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Chicago-style Hot Dogs and Hot Dog Stands

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The hot dog1 is a classic guilty pleasure. Reminding many people of their childhood, the hot dog is a simple, fun food. Everyone has their own favourite toppings and styles of preparation. In Chicago, Illinois, USA, one form has reached new heights of popularity. Its origins are uncertain, but its presence is felt throughout the city. Not only are the hot dogs popular, but the restaurants2 that provide this treat are objects of local pride.

The Hot Dog Stand

Chicago's cuisine is as rich and varied as any city's in the world. Nevertheless, the most accessible cuisine in the city, without a doubt, is from the local hot dog stand. The variety in these facilities ranges from the amazing full-service restaurant and bar to the seedy, sticky 'Oh my God, they'll fry anything!' locale. Many restaurants exemplify the typical hot-dog stand, the ones Chicagoans think of when they think of home.

In a typical establishment, there are four stations behind the counter and three in front of it:

  • In front of the counter are the 'order here' line, the long counter for waiting, and the 'pay here' line. Some places will have a fourth front-of-the-counter station - the condiments station.

  • Behind the counter, you'll typically find the soft serve, the fryer, the grill and the 'line'.

Station One - Soft Serve

At the soft serve station, these stands create cones, sundaes and shakes/malts. The details of this station vary greatly between stands. In fact, many hot dog stands do not have them at all. Other hot dog stands will go as far as to name their palaces with serving ice cream in mind. Something along the lines of 'Jill's Soft Serve' or 'Jack's Hot Dogs and Cones' would be usual.

Station Two - the Fryer

Normally, new employees and summertime-only staff work in front of the fryer. The fryer reminds one simultaneously of Dante's Inferno and James Cameron's post-apocalyptic Earth in The Terminator, except warmer. A terrible place to be in the summer, when the Chicago air easily reaches 90°F, the fryer is dreaded by all employees. As fries (chips) normally come with the dogs, the fryer is usually on and splattering boiling oil all day long.

The type of fry depends on the establishment. Some stands proudly boast 'home-cut fries' and will have a potato press to create their fries to order. Others use the wide steak fry. Many places use packaged frozen fries, as these are the most convenient.

Station Three - the Grill

The grill is usually reserved for hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and the occasional chicken sandwich. Some stands will fry their Polish sausages and Italian sausages on the grill and others will boil them before quickly grilling them. The grills themselves can vary between open flame and traditional griddle-style. The grill station at many places brings the family to the store. Moms and Dads will reluctantly eat hot dogs, but the children may demand them. The grill allows family unity as Dad can eat his burger and Mom her chicken. Alternatively, a popular addendum to the grill is the rotisserie. Uniformly creating pressed lamb or pressed beef for gyros3, the spit with the carving knife is a fast-food purveyor's dream. The spit takes up little space, little energy and can be handled by just about any employee.

Station Four - the Line

The 'line' is where the magic happens. In this place, often immediately behind the counter, rest all of the condiments and the precious steam table. The hot dogs are left to boil in water here, before being transferred from the steam table to await their fate. The key step here is that the buns, which are covered with poppy seeds, are steamed before they are stuffed. Once the buns are stuffed, the dogs get 'Chicago-ed'.

The Toppings to a Chicago-style Dog

  • Mustard
  • Onion
  • Pickle relish
  • Tomato half slices
  • Cucumber or, alternatively, a dill pickle spear
  • Lots of celery salt

Some places will cater to the customers with sauerkraut, lettuce or even ketchup. Other restaurants disperse small packets of ketchup and require their customers to destroy the hot dog themselves. But a Chicago-style dog was best described by 'The Frugal Gourmet' - Jeff Smith - as being a salad on a bun or 'dragged through the garden', even when they wander from the traditional Chicago style. The key feature is lots of toppings, many of which resemble vegetables. And although it's not strictly a 'topping', a beer goes great with the hot dog too!

Official Disclaimer and Warning

Eat 'chilli dogs' at your own risk. The origin of the chilli is often unknown, even to kitchen staff. The source of meat is a common topic of debate: beef? pork? turkey? lamb? other?

Additional Menu Items

Italian beef sandwiches provide a few days' worth of the recommended daily allowance of fat, gravy and beef. Commonly served with cheese - either Cheddar, mozzarella or nacho-style - and served with either hot or sweet peppers, this sandwich varies significantly in quality between establishments. The type of beef, gravy and freshness of the bread and toppings can make this sandwich wonderful or a gastrointestinal disaster.

Italian and Polish sausage sandwiches also very in quality depending upon the source of the meat. In Chicago there are two main distributors of the sausage - their advertisements will be seen in the store proclaiming the benefits of their sausage. The best (and the worst) sausages tend to lack the widespread popularity of these name brands. Asking other patrons, 'which is better, the beef or the sausage?' will be the greatest benefit if the origin of the sausage is unknown.

The pizza puff is a little-known treat, even among the faithful. Wrapped in filo dough, sausage bits, tomato sauce and some kind of cheese-like substance, they are kept frozen until ordered. At this point they are deep fried until toasty brown. A word of caution: like all fried cheese, be extraordinarily careful when biting into this delicacy, as the inner treasure of cheese may approach the core temperature of the sun.

A Final Word of Praise and Warning

Each restaurant is different. There will always be something on one menu that is not on another. Proceed with caution, as unknown and unfamiliar items may cause harm. The hot dog stand 'taco', 'salad' and 'deli-style' sandwiches are best avoided. The Greek salads, various fried foods4 and onion rings can usually be approached with confidence.

The quality of a civilisation can best be judged by watching its citizens eat cheap food. Chicago is a working-class town, an economically and politically powerful town, and a town with great diversity. The hot dog stand brings all sorts of people together and is experienced differently by all.

1Some will call them frankfurters, but this implies that they were made in Frankfurt, Germany. Most hot dogs are not made there and have no claim to the name.2Anyone travelling to Chicago should understand that the word 'restaurant' is used only in the technical sense.3A gyros is a Greek sandwich of slices of pressed lamb, beef or pork served on a pitta with onions, tomatoes and cucumber sauce.4Such as cheese sticks, fish sticks and mushrooms.

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