The Haute & the Dog
1252 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 312-720-8185; hauteanddog.com
The Short Order: Excellent, locally sourced sausages and creative toppings.
Want Fries with That? Not available on my visit.
Seats? Mostly to-go, but some seats are available.
No one can doubt that Dion Antic is a busy man. As a restaurateur, he's built up such a list of openings and closings, it's intimidating to even try and concisely sum it all up for fear of leaving one or dozen out. (This history comes close, but still ignores a few.) But instead of letting passion guide him, over the past few years it's felt like he was simply casting a big net, hoping to stumble on a winning concept. Which explains why I was initially concerned when I heard that he planned to flip Bagel on Damen into The Haute & the Dog, a "gourmet" hot dog stand.
But I forgot that Antic also once operated Rockstar Dogs, a much loved hot dog stand on Chicago and Ashland that even Alan Richman, a noted Chicago Dog hater, managed to like. Though it closed a few years ago, Antic proved that he knew what he was doing. (The space now houses the decent, if slightly underwhelming, Rotten Johnny's).
Antic ups the ante tremendously with The Haute & the Dog. Instead of aiming for a classic Chicago hot dog stand, he seems to be aiming for a total sausage experience like Hot Doug's, and much to my surprise, is pulling it off.
I should let you all know immediately that if there is one kind of restaurant I have little patience for, it's another Hot Doug's ripoff—not because no one should copy the acclaimed stand, but because few people seem to realize how hard it is to do right. Most places just offer some alligator sausage and call it a day, never realizing that preparing the buns and using fresh toppings is just as important to the end goal.
Instead of attempting to make all of its sausages in-house—something Hot Doug's also wisely avoids—most of the sausages are sourced from local vendors, including many offerings from Chef Martin's, a relatively new local sausage maker.
The quality of the sausages is immediately apparent with the German Shephard ($4). Tender and almost creamy, this long and thin sausage has a slight garlic profile. It's topped with sauerkraut and brown mustard, and then loaded on to a wheat bun. Usually, wheat buns are tough and dry, which distracts you from the sausage. But this one is light and soft, so that it actually adds something to each bite.
Also very good is the chicken apple gouda sausage ($5) from Sausages by Amylu, which corrects any bland and boring chicken sausages you've had before. Instead of dry, this one is engaging from the first bite to the last. Only the toppings held it back. Though better than most tomatoes I've sampled in February, the slices were still watery.
Finally, it's time to discuss the Chicago dog ($3.50). As you can tell, a skinless hot dog is used—a sin I normally have a hard time looking past. But instead of Vienna Beef, the shop uses hot dogs from Oscherwitz, a brand I'd never heard about before. The hot dog is remarkably juicy, working surprisingly well with all the other toppings.
The hot dog is so good, I wanted to learn more about the brand, but it turned out to be far more confusing than I bargained. Google "Oscherwitz hot dogs," and the only links that pop up are about Haute & the Dog serving them. When I called the shop, they claimed that Oscherwitz has been around since 1886. This, coincidently, is the same year Isaac Oscherwitz founded Best Kosher. Thing is, Best Kosher closed in 2009. Still with me?
I then got in touch with Haute's sausage distributor, ATK Foods. According to Charlie Kurzawski, the Special Projects Manager, the company does not "advertise the brand, but when restaurants are looking for a high-end, all-beef hot dog, that is the product we sell them." When I pointed out the connection with Best Kosher, he confirmed that the company is "working with one of the members of the family that owned Best Kosher to make this product." Whew...
Basically, if you've been missing Best Kosher hot dogs, Haute offers a hot dog that comes as close to that discontued product as you'll ever find.
I am thrilled to see Triple XXX root beer, which, despite its name, is actually from a "family restaurant."
Haute also offers hand-cut fries, but were out when I stopped by. That's how I ended up with cup of the very greasy and bland mac and cheese ($1.50). The less I say about this the better.
Despite that minor snafu, Haute & the Dog is off to very strong start. Few places are offering such a unique sausage experience in Chicago.