie dogs are evil, not because they don't contain loads of fat and meat, but because they taste bad. But Phil's avoids the soy products in favor of a vegetable mixture (sweet potato and roasted onions, among other things) that is rolled into a cylinder, coated in panko, and then fried. It comes out of the fryer with a crispy and crunchy coating that gives way to a tender and flavorful inside. This is, officially, the first veggie dog I'd ever order again.

It's way too early to crown classic status on the stand, especially since it has only been open a few months, but if Phil's keeps up the same attention to quality and friendly atmosphere, it'll definitely be one worth visiting often.

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