"There's no such thing as a hot dog in Chicago that you wouldn't eat," Peter Schivarelli, owner of the beloved, now-closed Demon Dogs, once said. Whichever origin story you believe, whether that the first hot dogs were served on a bun on the Bowery in the 1860s or by a German butcher in Coney Island in the 1870s, whether or not you think the term was coined by a New York Journal sports cartoonist in 1901 at the New York Polo Grounds, and no matter your regional bias, you must admit that the hot dog heritage unique to Chicago — its style, presentation, and higher-than-average quality — is justly lorded over hot dog histories of America’s other great cities. The thing is, Schivarelli was discussing how Chicago hot dog legend Irving’s for Red Hot Lovers served dogs better than Chicago’s average, which raises the question: In hot dog heaven, where all red hots are above average, are there are some a few links ahead? What are Chicago’s best hot dogs?
What’s the big deal about Chicago’s dogs? New Yorkers claim ties to hot dogs (though they don’t have a clue enough to demand better than stale, unsteamed buns). But Chicagoans are no slackers through history — the Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago saw visitors eating "dachsund sausages with bread" — and they developed a hot dog culture that demonstrates pride in style, product, and presentation. Incidentally, you can argue that the Chicago-style beef hot dog (though dogmatic) is most "American" in origin: it’s from Europe, it’s kosher, its sport peppers and celery salt are attributed to transplants from the Mississippi Delta, and it originates from the Great Depression.
This begs the academic question: What is a Chicago-style hot dog? Per the folks at Vienna Beef (whose founders Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany served dogs at that 1893 exposition and opened their store in 1894), the methodology, whether you call it a "banquet on a bun," "dragged through the garden," or, as Vienna Beef vet and author of Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog Bob Schwartz calls it, topping a dog and bun with "the Chicago Seven," the build goes thusly:
• Grab your poppy-seed bun
• Add a Vienna dog (though the same goes for Chicago’s other well-known vendor Red Hot Chicago)
• Add mustard
• Add relish
• Add chopped onions all over
• Add two half-moon tomato slices
• One pickle spear
• Top with two sport peppers
• Dash celery salt all over
It’s a style attributed to greengrocer Jake Drexler in 1929, who Dining Chicago notes, decided his 18-year-old-son, local sports hero Abe "Fluky" Drexler needed a job, and "converted the family’s Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot dog stand, and began offering the ‘Depression Sandwich,’ which sold for a nickel."
Speaking of ketchup? Don’t do it. Why? Don’t ask. You’ll get hurt. Have to know? The city’s most adamant anti-ketchup proselytizer says it best: "There is absolutely, positively, without question NO FREAKING KETCHUP AT JIMMY’S! No means no. It doesn’t mean maybe on the side, in the bottles, or even in packs. Placing that foul condiment on a Chicago-style Depression Dog or Polish is like violating a tradition. So when you come to Jimmy’s, remember ketchup is outlawed. NO MEANS NO!"
What does tradition get you? The world’s best hot dog. There’s a steamed, warm bun layered with flavors, vinegary, spicy, salty, just slightly sweet, and with textural variation in each bite from the soft crush of the bun and bite through tomato, to the snap of the hot dog casing and the crunch of white onion, peppers, and pickle. Forget nuance. These are better than Nathan’s, better than when topped with chili and cheese, and yes, better than when wrapped in bacon. New York, Los Angeles, Connecticut, San Francisco, none have anything hot-dog on Chicago. But with who knows how many hot dog stands in the Windy City (Schwartz names 175), which are best?
It’s a contentious debate. Search online for Chicago’s best hot dogs and there are no shortage of opinions or lists. Portillo’s, Hot Doug’s, Superdawg, Weiner’s Circle, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, these are the obvious spots that garner press. Frankly, though, for all the opinions, lists, and proclamations, whether you’re a local or a visitor, none rise to the definitive level the subject’s import deserves.
For the passionate hot dog fan, the definitive (though an unranked and unprioritized) guide has to be the aforementioned Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (even the hot vendors sell it). Casual red hot seekers and online-information travelers the past few years have consulted The Huffington Post’s 2010 list. While a good beginner’s guide, there wasn’t much historical context or overview. You’ll find similar nominees on I’m-right-you’re-wrong (literally) lists like CBS Chicago’s. (Trust a list endorsing ketchup? Don’t tell Dirty Harry.) And earlier this year, the well-intentioned folks at Serious Eats tried their hand at one seemingly predetermined by their best-in-America effort with Rachael Ray Magazine a few years ago, which named Gene and Jude’s America’s best hot dog.
"It’s subjective," someone is saying. Surrre it is. Kind of. (That’s said with a wink.) You should check all of these lists, and many life-changing others (including Condé Nast Traveler’s, which notes Four Seasons chef Kevin Hickey’s every-component-from-scratch riff at Allium). Along with them, consult the Chicago-themed homages to National Hot Dog Day (July 23), including ones from Chicagoist and Eater (which thoroughly highlights mainstream favorite Hot Doug’s). When it comes to planning your Chicago hot dog adventure, the more information the better.
But it’s these uncontextual, unscientific, and, most problematic, unambitious lists and approaches, which inspired my travel to Chicago five times during the past two years with a trusted fellow Chicago-style hot-dog-obsessed devotee as check and balance. You could righteously argue every Chicago hot dog is better than any other hot dog in America; why wouldn’t you hit up more than 15 Chicago icons? This list personally visits almost 30.
Who am I? A traitor. A proud Yankee (and still-smarting, Jordan-destroyed Knicks fan) who seeks out hot dogs in every city and roadside stands, who thinks he’s from the most amazing city in the world, and still proselytizes Chicago’s hot dogs (that hurt). What business does a New Yorker have declaring Chicago’s best dogs? Excellence is easy to spot, and I’m personally embarrassed that New York City serves thin, tasteless dogs on stale buns and that there’s a culture of purveyors who don’t take pride in serving them. Case in point, the "Onion Crunch" hot dog, an advertising ploy of fried nasty premade onion-bits that never should have become a street-corner staple.
But enough about history, about lists, or about me. This is about the best hot dogs in Chicago, a quest that admittedly isn’t complete until another 100 or so hot dog stands are visited. Still, you may be surprised how the relish falls. Know a great hot dog stand left off this list? Disagree? Comment below.