The hot dog is as much a part of Chicago as Wrigley Field, summer nights on the lakefront, and the roar of the “L.” A Chicago dog may not be fancy, but it’s definitely satisfying, never gets old, and, for those of us who’ve lived in the city all our lives, tastes like home.
If you want to experience a truly great, classic Chicago hot dog, here are the most legendary hot dog spots in Chicagoland. A few here are more than a half-century old, testament to Chicagoans’ enduring love for the red sausage in a bun.
4000 W. Grand, Chicago
Nowhere is the Chicago dog lover’s near-pathological phobia against ketchup more aggressively apparent than at Jimmy’s Red Hots, which features graphics of an international forbidden strike-through symbol over a red bottle emblazoned with the prohibition, “No ketchup, never ever, don’t even think about it.” Jimmy’s has an old-school, don’t-mess-with-me vibe that resonates with customers who share in that broad-shouldered bluster. Jimmy’s serves a stripped-down sandwich, just the pale pink-brown sausage, fresh onions, relish, mustard, and (if you’re into the burn) sport peppers on a nondescript bun. Bruce Kraig, food historian, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University, and prolific author of such books as “Hot Dog: A Global History,” tells us these are “Depression dogs, the style of most hot dog places before the 1950s, so it’s closer to the original street food.”
Pro tip: If you’re a vegetarian, Jimmy’s does offer a sly “veggie dog”: a steamed bun filled with French fries.
2720 N. River Road, River Grove
Throughout the evening, this unprepossessing hot dog stand is bathed in yellow light, a beacon to the many seeking the familiar flavors of the Depression dog. People stand in a long, snaking line to get one, two, or more dogs (recently, we saw a guy grab a six-pack of dogs and head back to the truck to eat them in the comfort of his cab). As at Jimmy’s, there are no fresh tomatoes or cucumbers, no celery salt or other fancy pants accoutrements, and wieners come wrapped with fries, allowing both dog and spuds to steam together in a savory embrace. When visiting, take a peek at the beautiful old manual potato cutter, still in heavy use every day. Gene’s and Jude’s may be just outside Chicago city limits, but it’s in the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame.
Pro tip: In warmer weather, chow down in the parking lot as the locals do: al trunko.
2072 N. Western, Chicago
Beloved by the foodie underground, this original location of the now two-store “chain” of Red Hot Ranch locations focuses, unsurprisingly, on hot dogs, though the menu also offers super-thin hamburger patties and fried shrimp, and their fries are renowned. Here, again, you’ll get the minimalist dog, and it’s everything you might have dreamt it would be, complete with a natural casing Vienna wiener that provides the requisite “snap.” Is the snap so important? Well, as Kraig contends, although it’s sometimes hard to differentiate among different hot dog stands, “tangible differences include the product itself: natural casing or not.” Natural casing is key, and it’s less about staying true to “all-natural foods” (particularly when the natural thing is animal intestine) and more about the textural pleasure of crunching into a non-plastic casing for your hot dog.
Pro tip: Ask for the fries extra crispy and hey, if you like ketchup on your fries or dog, you can get it here — without shame.
2622 N. Clark, Chicago
The Wiener’s Circle has made a name for itself by offering 1) the fully dressed Chicago dog: mustard, onions, relish, tomato slices, pickle spears, and sport peppers, with a dusting of celery salt on a poppy seed bun, and 2) a nightly two-way orgy of ritual abuse “enjoyed” by both customers and counter servers. The insults can be vile, and, as Ira Glass and others have suggested, not all that healthy. This dark side entertainment hasn’t stopped the place from attracting celebrities like 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer who showed up with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, and whose interaction with aggressively verbal employees was featured on “Conan.” The quality of the hot dogs seems to go up and down, and Wiener’s Circle is as much performance art theater as it is a hot dog stand. Still, if it’s the midnight hour and you’re young and intoxicated, this Chicago institution is a viable, if sometimes cringe-inducing, option.
Pro tip: Come prepared with a few zingers, or just be nice and hope you don’t get hit in the cross-fire of red-hot verbal dueling.
Fans of Wiener’s Circle will get a new place to enjoy the famous dogs with a side of sass at new location inside Impact Field in Rosemont, the home ballpark of the Chicago Dogs. This location will be open during every Chicago Dogs home game, starting with their May 25 opener.
1211 W. Belmont, Chicago
Serving some of the best of the fully dressed dogs, Murphy’s Red Hots is a pleasant little restaurant (a hot dog place with a dining room; imagine that!). Doug Sohn of the eponymous and equally legendary Hot Doug’s (now closed), told us that Murphy’s is one of his favorite places because it reminds him of “most of the classic Chicago hot dog stands I grew up with and that greatly influenced Hot Doug’s.” Whether a dog truly rises to the level of greatness, according to Sohn, is determined by what kind of answers he gets to the following questions: “Is it a natural-casing wiener? Is it an 8-1 size or is it too small? Is the bun freshly steamed? If it’s a steamed dog, has it been sitting in the water too long? Are the tomatoes fresh? Is the pickle crispy? Is the hot dog hot? You’d be surprised how widely these factors can vary,” he says. At Murphy’s Red Hots, the high quality is invariable. Kraig concurs, saying “I like Murphy’s since it’s the classic garden-on-a bun, a Chicago type of baroque hot dog. Murph and his crew know how to make these natural-cased wonders perfectly.”
Pro tip: Don’t pay for street parking; Murphy’s provides ample free parking on the east side of the building; enter from the alley.
Whether it’s a Depression dog or one with the works, Sohn would like to make it perfectly clear that hot dogs “are a meal, not a snack, and when they’re done well, they are as tasty and delicious as any other entrée on the planet.”
Hot Dog Fest
This year, as in summers past, the Chicago History Museum is hosting a three-day Hot Dog Fest, with music and hot dogs prepared in many regional and ethnic styles, Aug. 12.
Fun fact: The official hot dog of Hot Dog Fest, the Vienna Beef Chicago-Style Hot Dog, is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year. The iconic dog was first introduced at the World’s Fair/Columbian Exposition of 1893. Learn more about Vienna Beef’s rich history at the the Vienna Beef History Museum, which will have its Grand Opening on May 30, at the company’s headquarters at 2501 N. Damen Ave. in Chicago.
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bankand dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.