Sky Full of Bacon

Hot Dogs: Minimalists vs. Maximalists

When Hot Doug’s was closed for the better part of a year following a fire at its original location, I wondered why some other hot dog place didn’t make an effort to replicate its formula to some degree.  The city is full of dog joints, why didn’t one, just one, make the effort to start offering dogs with exotic ingredients at a significantly higher price point?

It finally happened, but not in the city— fRedhots in Glenview made its name with exotic dogs (most infamously, a reindeer sausage near Christmas) and interesting toppings.  I’m not totally wild about fRedhots but I absolutely give him credit for taking the Hot Doug’s paradigm and proving that it has room for distinct styles of topping a sausage; you wouldn’t mistake Fred’s dogs for Doug’s.  And the same now proves to be true for Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, the most ambitious artisanal-dog joint to open yet, featuring a bevy of housemade and quality-sourced sausages, lobster-roll style buns made by the Nicole’s Crackers people, and some genuinely innovative toppings.

I ran into LTHer Stevez there, so we split three dogs between us: the brat, topped with red cabbage, beer mustard and red pepper relish (top); the Tur-dawgen, a turkey sausage with duck confit and pickled carrots (above); and the Foss Hog, conceived in homage to chef Phillip Foss of Lockwood, a pork sausage topped with bacon and a fried egg (below).

I liked the sausages, and the butter-toasted buns, quite a bit, and the imagination and skill of owner Alexander Brunacci and sausagemaker Joe Doren are evident.  But as total dishes I felt like all three, certainly at least the brat and the Tur-dawgen, skewed a bit too much toward the gourmet and lost something of the traditional snap and street-food swagger of a sausage— I wanted a little more char from the grill, a little more bite from the mustard.  The toppings sometimes seemed a bit too genteel for a mouthful of sausage; that happens once in a while at Doug’s, especially when he overdoes the cheese on something, but on the whole, you still know you’re eating a juicy, salty-peppery sausage straight off the fire, which remains the best condiment a sausage can ask for.

So I’m not quite in love with Franks ‘n’ Dawgs yet, but it’s an estimable place, dedicated to its cuisine in all seriousness, and I’m eager to see how it develops its own style, one foot in world cuisine, one in the traditional satisfactions of a hot dog stand.

*  *  *

Meanwhile, another new dog place of note has opened on the north side— but compared to Franks’ radical dogs, it could hardly be more traditionalist.  It’s called Redhot Ranch, though it’s actually a spinoff of a venerable South Side dog joint, 35th Street Red Hots.  I discovered 35th Street Red Hots a few years ago while biking down the lakefront, and I have to say I’ve invalidated the benefits of my biking more than a few times in this humble shack, which serves the quintessential minimalist Chicago dog menu: hot dogs with your choice of mustard, relish, onion and peppers; fries; Italian ice in the summer.  I’d rank it with Gene’s and Jude’s as an exemplar of this type at its no-frills best, the mustard and onion subtly perfuming the fries they’re rolled up with in white paper (not entirely tongue in cheek, I’ve referred to the hot dog as merely a delivery vehicle for getting mustard and onion flavor into the fries).  Done right, it’s a meal whose balance of flavors is as subtle and perfect as anything at Alinea.

Redhot Ranch, located in a former Las Asadas (which has moved across the street) expands ever so slightly on this paradigm— just to offer fried shrimp and to allow ketchup for your fries (something strictly verboten at Gene’s and Jude’s, for instance).  Otherwise, it’s seriously bare bones, not even any chairs, and this may be a problem in the long run, because here’s what we heard while we were standing there eating:

“You don’t have cheese dogs?”
“Do you have pickles? No?”
“You don’t have tacos no more?”
“I’ll have it with mustard, relish and cheese– what? No cheese?”
“No hamburgers?”

In the time that my kids and I stood there eating our canonically perfect, good-as-35th Street Chicago minimalist dogs and fries, five customers came in asking those questions, and only two of the five stayed to order something. The beyond-spartan lineup on the board may be admirable but I’m not sure it’s going to be sustainable as a business model; it will be a strange and ironic day indeed if the north side of Chicago proves incapable of supporting such a perfect example of a classic Chicago dog stand, while embracing one whose dogs would have sounded like a parody of yuppie dining just a short time ago.

Franks ‘n’ Dawgs
1863 N. Clybourn
(773) 248-0479

Redhot Ranch
2072 N. Western

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