Eating Chicago: Hot Doug’s
Last week, Tina and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary by doing what we did at this time last year — hopping on a plane and jetting off to a nearby, gigantic American city that we’d both been wanting to visit forever. But whereas our first trip let us take some time in the delightful neighborhoods of New York City, this November we decided to taste everything that Chicago had to offer. You gave us your advice, Tina built an itinerary (that was, as my boss observed upon receiving my vacation request, framed entirely around breakfast, lunch and dinner), and away we went!
It’s possible that I’ve already lost track of the number of spots we visited to eat, drink or explore in Chicago, but that’s not going to stop us from bringing you the highlights… and while Tina may have dibs on the fancier establishments and lifetime-defining experiences, I get to talk about the one topic oh-so-close to my heart.
Yes, it’s hot dogs. A speciality restaurant devoted entirely to hot dogs, and I got to go there as part of my vacation. This is why I adore my wife, everybody: You have to go shoe shopping or whatever, and I get to visit a place like Hot Doug’s. Known by apparently everyone in the Chicago area as the place to buy your encased meats, Hot Doug’s is a nondescript little red brick building whose most distinguishing feature is the almost-constant line stretching out of its dining room, onto the sidewalk and down the block — sometimes as much as 3 hours long. Serving both the classic favorite Chicago dogs, but all the more compelling for their gourmet specials and duck fat fries, Hot Doug’s is a must-visit for anyone in the area… and if that doesn’t convince you, maybe you haven’t listened to the three different versions of their theme song?
Okay, now that you’re back from booking your flights, let’s talk a little bit more about the restaurant.
As tasty as it is for your tummy, Hot Doug’s is not particularly a feast for the senses in other ways. Truly, if it were not for what is apparently a constant horde of people forever trying to gain access, it’s possible to go blowing past the front door without actually realizing it, so humble are the surroundings. Here, this is what I’m talking about:
Situated in the middle of a fairly modest area of mixed-to-heavy industrial use and mature housing, Hot Doug’s perches precariously on the most distant edge of the most charitable boundaries of Wrigleyville, two miles west of Wrigley Field. Options for getting there from the north part of downtown, where we were staying, were:
- A 15-minute or so drive/heart-stopping taxi ride
- A 2-hour walk
- A 40-minute subway/elevated train/bus transit trip, plus a bit of a walk
It’s possible that 5 miles only felt like an eternity because we had, until that point, become so accustomed to tooling around on foot in the downtown core. But spoiled as we may have been, it is worth pointing out that getting to Hot Doug’s is definitely a commitment of your time — whatever route you choose, you’ll be devoting a significant hunk of your time to the trip, especially when you factor in the time you’ll spend in line.
However, you can definitely expect a return on your investment. As I mentioned, while you can keep it simple and pick up a couple of basic hot dogs, the real delight is in the variety of creative and potent specials. Feeling like poultry? Would you like that Asian style, with foie gras, or perhaps in a turducken blend? Because Hot Doug’s will do that:
Feel as though elk sausage isn’t adventurous enough for you? Why not try… rattlesnake?
Tina’s violent shuddering at the thought of coming into contact with a serpent at any point in its life cycle, even after it has become encased meat rather than seeking to encase others, meant we didn’t quite get that experimental. But we did our darndest to order up a good variety, and after a surprisingly quick turnaround we were face-to-case with our selection of Hot Dougs.
Clockwise from the top-left: Blue cheese pork sausage with pear puree and roasted almonds; foie gras and sauternes duck sausage, with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel; smoked pork & shrimp sausage with cajun remoulade, and goat cheese drizzled with honey; apple, pear and port elk sausage, with cherry-fig mustard and caramelized onion marmalade cheddar cheese
A few quick words on each, to give them their due:
Blue Cheese Pork Sausage
Probably the simplest of the bunch, with a suitably blue-cheesy flavor that wasn’t too overwhelming. The sausage itself was cooked to a really soft texture, firm but certainly a lot easier to bite than I was expecting, while the almonds kept the texture from being entirely too squeezable. Probably the most balanced of the bunch, but also the least interesting — this dooms it to the bottom of Tina’s list, and the middle of mine.
