Hot Blog with Mustard
U.S. Cellular Field

As much as it pains me to say this, The Cell really has it going on in the Chicago-style hot dog department. It’s great that you can get a Vienna Beef at baseball games in Chicago, but Wrigley is severely lagging. Sure Wrigley has all the ingredients necessary to dress up a dog, and sure they have those awesome grilling stations located throughout, but they do not have steamed buns and they do not have this guy:

      

This guy is lovingly crafting Chicago-style hot dogs from a traveling cart in the upper deck at The Cell. I’m not sure if there are other carts roving the stadium but there should be. Really these carts should be all over the city but that’s for another post. In this cart you have a bun steamer, which is a key component of the Chicago-style hot dog. At Wrigley the buns are often stale and no amount of heaping toppings can overcome a stale bun. So while the Cubs are looking to add some pieces for the future before the trade deadline, how about adding some hot dog carts as well? The Cubs give up Chris Volstad and Jeff Baker and get 6 hot dog carts? Let’s make this happen! 

               

Of course the hot dog was excellent, even in the blazing heat of last Sunday sitting in the upper deck at The Cell in one of the longest, slowest baseball games I’ve ever been to. It was a surprise party for my dad’s birthday though, and he was genuinely surprised so a good time was had by all. 

      

Huey’s

It’s been way too long since my last blog post but I’ve been on vacation, to a dark place where Vienna Beef hot dog stands don’t exist. Although while stopping for gas in the tiny town of Pentwater, Michigan-at a gas station where you pump first and then pay-I spotted a wooden shack with a Vienna Beef hot dog sign on it. No idea where that came from. Before I went on vacation I hit up Huey’s in Andersonville.

As I’m not really in love with the fry situation at Wolfy’s, Huey’s is probably my top local hot dog place. A recently renovated dining room at Huey’s (as well as a slew of Cubs memorabilia) makes it a preferred destination. Huey’s has a really nice menu of encased meat options, some great specialty burgers and excellent milk shakes. I went with the char dog since it’s an option. 

      

It occurred to me while eating this excellent hot dog that I can’t remember ever eating a super-skinny, natural casing dog that had been charred. I feel like the char dog is always slightly larger. Do the skinny ones not char up nicely? Great fresh cut fries, not even a little overly browned. The wife also approves of their burger. 

      

Portillo’s

He speaks the truth! I’ll allow ketchup on hot dogs for little kids but once you hit 8 you should be moving on to the harder stuff (aka mustard). Luckily my nephew has gotten a jump on the ketchup situation, although he might be a few years off from mustard or anything else on his hot dog.

     

How great is Portillo’s though? It’s a one-stop shop for all of your Chicago street food needs. Italian sausage, Maxwell Street Polish, an excellent and I feel underrated Italian beef and of course an amazing hot dog, another one in my top 5. My understanding is that Vienna Beef makes a special recipe dog for Portillo’s, and it definitely has a different taste and-something I never noticed before-a different size.

     

Either the buns have gotten shorter or the hot dog has gotten longer. Or maybe it’s just always been that long and I never stopped to actually look at it because I couldn’t wait to eat the hot dog. Portillo’s krinkle-cut fries are also excellent and in my book one of only two variety of fry that is acceptable at a hot dog stand (fresh-cut being the other)

     

Portillo’s is a chain of course, a rather large one actually that now reaches into Southern California where people there can now get a real hot dog instead of whatever it is they are doing out there in between pretending to care about the L.A. Kings and the Clippers (now that they’re somewhat decent) But just because Portillo’s is a chain doesn’t mean you aren’t getting an authentic Chicago hot dog stand experience. Portillo’s is a machine that churns out perfect Chicago-style hot dogs every time. I seriously want to go back to Portillo’s right now and get a hot dog, and then a beef sandwich and maybe a chocolate shake.

