It’s summer in Chicago–and that means plenty of outdoor cooking. Hamburgers, brats, Italian sausage, Polish sausage…but what about hot dogs? Yes! Go ahead, if you like: plop them on grill, hold them on a stick over a campfire. But to get a REAL Chicago hot dog, you’ll have to go back inside.
Hot dogs are part of the Chicago Holy Trinity: Deep Dish Pizza, Italian Beef Sandwich, and now: The Hot Dog. Yes, the humble hot dog has celebrity status in the Windy City. And the protocol around how to properly prepare and construct it is strict. Other cities may allow for dalliance, but not here.
I once wrote about the, um, “unusual” classic hot dog of Québec City, comparing it to the perfect Chicago Hot Dog. I love Québec City, but their mayo and cabbage version, topped with soggy fries, was pretty awful. (Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)
Chicago Hot Dog: Rule #1 NO Ketchup!!
I’m not kidding. Not even a little bit. Before we get down to how to make your own at home, I must make this crystal clear: NO ketchup. Hot dog shops in Chicago actually post signs to warn tourists–and locals who should know better. Children (under age 17) get a break, but the day they turn 17, that’s it.
Barack Obama thinks the no-ketchup age cutoff is 8 years old. In a blunt conversation with the Chicago PBS station, he was adamant about folks who decide to disregard the custom: “It is also their right to put mayo or chocolate syrup or toenail clippings or cat hair on a hot dog. Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.” Strong opinion, Mr. President. And the right one.
Chicago Hot Dog: Rule #2 Vienna Beef Franks
Forget hot dogs from Oscar Meyer. Forget organic, grass-fed, natural casing hot dogs from Whole Foods. Definitely set aside the giant beef hot dogs sold in 4-pound packages at Costco. These are all fine products (Don’t even start with “Do you know what’s in a hot dog?” That’s not why we’re here today.) and each has its own time and place. But not in a Chicago Hot Dog.
To achieve Hot Dog Nirvana, you must use Vienna Beef Franks: “Chicago’s Hot Dog.” A package of 8 will cost $5-$7, twice as much as Oscar Meyer or Ballpark. All-beef hot dogs have a more robust flavor that serves as the foundation for the garnishes that are piled on. And Vienna franks are made of cuts that you actually recognize.
Premiering at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition/World’s Fair (along with other favorite foods we still love, 27 million visitors were able to enjoy the “frankfurter” invented by Austrian-Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladany. They named their company “Vienna” as a nod to the city where high-quality sausages were made. The hot dogs were an immediate hit, and the men opened their first store a year later.
NOTE: Although Vienna Franks are always the #1 choice, in a pinch I’ve used Hebrew National, which makes a very decent beef hot dog. Nathan’s Famous is okay, too, although, I have a unabashed bias against a New York company that didn’t start until 1916.
Chicago Hot Dog: Rule #3 Gather the Garnishes
In the mid-1950s, Chicagoans began to ask for their hot dogs to be “dragged through the garden,” referring to the assortment of accompaniments piled on. In order to create your own Chicago Hot Dog experience, you’ll need to have on hand:
- Poppyseed hot dog buns: Of all the components, this is the one you can probably cheat on. Even in Chicago, poppyseed buns aren’t always available in the bread aisle. Poppyseeds do add a certain crunch and nutty flavor, as well as bit of sophistication. Mostly, they indicate authenticity.
- Yellow mustard: Don’t even attempt to get fancy with Dijon or herb-flavored mustard. Good old yellow mustard is called for here. It’s the first thing that goes on the hot dog, in a pretty zig-zag pattern.
- Sweet relish: Next is the neon-green pickle relish–again, maybe not available outside Chicagoland. It’s made by adding blue food dye to create the eye-popping bright green. I’ll be honest: it tastes the same as the sweet relish on the condiment shelf at your grocery store.
- Chopped onion: Again, no need to get fancy with red onions or scallions. I do think it’s easier to chop sweet onions (less potential to cause tears) but ordinary yellow onions are perfectly fine.
