Hot Doug’s is worth the trip

In response to “Hot Doug’s? More like Not Doug’s!” published on January 21.

By Letter to the Editor

I am not one for bouts of righteous indignation, particularly when the object in question is something as inconsequential as an amateur restaurant review in a student newspaper. But when a place so near to my heart as Hot Doug’s is disparaged in such a glib, supercilious manner as it was in the review “Hot Doug’s? More like Not Doug’s!” well then my hackles are raised.

To be fair, it appears that the authors did not intend their article as a restaurant review, but rather as a vehicle for calculatedly campy pop culture allusions and tortured extended metaphors. But in between the discussions of EU agricultural subsidies, custom truck engines, and Olympic handball, the authors committed libel against one of Chicago’s treasures, a restaurant praised by the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, every single travel guide to Chicago you can find, and even included on Anthony Bourdain’s list of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.” Yet the iconoclastic authors believe they have seen through the smoke screen of universal critical praise, and set about wittily deflating the Hot Doug’s hype by enumerating the flaws which legions of critics have apparently overlooked.

However, the authors’ attempt to overturn critical consensus founders on their inability to provide any substantive criticisms of Hot Doug’s, or even to offer a serious evaluation of the food. Yes, it’s true, if you go to Hot Doug’s on a weekend then you will have to wait in line for upwards of an hour, and if you go in the middle of January then you will likely be cold while you are waiting. And yes, it takes a while to get to Hot Doug’s from Hyde Park. But these are not legitimate criticisms of the restaurant. It isn’t Doug’s fault that Chicago is cold, or that Hyde Park is isolated from the more economically and gastronomically vibrant areas of the city, and it certainly isn’t his fault that his rather small restaurant is extraordinarily popular.

These unfounded complaints were lodged before the authors even entered the restaurant, but once the intrepid duo enters the premises their criticisms become no more insightful. The numerous hot-dog themed photographs and toys that decorate Hot Doug’s are compared by the authors to the banal bits of Americana which populate the walls of casual chain restaurants such as Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. Hot Doug’s decor is no doubt kitschy, but in a light-hearted and self-conscious manner which helps to create a welcoming ambiance for the culinary pilgrims entering from the cold. The authors also complain of the price, which they take to be exorbitant for a mere sausage. First off, Hot Doug’s has a number of delicious but no-frills hot dogs on the menu which can be had for less than four dollars, something the authors fail to mention entirely. As for the specialty sausages, it is not exorbitant to charge nine bucks for a foie gras and duck sausage sprinkled with more foie gras and covered in a truffle aioli. Even ordering the most expensive items on the menu, one can go into Hot Doug’s famished and emerge absolutely full after spending no more than twenty dollars.

Which brings us to the food, the most important criterion in evaluating any restaurant, and regrettably not the central focus of the authors’ review. The authors describe their meal in vivid terms, at one point as “whatever” and, more charitably, “fine.” Ultimately they decide that their trek to Hot Doug’s was not worth the effort, and claim that better sausages can be had at Bobak’s and Winston’s (both of which are markets, not restaurants, and are even more out of the way than Hot Doug’s).

Perhaps one can purchase an alligator sausage at one of these markets, but it will not be cooked to order and covered in a creamy shrimp remoulade and paired perfectly with a goat’s milk gouda. One could certainly find a pork sausage, but it would not be accompanied by curry mayonnaise and cranberry-cinnamon chevre. Sausages of this quality cannot be found anywhere in Chicago, or anywhere in the country besides Hot Doug’s. There is certainly better food in Chicago (Hot Doug’s isn’t Alinea), but no restaurant does so much with what at first seems to be so little. It is, after all, a hot dog shop. But Doug is creative enough to turn the middle-brow into haute cuisine, and to serve up, for fifteen dollars, some of the best meals I have ever had in my life at any price.

So disregard the authors’ deprecations. Go to Hot Doug’s. Nag at a friend with a car, or brave the CTA if you must. Soldier on through the cold and the line (you can avoid the latter by going on a weekday. You won’t get the duck fat fries, but they aren’t worth the extra wait, which is the only thing the authors got right). Go for the kitschy décor, go for Buzzcocks and The Clash playing on Doug’s iPod. Go for Doug, talk to him about scotch (if you do he’ll probably give you a discount). And above all, go for the sausages, which can serve as an inexhaustible wellspring of happiness in the midst of the bleak Chicago winter. It’s great food, food that can enrich your time in college and your relationship with Chicago as well as your palette. So go to Hot Doug’s. Please go.

Cole Carter

Class of 2012