#1: Gene & Jude's
I have an emotional connection to Gene & Jude's. It was one of the very first hot dogs I tried after moving to Chicago. It was my favorite then, and it remains so now. Obviously, I'm not the only one. When we put together a staff picks, Gene & Jude's got some love. And when Serious Eats selected the best hot dog in the nation for Rachel Ray Magazine, Gene & Judge's came in first.
But why? Sure, the atmosphere is gruff and straightforward. There is no ketchup on the premises. But the stand wouldn't be continuously packed if it weren't for expertly prepared hot dogs, which are always plump and extra-beefy, with an exceptional snap (thanks to the natural casing dogs from Vienna Beef). Asking for everything only gets you mustard, relish, onions, and, if you want, sport peppers. Of course, each order is served with a handful of just-fried hand-cut fries, which come heaped on top whether you want them or not. Fortunately, you do.
#2: Hot Doug's
Forget all the talk about the lines, the duck fat fries, and all the other wonderful sausages: The Chicago-style hot dog at Hot Doug's is included here for other, more important, reasons. Like all the other sausages served here, the devil is in the details. I'm not sure another place takes the time to assemble a hot dog with as much care as this place. The dog is always snappy and juicy, and the toppings are both fresh and meticulously positioned on the bun for the best possible bite.
Which isn't to say this is a technically flawless interpretation of the classic fully-loaded Chicago-style hot dog. Instead of chopped white onions, Hot Doug's goes with sautéed onions. This small and seemingly insignificant modification lends another savory and sweet dimension to each bite. Whenever I visit, I always makes sure to get this classic. Consider it the appetizer.
#3: Redhot Ranch
Without question, I've eaten more hot dogs from Redhot Ranch than from any other place in Chicago. Part of that is convenience: like Gene & Jude's, Redhot specializes in depression dogs with hand-cut fries, but it just happens to be located 8 miles closer to downtown, right off the off the Western Blue Line. Plus, it's open late, making it a great stop after a night out.
Those are all decent excuses to visit, but the most important reason to make the trek is so you can belly up to the counter and dig into one of these freshly prepared hot dogs. They are never overcooked and limp, instead they are snappy and remarkably juicy. Though Gene & Jude's still holds the upper hand for its indescribably beefy hot dog, Redhot Ranch easily has better fries, which are genuinely some of my favorite in the city.
Redhot Ranch, 2072 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-772-6020
If you are looking for a technically flawless version of a fully-loaded Chicago-style hot dog, make your way to Wolfy's on the North Side. All the classic toppings are here, but each just seems better than the examples you'll find elsewhere. The pickle spear is extra crunchy and acidic, while the bright green relish is tangy and tart. Plus, it's all anchored by a fantastically beefy dog, which you can either get steamed or charred.
#5: Phil's Last Stand
Though Gold Coast Dogs is the most famous practitioner of the char dog (which is grilled instead of steamed), Phil's Last Stand is currently the reigning champion in the city of this style. While grilling a hot dog sounds easy enough, it actually requires far more skill than you'd imagine. The hot dogs need to be cooked carefully or they'll split and spill all of their lovely juices into the fire. Phil's cooks their's just long enough to get a little smoke from the fire, while maintaining the integrity of the dog. Plus, it's topped carefully and served in one of the friendliest rooms in town.
Portillo's is the only option on this list with numerous other locations, all of which are gargantuan operations. It also serves a range of other items, from pizzas to salads. But Portillo's success was built on the back of the hot dog, and the owners obviously know that. The classic Chicago-style hot dog is assembled quickly but carefully, and since there is so much traffic, there is a high turnover rate, guaranteeing fresh ingredients.
But what really sets Portillo's apart is the dog, which is made specially for them by Vienna Beef. The natural casing dog is juicer and snappier, making for a sausage that basically pops when you bite in.
It's easy to love Superdawg. Where else can you find such a vibrant, old-school drive-in, complete with its own mascots (that's Maurie and Flaurie to you)? But it's the self-titled hot dog that makes return visits so necessary. Just prepare yourself for some peculiar differences. The most notable is the lack of a tomato slice. Instead, Superdawg uses a pickled green tomato, which initially seems absolutely bonkers. The pickle spear is hard enough to manage, and now there is another oddly shaped vegetable that you have to maneuver into you mouth. But it's actually a masterstroke, lending each bite a shock of extra acidity. Plus, it sure as hell beats pale and limp off-season tomatoes.
Then there's the hot dog. It's made specially for them, and while lacking snap from a natural casing, its size and extra beefy profile all add up to a fantastic bite.
#8: Old Town Social
You'd think that it would be easy to make a hot dog from scratch. It's not. The ingredients are humble enough, but getting the texture just right is time consuming and difficult. Currently, the only housemade hot dogs I can recommend are made at Allium and Old Town Social. While the former's housemade everything dog is genuinely great (you'll see it in a second), I actually prefer the miniature hot dogs being served up at the latter.
The pork and beef blend has a faint smokiness and a great snap from the natural casing. All the rest of the details are just as lovingly cared for. The pillowy bun holds the sausage and toppings carefully without getting in the way. My only complaint is that I wish this thing were regular sized, so that I could order them more often without feeling like a giant.
#9: Jimmy's Red Hots
No stand has more of an anti-ketchup stance as Jimmy's Red Hots. Numerous signs are scattered about declaring that you shouldn't even ask for the stuff; visit its website and you'll immediately hear Clint Eastwood's famous rant, "Nobody, I mean nobody puts ketchup on hot dog." It's kind of an act, but I wouldn't advise joking with them about it. Fortunately, once you get one of the hot dogs loaded with big, fat fries, ketchup is the last thing you'll think about.
The natural casing dogs are steamed, set in a plain steamed bun, slathered with mustard and relish, and sprinkled with chopped onions and sport peppers. Like Redhot Ranch and Gene & Jude's, each hot dog comes with fries, but these are bigger and fatter than either. They are not nearly as crispy, but if you prefer the pillowy and softer style, these are for you.
To sample the biggest, juiciest, and most out-of-control Chicago-style hot dog in the city, make your way to one of the most opulent hotels in the Gold Coast. Up until a few years ago, the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel was a fancy, Michelin-starred restaurant that I could never afford to visit. But when chef Kevin Hickey decided to replace it with the much more approachable Allium, he brought along a sincere appreciation for classic Chicago foods.
How else can you explain the Chicago Style Hot Dog with "homemade everything?" While taking the time to create every condiment from scratch shows serious dedication, it's the enormous all-beef hot dog that makes it worth trying. Actually, it's so over-the-top, one could make the argument that it ceases to be a hot dog at this point, but don't listen to them. Just dress it up anyway you like, and don't feel bad about eating with your hands in such a beautiful room.