In search of the perfect hot dog joint
If searching for encased meats along the streets that made Upton Sinclair famous for “The Jungle” seems counterintuitive, I don’t care. They taste too good.
Besides, this is hot dog country. Today’s Chicago proudly boasts more hot dog joints than the number of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s locations combined. Sure, there are disputes about when someone decided to start serving hot sausages tucked in bread (sometime late in the nineteenth century), and where it happened. It might have been Coney Island. It might have been St. Louis. It might have been here. But when it comes to hot dogs, Chicago is no second city. There is no bout with another city that’s driven Chicagoans to spurn ketchup in protest. No real rival has stepped forward to challenge the “Chicago-style” dog. And tomatoes are better than ketchup, anyway.
But though the rules for making Chicago-style hot dogs may be strict—poppy-seed bun, yellow mustard, relish, onions, those tomatoes, two sport peppers, a full pickle wedge, and a dash of celery salt—the rules for ordering one are less so. You don’t need everything. (Note: opting for ketchup over tomatoes is still foolery.) Sometimes less is more. You don’t want to find yourself on the last bite of an otherwise worthy hot dog only to find that you’ve forgotten to savor the meat.
And the meat is the whole ballgame. As any true Chicagoan knows, the best dogs are all-beef, with natural casing to lend each bite that classic, ever-satisfying snap. You can have your hot dogs steamed, but what grillable meat was ever better steamed? Thus, always opt for the charcoal-grilled or charbroiled dog—affectionately known as a “chardog.”
The best chardogs on the South Side are at Morrie O’Malley’s, a humble Bridgeport shop just down the road from Comiskey. These are juicy, ample mouthfuls of meat, singed to perfection. But O’Malley’s greatest achievement may be its bratwurst, also known as the “charred brat.” It is an impeccable sausage: a symphony of tenderly seasoned, mouth-watering bratwurst melding flawlessly with its crisply scorched skin, luscious sautéed onions, and a generous helping of mustard. Order it on garlic toast and you won’t be craving anything else for days.
Even if you don’t eat your heart out at O’Malley’s, you may find yourself unwilling to get up. On a warm day, you can sit under the umbrellas and savor one of the most relaxing corners in Chicago—35th and Union—along with your ballpark-style fare. There’s a sense that nothing will ever change.
Part of that’s because of the food. “For twenty-five years, we’ve had the same hot dog, the same toppings, the same everything,” owner Jinger O’Malley told me. When O’Malley suddenly found herself laid off from her job, she and her husband Bob decided it was as good a time as any to pursue the dream Bob O’Malley had had ever since he’d been a kid: open a hotdog stand.
In those days, O’Malley’s was an even humbler trailer. Today it’s a small building with room inside—the only thing that’s changed over the years—where you can sit on stools with bright yellow, hot dog–patterned cushions. But only if it rains.
However ambiguous hot dog meat may be, O’Malley’s proves the formula for success in the business is anything but. “We try to be consistent, we try to give good service, and we try to buy the best,” Jinger O’Malley said simply. Beyond that, there’s not much their customers want them to do. The hot dogs at O’Malley’s are indisputably good stuff, but they’re also reliable, with few frills. There’s something endearing to the human taste buds about hot dogs; people don’t grow out of them like they do with chicken fingers. In one brief trip to O’Malley’s, I ran into a police officer, a group of kids on their way home from school, and a grandmother—all before I could finish my french fries. I don’t quite know how to explain the universal appeal and savory goodness of the hot dog, and when I asked Jinger O’Malley, she admitted that she wasn’t exactly sure either. But she gets it.
Though consistency may be a virtue when it comes to selling hot dogs, you can’t help but appreciate the differences as you follow your nose from one joint to the next. And yet the ingredients are often the same. Vienna Beef has been selling hot dogs to some of the best places in the city since the pre-Sinclair days (O’Malley’s is in their “Hall of Fame”), and the Chicago-style toppings have become something of a religion. The differences often seem inexplicable.
Take, for instance, the suspiciously similar Jim’s Original and Express Grill. They are dead neighbors; both are just south of Roosevelt, just east of Halsted. Both specialize in Polish sausage, the hot dog’s mouthwatering cousin. They’re also the same shade of yellow, open twenty-four hours, and will charge you the exact same prices for the exact same menu. But your taste buds can tell the difference. The sausages at Jim’s pop with savory notes that Express can’t match.
