My Past and Occasional Present Pursuit of the Perfect Hot Dog

I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
that is what I’d really like to be
’cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
everyone would be in love with me
 
Oh, I’m glad I’m not an Oscar Mayer wiener
that is what I’d never want to be
’cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
everyone would take a bite of me

 

Truthfully, I never wanted to be an Oscar Mayer Wiener – I am a Vienna Beef kind of gal, through and through, followed by Hebrew National. When I was a teenager, my dad and I decided that we would become hot dog connoisseurs and pursue the perfect dog. Growing up in Chicago – the hot dog capital of America, this seemed like a logical and glorious quest. Zagat and the Internet did not yet exist for suggestions, but hot dog dives were abundant and we stumbled upon several prime examples within just 2 miles of our house. And on occasion there was a review in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Reader and we tried those establishments. Quite a few of these “Ma and Pa” places still exist, but many are long defunct.

The classic Chicago hot dog is a Vienna Beef, nestled in a steamed poppy seed bun and garnished with any combination of these toppings: yellow mustard, bright green relish, fresh chopped onions, red tomato wedges, a kosher-style pickle spear, spicy sport peppers and optionally – a dash of celery salt. I dislike raw onions so I always pass on those, but I must admit I like sauerkraut and that is more of a NYC thing so rarely offered in Chicago. There is one cardinal rule if you are from Chi-Town – NO ketchup … Jeff would beg to differ so I created the following for him: 

Among my favorites as a kid was the iconic Superdawg at the corner of Milwaukee and Devon Avenues – just a few miles from where I grew up in Lincolnwood. As an artist and lover of roadside kitsch, I adored the super cool blinking hot dog statues designed by owner Maurie Berman. Not to mention the wonderful late 1940s drive-in architecture, the quirky boxes housing the dogs, and the unique garnish of a pickled tomato and Super neon green relish. I recall that on my first visit home from college I insisted that we stop on the way back from O’Hare Airport at none other than Superdawg! They thought I was a bit nuts when I asked for an empty box – I used it to store some rhinestones and vintage baubles acquired during my glorious years in Providence. Just looking at the box summoned hunger pangs of nostalgia.

I recently bought a Groupon for Superdawg – paid $10 for $20 worth of food. Jeff and I ventured over to the fairly new Wheeling location last week. While impressed with the large building that retained the vintage vibe of the original, as well as the bonus indoor seating, we were disappointed for several reasons. A Superdawg, Superburger and two malts came to just over $22.00 – that is rather steep for a casual lunch, Groupon aside. The steamed poppy seed bun was too soggy, although the crinkle fries were quite good. While the neon green relish was just as I fondly remembered, it tasted weird. A few hours after we got home we both developed a Super bellyache. I guess it is true to some extent that you cannot relive the past – nothing stays the same.

While I was still in high school, my dad and I ventured a bit further afield to Byron’s Hot Dogs when it first opened. I was curious to try this joint because I went to high school with the owner’s daughter. The hot dog was pretty good and I liked the cucumber garnish, but it was the generous portion of thin-cut fries that really rocked my boat. Years later when I was married and living in the Ravenswood area, we frequented Byron’s with some regularity.

Without a doubt, the best greasy hot dog house close to my house was The Ranch. But I never actually went there with my dad. My friend Stefi and her family introduced me to this culinary delight when I stayed for dinner at her house one evening. The Ranch was really just a shack on Devon Avenue, but the hot dogs on poppy seed buns and the crispy, greasy fries were to die for. I worked at Bronson Coles Photography Studio in Lincoln Village starting senior year in high school. Dennis, a wedding photographer and darkroom technician frequently bought hot dogs and fries from The Ranch and chowed down on them at the studio. He practically inhaled this food and once nearly choked on it he scarfed it down so fast.

My dad and I went to the Bunny Hutch just once, but this Lincolnwood icon remained etched fondly in my memories for three reasons. The huge bunny statue that remains to this day, beckoning diners inside for a bite to eat, is wonderful in the same way as Maurie Berman’s hot dog statues. The Bunny Hutch is part of Novelty Golf, a quaint mini golf course that harkens back to 1949. I went to Novelty golf many times as a kid including to birthday parties during my elementary school years. But most importantly, I went to Bunny Hutch on a double date sophomore year in high school – my date was a creep, but I eventually went out with the other guy junior year in high school. It was about then that my dad realized his middle daughter was growing up and our hot dog jaunts would soon be a thing of the past – sorry, dad.

