Chicago

The Serious Eats Chicago Dog Style Guide

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

The Chicago Dog—imperfect in theory and chaotic in construction—is a mess of delicious contradictions. It's overloaded and messy thanks to a bunch of vegetables and condiments, but they are all there for a reason. A bite with all those crispy, crunchy, sweet, and spicy ingredients compliments the all-beef hot dog.

But over the years, loving the Chicago dog has become synonymous with loving the rules that go along with it. And believe me, there are rules. Most famously, one requires an almost pathological hatred of a certain red condiment. (A sentiment I basically agree with, but let's not dwell too long here.)

Here's the thing: Though most people think that the Chicago dog has an inflexible formula, one set down from on high, mandating a certain seven toppings that must be included or the whole deal is off, the reality of what I've eaten over the years while searching for the best hot dog in Chicago is far more varied and interesting. In fact, in different parts of the city the Chicago dog simply looks different. And considering many of these stands are older than I am, who am I to say that they aren't 100% Chicago dogs? As long as they are delicious, who cares?

The Base: The Depression Dog / The Minimalist Dog

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Toppings: mustard, chopped raw onion, sport peppers, regular relish.
Bun: Plain
Dog: Steamed, natural casing hot dog (usually Vienna Beef or Red Hot Chicago)

The story begins here, as this is the base on which all the other permutations of the Chicago dog are based upon. A steamed natural casing hot dog is set in a plain bun, and topped with only mustard, regular relish, chopped onion, and sport peppers. Though it may be (or not) the originator, this version is often called a Depression Dog or a Minimalist Dog (even I can't decide which one I like best). I should note that not a single stand I've ever visited has used those particular terms. To them it's a hot dog done the Chicago way. Nine times out of ten the dogs come with a handful of freshly-cut fries right on top. It's a mess, but considering how good the fries usually are, it's a glorious one.

You'll find the stands as stripped down and bare as the dogs they serve. With a few exceptions, these stands have few seats, almost no decorations, and gruff service that teeters on the edge of kitsch and outright hostility. Personally, these are some of my favorite eating experiences in the world, but none quite exemplifies these qualities as well as Gene & Jude's, located in nearby River Grove. But the number of great Depression Dog stands is long. I'm also partial to Redhot Ranch, 35th Street Red Hots, and Jimmy's Red Hots.

The Classic: The Chicago-Style Hot Dog or Chicago Dog

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Toppings: yellow mustard, chopped white onion, neon green relish, tomato slices, kosher dill pickle spear, "sport peppers", celery salt.
Bun: poppy seed bun
Dog: Steamed, natural casing Vienna Beef hot dog

Close your eyes and picture a Chicago dog, and this is probably what you'll see. Though only tomato slices, dill pickle spears, and celery salt have joined the fray, along with that poppy seed-encrusted bun, the difference is immediately apparent. This is the fully-loaded, dragged-through-the-garden hot dog most often seen on sausage paraphernalia, and it's easy to see why. When properly constructed, this version of the Chicago dog, with all seven-toppings accounted for, is a true feast for the eyes. It is beautiful.

The best versions seem to come from stands that are as vibrantly colored as the dogs themselves. Like fast food joints on acid, these technicolored stands often feature hilarious names (Mustard's Last Stand, Wiener and Still Champion, Chubby Wieners), cartoon mascots, and some of the friendliest people in the restaurant industry. There are too many great ones to name, but here are a few of my favorites. Portillo's, which has numerous locations around town, serves one of the best, but if you just want to go straight to the source, check out the lunch room at the Vienna Beef Factory. Also, you also can't go wrong at Wolfy's or Murphy's Red Hots.

The Variations

Even with the two distinct styles, there are a still a number of variations, some of which are widely available around town.

The Char Dog

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

This is essentially the same as the classic seven-topping version, except that a grilled (charred) hot dog is used instead of a steamed one. Now, some stands serve both a steamed and a grilled version, but the general rule of thumb is that if a stand advertises a char dog on its sign, order that. The hot dog picks up a distinct smoky profile from the time spent on the grill, much like it would at a backyard grill out. Interestingly, a few of the stands cut the tips so that the ends flare out.

The most famous partitioner of the char dog is probably Gold Coast Dogs in the Loop. That said, a number of stands, including The Wieners Circle and Phil's Last Stand, serve them, and do a better job at it, too.

