We came in search of a classic but modest comestible: the hot dog.
The setting for this hunt was the erstwhile “hog butcher for the world,” as the poet Carl Sandburg put it: Chicago.
Now is the season of the oblong dog : baseball, Fourth of July, backyard cookouts, outdoor concerts.
So, from stand to stand, steamer to steamer, grill to grill, we took a taste of the finest wieners (hold the congressional jokes, please – and the ketchup too!) that the “City of Broad Shoulders” had to offer.
As for criterion, there was only one we sought in the frankfurters: it had to taste tangy, sweet and salty all in one bite.
(And for full disclosure: I’m a native Nort’ Sider, born within earshot of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. So, several North Side destinations are listed below.)
“What you want on it?” he asks.
“Run it through the garden,” I tell him.
That’s shorthand for “the works”: tomatoes, raw chopped onions, mustard, celery salt, relish and a pickle spear.
Outside the café, many families populate the picnic tables, feasting on dogs or other grill fare.
The franks here feature a culinary wrinkle: the relish is colored fluorescent green. Maybe it’s the kids who prefer the neon over the traditional green, but I like the latter hue for my relish - call me old-fashioned.
There’s another nuance to the wiener terroir: the integrity of the poppy-seed bun. This one, while fresh and soft, didn’t hold up well - so bring plenty of napkins. It’s going to get messy.
The cheese fries, by the way, do make for a nice complement though.
The Plaza at Park Grill in Millennium Park
I went for the monster: “The Colossal Chicago Char Dog,” an 8-ounce mouthful that’s charred in the open air.
The Plaza at Park Grill is an outdoor restaurant at the park. It sits in a rink that, in the winter, is used for ice skating beside downtown’s signature thoroughfare, Michigan Avenue.
This wiener was a fatty - a real bun buster. The grill doesn’t have a fryer for fries, so the frank is served with southwestern-style cole slaw made with black beans, corn and chili powder.
The hot dog, so big that the cook has to make expansion cuts to the skin, offers a nice crunch, thanks to the charring.
But for $12, the big dog seemed a bit bland. Maybe it’s because the spicy slaw steals the show.
In any event, try the local brew Goose Island 312 to wash down this meal.
Wolfy’s has been located in the far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park since 1967. I remember it as a kid when I delivered the now defunct Chicago Today, an afternoon daily, on my bicycle.
Wolfy’s is a colorful place, with a monumental sign worthy of a Hollywood attraction. Its interior is red-and-white checkered tile. The tiling features playful caricatures such as the American Gothic couple with their pitch fork holding a hot dog.
And Wolfy itself is a cartoon wolf gone wild over the sausage-in-a-bun.
The steamed dogs are nothing special, but you can’t beat the family atmosphere: grandparents, parents and kids still in baseball uniforms after a game - all enjoying the American summertime classic.
Just hold the hot peppers, please.
Mustard’s Last Stand (Evanston, Illinois)
That’s the way manager Steve Starkman, 44, designed it: a double-boiler ensures that the all-beef dogs are cooked at a consistent temperature of about 170 degrees. Starkman won’t even set up a coffee bar as the scent would compromise the atmosphere.
“You want it Chicago style?” grill master Angelo Alvarado, 41, inquires.
Let’s be clear here. It’s beyond heresy to eat your hot dog in any way except “Chicago style” when you’re in Chicago.
Translation: don’t put ketchup on your frankfurter. Never. Ever.
Mustard is the only acceptable condiment, besides relish.
The eatery, established in 1969, is so renowned that it’s in the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame. It’s also the subject of a question in the Genus Edition of Trivial Pursuit, Starkman said. (Question: What food is served at Mustard’s Last Stand on the North Shore of Evanston?)
The stand is also a tailgating favorite, next to Northwestern University’s football stadium, Ryan Field.
One couple appeared here after their wedding, in nuptial attire. A photo of the newlyweds hangs on the wall.
As for the real attraction, try the charred dog. I did. Subtly tangy and sweet - and the bun held up to tradition.