A snack in New York is a meal in Chicago.
Middle American Proverb
The aphorism quoted above doesn’t mean that Chicagoans eat meals so insubstantial that New Yorkers would only consider them snacks. Actually, the meaning is something close to the inverse: Chicago is known for appropriating, embellishing, and augmenting New snack foods to the point that they must be called a meal. I have a theory that Chicago’s “second city” status has driven its citizens to assert themselves against the hegemony of Gotham in sometimes outlandish ways; it’s connected, I think, to the fact that Chicago is the American capital of comedy. I have read somewhere that being in a “second fiddle” cultural position (e.g. being a comparatively small country right next to a much larger country) creates a sort of collective inferiority complex that engenders a good sense of humility and humor. Canada, always drowned out by their loud, angry neighbors to the south, has also produced droves of famous comedians. I hear New Zealand is also famous for comedy, as is Osaka, Japan’s second city.
So, like being funny, perhaps turning ordinary New York food into bold, italicized Chicago food is a way for the Windy City to declare cultural independence. However, in truth I can only think of two foods that substantiate the proverb. The first is pizza. Both first and second city are famous for pizza, but Chicago deep-dish is so much more deserving of that fame. It’s two or three inches high, dense as a black hole, drunk with sauce and toppings, and it achieves a sort of Golden Ratio of crunch-to-chew. Chicago pizza is to New York pizza as a bowl of Ippudo Akamaru ramen is to Cup Noodle.
But of course, the Chicago specialty most distinguished from its New York counterpart is the hot dog. Hot dogs are fundamentally uncomplicated things, and this is exactly what makes people want to complicate them. Hot dog localization isn’t a Chicago-only phenomenon, of course. But as far as I know, the Chicago hot dog is the only variation that has any sort of reputation outside of its own metro area. The words “hot dog” follow “Chicago” as naturally as “cheesesteak” follows “Philly.” It is among a very select group of American local foods that are truly famous on a nationwide level (Wisconsin cheese being another).
Unlike burgers, I think hot dogs actually demand to be festooned with all manner of toppings. Hot dogs, even high-quality, well-prepared ones, are just too bland to eat on their own. The Chicago hot dog addresses this inherent flavor deficiency with the “Chicago Seven,” an arpeggio of tangy, lively fixings that harmonize with the mellow umami of the sausage: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, a dill pickle spear, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard, and celery salt all piled into a poppy seed bun.* These ingredients alone would actually make a pretty tasty veggie sandwich; the hot dog itself is just a foundation, a meaty gesso onto which crisp, zesty colors are painted.
Strangely, I have never had a Chicago hot dog, even though I grew up in Chicagoland and visit the city often. It has long been on my culinary to-do list, but for some reason it has escaped me every time I’m back home. It’s probably because Chicago offers an overwhelming abundance of dining choices, and I’m usually tempted by pizza or Mexican or Chinese or Japanese or vegetarian or Italian or whatever it may be while I’m down there.
But not this time. This time I was determined. I had always thought I would have my first Chicago dog at the Weiner’s Circle, a local institution where they serve a textbook sausage with a hearty side of profanities. Stephen Fry went there when he was touring the United States. But after consulting with local friends and perusing the internet, I settled on Hot Doug’s, consistently named Chicago’s best weinermonger – and it had a block-long line outside to prove it. Lines are always a good sign.
Hot Doug’s ain’t just a hot dog stand – they are a self-proclaimed “Sausage Superstore,” and much of our 45-minute wait was spent mulling over what to order from the surprisingly exotic and epicurean menu. For me, there was no question that I would have “The Dog” with everything. But I couldn’t leave without trying one of their specialty sausages: I considered the tequila and black bean chicken sausage, the cherry-apple pork sausage, and of course, the Salma Hayek (“Mighty, mighty, mighty hot!”). Ultimately I decided to splurge on the foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse, and sel gris (a recent re-addition to the menu following the repeal of a citywide ban on the king of offal).
The resultant feast – a Chicago Hot Dog and a Foie Gras Duck Sausage – was like a culinary odd couple, an utterly wrong combination that nevertheless must exist, if only to act as foils to one another. The Dog was brash, spicy, and snappy, but also humble and inviting. It does have something to prove, that’s for sure, but it can’t disguise its Midwestern geniality. The Duck was silken, ripe, and decadent – yet somehow just as loud as the Dog, an ostentatious display of conspicuous consumption. Both sausages were perfection, especially between sips of the perfect accompaniment: old-fashioned birch beer.
I cannot recommend Doug’s duck fat fries, which sound awesome and smell fantastic, but taste like nothing at all. But the fries are immaterial anyway, since the Dog really is a meal in itself. Certainly, it is one area where Chicago is second to none.
3324 North California
Chicago, IL 60618