Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Nick covered U.B. Dogs for a Standing Room Only post about a year and a half ago, and I figure that's long enough in Internet time so that you guys have forgotten about it. You know, so this post seems as fresh and as beautiful as a daisy. A daisy like me. Daisy Dennis. Wow. It's only the first paragraph and I'm already calling myself Daisy Dennis. Looks like I've been roasting in the sun a little too long.
In any case, as Nick pointed out in his post, there's an odd dearth of hot dog joints in the Loop. You'd think a city that has its own hot dog style would have more banged up stands downtown, but you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. He's already explored the classic dog, the Italian beef, and the burger, so I've decided to take an off-the-beaten-path approach for this post and try some of the other items.
I'm just going to go straight for the weird stuff and start with the Joey Dog ($2.99), which is a Vienna hot dog covered in fries, garlic wasabi aioli, and Tabasco. Yes, you read that right. I almost couldn't believe it either, but I've seen crazier. One time when I was a kid, I made a sandwich with Wonder bread, American cheese, pickle relish, and grape jelly, and I ate the whole thing. I can still taste the memory (please make it stop), and all I can say is that I was a really strange kid, and it's made me into the lonely adult I am today.
I suppose the Joey Dog is sort of like a Depression Dog with the fries on top, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends. I just don't know about you, Joey. The Tabasco is the strongest flavor, the garlic wasabi aioli doesn't come through much except for moisture, and the fries add crisp fried starch. The Vienna hot dog is snappy, salty, and satisfying, but the toppings don't play well together whatsoever.
Chili cheese dogs are a guilty pleasure of mine. They're hugely messy, you end up wearing some sort of stain on your shirt for the rest of your day, and your hands smell like onions for pretty much forever. U.B. Dog's chili cheddar dog ($3.59) is topped with a giant ladleful of chili, and layered with Merkt's cheddar, all on a wonderful Vienna hot dog, which is cooked perfectly (you'd be surprised how many places seem to screw them up).
The problem here is that the chili just doesn't have any character. It looks like chili and tastes like chili, but no particular seasoning stands out; it's not entirely flavorless, but nothing comes forward. If you're going to invest your shirt in a risky high-stakes endeavor, the chili better be worth it, you know?
When Nick reviewed U.B. Dogs earlier, he punted on the review for the burger to a more seasoned burger aficionado (who happens to be me, now). The char burger ($4.29) at U.B. Dogs is surprisingly lean, at a 90/10 lean to fat ratio. We burger nerds tend to agree that 80/20 is where you strike a perfect balance between meat and moisture, and you can tell that it makes a difference in this char burger. It is dry, but the good news is that it's got a rounded and deeper beef flavor than other places I've been, and the good char accents it even further.
The toppings, including the Merkt's cheddar (other cheeses are available) add some moisture back into the dry coarse grind, but in the end, can't change the nature of the beef. And the bun is interesting: in person it's actually closer to a mahogany color, and it adds an almost bitter, toasted flavor to each bite. It's very sturdy, and doesn't fall apart. I can't say I've had a bun quite like it.
The fries ($1.75 for regular, $2.75 for large) are good, and are the type with the crisp, slightly oily, brown exterior with a mashed-potato center.
One of the things at U.B. Dogs that you might not ordinarily expect is the five different dipping aiolis for your spuds. My favorite is easily the mango-habanero ($0.50), which is distinctly sweetened by mango, and it has a fruity pepper kick from the habanero without too much scary burning sensation. The chipotle aioli is smoky and slightly bitter, with a touch of tomato. And the garlic-wasabi, the same aioli that comes on the Joey Dog, is easier to taste on its own—it has a distinct wasabi flavor but without that sinus-clearing bite you get from that green horseradish, accented with a touch of garlic.
So I'm going to let you guys in on a semi-secret thing here in Chicago called gravy bread ($1.75). It always comes as a side, and you don't see it at many places, though I'm sure most of them would let you order it off-menu. It's one of my favorite things ever. Are you ready?
Gravy bread is a whole Italian roll, the same roll you get Italian beef on, just absolutely drenched in the au jus from the Italian beef. To be honest, the soaked bread is my favorite part of every Italian beef sandwich; it's soft, mushy (yes, mushy), savory, and beefy, and it's basically a vehicle for the jus so you're not caught drinking the stuff on its own. If you like your beef sandwiches dipped, you know exactly what I'm talking about—that soft, juice filled bun. U.B. Dog's version lets you taste that distinct oregano-punched spice blend they use to cook their beef that you might not detect as much in a bite of the regular sandwich.
If you guys are looking for a place to mow down old favorites, U.B. Dogs is a great place for the usual suspects, like the decked out Chicago dog or the Italian beef, along with some well executed fries. But when you head towards uncharted territory, like with the Joey Dog, all bets are off. And if you didn't know about gravy bread, now you know, and you look like a pro. If you already knew about gravy bread, then, well, high five! Now down low. Too slow!
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.