"The Depression Dog is a unique Chicago treat full of history and terrific for anyone who doesn't want a salad-topped hot dog."
When we think of a Chicago hot dog, we normally think of the classic dragged-through-the-garden jumbo dog piled high with various vegetables and neon green relish on a poppy seed bun. But a few old-school hot dog stands still serve what may very well be the original Chicago dog, what some refer to as the "Minimalist" or "Depression Dog."
A Depression Dog features a regular-sized (eight per pound) natural casing all-beef frank instead of the jumbo (six per pound) dogs that often come on a standard Chicago dog. Steamed and served on a plain hot dog bun--no poppy seeds here--garnished with yellow mustard, onions, hot sport peppers, maybe some relish and always served with a giant mound of fresh cut, skin-on fries, either wrapped up with the hot dog or simply piled on top. Absolutely no pickles, giant slices of tomato, cucumber, lettuce, celery seed or ketchup.
In fact, Gene's & Jude's, probably the most well-known purveyor of the Depression Dog, doesn't even allow ketchup for the french fries. This might well be the birthplace of the anti-ketchup sentiment, along with Clint Eastwood's line in Dirty Harry about how ketchup on hot dogs is worse than crime and murder.
Hot dogs were likely introduced to Chicago at the 1893 World's Fair. Legend has it that In the 1930s, vegetable stands started offering what they called a "depression sandwich"--a hot frankfurter on a roll with fries and whatever vegetables happened to be around. Depression Dog aficionados argue that the original Chicago dogs were in the Minimalist style, and the dragged-through-the-garden style didn't rise to prominence until the 1960s when Vienna Beef started pushing their version of the Chicago Hot Dog.
Many theories about the decline of the Depression Dog abound, including one that Vienna Beef purchased a pickle factory and therefore wanted to sell more pickles. My favorite theory goes back to a brisket-maker-turned-sign-painter named Gus Korn who worked for Vienna Beef, hand-painting hot dog signs for most of Chicago's stands until the 1970s. His hot dog paintings only displayed mustard, onions, and relish. When he retired, instead of hiring a new sign painter, Vienna went with a standard design that includes the pickles and thick slices of tomato that we see all over Chicago to this day.
With onions, hot peppers, and fries on top, it's hard not to compare this to the New Jersey Italian Dog (that I hope to get to soon) which is served with peppers, onions, and potatoes on Pizza Bread. Many of Chicago's early hot dog vendors were Jewish or Italian. Some have theorized that the Jewish stands were heavier on the pickles and vegetables while the Italian stands were more minimal-with-fries style, so who knows--there could be a Jersey connection.
Hot dog conspiracy theories aside, The Depression Dog is a unique Chicago treat full of history and terrific for anyone who doesn't want a salad-topped hot dog. There are still quite a few places in Chicago to grab a Minimalist style hot dog. Jimmy's Red Hots is a favorite. Titus Ruscitti, who tipped me off to the Depression Dog, recommends Gene's & Jude's and 35th Street Red Hots near the White Sox stadium. Other spots include Polk & Western, Odge's and Al's Red Hots.
Jimmy's Red Hots
4000 W Grand Avenue, Chicago IL 60651 (map) 773-384-9513
Gene's & Jude's
2720 River Road, River Grove IL 60171 (map) 708-452-7634
35th Street Red Hots
500 W 35th Street, Chicago IL 60616 (map) 773-624-9866
Polk & Western
749 S Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60612 (map) 312-829-0300
730 N Damen Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map) 312-666-7335
Al's Red Hots
2908 W Lake, Chicago IL 60612 (map) 773-722-6300
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.