Red Hot Ranch

     

"Make no little hot dogs. They have no magic to stir men’s appetites and probably will not themselves be eaten." - Daniel Burnham


…or something to that effect. All week long Conan O’Brien has been doing his show from the Chicago Theater. I’m a huge fan of Conan and I’ve watched his show in all of its incarnations. Naturally most of the monologue jokes and segments this week were heavy on the Chicago references, particularly our food, with the underlying theme being that we’re all obese. East Coasters, particularly New Yorkers, love to politely knock our food. They usually won’t say it’s awful, they’ll just say it’s too much. Our pizzas are a casserole, theirs are thin. Our hot dogs have 7 toppings, theirs have a few. We have the Italian beef, they don’t really have anything like that. Wednesday night’s guest Johnny Galecki-who at some point decided he was cooler than everyone else-said our food is made for people who work the land, not sit at desks. Although he’s from Chicago, his theory couldn’t be any more condescending and it’s exactly the kind of thing people on both coasts think about the flyover states.

So what does this have to do with my hot dog odyssey? Mainly I’m just trying to shove a rant about New Yorkers diminishing our food-along with my dislike of Johnny Galecki-into a post about my trip to the Red Hot Ranch but I promise there is a tenuous connection. Red Hot Ranch features the Depression Dog, a sub-style of Chicago hot dog that I was aware of but never had a name for until recently. The Depression Dog consists of mustard, relish, onion and sport pepper. Pickles, tomatoes and celery salt were probably an unaffordable luxury during the Great Depression. Although you’d think in the 1930s people would have been doing a lot of home pickling right? Maybe this subdued style of hot dog would meet the approval of people on both coasts? Fingers crossed!

     

Red Hot Ranch is one of many great Depression Dog stands in the Chicago area. Demon Dogs was one (pause for mourning), Jimmy’s is another and Gene & Jude’s is probably the most well-known. Red Hot Ranch, on Western near Armitage, is a newer Chicago hot dog stand and sadly one that was not there when I lived in the neighborhood. Without a doubt this was the skinniest, snappiest dog I’ve had on my short journey so far. My favorite thing about Depression Dog stands is the way they wrap their fresh-cut fries up with the dog so tightly so that when you open it there are invariably fries embedded in the soft, steamed bun.

     

The fries were crispier than most fresh-cut fries I’ve had and they seemed to have a slight sweetness to them. They definitely weren’t sweet potato fries but looked like them from the outside. Maybe it’s because they are frying them in the same place they are frying their homemade fried shrimp? I was not prepared to have the option of homemade shrimp at a postage stamp-sized hot dog stand, nor did I want a half-pound of shrimp. But the shrimp smelled amazing and I’ll be going back there for some. In fact the shrimp seemed almost as popular as the hot dogs.

So far Red Hot Ranch is the closest I’ve come to a Demon Dogs heir apparent. The fries are different but the prices are low ($5 for dog, fries and drink), there isn’t much to the place other than a counter to stand at, they’re cash-only and they have Pepsi. I don’t like Pepsi, but I loved it at Demon Dog’s with some crushed ice.

Vienna Beef Factory Store and Cafe

If you want a Vienna Beef hot dog you can always got right to the source. Today I had lunch with Julie and Tom from Vienna Beef at the Factory Store and Cafe. They liked the blog and wanted to meet me, which is awesome. Tom told me some great stories about Jimmy’s on Grand and Pulaski, which was my dad’s hot dog stand growing up and one of my top 5. I’ll save those stories for my post about Jimmy’s, whenever I get around to going back there. Tom also had a great story about a hot dog stand owner in Pilsen and the joy he felt when Vienna gave him a neon Vienna Beef sign. I’d like to start talking to the owners of these stands I visit on my quest because I’m sure a lot of them have great stories about the history of their stand and why they chose that business.

Since Julie was buying I went hot dog as well as chicken sausage. Whoever was making the hot dog must have known it was going to be photographed because the toppings were perfectly arranged on there. Great, natural casing hot dog with everything on it. As I had previously mentioned I thought Vienna owned a pickle company and they in fact do.

     

Chicken sausage with sun-dried tomato and mozzarella in it was also good and the fries were fresh-cut and crispy. Julie was nice enough to give me a baby-sized hot dog shirt, to add to my future son’s growing collection of hot dog t-shirts.

     

It was great to meet Tom and Julie as well as a couple of other Vienna Beef people. I’m hoping to be able to meet and possibly interview Bob Schwartz, author of Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog, which is not only a great book but a philosophy I live my life by. My only question is, how do I get one of these signs for my living room and will my wife let me hang it up?

