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.
About a half-hour into my lunchtime wait, a shiny silver Jeep Cherokee pulls up out front, and the driver, a man with painstakingly arranged long hair, gapes at the line. “Is it really that good?” he calls out, seeking judgment from the Hot Doug devotees, some of whom have arrived fresh from the airport, toting luggage.
It’s a reasonable question. Especially considering the crop of encased meateries that have opened following the popularity of Hot Doug’s. Right now, this very second, I could venture just a few miles away and visit Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, where they fold an array of sausages with ingredients and toppings just as fancypants as Sohn’s into a buttery roll of Texas toast. But I’ve tried the Dutch Bomber — a house-made brat, caramelized beer onions, pork belly, Gouda cheese and crispy pig ears. And I’ve eyed the Urbanbelly Chix — Vietnamese chicken sausage, pickled green papaya, curry mayo, crispy shallots, Thai basil gelee and lime. And still, I’m willing to wait at Hot Doug’s.
Or I could head over to Chicago’s Dog House to sample buffalo sausage, lamb sausage and alligator sausage. (I’ve tried to order the elk sausage with fried onions, sharp cheddar and spicy mayo in the past, but they were out.) Or there’s Westminster Hot Dog, with its Philly Steak sausage, bacon sausage, elk beer brats and duck sausages. And yet, here I stand, my stomach rumbling for the duck-fat fries, which are served only on Fridays and Saturdays at Hot Doug’s.
Chicago has a rich history with hot dogs. Legend has it that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition helped popularize the easy-to-eat European creation. According to Chicago-based Vienna Beef, the Chicago-style hot dog was born during the Great Depression, when the salad-topped sausage sold for only a nickel. Today, you’ll find more than 1,800 hot dog stands/sausage incarnations across the Windy City: snappy red hots, Coney’s, corn dogs, char dogs, Chubby Wieners, Superdawgs. There’s even a Chinese place that serves hot dog fried rice and hot dog curry.
But you won’t find me there. No, after an hour of waiting, I’ve gotten to the front of the line at Hot Doug’s. I’ve chatted with Sohn and placed my order for the yak sausage and the duck fat fries. And as I take my first bite, my second bite and my last bite, I can definitively answer the coiffed man in the silver Jeep: “Yes, it’s really that good.”
Then I walk out into the hot-dog-scented afternoon, where the line for Hot Doug’s has gotten even longer, but no one’s complaining.
3324 North California
Specialty sausages $7.50 to $10. Non-specialty hot dogs and sausages $1.50 to $4.
Silver is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her Web site is www.thekatesilver.com.