I fell in love with the Chicago-style hot dog the moment I moved to the city. Well, technically it was the very first weekend when I made the trek out to Gene & Jude's. It was clear from those first messy bites that Chicago cared about its hot dogs more than any other place I'd ever been.
That sparked a desire to seek out as many great Chicago-style hot dogs as I could find, which is what I've been trying to do for the past five years. I've written about many of these for Standing Room Only, but that only represents a fraction of the stands I've visited. I am not done—there are always more stands to try—but since we've been exploring the hot dog scene here all month, it seemed like a good time to step back and take stock. That and make a very hard decision: Who serves the best Chicago-style hot dog?
Ask a dozen people and they'll give you a range of different answers. That's precisely what happened earlier this month when I asked my staff for their opinions on the matter. I loved many of the picks, and even uncovered a couple of great finds. But this is my personal list. Plus, not all hot dogs qualify.
The definition of a Chicago-style is far more confusing than you'd think it'd be, but I'll start with the one we are all most familiar with: the classic Chicago-style hot dog is an all-beef hot dog on a poppyseed bun topped with mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato slices, a pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. (Click here for a handy illustrated guide.)
But as I explored before, variations are common. Though the colorful the fully-loaded version is what most people think of first, a stripped down version—featuring just mustard, relish, onions, and sport peppers—is just as prevalent, especially on the West Side. Though I refer to this style as a Depression or Minimalist dog, no stand ever refers to them as such. They are just Chicago dogs. While it initially seemed strange to compare such different creations, since they both share the same base, I figured it was all fair game.
What I Looked For
Regardless of the toppings, the one trait all of my favorites have in common is a great hot dog. Most of the time that means an all-beef hot dog with a crisp natural casing from Vienna Beef (skinless dogs lack any snap and also tend to get lost when fully dressed). But even a natural casing isn't a complete guarantee of success. Stands need a diligent owner to maintain high standards, so that each dog is juicy and not overcooked.
Freshness is also paramount for the toppings, especially if going with the fully loaded style. The onions, sport peppers, and the pickle spear should be crisp and crunchy, while the tomato slices should be red and juicy. Even layers of mustard and relish ensure a uniform bite. A final dusting of celery salt lends an unmistakable final touch, but too much mucks up the whole thing.
As you can probably tell, I have opinions.
Do We Need Another List?
The question must be asked: does the world need another list of the best Chicago hot dogs? Every month or so, a national publication swoops in and publishes a list of "the best" Chicago dogs. Some take the time to visit a few places, but I often wonder if the writers actually took a single bite. What I find most annoying is that few take the time to explain why a particular hot dog is actually deserves a spot on the list. Often you just get anecdotes about decorations (Superdawg) and verbally abusive workers (Wiener Circle). Sometimes the hot dog isn't even mentioned.
Take the most famous hot dog stand in Chicago, Hot Doug's. Write-ups tend to focus on all manner of things: the line, talking to Doug, and the duck fat fries. These are all wonderful aspects, mind you, but don't have much to do with the hot dog. Oddly, the Avondale shop's Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage was recently included in USA Today's list of America's Best Hot Dogs, even though it's not, you know, a hot dog. Sure, it's freaking tasty, as is every other sausage on the menu. But it's kind of a shame, because the hot dog deserves a mention.
And the Winner Is... Gene & Jude's
I have an emotional connection to Gene & Jude's. It was one of the very first hot dogs I tried after moving to Chicago. It was my favorite then, and it remains so now. Obviously, I'm not the only one. When we put together a staff picks, Gene & Jude's got some love. And when Serious Eats selected the best hot dog in the nation for Rachel Ray Magazine, Gene & Judge's came in first.
Sure, the atmosphere is gruff and straightforward. There is no ketchup on the premises. But the stand wouldn't be continuously packed if it weren't for expertly prepared hot dogs, which are always plump and extra-beefy, with an exceptional snap (thanks to the natural casing dogs from Vienna Beef). Asking for everything only gets you mustard, relish, onions, and, if you want, sport peppers. Of course, each order is served with a handful of just-fried hand-cut fries, which come heaped on top whether you want them or not. Fortunately, you do.
Sadly, due to a flooding, Gene & Jude's had to close for repairs. According to its Facebook page, the stand hopes to open in a week. I'll be there the moment I hear it is open.
Check out the complete top ten by clicking on the slideshow. Did I miss your favorite spot? Let me know in the comments.
The 10 Best Chicago-Style Hot Dogs
- Gene & Jude's
- Hot Doug's
- Redhot Ranch
- Phil's Last Stand
- Old Town Social
- Jimmy's Red Hots