     

Wiener and Still Champion

     

Wiener and Still Champion isn’t pretty on the eyes, but then again what hot dog stand is? Do you really want to go to a place that cares about aesthetics? Anyone remember the hot dog stand with the stripper pole? It didn’t last very long, probably because they were more concerned about atmosphere than their hot dogs.

Wiener and Still Champion (henceforth referred to as WaSC) is located on Dempster in Evanston, fairly close to the Northwestern Campus. I bring up NU because it reminds me of another college campus hot dog stand, one that holds a very special place in my heart, Demon Dogs. The stated purpose of this blog is for me to eat at every Vienna Beef stand in Chicago-plus a few in the burbs-but an underlying purpose is to find a hot dog stand that does what Demon Dogs did. The skinny, natural-casing dog and the perfectly greasy fresh cut fries. Demon Dogs was the perfect option for a cash-strapped college kid. $1.49 got you a hot dog and fries! This was up until they closed! I’m not talking about “back in my day” and it’s the 70s or something. For about a $1 more you got a beverage with crushed ice, which was an awesome touch. There have been rumors from time to time of Demon Dogs reopening but I’m not holding my breath.

I’m only a few hot dog stands into this quest but so far WaSC is the closest I’ve come to Demon Dogs since they closed. Plus they offer all 7 ingredients as well as a much larger menu for those out there who don’t enjoy encased meats (like my wife). The fries were the best part of Demon Dogs and they definitely shine at WaSC. Seriously perfect fries, just look at them!

     

The wife got the burger, which I have to say was really impressive. Most hot dog stands treat the burger as an afterthought but WaSC gives you a huge, thick patty on an equally huge bun. It’s a massive burger, not one of those thin discs that are peeled off a frozen stack and thrown on the grill.

     

Of course the hot dog was perfect and exactly what they used to serve at Demon Dogs, only I can get a pickle and celery salt also. I wasn’t feeling relish and tomato today, you’ll have to excuse me. WaSC offers the option of steamed, charred or fried and they have an array of special sauces that I assume you can put any food item. When I walked into this place I was not expecting them to be offering a homemade muffaletta sauce option.

     

All-in-all a great experience.

Wiener Take All

    

Or is it Weiner Take All? To me a good sign of a great hot dog place is that they have all sorts of baseball team sponsor plaques, certificates and other awards with their name spelled wrong. I don’t know why it’s a good sign, but it usually is. Maybe it’s that they don’t care how their name is spelled, just that they have good hot dogs.  

     

Wiener Take All is no exception. After considering a trip to my childhood hot dog stand Dog Den (formerly Foxy’s, formerly Dog Den) Uncle Ray instead suggested Wiener Take All on Weiland (or is it Wieland?) and Deerfield in Buffalo Grove. Growing up in Wheeling I can’t believe I never went to this place. I always knew it was there but I guess it wasn’t within biking distance so it wasn’t really on the radar. Accompanying me on the trip was my brother Mike and his wife Kara. My nephew Ben, sporting a hot dog-themed t-shirt, which to me indicates he’s ready to eat hot dogs, decided to stay home and eat a sandwich made on goldfish-shaped bread. To each his own.

    

Two key components of my hot dog enjoyment are the natural casing dog and fresh cut fries. Wiener Take All carries both. The hot dog engineer charged with constructing my dog arranged the toppings like he knew they were going to be photographed. The fresh-cut fries were perfect, not too greasy and not overcooked. As an added bonus Dr. Pepper was on tap at the fountain. Great snap to the dog although I still haven’t been to a place that carries the super-skinny natural casing dogs. Maybe Jimmy’s Red Hots should be my next trip?

All-in-all great recommendation from Uncle Ray for a place I’ve never been but really should have been going to all the time during my formative years.

Murphy’s Red Hots

Murphy’s Red Hots is one of my top 5 hot dog places. Judging it on size alone, you’d think it would be the kind of stand that only has mustard, relish, onions and sport peppers as toppings. Usually when you see a hot dog stand where the customer dining area is much smaller than the rest of the place, they are only offering those 4 toppings. Murphy’s offers all 7 ingredients, plus cucumbers, giardinera if you want it, pickle chips in addition to spears, lettuce and several more. Most of these other toppings are for the beef sandwiches or charburgers, but they won’t begrudge you for putting them on your hot dog.

