There are lots of places in our great nation to get your hot dog on. Detroit has its Coney Island dogs smothered with chili. Coney Island has its Nathan's Famous dogs, consumed each year in epic eating contests. Angelenos eat them with pork rinds, fried egg, seaweed and pickled papaya — one hopes not all at once. But Chicago's hot dogs outshine them all.
Here are some suggestions for those spending a day or two in the Second City.
Portillo's: My family of four rolled into a Portillo's in Elgin, Ill., just after 10 p.m. on a Friday. We wondered whether it would be open, 37 miles out in the northwest suburbs, but this joint was packed with families. The dog was a beauty: a $3.10 jumbo frank on a poppy-seed bun with mustard, relish, chopped onions, wedges of tomatoes, a kosher pickle and sport peppers, a medium-hot bite-sized pepper almost always found on a Chicago hot dog.
In Chi-Town parlance, the dog was "dragged through the garden." All Portillo's are in greater Chicago except for two in California, two in Arizona and one in Indiana.
35th Street Red Hots: My next hot dog was supposed to be at a White Sox game, but while looking in vain for a parking spot, I spotted this unassuming stand two blocks west of the stadium. I dropped off the family at the game and returned. No fancy garden-dragging at this gem. For $3.25 I got a Vienna frank served "old style" on a poppy-seedless bun with mustard, relish, raw onion and sport peppers. It was wrapped in paper with fries right out of the oil and so hot I had to put them down.
The Vienna snapped between my teeth on the first bite, delivering warm beef flavor and shivers of pleasure through my body. You can get ketchup in this place but you have to ring a "bell of shame" first. 35th Street Red Hots, which opened in 2008, was the best surprise of my hot dog tour.
Info: 500 W. 35th St., Chicago
Comiskey Dog: I was less than ravenous upon entering the home of the White Sox, U.S. Cellular Field, formerly known as Comiskey Park. But my appetite bounced back for a Comiskey Dog, one of the most famous food items in baseball. I got in line and ordered two foot-long dogs at $9.25 apiece. Each was a snappy Vienna dressed in the traditional Chicago garden trappings. The vendor started with zigzags of yellow mustard, then added green relish, chopped onion, two tomato wedges, a kosher dill pickle spear and two sport peppers, and topped it with a generous shake of celery salt.
The hot dogs were unwieldy and difficult to eat; my last several bites were lumpfuls of tomato and mustard-soaked bread. A Comiskey Dog and a White Sox loss: Now I was really experiencing Chicago.
Info: U.S. Cellular Field, 333 W. 35th St., Chicago
Superdawg: This hot dog destination, which opened in 1948, is one of the oldest drive-in restaurants in the United States. The all-beef dogs were served in small cardboard boxes with hot, crinkled fries for $5.75. I dug through the fries and found the bun, surprisingly, crumpled and a little damp. But the pure beef hot dog (the menu boasts "no pork, no veal, no cereal, no filler") exploded with heat and flavor, and the greenish tomatoes were the sweetest I'd tasted in any of the garden-dragged dogs.
Superdawg wasn't my favorite of the weekend, but I can't wait to get back.
Info: 6363 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, www.superdawg.com
Gene & Jude's: We made a jaunt to River Grove, about 12 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, for the world-famous Gene & Jude's. I've read that you're either a fancy Superdawg kind of person or you're a down-to-earth Gene & Jude's kind of person, and I was eager to find out which I was. No one else in my family got out of the car; I was on my own.
Like 35th Street Red Hots, Gene & Jude's serves an old-style dog; they've been doing it since 1946. No tomatoes, no poppy-seed buns. I waited in line about 20 minutes and marveled at how the fries were crank-cut from potatoes, sunk into the fry oil, then used as insulation: They're poured sizzling over the hot Viennas in assembly-line fashion to keep the dogs hot before they are wrapped in paper and served. I returned to the car euphoric and a mere $2.69 lighter.
I appreciated the old-school price. Don't ask for ketchup here; there is none. Nor are there any seats, but there is a ledge that runs across the front window. I left without knowing what kind of person I am; perhaps closer to Gene & Jude's.
Info: 2720 River Road, River Grove, Ill., www.geneandjudes.com
Hot Doug's: We found the hot dogs pretty pedestrian inside the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field. But then one of the vendors at the generic Chicago Hot Dogs behind the left-field bleachers whispered that Hot Doug's had opened just days earlier in centerfield.
This was a legitimate hot dog scoop: Hot Doug's "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium" in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood had been one of the city's best-loved hot dog spots until it closed last October. Now it was open in Wrigley!
There are three offerings; none a hot dog, per se, but all amazing.
The Dave Kingman is a bacon cheeseburger sausage with cola barbecue sauce and sharp cheddar; the Rick Reuschel is a hot sausage with chipotle mustard and pepper jack cheese; and the Carmen Fanzone is a spicy Polish with spicy brown mustard and caramelized onions. Sitting with the bums in the left-center field bleachers, my family and some old friends polished off all three.
Info: Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison St., Chicago