Sunday, March 20, 2005

Chicago Hot Dogs

I’m back from Chicago. It seems like all I ate were polish sausages and BBQ. It was good. But I think there are some vegetables in my future.

When I arrived in the city and was taking the L from O’Hare, I didn’t really have a good plan on how to get to my destination at Armitage and Lincoln. The Armitage bus doesn’t run late. At Damen Avenue, a beautiful old L stop, I saw a Vienna Beef sign beckoning me from the street. I grabbed my suitcase and jumped out the doors right before they closed.

But strolling to the hot dog stand, proud of my impulsive decision, I made another more impulsive decision, this one regretful in hindsight. Heading to the hot-dog stand visible from the L, I passed another hot dog stand, Underdog. It was in the basement. What the hell? It’s all new to me.

It seems strange, writing this in New York, to say that a hot-dog stand in a basement with the name of Underdog is appealing. But Chicago hot dog stands do have awfully silly names. Not all of them, mind you, but many do: Diggity Dogs, Mustard’s Last Stand, Poochie's, Fluky’s, Wiener Circle, Superdawg, Big Herm’s, Wolfy’s, Hot Doug (hee hee, that place should be in Baltimore where dog is pronounced dug). There's also a surprisingly grammatical use of apostrophes, now that I notice. A literate people, we are.

When I went down the stairs I saw a gorgeous girl eating a hot dog and fries. She was all alone except for a older black man unrequitedly flirting with her. A skinny girl who likes meat is always sexy, and I couldn’t help but think that she should be in ad for Vienna Beef. But if I saw that ad, I would have gone, “Yeah right, I’d like to see that girl in my hot dog stand.” Of course maybe if I lived in Wicker Park I would.

Anyway, I ordered a char-polish and fries. The fries were fresh-cut, which was nice, but I don’t go to Chicago for the fries. The Polish wasn’t very good. And somehow it didn’t all come together. But it was hard to say what was wrong. The bun wasn’t steamed enough, but that wasn’t it alone. The polish wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the Chicago hot dog I dream about.

Had I changed? Can you not go home again? Or, God forbid, are Chicago hot dogs just not that good? I’ve heard stories from respectable people about having Chicago hot dogs that weren’t life changed. And I’ve had a few mediocre Chicago hot dogs in New York.

I continued East on the North Avenue bus, not quite full, not quite happy, and missing New York.

The next day I biked downtown to my conference (I was in Chicago for a criminology conference). On the way and near the conference hotel, I noticed, surrounded on three sides by a vacant lot serving as a pay parking lot, a small hot dog stand with hand-painted signs all over advertising their menu.

(Does somebody really go, “gosh, they’ve got hot dogs and hamburgers, I wonder if they’ve got fries?” Or, “I’m not stepping in there unless they can promise me Italian Beef and a milk shake.”)

I seem to think there were also paintings of the ol’ dog-as-hot-dog as well. Anybody from Chicago can picture a happy hot dog in a bun with eyes, ears, mouth, ready to be eaten with relish. But maybe I’m just making this up in this case.

No matter, the building looked promising. Indeed it was. Hot Diggity Dogs (E Ohio and Columbus) makes good hot dogs. A small counter for service and stools lining the perimeter for eating in. Hot dogs stands always have stools. I don’t know why. Hot dog stands always have press-on menus boards with those little red or black letters you press into them. Sometimes they're backlit. I ate lunch at Diggity Dogs every day.

Their polishes were better than normal. They were a bit spicier and the casing was thicker and had more texture. Not Vienna, I suspected. I asked the man behind the counter and he proudly told me that the hot dogs were Vienna and the polishes were Red Hots. Never heard of them before. But they’re good. Diggity Dogs serves their polishes with fried onions, a classy touch.

Polishes are better than hot dogs because, 1) they’re more real meat, more sausage and less whipped up meat products; and 2) they’re deep fried. I eat mine with everything but relish. Everything includes mustard, pickle, hot peppers, pickle relish, onions, and tomatoes. Celery salt is sometimes offered, but I don’t like it. Extra pickle and peppers are good.

It’s nice to be back in Chicago where the man behind the counter makes eye contact with you when there are still two people in front of you. Things move fast. A hot dog stand makes hot dogs and they’re good at it. You are meant to speak loudly, quickly, and clearly: “Polish everything no relish extra pickle extra peppers.” That’s it. The order is verbally passed back to the employees putting it all together.

I’ve never had a mis-assembled Chicago hot dog ever, best I can remember. There’s no “Extra what?” There’s no slowly pushing buttons into the register. There’s no wondering about our poor education system because the cashier is slow. All you get in reply is, “You want pop with that?” I’m honestly getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. Chicago is hot dog stands that work. Studs Terkel would be proud. I was happy to be back home.

But thanks to Underdog, I learned that not all Chicago hot dogs are good (the only honestly bad Chicago hot dog joint I know about is Demon Dogs, despite it's location under the Fullerton Avenue L). A Vienna Beef sign isn’t enough. I guess when I lived in Chicago I just always went to the good places so I thought that all hot dog places were good.

I should have seen Underdog as hipster schlock. In hindsight, there were three obvious warning signs: 1) Underdog shared space with a Mexican place on the street-level of the building. Hot dog stands stand alone. 2) There were chairs rather than stool. I don’t know why this matters. But it’s a bad sign. 3) There were no Chicago-born employees, only Mexicans.

I love Mexicans and their food and their work ethic. But non-Chicagoans shouldn’t be working at a hot dog stand without Chicago-born supervision. For the same reasons I wouldn’t trust a gringo-run taco cart in Mexico. I don’t know why it’s so hard to master. Perhaps it’s just too simple a process and too low an art form to survive the slightest misdeed. Maybe it’s the same reason the Chicago hot dog concept doesn’t travel.

It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, you’ve got to be raised in Chicago to understand the Chicago hot-dog vision. The young man who ran Diggity Dogs clearly understood the vision. Though strangely, he was a Yankee fan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For the record, Demon Dogs, a very easy habbit to break, not only serves non-Vienna beef hot dogs, but also serves no tomatoes.

And Chicago the band sucks too.