It’s no secret that I’m a proud Chicagoan. I love the city, the people, the amazing skyline, and, as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the food. There are quite a few things that Chicago is famous for, including deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and probably most famously, the Chicago-style hot dog red hot.
Adam and I absolutely love Chicago-style hot dogs, so much so that we had them as a midnight snack at our wedding! One day, after visiting the hot dog stand that provided the wedding dogs, Adam mentioned that he’d never been to Gene and Jude’s, well-known as the best place for hot dogs in the Chicagoland area. I was appalled! He then came up with an idea: how about we go to all the best hot dog places in the city to compare their hot dogs?
I was intrigued. Then I was motivated. I started researching hot dog places to visit, and came up with a list of the top 5 hot dog eateries in the area, and I threw caution to the wind and proposed it to FoodBuzz for this month’s 24×24 event. Imagine my excitement when it was accepted?! In the end, we needed to make one substitution from the original list, as one of the establishments was closed for vacation, but before we knew it, the weekend of May 29, 2010 would live in infamy as “The Day We Got Dragged Through The Garden.”
Wait, what? Dragged through the garden? A traditional Chicago hot dog has a variety of toppings: a kosher pickle spear, yellow mustard, sport peppers, neon relish, diced onions, fresh tomato slices, all on a steamed bun. Due to the variety of garden-type toppings on the dog, it has been said that a loaded dog has been “dragged through the garden.”
We set out at noon on May 29, a beautiful sunny day, on a carefully-planned route through 4 cities and 2 counties.
We started at Point A, a.k.a. home. We took the Prius to our first destination:
B: Nana’s Hot Dogs & Italian Beef, Addison, IL
Nana’s was the place that provided the hot dogs for our wedding midnight snack, and we started there for the purpose of comparison. We knew they were good, but having a point of reference would help make comparison easier. We were extremely surprised when we walked in to see Frank, our wedding coordinator from our wedding venue working the line! It was great to see him again!
Nana’s is a relatively new establishment, as far as hot dog stands go. They have a fairly extensive menu, but we were on a mission: hot dogs.
We ordered two hot dogs, each of which came with fresh, hand-cut french fries. Wait, I mis-worded that. They come wrapped in fresh, hand-cut french fries.
Upon removing the fries, we found what we were looking for: an all-beef, natural-casing hot dog, topped with chopped onions, relish, sport peppers, yellow mustard, and celery salt.
There’s really no way to make a hot dog look pretty! But, this hot dog had a robust flavor, great “snap” (the almost crunch when biting), and a great balance of toppings to hot dog. There was a definite flavor of garlic in the dog, and Nana’s had, by far, the best fries of the day! You’ll see, that says a lot!
We got back in the Prius and headed out to our next destination.
C: Gene & Jude’s Red Hots, River Forest, IL
This place is legendary. Seriously legendary. I’d only ever had take-out from Gene & Jude’s ONCE that I can remember, and it left that big of an impression on me! I absolutely love establishments like this that make it a point to never change with the times. I think they’ve had the same sign and building since 1946 when they first opened.
It was absolutely packed when we got there. The line wrapped all the way around the interior of the building, but the skilled employees knew how to keep the line moving. It’s old-school all the way. Cash only.
With a whopping 5 items on the menu IF you count drinks, but they don’t need more than that.
There were strict instructions on how to order
And no tables to eat at. Just a simple “lean against” counter around the perimeter of the restaurant.
The hot dogs? Unbelievable. I know I say that about a lot of things, but to have a hot dog have that kind of complex flavor was surprising and almost odd. It looked almost identical to Nana’s, but it had a bit more spice, and significantly more beef flavor. Gene & Jude’s has a contract with Vienna Beef (as do many restaurants) to have their own recipe of hot dogs made for their restaurant and theirs alone.
The fries were good, but not crispy enough for me.
Gene & Jude’s is certainly deserving of all the press and awards it has received over the years.
Then it was back in the Prius to our next destination. This one was a bit farther away, and in a far north suburb of Chicago.
D: D’s Haute Dogs, Winnetka, IL
This restaurant was opened in 2008, and to say it has an interesting menu is an understatement. The exterior is unassuming
But as the name suggests, it provides more than just the standard hot dog! I talked with one of the owners/managers (correct me if I’m wrong!) and she informed me that they get all their hot dogs and sausages from the same butcher as the famous Hot Doug’s in Chicago, their burgers are house-made, and their cheese fries were topped with Merkt’s cheddar, a.k.a. the best pub cheese ever. I gave her my blog card, informed her of our adventure, and asked her what to get from their extensive menu.
She said that the Zeus was the way to go, a sausage made of gyro meat and topped with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, feta, and tzatziki sauce. Adam went with the mini corn dogs, and we ordered cheese fries to share.
There are no words.
We’ll be going back to try the rest of the menu, because if everything is even half as delicious and interesting as these, we’ll be happy campers! The gyro dog tasted like the best gyro ever, in convenient hot dog form. The corn dogs had a delicious breading and mini beef hot dogs inside, with a great mustard aioli to dip. And the fries? Did you SEE that cheese?
