Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Never Sausage A Thing! -- Why Hot Doug's Is Chicago's Greatest Food Phenomenon

Restaurant Spotlight and Review

Hot Doug's
3324 N. California, Chicago

One of the dictionary definitions of "insanity" is: something utterly foolish or unreasonable. In telling you that on Saturday a friend and I waited in line for 100 minutes--in unseasonably chilly weather--to get a hot dog, I would be hard pressed to plead not guilty to being insane. 

And to admit that the wait was excessively long, as I was expecting it to only be half that time or less, doesn't really go all that far to mitigate the seeming absurdity of queuing up down the block simply to stuff one's gullet with sausages.

Now, as someone with more than enough meat on my buns already, this isn't something I'll be doing every week, and it's hard to even say it was worth it--especially as the line seemed to move particularly slowly compared to prior visits--but I will say this:

Hot Doug's is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

Sure there are hundreds of other hot dog joints around Chicago, and--though any not using Vienna Beef products are second rate--far beyond. And there are even other relatively decent, though considerably lesser Hot Doug's imitators, like Chicago's Dog House on Fullerton and fRedhots & Fries in Glenview, who similarly serve wild game and other exotically concocted sausages, without the excessive waiting.

But there are also several very good reasons Hot Doug's engenders the hardcore devotion that it does. As the mock Magritte adorning the men's room--here's what it's imitating and a second version of sur'meal'ism--attests, this is not a hot dog. It's an experience.

And except for activist vegetarians (although there is a Veggie Dog on the menu) and those with only a half-hour for lunch, there's something for everyone to love.

First, the food.

On the back of Hot Doug's T-shirts--including some cool new ones--is the saying: There are no two finer words in the English language than "encased meats," my friend. And Doug Sohn, a trained chef who opened the current--and only--location at 3324 N. California after an earlier one burned down in 2004, takes his encased meats seriously.

In addition to a variety of humorously-monikered links on the standard menu, every week Hot Doug's features a dozen rotating specialty sausages, including a "Celebrity Sausage" and "The Game of the Week."

On Saturday, I opted for a "Ribeye Steak Sausage with Horseradish-Garlic Cream Sauce and Crispy Fried Onions," as shown above, and a "The Marty Allen" (formerly the Don Rickles), a Thuringer made of beef, pork and garlic, topped with the standard dog condiments, which at Hot Doug's include carmelized onions. My friend Dave got the same two choices, but without any toppings, and we shared a heaping order of "duck fat fries," which are fries cooked in, well, duck fat. (For those who know that I'm allergic to poultry, somehow I didn't drop dead.)

Especially after the long wait made us ravenous, everything tasted fantastic. I've eaten at Hot Doug's probably about ten times now and have tried to sample a variety of sausages, and have never been disappointed. Although I'm not as obsessive about the duck fat fries as others seem to be; they're great, but to me, not better enough than the standard fries to warrant a weekend trip (they're only served on Friday & Saturday) or even the extra expense.

But it's not just the food. 

If you know me, or have read anything else on this blog, you should know how much I love creativity in various forms. Beyond my own blog writing, advertising copywriting, photography, cartooning and more, I spend much of my time enjoying works of theater, art, music, film, television and more. So even more than the food itself, for me the greatest appeal of Hot Doug's is imagination. 

From all the different sausages Doug and his staff conceive, concoct and artfully adorn, to the numerous cheeky decorations throughout the rather compact space, Hot Doug's has clearly taken the venerable Chicago-tradition of neighborhood Vienna Beef hot dog stands and turned it into an art form of the highest order.

Despite the tremendous success, at least as indicated by lines down the block, Doug seems dedicated to doing things his own way rather than succumb to expanding Hot Doug's in a manner that might not be as self-satisfying. While I would prefer not to wait as long, I actually find this bit of iconoclasticness to be quite endearing.

Sohn could obviously move to a larger space, build additional locations or be open more hours than 10:30-4:00 Monday-Saturday, with the whole enterprise frequently shutting down for a week or two at a time. When you think about the common assumptions of capitalism, to not do any of these things is a lot crazier than expecting satisfied patrons to wait in line. Doug is always at the front counter, cheekily greets every customer and even advises dine-in customers to get smaller-sized sodas since there are free refills.

Plus, I've never been to any restaurant where every staff member is as nice as they are at Hot Doug's.

So maybe I won't be waiting in line for hours every weekend, but barring any unforeseen calamities, I'll certainly be back. Not only is Hot Doug's a place that every Chicagoan should know about--I'm grateful to a former colleague who turned me onto it a few years ago--but even more than other local favorites like Al's Italian Beef, Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, great BBQ joints, top steakhouses and super-swanky places like Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, it is the distinct dining experience that I'd most recommend Windy City tourists make a point of discovering.
And compared to flying in from Hong Kong or driving in from Duluth, waiting in line for 100 minutes doesn't seem all that insane.

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