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. Haha this is awesome. Will there be test on this that I will probably fail? I failed anatomy three times in college. Either way I only really eat my hot dogs with Ketchup and I remember my first time in Chicago asking for it and getting the weirdest look and judgement. I really wish someone knew why this is cause hot dogs and ketchup rule!

  2. This may be sacrilege but… I don’t get the big deal about Chicago hot dogs. I was so excited to try them on my first visit, and I was so underwhelmed. To this day, I continue to say that Toronto street hot dogs are the best: not only are they ridiculously affordable, but all the carts have every condiment under the sun and there will be no judgment should you decide to adorn yours with shredded cheese, sauerkraut, bacon bits, jalapeños, mayo & mustard. Trust me, I know! Compared with that, I’m sorry, but the Chicago dog just doesn’t compete!

  3. Thanks…now I want one…pickle and all. 🙂 What I wouldn’t give for a hot dog like that here in Belize right this second. Oh well, I can get a “street meat” one – bacon wrapped bacon hot dog. LOL

  4. In so un Chicagoan because I drench everything in ketchup. I usually refrain from ever ordering hot dogs in the city for that reason. Or I just order them plain and bring them home so I can enjoy my ketchup in peace. I’m sure they know what I’m doing but I feel less judged ordering them plain than with ketchup…

  5. Have you ever tried Tony Paco’s in Toledo, OH? Now there’s some good dogs.

    Next time you’re driving out that way stop in at Tony’s and grab the MOAD – Mother of All Dogs.

  6. This is why I will never be a true Chicagoan. After 13 years here, I still put ketchup on my hot dog.

    *runs and hides from all the real Chicagoans*

  7. Love that no ketchup sign! I also love how obviously passionate Chicagoans (I’m sure that’s not a word but I’m rolling with it) about the heritage and the dos and don’ts of a ‘proper’ hot dog. Whilst there are certain exceptions, I think such traditions are lost in the UK and I think it’s such a shame. Looking forward to hearing about your thoughts of the pizza.

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