Just as the Illinois state bird is the cardinal and the state flower is the violet, I’m pretty sure that the state scent is the hot dog.It’s a dreary Saturday, about 45 degrees, which is unseasonably warm for January in Chicago. The gray clouds have formed a kind of smell barrier above the city, and the salty, slightly smoky eau de sausage, mixed with exhaust fumes, hangs in the air. I follow the come-hither tendrils, and they lead me about a mile from my house on the north side of town to the city’s most beloved hot dog stand, Hot Doug’s.
The line snakes out the door and winds around the corner, about half a block. “Not bad,” I think to myself, having seen far worse waits. At this rate, I figure I’ll be eating yak sausage with roasted pepper rouille, white cheddar cheese curds and crispy fried onions in about an hour.
That’s how we roll now in Chicago. Sure, you can still stuff your face with the fluorescent-relish-topped Vienna Beef brand that’s associated with the city from afar. But encased-meat aficionados know that sausage shacks have evolved beyond celery salt and tomato slices to a gourmet level that, we Midwesterners dream, will one day be fit for a Michelin star.
That’s largely thanks to Doug Sohn, who is the owner of Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore and Encased Meats Emporium, and arguably the No. 1 fan of meat-in-a-tube. In the late ’90s, Sohn, who had attended culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago, was working as a cookbook editor. One day, a colleague mentioned that he’d eaten a bad hot dog. A proud Chicagoan, Sohn didn’t enjoy hearing those words arranged as such. It inspired him to dig deeper, and he started a weekly tasting group, eating his way around the city’s hot dog stands. After sampling 40 different varieties, he’d seen the frankfurter at its best and at its worst.
The path of his life was forever changed. “I realized that I couldn’t be the only one who would like a place that only serves sausage,” he recalls.
Hot Doug’s was born in 2001. Today, the fast-food restaurant practically doubles as a hot dog museum, it’s so loaded with wiener wonderments, such as posters detailing the history of the hot dog, plush hot dogs, plastic hot dogs, mini Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles, candy frankfurters, a diploma from Hot Dog University — and the list goes on. Diners can choose from 12 daily specials (such as rattlesnake sausage with blackberry raita and Sgt. Pepper chevre; smoked shrimp and pork sausage with creole mustard, goat cheese and grits; pork belly and lamb sausage with muffaletta-onion goat butter, sage derby cheese and garlic confit) that cost $7.50 to $10. Tthere are also the more standard Polish/hot dog/bratwurst options for $1.50 to $4.
The most notorious sausage is the foie gras-and-Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel. It earned Sohn national coverage when he refused to kneel to the 2006 Chicago foie gras ban. As the first restaurateur in the country to be fined for such rebellion (the ban was later repealed), Sohn is extremely proud of the fact that the $250 fine earned him more publicity than he could ever actually buy.