The Comfort Food Diaries: In Praise of the Chicago Hot Dog

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

Never put ketchup on your dog. It's something I learned around the same time I was taught the concepts of "us versus them," and "good and evil"; that the Green Bay Packers were both "them" and "evil." Though I'm technically Jewish, I was raised with the knowledge that the Chicago Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs—and hot dogs—were my true religions. I was supposed to work hard, try to be a good person, and never, ever put ketchup on my hot dog. That was my indoctrination, my Torah portion, my core set of beliefs. That's what every older and wiser person told me. And it was more a fact than a rule. Start with that, my elders said, and the other toppings would come later. I would figure them out for myself. And, eventually, I did. Those toppings, I have come to realize, work together like the Wu-Tang Clan: Solo, they're great, but together they're nothing to fuck with.

Older now, and living in New York, it's still vital for me to make a pilgrimage back home for a Chicago dog at least once a year. To me, it's as important as anything Louis Sullivan ever designed, any riff Muddy Waters ever played, or any championship Michael Jordan ever won. And I must pay tribute. Sure, you can get decent variations of the Chicago dog in other places, but nobody ever gets it right. My favorite example, Shake Shack, does a pretty good job with the toppings, but the dog rests on a potato roll, for reasons I don't totally understand. While I appreciate the attempt, I try to chalk it up to Danny Meyer being from St. Louis and just not knowing any better. (Kidding. Love you, Danny Meyer.)

When I was little, I thought I'd either grow up to be a baseball player or discover I was a mutant and join the X-Men. More likely, though, I figured I'd take over the hot dog place called Cookers in the Chicagoland suburbs that my grandfather, bored with retirement, bought in 1988. It was located in a shopping plaza, a few doors down from a magic store that I often daydreamed of going on a shopping spree through. After he bought the hot dog joint, my grandpa proudly showed us around his new investment. I remember the waffle fries crisping in the oil, the Italian beef sitting warm in its juices, the flames shooting up from the Polish sausages on the grill. But what I remember most is the hot dog station.

"This is how you do it," Grandpa demonstrated in a quick motion, as he whipped a bunch of inscrutable red, green, and yellow ingredients through the air and onto a hot dog he was holding, in a matter of seconds. "Hope you were paying attention," he said to me before taking a bite. "One day, this will all be yours" (except, with his Chicago accent, it sounded more like "this will all be yuhrs"). I didn't end up inheriting the place. But from that moment on, I started taking hot dogs very seriously. Long after Cookers was passed on to a new owner, savoring a Chicago-style hot dog became my way of keeping in touch with my past.

Obsessive by nature, I love that there's a system to the toppings of a Chicago dog: The streak of mustard is the most important—you get a tablespoonful of it and drag it along—then you get to the chopped white onions, neon-green sweet relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, hot and tangy sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. There are also some essential technical aspects—the wieners must be boiled, not charred (that's a char dog, those are also quite good, but not the same thing); the bun has to have poppy seeds. You have to make sure the buns get just enough steam before they're pulled open and loaded up. And the hot dog had better be all-beef, because that's the way they've been since two Jewish immigrants from Vienna started serving them up at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, naming their company after their Austrian hometown. You've probably heard this all before, but just in case, I had to lay out the rules. I didn't make them, but I sure as hell will enforce them.

I have a mental map of the hot dog places I'm most committed to. While Portillo's is my standby—you can find one in almost every direction within 30 minutes of driving out of the Loop—my heart truly belongs to another. I genuinely love Gene & Jude's, on the west side, for its strict "No ketchup" rule; Mustard's Last Stand in Evanston, where my friends and I would rush after going to punk shows in the city, or while stoned and driving aimlessly around the suburbs; Wolfy's in Rogers Park, right near my childhood home, where I had my first true Chicago-style dog after a Little League game; and Murphy's on Belmont, which still serves up a prime example of the city's dog, not to mention a damn fine Italian beef (if you still have room). They're all great.

But none of them beats Superdawg.

I was nine when I went there for the first time, after watching the Blackhawks win one at home. My best friend, Adam Morrison, and I were in the backseat of his dad's blue Volvo station wagon, starving, but full of civic pride. I remember how weirdly silent and clean Chicago felt that night, how it snowed between the time we entered Chicago Stadium and when we left to the organ playing us out. Superdawg wasn't exactly out of the way on our journey home, but it wasn't really the normal route, either. And, while it was cold, it was also really light outside for 9 or 10 at night, the kind of nighttime light you get when the streetlights bounce off the fresh white snow coating the streets and sidewalks. So everything was bright as we rolled up to the magnificent restaurant, all mid-century and neon, with these two anthropomorphic hot dogs, one dressed sort of like Fred Flintstone, the other in a dress.

I got a Superdawg with mustard, onions, and a pickle, since I couldn't have fit all of the other things in my mouth even if I'd wanted to. I had my hot dog, my fries, and my pop. I sat in the backseat and ate it as B96 FM played over the radio. Mr. Morrison kept the engine running so we could listen to the radio, but turned the heat almost all the way down so the Volvo wouldn't overheat. I watched my breath escaping as I opened up my mouth to take each bite. Mr. Morrison sang along to the chorus of Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted," then hummed along to the rest of the lyrics, which we could tell he didn't know. The song ended. "Aren't these the best hot dogs in the world," he said, in a way that made it sound more like a statement than a question.

Superdawg, it should be noted, plays by its own rules. You can call me a hypocrite after I've talked this much about the uniform a Chicago dog has to wear, but the massive Superdawg does swap out the red tomato wedge for a green pickled tomato. It's still technically a tomato, but it's pickled, and it is delicious.

So, yes: Of all the foods I eat and love best, the one to which I apply the most restrictions and rules is the humble frankfurter. I'll admit that sometimes—usually when I'm drunk; usually when I'm at Coney Island—I will decide that the only thing that could make a leisurely Brooklyn afternoon a little better is a sauerkraut- and onion-topped dog from Nathan's. Besides that, though, I really won't eat a hot dog that's not built in the specific manner of my hometown version. I need the mustard. The onions. The celery salt. When I bite into a hot dog with those fixings, I connect with the past, and with a hometown I left long ago. I'm transported to that Volvo's backseat at Superdawg, the Portillo's in Vernon Hills, where I once took my wife to get her first Chicago dog. To Cookers, with my grandpa. With each bite, I'm back with people I love. Nothing in this world makes me happier than that.