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.
Ever since I've started Lunch in the Loop, I've been bitching and moaning about not being able to find a good hot dog stand downtown. There's at least one, Max's Take Out, which rules. Then there's a few imitators and flops, restaurants that seem like caricatures of real hot dog stands (just like I'm a caricature of a serious food writer). But one day, as I moseyed down the street, looking for a new spot, I came across Devil Dawgs on State Street, which is smack dab in the middle of Columbia College territory. And inside the deep and dark crevasses of my broken and black (hungry) heart, I felt hope.
When I stepped in, I somehow knew Devil Dawgs was different than most of the places I'd been to. It had a fresh new feeling to it, but somehow a confident one. I looked around, took in the surroundings, and then something on the wall caught my wandering eye.
I cocked my head to the side and scratched it for a second. This...looked familiar. I crept up to the poster and looked and saw a recreation of something I knew too well. The words Serious Eats shone down upon me like a beacon (or bacon) in the dark sky. And then I saw benevolent ruler Nick Kindlesperger's name and I knew all would be right in the world. Even though the place was called Devil Dawgs, I knew that it would be...devilishly good. Okay, I'm done clowning around now. Just kidding. I'm never done clowning around. But really, Nick visited the Sheffield location in 2011 (is it already 2014?) and loved it in his review.
But seriously, once I saw the menu I totally felt at ease. I finally found a real hot dog stand downtown. There's plenty of choices on the menu, including the classic Chicago Dog ($2.95), which is a pitch perfect rendition of the classic. It starts with a natural casing dog and is topped with the good stuff: mustard, onions, pickle relish, tomatoes, a pickle spear, sport peppers, and a dusting of celery salt. It's all hugged in a poppy seed bun. What's slightly different is the dog itself; it comes from Red Hot Chicago, which is a fine competitor to Vienna Beef. I'm so used to Vienna Beef that I could spot the difference right away, but Red Hot Chicago is still a hometown hero in my book.
And as you Chicagoans imagine, it's a respectful version of the classic, no more, no less. All the flavors are there. For those of you who have never tried a Chicago-style hot dog (I always forget you guys aren't all from Chicago), I'll do my best to describe it. When you bite into it, your bottom jaw hits a squishy white bread bun with tiny little pops from the poppy seeds, then your teeth bite through the snap of a salty, savory, balanced and smoothly textured wiener. As your top jaw sinks through the crisp noisy layers of a big cold vinegary pickle spear, sweet tart pickle relish, a soft slice of tomato, crisp chopped onions, you hit the sharp taste of mustard. And when you're done with your first bite, you're left with the vegetal taste of celery that cleans your whole palate so you can prepare for the next bite. So how'd I do?
The Seoul Dawg ($4.95) called out to me, since I am Korean, after all. It's a quarter-pound hot dog with shoyu mustard and kimchi. Lots and lots of kimchi. It's hard to taste anything else than pickled spicy cabbage, but the salty soy-laced dijon mustard pokes through now and then. Alan, the owner, came out to say hi, and he mentioned that the Korean folks that come to try the dog always suggest that he sauté the kimchi in butter to mute the vinegar and wilt the lettuce a bit. It's a technique we Koreans use in the kitchen when we want to mix kimchi with other cooked items. I would agree—that would be a lot better, so ask the guys behind the counter to see if they'll do that for you. This is a professional tip.
I am also a sucker for Coney Island dogs. And the Coney Cheese Dog ($4.25) doesn't disappoint. It's topped with a sweet, finely ground beef sauce much like a sloppy Joe, a bit of mustard, onions, and cheddar cheese. This dog is delicious. It's everything you want in a Coney dog. Sweet, salty, snappy, messy, cheesy, slightly mustardy, with a touch of fresh onions to finish it off.
When I finished trying the hot dogs, I thought that the food couldn't get much better. But I was wrong—the hamburgers are really the star. There's plenty of variations you've seen, ones with bacon and barbecue sauce, another one with an egg on top, one with the Coney sauce, but the one that stood out to me was the Kick Ass Steak Burger ($3.99 for a double). It's topped with roasted New Mexican chiles, which are sweet, bitter, and tender, with a bit of heat. We don't see these peppers very often in Chicago. This cheeseburger is a delicious mess, bundled with ketchup, mayo, sweet grilled onions, American cheese and the chiles, all on a squishy white bun. If it looks small, that's because it is; each patty is an adorable 2 ounces each, so I recommend a double, even though Nick prefers a single.
The small patties are smashed on the grill (I watched it with my own eyes), and have a strong beefy flavor with a decent amount of crust. Everything plays well together with each bite, and even if you're wearing half the burger on your face after you're done, it's worth the mess.
The Elvis Burger ($2.99 for single) is a bunch of strong flavors, including peanut butter, cheese, crispy bacon, and sriracha. Between the Kick Ass and the Elvis, I prefer the Kick Ass, but this one is good too. For those of you who still haven't tried a peanut butter burger, you need to try one, even if the idea is strange to you. The peanut butter gets hot and turns into a salty, fatty sauce, which goes along with beef well. I like to imagine it almost as a Thai peanut sauce sort of thing, especially in Devil Dawg's version of the Elvis Burger, considering there's also fiery sriracha in the mix too. I'd recommend this one as a double as well.
Since I was a boner as usual and forgot to take a picture of the twice-fried fries ($1.95 for a bag), which are a dark golden brown, well salted, with a sturdy potato flavor, you get a picture of the Latin Heat milkshake ($5.25). It's a fluffy chocolate shake with specks of ancho chili spun through it. At first you get the cooling chocolate shake coursing down your throat, and it follows up with a smoky heat that's not too strong. If that's not your thing, there's a lot of other shakes on the menu, so go nuts.
I know it seems like I'm gushing about my lunch at Devil Dawgs, but this is really the place I've been searching for during my trek through the Loop. Sure, it's not all classics (though there are plenty), but it's a playful place with a lot of good execution. And it's fun. Never underestimate fun. By the way, if Alan's behind the counter, be sure to say hi. He's a friendly cat who loves what he does, and you can tell.
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.