Take a warm poppy seed bun. Place an all-beef frankfurter inside its new doughy home. Then top it with what might seem like the most unusual combination of ingredients: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, tomato slices, sport peppers, green relish, a dill pickle spear, and celery salt.
Insert into mouth for a flavor explosion of meat, salt, and vinegar (toned down somewhat by the soft bun and the sweetness of the tomato and relish). The pickle adds crunch against the chewiness of the hot dog. There’s so much going on it’s hard to decide exactly what it is that makes a Chicago hot dog so great.
Besides all that flavor, part of the allure of the Chicago hot dog is the pride of a city mixed with a heavy helping of history.
Here’s why you need to try a Chicago-style hot dog at least once in your lifetime.
The hot dog is the ultimate street food -- warm, fast, filling -- plus, it’s comfort food at its most indulgent. The Chicago-style dog is no exception. What originated from working-class roots and necessity during the Great Depression led to an obsession with this addictive food.
In 1880, many of the butchers in Chicago were German immigrants. They brought with them the ultimate industrial food, the hot dog. When the hot dog made its way onto the scene commercially, it was initially produced by Vienna Beef and served at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The hot dog took off commercially, but it was Jewish immigrants who introduced the star of the distinctly Chicago-style hot dog: the all-beef frankfurter.
A Polish-born immigrant named Sam Rosen opened a bakery in 1909 and created the poppy seed bun. By then, hot dogs were a popular street food sold at markets. As many of the vendors also operated vegetable stands, they began to incorporate a variety of vegetable toppings into their hot-dog serving routines.
While the melting pot of European immigrants created what would eventually become the Chicago-style hot dog, during the Great Depression, because of its cheap price, the hot dog became a staple. By 1929, a fast food chain called Fluky’s followed in the footsteps of veggie vendors, adding an assortment of vegetables to its dogs to make this frugal food choice a more nutritious and filling meal. Fluky’s “depression sandwiches” sold for a nickel and combined the flavors that gave the Chicago-style hot dog its signature taste and name.
The placement of the toppings is key to the flavor experience. And we’re not just talking the brand of the toppings, but the order in which they are arranged on the hot dog. Each item must be placed in a certain spot -- and in the right amount -- to allow the consumer to taste each component in every bite.
Chicago native Patrick O’Malley explained the flavor experience: “The first bite into the dog is a cornucopia of flavors and textures. Smooth from the steamed bun, a tangy taste of onion and mustard, a sugary sense from the relish, a little snap as you bite into the hot dog casing, the heat from the pepper.”
The Chicago-style hot dog's flavor profile isn’t for everyone. "Coyote Bill" Bartelt, a Kansas City musician, grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, near Midway Airport. He told TravelAwaits, “Chicago-style dogs are not for everyone. They can be overwhelming. It is a typical Chi thing to do: Take something that is supposed to be simple and not fancy and make a big deal out of it -- [think] deep dish pizza.”
Still, those who love the flavor combo are dedicated fans, and trying a Chicago-style hot dog at least once will afford you the opportunity to weigh in on the verdict.
All-beef hot dog, poppy seed bun, vegetable toppings…but never ketchup.
Bartelt explains the seriousness of using only authentic products to create a Chicago dog: “This is of the utmost importance, it has to be a Vienna Beef brand hot dog. They are the definitive Chicago-made hot dog. Accept no substitutes. You will know the place serves Vienna Beef brand because the distinctive yellow, red, and blue signs will be plastered all over the place.”
“The toppings do not necessarily matter,” Bartelt said, “as different places may or may not use every single one of the myriad ingredients. Some places use sport peppers, some don’t. Some use tomato wedges, some use diced tomatoes, et cetera. And never put ketchup on it. That is a cardinal sin. Eating it will be a big mess -- they always are -- but they are delicious.”
The combination of flavors creates a hot dog unlike any you’ve ever tasted.
Michelle Price, Chicago native and food blogger at Honest & Truly , says, “A Chicago-style hot dog is not just any old hot dog. The combination of the fluorescent green relish with tangy yellow mustard and celery salt and fresh tomato slices and the poppy seed bun...well, everything you load on that hot dog just builds together to make a flavor explosion you don't get at the ballpark.”
Her take: “This isn't the hot dog you order for your kids off the children's menu. This is an adult version of a hot dog that has a mythical place in Chicago food lore -- and deservedly so.”
The Chicago dog, after so many years, has become a rite of passage for many. O’Malley says, “Growing up, it was a treat to grab some dogs from Jimmy's. As a teen, it was a rite of passage. As a newly married, it was a great date-night bite.”
Just about anywhere you go in Chicago, a hot dog vendor is nearby. Ask a Chicago native where to get the ultimate Chicago-style hot dog and you’ll frequently be referred to Portillos, Gene & Judes, and Superdawg.
Bartelt suggests sticking with the smaller hot dog joints. “There are probably a number of places people will tell you to try, but I can almost guarantee they will be the more touristy type places. To get a real Chicago hot dog experience, your best bet would be a smaller, neighborhood place -- the greasy spoon type local joint.”
It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to a Chicago-style hot dog. So pick a place and try a Chicago dog at least once in your life. You may find that once is not enough.