I was in the car with Serious Eats Chicago editor Nick Kindelsperger and, unaccountably, the subject turned to food. Or rather, the idea that there are just certain Chicago foods on which the science is settled, like Italian beef. You can find pretty good Italian beef that people haven't talked about much, but basically you're not going to find a beef that's better than the beefs everybody already knows—Johnnie's, Al's, Pop's in the south suburbs and so on. The theory being this: if it says "Beef" in the name, then somebody's already scouted it out by using Yelp and Google. And if it doesn't say "Beef" in the name, how could it be a great beef? You don't make a great beef and then give it fourth billing.
So yeah, that was the theory. And then a couple of weeks later, I stumbled on a hot dog place that shattered it utterly, the way Einstein opened a can of relativity-whoopass on Newton.
Hot Dog Station is located on a stretch of Kimball opposite a grim concrete CTA railyard, a couple of doors from a proletarian 24-hour diner called Huddle House. It's the kind of location that promises an order of desolation with a side of despair. But, the owner apparently looks past the East German vista out his front window to the hopeful kids of North Park College not far away, and maintains a bright, cheerful hot dog stand where the service is good and the food is made with care. Even when he's not there, which is the real tribute to his management culture.
That said, I don't want to oversell the standard menu. The burger is a typical Greek-diner-style burger from a frozen patty on too fluffy a bun. The dogs are pretty good, but skinless, Red Hot Chicago sausages. Good enough, not great. You see his care more in the things around the standard menu, like the soups made fresh each day in house. The list of Hot Doug's-like hot dog specials with unusual toppings. And, as it turns out, the Italian beef.
I think of spicing in Italian beef broth as either alive or dead. If the spices are bright, complex, multidimensional, they're alive. If they have the flat brown-grass taste of the herbs that came with the pizza you ordered three years ago and stuck in the back of the silverware drawer, they're dead. The spices at Johnnie's Beef are alive. So are these. The beef is shaved but retains integrity, not boiled into stringy mush. That too is as true at Johnnie's as it is here. The sausage, though grilled over gas rather than Johnnie's charcoal, is juicy and has deep char marks and flavor. There isn't anything like the giardinera that Johnnie's offers, but someone who knows what they're doing oiled and then hand-charred the slices of green and red pepper on top.
Is it better than Johnnie's? No, but just having many of the same virtues as probably the best beef on Earth puts you way ahead of most of your competitors. Hot Dog Station deserves credit as a place that tries harder. And unexpectedly given its name, it's the Italian beef where that effort pays off the most.
Hot Dog Station
4742 N Kimball Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625 (map)
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