Standing Room Only: Felony Franks
229 South Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60612 (map); 312-243-0505; felonyfranks.com
The Short Order: Mediocre food at a controversial hot dog stand.
Want Fries with That?Could be better, but probably the best thing here.
The short history of Felony Franks has everything you'd ever want in a gripping news story: politics, race, class, and hot dogs (or is that just me?). It all started back in 2009 when Jim Andrews opened a stand on the West Side and advertised the fact that he was employing only ex-convicts. Though he pitched it as something of a community service program, activists and politicians called it exploitative. They had a point: the stand definitely was playing up its prison theme. It had a cartoon hot dog mascot dressed up in black and white garb and shackled with a ball and chain, and just about every item on the menu had an alias based on legal terms (Misdemeanor Wiener, Subpoena Sausage, Paroled Pizza Puff, etc...). At first the city refused to allow the stand to put up a sign, but Andrews later sued, eventually winning the case.
But for every negative article, one would pop up to support the number of people he employed. And in a series of interviews with the actual workers, ChicagoStorytelling found that many were grateful for the opportunity, also claiming it was a good place to work. Which is to say, regardless of how you feel about the matter, its interesting to talk about Felony Franks, especially since it has managed to become the most controversial stand since The Wieners Circle.
However, unlike that stand, which serves a frighteningly good char-dog along with those questionable chocolate shakes, what's been completely missing from the discussion of Felony Franks has been any examination of the food.
Though this column is usually about celebrating stands, I figured I should be the one that actually ate the food at Felony Franks. I realize now why everyone only talked about the theme; the food is a complete afterthought.
The Felony Frank ($3.75), a jumbo skinless Red Hot Chicago dog, is certainly plump, but it lacks beefiness, tasting like its been sitting around for a while. In the end it comes off more like a water-logged Ball Park Frank. It doesn't help that the toppings are haphazardly applied, or that the pickle is left out of the equation.
By its very nature an Italian beef and Italian sausage combo, here called a Court Order Combo ($5.50), should be an absolute mess, and this one certainly is. But excess can't hide the fact that the meat is overcooked and dry and that gravy is watery and thin. As for the Italian sausage, there's not much to say except that it's dry and crumbly.
The freedom fries are at least hand-cut, or look that way. Though very brown, they are too mushy and soft. Plus, instead of being seasoned in a large bowl, the salt was just heavily applied after the fries were in the packaging, making the top layer nearly inedible. The few crispy bits on the bottom were easily the tastiest part of the entire meal.
In other words, Felony Franks is a mediocre stand, one of a number of places that serves cheap food by cutting a corners. There's nothing inherently evil about this, and the stand was reasonably packed on my two visits. But there is no doubt that it wouldn't have been as well known if it wasn't for the theme, which speaks more to the owner's business calculations than to anything else.