November 19, 2002

Kill Obscurity

Chicago, arguably the best street-food city in the U.S., is known for three gut-busting classics: deep-dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and the Chicago-style hot dog. According to my informal poll, most U of C undergraduates have tried the first, a mere handful the second, and even fewer the last. This is unfortunate, however, as the Chicago dog is unlike any tube steak one will find in any other American city. Chicago's hot dog, like its pizza, is not meant to be eaten on the run; it is a messy, hulking affair. With over 1,800 Vienna Beef doggeries in Chicagoland alone, finding a consensus on which is the best can be as hard as getting up for 8:30 GenChem.

My first stop was Portillo's (110 West Ontario St; Red Line to Grand, walk two blocks west, then three blocks north). Founded as a roadside stand forty years ago in west suburban Villa Park, Portillo's has expanded to 26 locations throughout the Chicago area, including this garishly decorated (with a "1920s Chicago" theme) one downtown, serving hamburgers, Italian beef, pasta, sandwiches, salads, and liquor in addition to the traditional hot dogs. Portillo's basics are done to perfection. Both the Polish sausage and the classic Vienna Beef frank are juicy and bursting with flavor on the inside, and the Polish is slightly crispy on the outside (as a well-done Polish should be). The French fries are widely considered Chicago's best; they are crinkly, salty, and never overcooked.

After Portillo's, I hit The Wiener's Circle (2622 North Clark; #6 bus north to Randolph/Michigan, #22 north to Wrightwood, walk three blocks west), a ramshackle dive that makes the McDonald's across the street look like a respectable eating establishment. Although the dogs are good (albeit a little blander than Portillo's) and the fries tasty, it's the service that makes this Lincoln Park doggery what it is. In short, the Wiener's Circle is Chicago's version of the Soup Nazi. Yell your order to the three boisterous women behind the counter and prepare to have your intelligence insulted. Go once, for a unique Chicago experience

The following day, I headed up to Hot Doug's (2314 West Roscoe; Red Line north to Belmont, #77 bus west to Oakley, walk three blocks north, or Red Line north to Washington, Blue Line outbound to Damen, #49 bus to Roscoe, walk east), which is a bit of a trek from Hyde Park, being in the funky, residential neighborhood of Roscoe Village two miles west of Wrigley Field. Chef-owner (and culinary school graduate) Doug Sohn, the self-proclaimed "King of Encased Meats" presides over a room decorated with portraits of Elvis, Britney Spears, and Madonna. Although just as much an experience as the Weiner's Circle, Hot Doug's is as opposite from that hole-in-the-wall on Clark as a doggery can be. Encased meats are the only item on Doug's menu, and he offers at least twenty varieties, all named after celebrities in the tradition of New York's Carnegie or Stage delis. The combination of gourmet hot dogs, primary-colored walls, and a somewhat out-of-the-way location on the western tip of Roscoe Village may seem a little offbeat, but Doug's manages to pull it all together. If you visit just one hot-dog emporium while living in Chicago, make it Hot Doug's.

For the traditional Chicago dog, very little beats Gold Coast Dogs, conveniently located in the Loop (159 North Wabash; Red Line north to Washington, walk a short block east and a block north) and O'Hare Airport. Gold Coast's main offering, the One Magnificent Dog, sounds rather boastful, but lives up to its name: it has a strong meat flavor and slightly well-done outside. Such praise, however, is not deserved by the French fries, soggy and bland.

Just over the Chicago River from Gold Coast is the downtown branch of Fluky's (520 North Michigan; Red Line to Grand, walk three blocks east), a well-known Chicago doggery, located in the fourth-floor food court of the new North Bridge shopping mall, Fluky's is clearly in a position to give Magnificent Mile tourists a taste of Chicago's pride. The dogs, although tasty, are average Vienna Beef quality; they lack the crackle of those found at Hot Doug's or Portillo's. The fries are even less appealing; although they look like those found at McDonald's, they lack any semblance of taste. Those who are hungry for the best in Chicago dogs would do better to look elsewhere.