June 28th, 2011
09:30 AM ET
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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.)

Gorilla Grill at Lincoln Park Zoo's Park Place Café
At Chicago’s lakefront zoo, where the admission is free, food worker Carnel Johnson prepares the hot dogs.

“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
In downtown Chicago, Millennium Park is truly a 21st Century urban oasis.

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.

Nothing like a neighborhood restaurant devoted to the red hot.

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)
Take a whiff, folks. As soon as you walk into this veritable hot dog stand – in a structure just bigger than a shack – the aroma of hot franks permeate the air.

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.

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Filed under: 100 Places to Eat • Best in Life • Bite • Chicago • Dishes • Fourth of July • Holidays • Hot dogs • Travel

soundoff (174 Responses)
  1. Bones

    2 words-Fat Johnnie's

    July 1, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  2. M

    Keep wearing your a$$hats, you of little brains and less sense. Keep eating your ketchup like little children and eating at chains not knowing what is good and why. I wouldn't list My favorite places for fear that I would have to see and hear any of your supercillious prattle. Be sure to stay in your own towns and cities and leave Chicago for those who understand and appreciate it.

    June 29, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  3. Chris

    A trip to Chicago for hot dogs and you didn't visit Hot Doug's, Wiener's Circle, Superdawg, Gold Coast Dogs, or Byron's? For shame.

    June 28, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  4. Dave

    Vienna Beef dogs are good.
    Nathan's Hot Dogs are great!

    I have never been a fan of "Chicago Style." To me it's a form of salad.
    Oh well, to each his own.

    June 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  5. Ribbitt's Ant

    This is unbelievable...just reading thru all these comments....Why do people have to trash other people and their city and their desired tastes? I mean, I thought this was an article about Hot Dogs (Food), not politics and whose city is the better city. Come on people, stick with the subject. Also, I thought it was everyone's right to have their own opinion – and taste!? I guess not. I'm sure I'll get bashed for saying this and what I'm about to say but here goes...why not just ask Oprah? She's a Chicago girl, no? And from the looks of it, I would guess she's eaten her fair share of Chi Dogs!
    :) Ok, folks, go ahead...let the bashing begin!

    June 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  6. I want da gold!

    All about the Wiener Circle! Go there after the bars close, with $20 in hand, and ask for the milk shake. You will NOT be disappointed!

    Oh, and prepare for foul language and lewd behavior during your visit.

    June 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  7. Walt of Wisconsin

    As an ex-Chicagoan I miss most the variety of ethnic restaurants and groceries. And in an ethnic sense, Vienna hot dogs "with the works" is part of Chicago's culture. Hey, aren't there any south siders that remember the lines to get hot dogs with wonderfully immoral greasy french fries, wrapped together, as your hot dog purchase at Carl's on South Chicago Avenue? And yes, sport peppers are part of the personna of Chicago Style Hot Dawgs.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  8. Wolvrne88

    The author doesn't know his frankfurter from a Vienna dog. Seriously? A zoo and park district hot dog? Hot Doug's is the without question the best in the city – exotic encased meats and fries deep fat fried in duck fat. The best! I'll also give a shout to Wiener Circle on Clark St. in Lincoln Park, Murphy's Red Hot's on Belmont (near Racine), and Byron's Hot Dog Haus on Irving Park Rd. (b'tween Sheridan & Seminary) – order Dogzilla! God Bless America the we fans of meats in tubular form have a forum to discuss their deliciousness!

    June 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  9. Ryan in Michigan

    I haven't tried most of the hot dog places people are talking about here, and I'm not sure how they cook them, but I personally believe the best way to cook one is to put it on a stick and roast them over an open fire. It seems to add something to it, sometimes depending upon the wood used for the fire. Does anyone agree with me, or do you think the restaurants do it better (condiments aside)?

    June 28, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • K from NY - STATE

      ABSOLUTELY agree. Charred crispy and NO condiments just a soft bun to use to take the dog off the stick. I don't use any condiments on my hot dogs because I really do like the hot dog.
      BTW – pizza = crust, sauce and cheese – and it is great that way if NY style. I do love a good Chicago style "pizza" because the sausage is awesome but pizza means NY style and deep dish pizza is Chicago and they cannot compare as they are two different "foods".

      June 28, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
      • Patrickk

        The pizza served ANYWHERE in America is not fit for animal feed. Just sayin'

        June 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
      • Ryan in Michigan

        That's okay, cause Patrickk served anywhere is unfit for maggot feed. They'd gag on his pure putrescence and die of indigestion from the lack of wit in his brain.

        June 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. Chicago Lu

    As a lifelong Chicagoan my picks are Weiners Circle, Superdawg, Gene & Judes & yes...Portillos for hotdogs & Jim's Original for a great Polish Sausage sandwich. But there's plenty more place that hold up...
    Chicago has great food, culture & atmosphere, but we never refer to our city as Chi-town... ew.
    Whoever wrote the article didn't hit any of the places Chicagoans go for hotdogs...
    I'm off to Portillo's for lunch right now!