House-Made Chicago Dog (a.k.a. Chefy Chicago Dogs)

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[Courtesy of Allium]

This is what happens when chefs get their hands on the Chicago dog, but still want to stay true to the classic version. Making everything from scratch sounds great in theory, but that also means that the chefs need to make the hot dog, and that's where the problems usually start. However, some are actually worth looking out for.

Chef Kevin Hickey's Chicago dog at Allium is a labor of love. Everything, and I mean everything, is created from scratch—the hot dog, the poppy seed bun, and all the condiments. Most of the condiments are presented on the side, so you can craft your perfect bite. Luckily, the incredibly beefy dog is still the center of attention.

Jared Van Camp, the chef at Old Town Social and the recently opened NellcĂ´te, chronicled the surprisingly difficult process of making a hot dog from scratch. His hard work paid off, and you can sample the appetizer at Old Town Social.

Modified Chefy Chicago Dogs

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

These are kind of like House-Made Chicago Dogs, except that the chef couldn't leave the poor thing alone. Not that I don't understand the urge. It's well known that the Chicago dog isn't exactly the easiest thing to eat, and many chefs and amateurs have devised ways of combining all the flavors and elements of the classic seven topping version into a more compact and easy-to-eat package. For the most part, these noble attempts work in some ways, but fail to fully deliver the goods.

Perhaps the most famous example is at Franks 'n' Dawgs, where owner Alexander Brunacci created the Chicagoesque, a modified version of the classic that contains most of the flavors, albeit in different forms. The tomato slices and relish are combined into a cherry tomato relish, while the onions are caramelized, and the beer mustard plays the part of the regular yellow variety. And as Blake explored before, Bangers & Lace serves something of a modified version, though you can also get the classic Chicago dog, too.

The Double Dog

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The Double Dog sounds impressive, but it's actually simple: instead of one hot dog and one bun, two hot dogs are stuffed into one bun. In general, these are found at stands serving Depression Dogs (see above) and are only topped with mustard, onion, relish, and sport peppers. The two dogs mess with the slim balance of the Depression Dog, making for a messy, meaty mess. Of course, sometimes that's exactly the kind of meal you want. These occasionally hit the spot.

Raw Cucumber and/or Green Pepper

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

This is a strange variation that I've only noticed at a few stands on the North Side. Along with most of the standard Chicago dog toppings, sliced raw cucumbers and/or strips of green bell pepper are added. It's not that common, and it's not one that I particularly love. That said, I'd never turn down a trip to Susie's Drive-Thru, even if I'd rather eat the corn pole.

Restaurant Variations

The following establishments have a distinct version of the Chicago dog which is completely unique. Some have made very slight changes, though others are wildly different. But all of these are too delicious to ignore.

Byron's Hot Dog Haus

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

This makes no sense. So, adding raw cucumber and green pepper slices don't really work, but what if you just keep adding things on, some kind of strange magic starts to happen. Much like a game of telephone, it's like someone at Byron's Hot Dog Haus heard about the Chicago dog and decided to create one without the exact blueprints. The result is a dog that literally has a salad on top, with lettuce, green bell pepper, and cucumber joining the usual suspects of mustard, onion, relish, pickle, tomato, sport peppers, and celery salt.

But that's not the only difference. Instead of a standard natural-casing dog, Byron's has three different options: a regular skinless hot dog, a skinless Jumbo Dog (pictured above), and the slightly absurd Dogzilla, which uses a 1/2-pound natural casing dog.

Hot Doug's

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

It may be Chicago's most famous hot dog stand, but Hot Doug's actually serves a modified version of the Chicago dog, as it differs in one important detail: instead of chopped white onion, caramelized onions are used. You can also get the hot dog steamed or grilled.

Superdawg

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[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

A Superdawg can only be found at one place: Superdawg. Though most of the components of the hot dog served at this drive-in on the northwest side are similar to the classic Chicago dog, it differs in a few dramatic ways. But the biggest difference is probably the actual hot dog, which is made specifically for the restaurant. Here's what the owner had to say about it:

It is a pure beef product, generically originated as a hot dog. But because of our special recipe, of smoking, of ingredients, and the combination of the spices and the curing of it, our service is such that we are very, very particular about the condiments that accompany it.

Though the dog is skinless, it's also extra beefy and smoky. But that's not where the differences stop. Besides being housed in a nifty box, the Superdawg comes with a pickled green tomato instead of regular red slices. Each time I read about Superdawg, I'm struck by how it shouldn't work. But the Superdawg definitely does work, even if it is hard to explain why.

Okay. Now I know there a few variations that I've missed along the way. Please let me know if you can think of any, and I'll add them to the list.

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