The hot dog is the lowest form of sausage.
It just is. A perfect hot dog is awfully hard to make at home—harder than bratwurst or kielbasa or braunschweiger—but it’s tricky to make a Twinkie, too.
Difficulty is no barometer for excellence.
Neither, it turns out, is fame, as I recently learned in Chicago.
I am not talking about the tepid excuse for a dinner I had at celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, disappointing as it was, but the Windy City’s failure to represent with a Chicago-style hot dog.
Chicago is said to have first dished up Vienna all-beef hot dogs at the 1839 World’s Columbian Exposition. Vienna Beef has been the Chi-town standard ever since. One might presume then that Chicagoans believe the wiener, from Vienna, Austria, is the original hot dog, rather than Frankfurt, Germany’s frankfurter. But the Chicago meat tube is usually dubbed a “Vienna Beef Frankfurter.”
It’s either a case of poor hot dog history or an unusually rigorous application of food-cart diplomacy.
In Sam Weller’s guidebook, Secret Chicago, he claims there are more Vienna Beef vendors in Chicago than all of its generic fast-food restaurants combined. That may be so, but trying to find a Chicago dog in its namesake town is no picnic, if you know what I’m saying. Especially if you’d prefer to fondle your frankfurter in a public park rather than in a “hot dog restaurant.” And despite my conviction that it’s the lowest common denominator among meat-filled tubes, I do like a dog and I do like a regional specialty.
Finally, on the steps of the Field Museum, a simple dog cart presented itself to me. Despite having just had a giant breakfast of poached eggs and artichokes over a bed of Swiss chard, I pushed my way through a regiment of grubby children with dolphin-shaped balloons and gripped the front of the cart like a groupie handling the stage at a butt-rock concert.
A Chicago dog has certain requirements: It must be boiled or steamed. It must be in a poppy seed bun. It must be topped with mustard, onion, relish, sport peppers, tomato, celery salt, cucumber and a spear of pickle. Some people —many of them from Chicago, I’ve noticed—will suggest that some ingredients are optional, especially the celery salt and the cucumber. But those people are wrong. I do not rely on the weight of history or on any particular scholarship to judge them, but on the plain fact of a superior product. The hot dog, like the taco, becomes an elevated experience when accompanied by cucumber.
When I finally got my Chicago dog in Chicago, it was a letdown—a cucumberless flop that left a bric-a-brac of cheap ingredients sloshing about in my stomach while I stared at taxidermy in the museum. It was like expecting authentic New Mexican fare when ordering a Santa Fe chicken salad at some nameless restaurant in some nameless place. The difference, of course, is that Santa Fe chicken salad doesn’t exist in Santa Fe—it’s a fiction popularized elsewhere.
Fortunately, and somewhat paradoxically, Santa Fe has an outstanding Chicago dog.
On arriving home, I rushed to the corner of Cerrillos Road and Paseo de Peralta to amend my dilemma with a half-loaded dog ($4.18) from Chicago Dog Express.
Even half-loaded, the toppings dwarfed what I was offered in Illinois. The peppers had bite, the mustard had tang and the fruits (yes, there was cucumber too) were fresh.
Hidden beneath it all was the humble hot dog itself. But the Santa Fe version—despite certainly coming from the same sausage factory—was bigger, juicier and allowed just the right amount of resistance before surrendering to the teeth and bathing the mouth with its lowbrow lusciousness.
Chicago Dog Express
Open 7:30 am-4 pm Monday-Friday
10:30 am-4 pm Saturday
600 Cerrillos Road