When I went to college on the East coast I had to give up my hot dog obsession. I just could not find a good hot dog in Providence, although there were wonderful luncheonettes and diners all over downtown. I learned to love the hot dogs served at the RISD Refectory at lunch every Saturday, although they were a far cry from my beloved Vienna Beefs.

During my college years, I visited NYC quite often and while I enjoyed plenty of culinary delights such as soft pretzels, Manhattan Special coffee sodaegg creams, and potato knishes, the hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous paled in comparison to Chicago-style hot dogs. And I wondered why the heck New Yorkers called hot dogs frankfurters? A German immigrant named Charles Feltman was the first to sell frankfurters at Coney Island in 1870. One of his employees, also German, eventually opened Nathan’s, which likely explains the permanent usage of the German term in NYC. While I didn’t care for NYC frankfurters, I did become a devotee of the NYC tradition of sauerkraut as a garnish. I have adhered to this tradition ever since, piling up sauerkraut on my hot dog every time we cook them at home.

Fast forward to the late 1990s-present. There was a wonderful dive on Irving Park Road near Kedzie called Manny’s. A run-down little shack of a place, this joint served up Vienna Beef dogs classic Chicago-style with freshly cut fries with the skin for just $1.65- what a bargain! Not surprisingly, they went out of business about 6-7 years ago. Oft-reviewed is one of Chicago’s Very Own, Hot Doug’s. What makes this hot dog joint truly special is that owner Doug Sohn offers up Duck Fat Fries and an awesome variety of sausages with very clever monikers. How many hot dog joints have a Wikipedia entry? While Hot Doug’s is worthy of praise, I still prefer the classic hot dog stand that is synonymous with the Windy City.

Hot dogs, red hots, frankfurters, wieners, weenies – whatever you call them, they are as American as apple pie. Images of July fourth picnics in a more idyllic time in history come to mind when I think of hot dogs.  Visually they are fascinating, which is why so many intriguing products have been created over the years.

5 Comments:

  1. Thanks for linking to my post on Lincoln Village and leading me to your blog. I love this story on hot dogs, and look forward to reading more of your posts. I’m guessing we grew up in the same area, right?

  2. Guess I’m weird, too. I’m born and raised in Chicago, and I and my family have ALWAYS put that nasty ketchup on our dogs! I get a lot of good-natured ribbing from my friends, but hey, it’s what makes a dog just that much better. And don’t forget ketchup on the fries! We have been known to bring our own ketchup if we are about to patronize a non-ketchup dog joint. (Gene & Judes).

    Just to let you know it’s NOT weird, and lot’s of folks do it! Thanks!

    • Thank you for your comment. The ketchup remark and artwork were meant to be good-natured and in jest, just like your friends ribbing you! I am about the most open-minded person on all counts and would personally never judge how or why anybody eats any type of food, much less condiments. In the Netherlands, they traditionally offer mayonnaise on fries, but in addition to ketchup you can order them with mustard, relish, and onions. People in the US might find that gross, not to mention sliding an entire herring down one’s throat, a popular treat there! To each his own.

      • Ha! that’s odd. I stopped at “Superdawg” just last week. I didn’t plan to, I was just going down Milwaukee Ave. to another destination. I hadn’t been to this place in years and my hunger for a dog got the best of me. I parked, (don’t care for the carhop service) and walked in to order a dog and fries. And hold that horrible green tomato! A dog, and fries including tax, will run you a little over $6.00! For ONE dog. Now that’s pretty pricey for what you get. Just like I remembered, I got a dog with fries stuffed into the (smallish) cardboard carry out box. Per my request, they did include a couple of ketchup packets, to put on my dog and fries. (I’m such a rule-breaker). This is almost impossible to consume in ones car, without making a mess. But I did and that was that. Glad I had my own can of iced tea with me.

        I worked with some Polish guys, who said in their country it’s common practice to eat your pizza with ketchup slathered all over it! Sure enough, at the local international food market they indeed sell ketchup for pizza! That’s my personal limit, no ketchup on my pizza, please.

        If you’re from Chicago, remember a dog joint on Milwaukee ave called “Tasty-Hastee”? Not too far from Gladstone bakery, I believe. It’s long gone, but I enjoyed their dogs with EVERYTHING on them. It was a meal in itself!

        Sorry, got a little carried away about hot dogs and ketchup. Your site just brought back some fond memories! Ray

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