Serious Eats: Chicago
Standing Room Only: Fat Johnnie's Mother-In-Law Deserves Fame
Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots
7242 South Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60636 (map)
The Short Order: Unique stand on the South Side celebrates cornmeal tamales.
Want Fries with That? Actually, no fries here.
Seats? Some picnic tables in the summer.
The sign in front of Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots on the South Side proclaims that it is "Fit for a King." This obviously refers solely to the food. One would have to be mighty generous calling this anything other than a shack. Sure, the building exudes a certain unmistakeable charm (one that I am particularly susceptible to), but there is no hiding the fact that it's old and weathered, with crooked and fading signs.
Fat Johnnie's is mostly known as the home of the mother-in-law, a strange South Side original, where a hot dog's right and natural place on a bun is replaced by a cornmeal tamale. Oh, and there is a little chili thrown in for the heck of it. Honestly, I've wanted to try one since I first gazed upon the wonder during an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. This, you'll probably remember, was over three years ago.
What took me so long? Fat Johnnie's is located on the far South Side, miles from any highway. The one time I did make the trek I arrived only to find it closed. (Turns out the restaurant shuts down on Sundays during the winter.)
Anyway. Finally here, I prepared myself for pure ridiculousness—the kind of over-the-top greasy experience that gives you instant gratification, but then comes back to haunt you later on.
I mean, come on. The mother-in-law features one of those cornmeal tamales Chicago has been mass producing for decades plus chili, most of the toppings from a fully loaded Chicago-style hot dog, and, for good measure, some raw cucumber. This should not work.
And yet, miraculously, somehow the mother-in-law does. It's, dare I say, kind of amazing. Though slightly beyond my comprehension, success basically comes down to the interplay of the cool, crisp toppings and warm filling. Obviously, the hot tamale deserves some of the credit, but I think it's the chili that actually ties everything together.
Part of the reason I believe that is due to the way the chili works on the Super Dog ($2.75). Basically just a Chicago hot dog with chili and cheese added in, this item might be even more surprising than the mother-in-law. Not that it's better, but it's just fascinating that adding more ingredients to a Chicago dog could work. Even with a skinless David Berg dog (which is made by Vienna Beef), the chili makes every bite extra beefy and satisfying.
Thanks to Bourdain's warning, I skipped the Mighty Dog, which combines both a hot dog and a tamale on the same bun, and went for the Super Sundae. A whole tamale is bathed in chili and then covered in cheese, onions, pickled chiles, and tomatoes. This, I can finally say, is absolutely ridiculous, even if I mean that in in the best possible way. Satisfying and spicy (with probably enough sodium for the week), this is one of those dishes I've actually tried elsewhere, but has never quite succeed like it does here.
Can you tell I'm surprised? I've visited a ton of stands over the past year, and kind of naively thought I'd experienced it all. Sure, I knew I'd occasionally run into a unique dish now and then, but I figured they'd be mere curiosities. But Fat Johnnie's proves I have far more to learn about stands in Chicago. I can't wait to discover more.