Anatomy of a Chicago Hot Dog

Chicago is famous for two foods really: pizza and hotdogs. Pizza I will go into in another post (and trust me, I have OPINIONS on that subject), but let’s start with the delightful oddity that is the Chicago hot dog.

After our spectacular and somewhat exhausting experience at BlogHouse Chicago, Mike and I decided to stay in town for another week to really get to know the city. Well I wanted to really get to know the city, Mike mostly had to work.

We stayed in Wicker park, a really cool and popular neighborhood full of delicious restaurants, small parks and hipsters (I referred to it as the Williamsburg of Chicago). To get to know the area a little bit better I convinced Chicago Food Planet to comp me on their Bucktown and Wicker Park Food Tour on my second day there.

As you guys well know, I can not resist a good food tour, and this one did not disappoint. The guests were me, and a dozen fifty-something ladies from the Chicago suburbs who all take a cooking class together. We visited a plethora of interesting places including a hot chocolate shop, an awesome falafel place and a liquid nitrogen ice cream place.

It was all wonderful, but I spent most of my time reeling from our first stop, an authentic Chicago Hot Dog place. It was here that I learned that the Chicago area has more hotdog restaurants than McDonalds, Wendys or Burger Kings COMBINED.

Hotdogs are obviously a serious business, and my lovely tour-mates assured me that yes, there is a right way, and a wrong way to eat a hot dog, and Chicago’s way is right. So here is the not-so-skinny on the Chicago hot dog.

A Very Short History of the Hot Dog

Hot dog street art

According to my capable tour-guide Kent, the hot dog (like so many things in Chicago) traces it’s roots back to the 1893 World’s Fair. It was here that Vienna Beef first sold it’s all-beef sausages (pork being far more common) on rolls for the first time.

I suppose it was a hit because during the Great Depression vendors in Chicago began topping their hot dogs with “salad” to give more value to what was considered a cheap meal. Salad, meat and bread all for a nickel. At some point the definitely hotdog toppings became entrenched in the local culture and have never deviated since.

The Toppings

You start with a soft, poppy seed bun and a juicy all-beef hotdog (Vienna Beef or Red Hot Chicago brand preferably- the natural casing gives the dog a satisfying snap when you bit in). The toppings on a Chicago Hot Dog are numerous and exact. A typical dog will have the following:

  • Yellow mustard (no dijon here)
  • Green relish
  • Diced onions
  • Tomato wedges (2)
  • Large pickle spear (1)
  • Spicy “sport peppers”- pickled serranos apparently
  • Celery salt

The result is a stuffed to the gills bun of sausagey, salady goodness. I’m going to confess: I picked the pickle off of mine (an act several of my tour-mates berated me for. I just can’t, sorry) but I still really enjoyed the intense rush of different flavors: the savory hotdog, the sharp mustard, the sour relish, the sweet tomatoes and the spicy peppers.

Don’t Use Ketchup

Some parting advice, and the most important rule of the Chicago hot dog, so famous that even I knew it before I arrived: NO Ketchup. Most hot dog places won’t even have ketchup so you can just forget about it right now.

Why are they so anti-ketchup? According to this video, nobody really knows, not even the experts, but it may be that the ketchup taste overpowers all of the other things going on in the hotdog. I don’t know if that’s true but there certainly is a LOT going on in a Chicago hotdog.

Whatever the reason, when you’re in Chicago, just save your ketchup for your fries.

Thank you to Chicago Food Planet for the complimentary tour. All anti-pickle rants and opinions are my own.

17 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Chicago Hot Dog”

  1. I am ridiculously in love with hotdogs… I spent three weeks travelling with a friend in London, Luxembourg, Brussels, and Amsterdam, and one of the best meals I had was a hotdog. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, try the hotdog at Vlaamsch Broodhuys. It’s a bakery and cafe, and it is the best hotdog I think I’ve ever had in my life. I have two regrets: I didn’t get a picture of it before I ate it, and I didn’t get a second one.

  2. So funny, as with all things…most locals don’t eat the deep dish or the hot dog (let alone the full “Chicago” dog) very often. I think in my 16 years here, I’ve had a true Chicago dog with all the fixins, once. I actually liked it…especially the celery salt. But I just rarely eat hot dogs. But when I do, I always get mine with just mustard. Good thing about growing up in NJ/NYC we prefer the mustard too!

  3. Haha – excellent post! And I would totally de-pickle mine as well. Definitely an unnecessary and unwelcome addition to any foodstuff.

  4. I can’t even with this post – I’m a not born, but bred, third-generation Chicagoan, and my first stop when I’m back home is always for a dog. I will say that I do love a plain hot dog with ketchup, but always go for the dressed up dog!

  5. Ahhh, Chicago. While once was enough for deep dish pizza, I could definitely go another round of Superdawg.

    Actually, Chicago was also our first brush with White Castle (disappointing) and Mexican food (fabulous).

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