After reading an online review of Hot Doug’s, I knew I had to go there. Billed as “The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium,” I craved hot dogs for more than three weeks before my trip to Chicago (no thanks to Jon for that aspect). I’m back, having experienced Hot Doug’s in person. In short, I really enjoyed it.
Taking advantage of a quiet and relatively warm Monday afternoon, my buddy and I enjoyed a nice walk down North California to Hot Doug’s. There was a line, but nowhere near as long as it would be on a weekend (when they have their duck fat french fries and when people have admitted to waits excess of 2 hours). Once inside, your senses are overwhelmed. The seemingly Crayola-inspired paint job makes your eyes go wide with the loudness of primary colors. There is an indescribably good smell emanating from the grill, boilers, and fryers. After about 20 minutes we shuffled up to the counter where Doug — dressed in a black t-shirt that reads “there are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats,’ my friend” — stood with a smile, asked how we were doing, then asked what he could get for us. There is something immeasurably cool about the proprietor of a establishment taking every order, but it pales in comparison to the fact that he’s taking your order.
Honestly, I wanted to try a few things. All of the items are reasonably priced and appear on the menu with tax included, many humorously named after celebrities. But based on the trays of the seated patrons it was clear that I’d only be able to have one or two before being completely stuffed. In addition to a large order of french fries to share, and a small fountain drink, I opted for two of the basics. Doug wrote down my order and my name on a shorthand pad, looked up in thought for a moment, then told me that it would be $7. Definitely less than the cost of everything when added up individually. While many restaurants do combo deals, it was a very cool moment. After filling our drink cups we took a seat near the back. In a few minutes our trays were delivered to the table.
Having never eaten a hot dog in Chicago, I opted for “The Dog.” A Chicago-style dog with all the trimmings.
“Everything” at Hot Doug’s includes mustard, relish, caramelized onions, tomatoes, celery salt, and a dill pickle spear. These ingredients seemed foreign to me, but I’m told they are fairly typical for Chicago. Individually I’m all in favor of all the ingredients, but on a hot dog? Tomatoes? A pickle? Really? And when I saw the relish — which is the color of the green nuclear ooze from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — I really started to wonder. But I had to try it out. When in Rome, right?
My wonder was quickly replaced. The hot dog itself was hot and juicy, but not oily at all. The trimmings added a lot of flavor as well as a mixture of textures and temperatures. Crisp and cool pickle, soft and cool tomatoes, slightly crisp and warm onions, crunchy and cool relish. I’m going to wonder how people can eat hot dogs with ketchup and mustard, without all of the other accouterments.
I also opted for “The Paul Kelly,” a beer-soaked bratwurst with everything.
Split and cooked on the grill, it was cooked through but far from dried out. Sweet, juicy, and delicious, the casing snapped on my first bite. All of the fixings worked really well on this one too.
I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the two.
My friend opted for one of the many daily specials, the Foie Gras & Sauternes Duck Sausage. Fancy. The thing was adorned with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse, and sel gris. Though a tad too fancy for my tastes, definitely a unique arrangement. The report from my buddy was that it was incredibly rich, so much that he couldn’t finish it all.
Not stopping the trend, the french fries were excellent too. Hand-cut and freshly fried, they arrived on our table a minute out of the fryer. Piping hot, these are some seriously soft fries — as opposed to crunchy — and by far the greasiest part of the meal. Very tasty. Our only mistake was thinking that we’d be able to finish them all. We regret that the duck fat fries are only available two days per week, but agreed that we’d have no idea what they would taste like. I’m not sure that I’d spend a few hours waiting in line to find out, but maybe on the next trip out.
We had a celebrity sighting as well. Hot Doug’s has been in the news a lot lately, so we weren’t too surprised to see a TV camera but we thought it was neat to see George Wendt enjoyed a few dogs while giving an interview to a local food correspondent at a table behind us.
While we were waiting for our food, we talked about the place. It has a simple menu. This isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t need to be complicated. All of the food can be prepared from fridge to plate in a few minutes, no microwaves required. Between that and the affordable pricing, that makes for tasty meals and happier customers. The place is open from 10:30am until 4:00pm Monday through Saturday and closed on Sunday. That makes for happier employees. And it’s a cash business. That makes for a happy owner in most cases, but I got the sense that there was more than that. Getting to make your own hours and your own prices on the fly has got to be pretty empowering, but Doug — in my limited observation — definitely likes to make an impression on his patrons. We watched as a little boy ordered a second hot dog, holding a few dollars in his little hand. When the hot dog was ready, Doug reached down to hand him the plate and said not to worry about the money. It’s that flexibility and kindness than makes the place great.
So here it is, a delicious yet inexpensive meal. Prepared quickly and with friendly local flair, I found the experience at Hot Doug’s to be superb indeed.