On the way to the Twilight Zone, it’s possible that you’ll find two identical hot dog stands adjacent to one another, each offering the exact same meals for the exact same prices. You may feel an odd sense of déjà vu, walking past one shop and seeing an immediate copy, down to the price of each item on the virtually identical menus. However, this is not an illusion. Rather, it’s Jim’s Original Hot Dogs and the Express Grill, two competing Polish sausage stands just south of Roosevelt Road next to the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Each shop has signs facing toward the other screaming its respective superiority. “Chicago’s ORIGINAL Maxwell Street Hot Dog!” reads Jim’s. “Chicago’s BEST #1 Polish Sausage!” reads the Express Grill’s. Like dueling pretenders to a lard-encrusted throne, both stores claim direct provenance from the original Maxwell Street Hot Dog, and both claim to produce Chicago’s tastiest dog. The stakes are high. Who is the true heir to the Maxwell Street legend? Whose shop gave greasy birth to the Maxwell Polish? Who has the rightful claim to the flush and fatty throne?
Maxwell Street’s past as a local melting pot has made it a Chicago icon. Since the area’s junk shops and outdoor blues bands have long since disappeared, Maxwell Street’s most enduring legacy may be the city’s numerous Polish hot dog stands. For the unenlightened, the “Polish” is made up of six inches of Kielbasa covered in fried onions and drenched in mustard. The Polish has become one of the enduring culinary symbols of Chicago, while having the unintended effect of labeling a large ethnic group with connotations of grease and processed meat. To be fair, though, the Poles weren’t the only Chicago ethnic group to be tarred with such a grease-soaked brush. The Italian beef, sometimes just called an Italian, is made up of thinly sliced roast beef and served on a roll that has been steeped in au jus.
The first Chicago Polish stand was founded in 1941 by a man named Jim Stefanovic, the namesake of Jim’s Original. Stefanovic had been working in his aunt’s hot dog place on Maxwell for a few years before he decided to buy the shop and secure his own place in culinary mythology. This purveyor of plump quickly became a local favorite.
At some point in the mid-1950s, Stefanovic’s nephew, Tom Lazarevski, quit and founded his own hot dog stand, Express Grill. The owners of Jim’s Original, that is, Stefanovic’s descendants, claim that Express’s hot dogs are prepared from a bastardized version of the original recipe, whereas the Lazarevskis insist that Express’s sausage is top dog.
Initially, both stores were safely set apart on different blocks of Maxwell Street. Fate, however, decided to play a cruel joke upon the family through one of Mayor Daley’s city development projects. In the early 90s, Daley 2.0 (Little Richie) zoned for University of Illinois-Chicago expansion along Maxwell. Numerous businesses were forced to relocate, and the two feuding eateries were forced to become neighbors in their current location along Dan Ryan.
It’s a difficult case to figure, especially given that Jim’s Original serves as a blueprint for many other Chicago hot dog stands, often to a legally questionable extent. In fact, in 2011 the owners of Jim’s Original filed a federal lawsuit against other Chicago hot dog stands and foodstuffs bearing names ranging from “Jim’s Original Chicago” to “Jim’s Original of Joliet” to “Jim’s Original Pork Chops.” Jimmy boy has clearly been dealing with much competition over the years.
Sitting in the dead man’s land between the two restaurants, I held an Express wiener in my left hand and a Jimmy dog in my right. I cast any prejudices I may have aside and began to taste my way through the chaos. Where the Express Grill failed to deliver in flavor, Jimbo succeeded in substance. Although the dogs had the same Vienna beef provenance, Jim’s onions seemed to be fried in the sweat of God himself. Although the Express Grill’s pork chop made me oink for more, its fries were distinctly lackluster compared to what Jimmy had to offer.
His fries had been soaked and cooked in a kind of liquefied rind, leaving a distinctly animal taste on my tongue. This was not the kind of taste that dissipates with the next wash of saliva. Rather, it was a reflection of the evolutionary process—the culmination of those millennia of struggle and gnashing of teeth that led to the tasty genetic victor whose fat now courses through my bloodstream. I recognized that I was an arrogant salivating speck before Jimmy’s Original eternity; an immortal recipe whose French fries far surpassed the bland Express wedges next door. To the faint of heart: you may want to bypass this one.
Some say that there is truth in wine, but here it seems that the truth is in the grease. In this family feud fried out of control, it seems that Jim’s Original wins on both counts. His shop is in fact the original, and his wieners are superior in sublimity and style. And on go the two warring hot dog stands, attracting unwitting customers with a façade of originality and a tale of family gone foul. After all, a sausage by any other name would taste as sweet.