    June 28, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  11. reasonable man

    All this talk about the "best" hot dog is just garbage. If you start with a kosher dog (Vienna Beef is my pick) on a soft bun (seeded or un) the rest is toppings and condiments. It isn't rocket science. It's a freakin' hot dog!

    June 28, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  12. Rob

    How can Portillo's not make this list?!

    June 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  13. Nathan

    Really? No one else is going to bring it up? No jokes about this sentence in the above article? "This wiener was a fatty – a real bun buster." Maybe I'm the only immature person on here today.

    On another note one of the best hotdogs I've ever had was from Paris believe it or not. Now I've never been to Chicago so I can't compare it but it was pretty amazing. Maybe this summer I can take a trip to Chicago to try some dogs.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  14. melissa

    I can't belive so many people put their drastic opinions AGAINST the way SOMEONE ELSE enjoys their food...I SAY ENjoy what YOU eat the way YOU like it...I personally love a great hot dog..and the one pictured looks awesome. I haven't yet tried a taco hot dog...would love to try one. Otherwise, I like it anyway you fix 'em...as long as the hot dog is all-beef and great-tasting. YUM-O!

    June 28, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  15. 35th Floor

    I appreciate that you didn't include Hot Dougs, Superdawg, or the Weiners Circle, which, while all excellent dogs, are overcited as the exemplars. I can see the need for a downtown option–it's the Taste, tourists in town are obviously interested in food, give them an option, sure. But Park Grill? Lincoln Park Zoo? Seriously? You want to do a downtown option, go with Portillos, cited by many upthread, or with Gold Coast Dogs or something. Gold Coast Dogs is actually closer to the CNN offices at 2 Prudential than Park Grill! You want to do a Chicago Institution/Attraction option, go with Wrigley (also cited by many upthread). Or go to the source, and do the cafe at the Vienna Factory. I think Weiner & Still Champion should have been your Evanston pick. I wish you had chosen Red Hot Ranch, or another of it's ilk, to truly represent the bare bones, neighborhood hot dog stand. Wolfys is as well known for it's Polish or Fried Salami sandwiches as for hot dogs, and I think the more singularly-focused joints would have driven home the theme of what a prominent role the Hot Dog plays in Chicago. Fail.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  16. Glenn

    Getting a good hot dog in Chicago is pretty easy. New York too. Would be great to see a list of other great dog places around the country.

    Where I live, Patricks at Washington Square Mall has great dogs, any way you can think of.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  17. Carrot

    Veggies are living things too! I play it safe and only eat rocks and gravel.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  18. Happy Vegan

    Hot dogs are garbage of the highest caliber. But then again, so is eating meat of ANY kind. You people are all barbaric.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Vaginaterian

      There is only one thing that I eat!

      June 28, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • The Smart Aleck@Vaginaterian

      Best screen name ever!

      June 28, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
      • Vaginaterian@TSA

        Thank you.

        June 28, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      That salmonella from the fresh, organic sprouts you eat must be keeping you up at night, huh, Happy Vegan?

      June 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • nwhanes

      I'm cool with being barbaric. I love hot dogs. Not often, but they are definitely on my list of "good eats".

      June 29, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  19. JoJo

    It's tragic that people who didn't grow up in Chicago don't know what "Italian Beef Sandwich" with sweet peppers means. Or Italian sausage with jiardinere, or a Polish with sauerkraut, or a hot tamalee, or a Vienna dog on a poppy seed bun with the works. Very sad.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • I want da gold!

      All about that Italian beer with hot giardiniera!

      June 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
      • I want da gold!

        oops...beef. :)

        June 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  20. skytag

    Does CNN pay people to write stuff this lame? In an article about "Chicago dogs that cut the mustard" the author mentions four places. One has hot dogs that are "bland" for $12, another has hot dogs that are "nothing special," and he doesn't even talk about the hot dogs from the last place. Based on the few I've read, these eatocracy articles are embarrassing lame.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  21. Stoogatz

    I'm from Queens, but I lived in Chicago for 10 years (back in NYC now) and there is no better hot dog product in the world than a Vienna Beef Hot Dog will all the Chicago toppings. It puts a Sabrett with onion sauce to shame, their dogs are mushy. The best incarnation in NY is a Hebrew National with kraut and spicy brown mustard, but it doesn't really hold a candle to the Chicago version. When I lived in Chicago my landlord made a good point, NY'ers make one hell of a snack (thin pizza, street dogs) but Chicagoans really know how to make a meal (deep dish, Chicago style dogs). I love them all, comparing the pizza is ridiculous, apples to oranges. But toppings aside, Viennas are the best in the country.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  22. Lori

    Y'all missed Waka Dog in Mishawaka , IN. Their Chicago Dogs ROCK THE HOUSE!!!

    June 28, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • The Witty One

      I think that's because no one knows where Mishawaka is...or how to get there.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  23. Aktebetka

    How about Poochie's in Skokie? It's been around since 1969. They may be the "Home of the Cheddar Burger" but their hot dogs are truly Chicago hot dogs!

    June 28, 2011 at 10:45 am |
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