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Thursday, June 29, 2006 12:21 am

Man's best friend

There’s no dog like a Chicago dog

The menu board listed them as “Garbage Trucks,” which was a pretty fair description. The place was Abe’s, a dingy, grungy dive a few steps down from the street in the University of Illinois campus town in Champaign-Urbana. The walls at Abe’s were covered with graffiti, and every surface was stained with oily smoke from the deep fryer. But Abe’s had free delivery, saving legions of hungry students from ever having to face the origin of their gustatory treat.

Garbage Trucks were a legend around campus. They were the best friends of students pulling all-nighters to get papers finished or cramming for exams: Two of those babies were guaranteed to keep you awake for hours. They were awful. They were wonderful. They were my first introduction to Chicago hot dogs.

What exactly is a Chicago hot dog? It’s actually a very precise structure. You can choose to leave out one or more of the ingredients, but then it doesn’t really qualify. It starts, of course, with the wiener itself. It must be an all-beef frank. Vienna brand is the most common, with David Berg second and a few others trailing behind. Next, the bun has to have poppy seeds. The condiments are crucial. A dog with everything has a long dill pickle slice, two wedges of fresh tomato, chopped onion, mustard, sweet-pickle relish (preferably colored a violent neon green), a sprinkle of celery salt, and a couple of sport peppers. Even if you don’t want to eat the peppers, it’s best to get them anyway, then take them off; their vinegary essence lends a certain something to the whole. Abe’s added sauerkraut and pickled jalepeños, which, I guess, is what turned them into Garbage Trucks. Ketchup is anathema — that’s for the fries.

Naysayers may complain that Chicago dogs are overwhelmed by the avalanche of condiments. But for true believers, the bursts of cool, crisp, sweet, and tart flavors and textures are perfect counterpoints to the salty meatiness of the franks, much in the same way that crispy bacon complements salad greens.

In a recent episode of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert advised Jennifer Aniston, who recently moved to Chicago, to bulk up in preparation for the bitter Chicago winters by making regular visits to hot-dog stands. She has a bunch to choose from. Some of the best known are Gold Coast Dogs (multiple locations), Demon Dogs (under the Belmont El) and the Wiener Circle on Clark (reputed to have the highest per-square-foot revenue of any restaurant in Chicago). But there are scores of others. A newcomer on the scene is Hot Doug’s on North California. Hot Doug’s makes a fine classic Chicago dog, along with more exotic sausages, but is best known for its fries cooked in duck fat, available only on Fridays and Saturdays.

You don’t have to travel to the Windy City to experience a real Chicago hot dog, though. I’m sad to report that Abe’s has been closed for many years (probably by the health department), but there are places even closer to home and with much higher standards of cleanliness. Wienerdog, just across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, nails it. This winner of the Illinois Times Best of Springfield awards in 2004 and 2005 for best hot dogs has lots of other hot-dog options, but the Chicago dog is at the top of the pack. Wienerdog gets it exactly right, even down to the green relish. Chicago Style Gyros, with several locations in Springfield and Jacksonville, also has Chicago dogs. Although their flavor is good, the lack of poppy seeds on the bun and regular relish put them a notch below Wienerdog’s.

There’s serious rivalry between Chicago- and New York-style hot dogs, much like the competition between the two styles of pizza. I spend quite a bit of time in New York (two of my children live there), so I can say with good authority — and I’m totally not prejudiced here — that it’s really no contest. The New York dogs, it’s true, have a natural casing that has a satisfying snap when you bite into it, but that’s about it. The franks are usually kept in a vat of hot water that leaches out their flavor. A variety of condiments is available, including strangely tasteless cooked onions. Some of the most popular places (Gray’s Papaya, Papaya King) pair their franks with a sickly-sweet papaya drink that contains a dubious quantity of real juice. Nope. No contest at all.
Chicago dogs rule!

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