To say we were full is an understatement, but it was back in the Prius… to take a break! We spent a couple hours at our friend’s house to digest a bit, and then we headed to our next destination. This one was special. It wasn’t a hot dog stand, nor was it a hot dog restaurant. It was a real restaurant, recently rated “best new bar” by Time Out Chicago, headed up by “best new chef” Jared Van Camp. Old Town Social has been on our list to visit for some time now, and for good reason… Chef Van Camp? Yeah, he’s my sister’s boyfriend.
E: Old Town Social, Chicago, IL
Why would a place like this be on our Chicago Hot Dog Tour list? For good reason, believe it or not… on the menu? Well, see for yourself:
We of course, got the mini hot dogs! Rather than choosing one type, we went with one of each: Chicago-style, Chili, and Corn.
These hot dogs, as we said while eating them, are a whole other animal. When we talked to Chef Van Camp, he said that coming up with a working hot dog recipe was one one of the most difficult things he’d ever done, culinarily. It was “all about coming up with the right balance of water, meat, and fat” to get that perfect texture. “It’s also about the quality of product. We use better quality meat, then the [hot dogs] are made and smoked in house.” He explains the process further in his blog, Some Pig. The process is intense, and gives me a greater appreciation for quality over convenience. But that’s a whole other post…
They were seriously amazing hot dogs, as we told Chef Van Camp numerous times. They rivaled in flavor and texture, the dogs at Gene & Jude’s, which is really saying something.
We didn’t leave after just the hot dogs though. We definitely feasted! Don’t worry, there were three of us at the table sharing all this food… but yes, we were ridiculously full!
A delicious pear Lambic ale
Confit duck wings with harissa and cucumber-mint raita
Crispy french fries with garlic aioli
Some of the charcuterie: on the left, pastrami; the right, finnochiona salame
More charcuterie, from left: Spanish chorizo, whole-hog mortadella, summer sausage
Chef Van Camp at work in the Charcuterie kitchen
Bacon-cornmeal waffles with smoked sausage and hot maple syrup
Grilled Vermont white cheddar on brioche with creamy tomato bisque
Old Town Social is somewhere we’ll be visiting again and soon! There is so much on the menu I’m dying to try, and we’ll need to go back when we’re actually HUNGRY!
We couldn’t believe that after all that food, we still had one more hot dog stop to make on the way home. There was no room left in our oh-so-full bellies! Luckily, Adam’s friend wanted to stop for coffee on our way to drop him off at home, so soon enough, the caffeine had kicked in and we were ready for our last stop.
We took the Prius back to the north side of Chicago to a place I’d grown up with. It’s an icon, recently made more famous on Food Network. None other than…
F: Superdawg Drive-In, Chicago, IL
This is the famous view that indicates that indeed, this is a hot dog stand:
Nay, not a hot dog stand. A drive-in! Absolutely nothing has changed since they opened in 1948 except a few menu options, and they’ve kept the same quirky building and giant dressed-up hot dog statues on the roof since then as well. We parked and ordered from the window speaker
Since we had so little space in our bellies, we shared one hot dog, each had a french fry for comparison’s sake, and we ordered a malt for good measure. A carhop came to our car very soon after we ordered with our final hot dog of the day.
Superdawg definitely had the best packaging!
Yes, there’s a hot dog somewhere in there! The crinkle-cut fries were hot and crispy, though nothing like the ones at Nana’s or Old Town Social. This was the only place to put a half a pickled tomato along with their dog in addition to the pickle spear and sport peppers. Upon removing the fries:
There it is. The Superdawg. It’s topped with the most neon-green of the neon-green relishes I’ve ever seen, and this was the only place to use a poppyseed bun. It was by far the biggest hot dog, but the flavor was a bit lacking. It was a “skinless” dog, so it tasted the most like grocery store hot dogs of all the ones we ate. We did commit the ultimate Chicago hot dog sin with the last bite of this hot dog. We added ketchup. It just needed something to make it a bit more flavorful. The malt though, was fantastic, and had a sense of humor.
We got home and collapsed, partially from exhaustion, partially from being so incredibly full! We talked though, and came to some conclusions:
Nana’s had the best fries of the day.
It’s a toss-up between Gene and Jude’s and Old Town Social for best hot dog.
D’s Haute Dogs had the most unique options, and many other things we want to try.
What Superdawg lacked in flavor, they made up for with atmosphere and kitsch, and they had a great chocolate malt.
Old Town Social had the most individual items that are now on my “must try” list.
The whole day was an experience we (and our arteries) will never forget! It’ll be a while before we eat a hot dog again, but I think both Adam and I have a new appreciation for what it means to have a hot dog or a true Chicago Red Hot. A hot dog can be purchased in a package at your local grocery store. A true Chicago red hot is indeed, an experience. There’s an atmosphere, a flavor, a smell, and even a sound of a proper Chicago red hot. From old Chicago establishments like Superdawg and Gene & Jude’s, to new and trendy bars like Old Town Social, one thing remains constant: a good hot dog is not something to be taken for granted!