Jim’s gives you a fistful of tantalizing, smoky pork sausage, with beautiful garlic undertones. There’s almost enough meat packed in each bite to knock you back, but not quite. The bun comes slathered in rich yellow mustard, and the grilled onion ribbons are blackened to textbook saccharinity. Peppers provide a kick if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s good either way. And the original’s beefy cousin, the “beef polish,” is almost equally divine: darker, bolder, with a little more pepper, it gives you just enough of an excuse to return within a few days.
The fries—“free with all sandwiches” at both stands—are unequivocally better at Jim’s. There’s a handsome crispness to them that holds up well in a bag; they’re good enough that you remember them in between those glorious bites of sausage. And that’s saying something.
That’s not to say there aren’t obvious differences that set some hot dog joints apart. Delicias Mexicanas, a hole-in-the wall restaurant in Little Village, serves up the Chicago-style dog’s Mexican, bacon-wrapped cousin. (Honestly, though, you should just go for the tacos: bacon and pickled jalapenos may be two very good things, but nearly burnt pork and put-up-or-shut-up spice just don’t mesh.) Zebra’s Gourmet Hot Dogs, a corner spot less than two blocks down from O’Malley’s on 35th, puts their dogs on sliced, elongated rolls instead of buns. The rolls offer a slightly crunchier bite, and they hold up a fine chili-cheese dog, the Cincinnati. They don’t do as well with some of Zebra’s stranger “gourmet” toppings—Thousand Island dressing and mayo, for instance—but that’s not really the fault of the rolls. Zebra’s is also known for its corn fritters; fluffy, and dashed with powdered sugar, they offer a hearty alternative to fries. Still, there’s no better sidekick for a hotdog than a good pile of fries, and corn fritters just can’t compare. The actual fries at Zebra are fine, but a bit dry—nothing to call home about.
A hot dog joint can also stand out from the crowd by picking up the primal craving for encased meats and running with it to the extreme. Fat Johnnie’s, a scrawny little stand at 73rd and Western, tries to do just that. One goes to Fat Johnnie’s—how should I put this diplomatically—to get fat. Known for its daring renditions, Fat Johnnie’s menu features the Mighty Dog (hot dog, chili, cheese, and a tamale on a bun, with most of the Chicago-style trimmings) and the Double Super Dog (same as the Mighty, but with an extra dog instead of the tamale). I was excited, even a little nervous, to try the Mighty Dog. But it’s actually a tad underwhelming. The tamale was fitted neatly beneath the dog, but only contributed the plain presence of cornmeal. I suppose there was meat hidden in there somewhere, but whether it was pork or beef I couldn’t tell. As for the cheese, it took on a plastic consistency unusual even for cheap liquefied cheese, and it hardened to a baffling degree.
Once you’ve sampled enough hot dog joints, though, you begin to notice something else. If there’s something that can set two places like Jim’s and Express apart on taste, there’s definitely something that can set any two hot dog stands apart in character. Sludgy cheese or Thousand Island can ruin a good hot dog, but atmosphere matters just as much, if not more. Is there any real reason a hot dog tastes better in a ballpark? Maybe not, but as we sit in the stands, glove in one hand, dog in the other, we still feel that it does. In an industry where innovation can easily stretch too far, what sets a place apart often has little to do with the dogs at all—succulent though they may be. The little things, like Morrie O’Malley’s quiet, outdoor tables, start to matter. A familiar face, a doorbell that rings, a neighborhood feel—in a city full of hot dogs, in a South Side dominated by the proverbial Vienna Beef insignia, these are the things that bring one back for more. However small, these are the differences that aren’t inexplicable.
Which is why it’s so exceptional to find a hot dog joint worth sitting at. At Fat Johnnie’s, you can eat your hot dog at a picnic table that’s been televised by Anthony Bourdain, but the grass is still almost knee-high. There’s a reason just about every customer drives up to the curb, places a quick order, and drives away. At Jim’s and Express, you can either eat standing up, or, if you feel like walking a ways, you might snag a sidewalk bench. Here, too, the main clientele is of the to-go sort: just off the Dan Ryan, both joints attract their fair share of hungry drivers, and hey, it makes for as good a pit stop as any.
Still, at either stand, the only way of making the experience your own is the choice of whether or not to go for the peppers. Customer requests aren’t really a thing. The guy who bags the free fries at Jim’s—a blunt, dark-haired fellow who doesn’t look like he’s ever heard of the word “charisma”—won’t even give you tap water if you ask.
At O’Malley’s, I didn’t just get tap water; I got refills. I ate my hot dog on garlic toast, too. And while I never felt the urge, the sign on the menu is reassuring in its tolerance: “Ketchup and hot giardiniera on request.”