In Chicago, hot dogs are basically a religion. With National Hot Dog Day taking place July 23 and the "dog days of summer" upon us, it's an apt time to round up some of the city's finest hot dogs, from newfangled restaurants to classic joints.
Mercadito Counter (738 N. Clark St., pictured at top)
At Mercadito Counter, hot dogs adapt a Mexican accent. The results are glorious and truly unlike anything in Chicago. The modern taqueria and Mexican deli features Mex-inspired hot dogs on their zesty menu, offering items like the Mexican hot dog with a bacon-wrapped dog, pico de gallo, mayo, jalapeno relish, mustard, and ketchup. The Baja-style is a beer battered dog with chipotle cole slaw, while the pastor is a taco-inspired creation consisting of a guajillo- and ancho-marinated pork dog with charred pineapple, whole grain mustard, chile de arbol ketchup, crispy red onion and cilantro.
Franks 'N' Dawgs (1863 N. Clybourn Ave.)
One of the most forward-thinking hot dog shops in Chicago is this outre joint in Lincoln Park. Far beyond the encased meat standards, Franks 'N' Dawgs approaches hot dogs with a crafty culinary ethos, whipping up exotic sausages, stuffing them in custom, buttery New England-style buns, and heaping them with offbeat accoutrements.
Examples include the taco dawg (above) with beef sausage, tortilla strips, house hot sauce, scallion puree, queso, and cilantro; the slammin' salmon with citrus-cured salmon, herbed cream cheese, bagel crisps, fried capers, salmon roe, and dill; and the pork of July with pork loin, caramelized onions, house smoked pulled pork, cherry-bourbon BBQ sauce, and house slaw. Vegetarians have options here as well, like the singhing fu dawg with smoked tofu, basil paneer, spicy turnip masala, chivda (a sort of Indian trail mix) and cilantro.
The Wiener's Circle (2622 N. Clark St.)
If you're craving that classic Chicago hot dog experience with a side of sass, then head to Lincoln Park's venerable Wiener's Circle. This late-night dog joint is a timeworn and seasoned institution, most renowned for the notorious back talk from employees come the witching hour. Aka late at night. During the day, this counter service spot slings solid Chicago-style dogs with smiles on their faces. But by night, once all the bar-goers are hankering for a snack, things get sassy. All in the name of fun, of course.
Old Town Social (455 W. North Ave.)
One of the few restaurants in Chicago actually going to great lengths to make their own hot dogs is Old Town Social. Sure, housemade sausages are a dime a dozen in our meaty Mecca of a metropolis, but hot dogs are another animal entirely, so to speak, necessitating meticulous work and recipe formatting to ensure consistency, texture, and flavor.
Executive Chef Jared Van Camp has said his scratch-made hot dog method was one of the most challenging things he's done in his storied career, requiring months of practice to get them just so. Using strictly local, sustainable heritage breed pork, Old Town Social breaks down whole hogs and cures them in-house before crafting a mini hot dog trio: the Coney dog, the corn dog and the classic Chicago dog. The proof is in the pudding. Or the pork.
Bangers & Lace (1670 W. Division St.)
In terms of classic Americana, hot dogs and beer go together like mac and cheese. The duo doesn't get any better than at Bangers & Lace, Wicker Park's popular beer and sausage bar stocked with a bevy of novel meat creations perfectly in tune with the thorough craft beer program. Think po'boy-inspired sandwiches featuring oyster, crab, and cod sausage; duck BLTs made with duck and bacon sausage; and char dogs bedecked with pimento cheese and spicy ketchup. There's also a handful of more classic hot dog creations, like a corn dog, slaw dog, and Chicago dog.
Belly Shack (1912 N. Western Ave.)
One of my single favorite hot dogs in Chicago is one of the most unique. At Belly Shack, the Belly Dog started off as a special that garnered such hyper popularity that it eventually made its way to the top of the permanent menu. It's easy to see why, as it's a hot dog that toes the line between all-American and Asian flavors. This novelty is an all-beef hot dog served with crispy egg noodles, pickled green papaya, and a side of togarashi-spiced fries.
Superdawg (6363 N. Milwaukee Ave.)
When it comes to hot dog classics in Chicago, one of the essential destinations is Superdawg. Follow the twinkling eyes of the giant hot dog figurines atop the restaurant on the northwest side and make your way to hot dog paradise, where encased meat is king and crinkle-cut fries comprise the court. A throwback destination at its most superb, Superdawg still has drive-in service, meaning cars park and place their orders through machines. Servers then bring the food to the window and you eat in the car. It's a bygone blast from the past, made all the more memorable by the plump hot dogs, especially the namesake Superdawg outfitted with piccalilli, a pickle, chopped Spanish onions, mustard, and hot peppers.
Photos: Mercadito Counter; Franks 'N' Dawgs; Old Town Social; Belly Shack; Superdawg