- Tomato: Exactly TWO half-slices of tomato. You get a little leeway here: they can be TWO small wedges. No matter how much you love tomatoes, stop at TWO.
- Dill pickle spear: Kosher-style. Period.
- Sport peppers: Two of these tiny spicy pickled peppers, please. I don’t want to hear that you don’t like hot peppers. There are only two, and they combine with the other elements to make the perfect Chicago Hot Dog. (It’s okay if you leave them off for children, the elderly, or the infirm.)
- Celery salt: Did you know that Chicago was once the Celery Capital of the World? The final shakes of celery salt are a tribute to the city’s roots. It also adds a light taste that works well with the tomatoes.
Chicago Hot Dog: Rule #4 Making Your Own
Ready? This is really easy–remember, Chicago Hot Dogs are often sold from carts, so nothing is complicated. You’ll be amazed at how quickly everything comes together! I recommend planning on at least two per person, more if you’re serving big eaters or hot dog connoisseurs.
- Get all the garnishes ready: chop the onions, slice the tomatoes, take pickles and sport peppers out of the jar and place them on a paper towel to drain.
- Bring a pot of water to boil and then reduce the heat to low. Put the hot dogs in the water and cook for 5-10 minutes. Remove the hot dogs and set them aside.
- Place a steamer basket or colander over the hot dog water. Open the poppyseed buns and let them steam until warm, about 2 minutes.
- Put a hot dog in the steamed bun and add the garnishes in order: mustard, relish, onion, tomato, pickle, peppers, and celery salt. The tomato wedges should be nestled between hot dog and top of bun on one side. Place pickle between hot dog and bottom of bun on the other side.
The result: A whole greater than the sum of its parts. The robust all-beef and perfectly seasoned hot dog; the tart bite of the yellow mustard; the crunch of the onions; the sweetness of the relish; the juiciness and fresh taste of the tomatoes; the contrast of the briny pickle and sharp pepper; and the final umami of celery salt.
I’d tell you to take your time and savor the taste, but it’s really impossible. That’s why you should plan for two Chicago hot dogs for each person. And why ketchup disrupts the balance.
Finding a Chicago Hot Dog Stand
When you visit Chicago, search out a local hot dog stand. They’re usually small, sometimes walk-up, and often busy. You’ll also see them advertised as “red hots,” because vendors used to pull them from the steaming water and call out, “Get your red hots here.”
One Chicago brand, Portillo’s, began as a tiny stand near my junior high school in 1963. We’d walk there after school and get a hot dog with a handful of fries, all wrapped in a sheet of wax paper, for 35 cents. Today, there are almost 70 locations across the country, and Dick Portillo’s company is traded on NASDAQ (PTLO).
I mention Portillo’s because there may be one near you. They make a good hot dog and Italian beef, and their menu has expanded to hamburgers, ribs, salads, etc. Chicagoans who have moved away celebrate the opening of a Portillo’s near them. Perhaps you are one of those folks now living in Florida, California, Arizona, Colorado, or Las Vegas. (Probably more coming, too.)
But if you can, seek out an authentic Chicago Hot Dog stand. I recommend Superdawg Drive-In, Jimmy’s Red Hots, Chicago Dog House, and Devil Dawgs. And your own local favorite–we all have at least one. It’s always good to support local businesses.
After awhile, you may want to expand your Chicago palate to include an Italian sausage or Polish sausage. Both are delicious and worth your while. Chicago was built by immigrants who brought their sausage making skills with them…and luckily for us, we still enjoy their cultural contributions.
After you finish your hot dog, check out these Chicago spots:
American Writers Museum Celebrates Words–Of All Kinds
5 Chicago Buildings You Should Know
Chicago Cultural Center: Visit the “Palace of the People”….and it’s FREE
Chicago Architecture Center: More than the River Cruise
Chicago: Millennium Park is the Perfect Public Place