Foie gras and sauternes duck sausage
So! I hear you like the flavor of foie gras and truffles, eh? Well then, have all of it — have all the foie gras soaked in truffle mayo in the world!
Oh my God, this was a lot to take. It isn’t even the great big old medallions of foie gras that you see there, slowly moving from a firm, chilled texture to one like warm pats of extraordinarily decadent butter. Look beneath, at the great big dollop of truffle aioli, like a wrestler that’s been temporarily pinned to the mat by the foie gras, just waiting for its chance to explode.
Oh and explode it does, so that on your first bite you’re sort of amazed that this many huge flavors can all be happening at once: the foie gras, the truffle, the duck, the salt. Tina, who would put truffle salt on her oatmeal if I weren’t constantly tackling her and pulling the jar from her hands, enjoyed this one a great deal; I found it somewhat challenging, but find it difficult to complain out loud about my luxury garnish preferences without wanting to stab my own face.
Smoked pork & shrimp sausage
This was simultaneously the closest to what I recognize as a familiar sausage, and also the most radically distant from it. Yeah, the previous one had all kinds of expensive stuff heaped on it, but in the end it was a … well, a sausage with expensive stuff on it. That I could not withstand its onslaught is really my own inability to cope with big baller toppings, but it was at least in the realm of the known.
So to have this one in front of me, whose appearance most closely resembles a pork sausage that I may have charred on my own grill, and a texture with the nice snap-and-crunch I know so well, was initially a comfort.
And then there was shrimp in it. Which, well, probably could’ve remembered that from a few minutes prior when we ordered them, but it still took me a minute to get accustomed. The flavor was nice, delicate and managed to blend really well with the pork that made up the bulk of the meat — good thing too, because one bite later when I also had a mouthful of bright goat cheese and sweet honey, a lot of that complexity got buried under fluffy white-ness.
Again, so very much going on and hard to keep track of it all, if that makes sense. There was a lot to like about this one though, and unlike the foie gras effort, even though the toppings here were intense, they weren’t so rich as to haunt the palette in quite the same way. Big, competing flavors, but less rich and way easier to enjoy.
Apple, pear and port elk sausage
I really thought I was going to like this one the best, and particularly because it came the closest to a US Thanksgiving-y meal as the menu had to offer. What’s not to like, with a lovely game meat and relish made of tart cherry and sweet figs, topped by some nice crumbly (if intricate) cheddar? Easy-peasy, this one had me in the bag with barely any effort at all.
Just two things:
- The elk didn’t appear to be blended with anything fattier, so the lean game meat had to stand on its own merits — thus it wasn’t as punchy as the others, but still managed to be moist.
- Having five words in the name of your cheese is probably a sign that it’s going to a) be really tasty but b) not play well with others. Such is likely the case with a caramelized onion marmalade cheddar, which features a sweet vegetable that has been sweetened further and then made into a cheese.
So, all of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the blue cheese dog, but with the creativity of the shrimp offering, but with a sausage that kind of didn’t show up for the party. I still loved this one — anything that lets me eat gobs of cheddar cheese is totally going to get a Valentine from me — but I really wanted this to be the one I couldn’t shut up about, and it didn’t quite make it.
Oh, and plus we got some cheese fries. Tina loved them so much that I nearly ended up in the river for suggesting we could’ve lived without them, so if you’re planning a trip: get the cheese fries, she could snap at any time.
And more importantly, do plan a trip. Yes it’s five miles out of town, and yes you’ll probably start wondering whether it’s worth it during your second hour in line, but the answer in both cases is yes: it’s worth the journey, and it’s worth the wait. There aren’t many places who are having as much fun coming up with the types of hot dogs we got to enjoy, and even if you find yourself blinking your eyes and fending off the overwhelming flavor of truffle aioli — well, stop and check yourself, because your biggest problem at that moment is that your hot dog is too luxurious.
Not many restaurants can offer you that, but Hot Doug’s can.