                   

Murphy’s offers a foot-long option as well as a char option, so I went with the char because who doesn’t love a good char dog? Some places tend to go a little overboard on the char part of char dogs, turning them into something resembling blackened chicken in sausage form. Murphy’s has a much lighter touch with the grill and it makes for a much more enjoyable hot dog. It’s a perfect mix of char flavoring, hot dog goodness and of course all the toppings.

                   

Murphy’s does not skimp on the toppings either. If you want 3 pickles on your dog, you can get 3 pickles. The pickles in particular were awesome. There’s a sign in the restaurant for Chicago Pickle Company, which I think is owned by Vienna Beef, so I’m assuming that’s where these pickle spears came from. They are awesome pickles, very fresh, along with all the rest of the ingredients. The fries were fresh cut and looked a little overdone but still tasted awesome. They do make an incredible/incredibly hard to drink milkshake but I opted for the root beer. The wife had the charburger, which she gives a hearty thumbs up to.

                   

There’s some intangible about Murphy’s that set it apart enough from the many stands in Chicago to grab the attention of a Japanese businessman. He liked Murphy’s so much that he imported the brand to two Japanese cities. It was the first Chicago-style hot dog place in Japan. It has the look and feel of a typical neighborhood place but instead of offering hot dogs, tamales and fries, it offers a much larger selection of items and does them all quite well. So it’s not hard to see why the place ended up halfway around the world.

A few guidelines for my journey

         

Starting tomorrow I’ll be checking out the first hot dog stand, Murphy’s on Belmont. It will be the first of many I’ve already been to but in the interest of truthiness I’m revisiting places before writing about them. Because as everyone knows the internet is all about honesty.

Also in the interest of my waistline, and of finishing this blog before my future son’s college graduation, I will be visiting establishments that specialize in hot dogs. There are far too many places in Chicago that have that familiar Vienna Beef sign in the window. For instance Patio Beef, near my base of operations, is known for their Italian beef sandwiches. While I’m sure they make a fine dog I’ll be visiting places with hilarious names like Wiener and Still Champion, or places with pretty straight-forward names like Jimmy’s Red Hots. Fries are also a key component of the hot dog stand so they’ll definitely be mentioned in my posts.

When it’s possible I’ll be trying the “house specialty” at these places, be it a char-dog at Wieners Circle. Or I’ll have whatever “with everything” means. Sometimes it’s just mustard, relish, onion and peppers, sometimes it’s all seven. Sometimes it’s a cucumber! OK maybe I’ll decline the cucumber.

Finally, along this journey I’ll have the added bonus of hamburger and cheese fry reviews from my lovely wife. She is not a hot dog person. For her the two greatest words in the English language, or any language, are not “encased meats”. Though she hails from sausage-making peoples in Lithuania, Germany and Italy she has no love for their meat craftsmanship. So she usually gets a burger or beef, or some cheese fries, or just hits up McDonald’s if we’re at Gene & Jude’s and there’s nothing else nearby.

Welcome to my blog

                       

Now that I have a little time on my hands, I’ve decided to embark on a simple but time-consuming journey. My goal is to try every single Vienna Beef hot dog stand in the city of Chicago. I’ll also be hitting some hot dog stands in the surrounding suburbs. You might notice I specifically said Vienna Beef hot dog stands. In recent years I’ve been alarmed by the rise of Red Hot Chicago-branded hot dog stands. I don’t want to dive into the legal morass they’re involved in with Vienna Beef but in my opinion, Red Hot Chicago makes an inferior dog.

Besides the fact that I have a lot of time on my hands why, one might ask, am I embarking on this journey? On the surface it’s simply that I love hot dogs. But on another level, I specifically love everything there is about the Chicago hot dog. While I’m not a fan of relish, I don’t begrudge anyone for putting any of The Seven on their dog. All of the toppings on the Chicago dog have a reason for being there, an ethnic and financial history.

A great book on the Chicago hot dog is Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog, which covers the history of the great frank in detail. Another great hot dog resource is the Serious Eats Chicago website. They offer both a primer on the different varieties of the Chicago hot dog as well as a map of all the places you can find natural casing hot dogs.

I love Chicago and I love hot dogs. I love hot dogs so much that I served them at my wedding. I hope you enjoy reading my blog as much as I enjoy eating my way through the Vienna Beef hot dog stands of Chicago.