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A Post about Encased Meats

“There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats’, my friend.” — Secret Robbie

This Saturday, John and I hit up Hot Doug’s, a local Chicago institution specializing in the construction and deployment of dressed encased meats. In other words, a hot dog joint. We went with three friends of ours, and it was super-fun times. Alas, I didn’t bring my camera with me—so instead I will paint a picture for you in words.

As usual, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: what is a Chicago-style hot dog? Although not as world-renowned as our deep dish pizza, the Chicago hot dog is a signature trademark of the city’s gustatory culture. It’s comprised of:

  • a steamed all-beef hot dog (usually Vienna Beef)
  • a steamed poppy seed bun
  • yellow mustard
  • no ketchup
  • neon-green relish (we’re talking fluorescent here, folks)
  • diced onions
  • really, NO KETCHUP
  • tomato wedges (two)
  • a pickle spear
  • sport peppers
  • seriously, if you put ketchup on it, the hot dog police will come and take you away (you’ll never even hear them coming—their black helicopters are silent)
  • and a dash of celery salt!

Slight deviations from the recipe are occasionally tolerated, with the one absolute exception that you may never, ever, ever put ketchup on the dog.1

(An aside: One issue I’ve always had trouble teasing apart is whether aficionados claim that the Chicago-style is merely a recipe, or the One True Recipe. The rhetoric makes implicit reference to the existence of other methods of hot dog preparation (ergo, the term Chicago-style), but the underlying insinuation is always that Chicago-style is inherently superior—a kind of Überfrank, if you will. In any case, it’s remarkable to see how even a liberal relativist hippie will miraculously transmogrify into a hard-line fascista when it comes to the topic of how encased meats should be prepared. I’ve seen descriptions where not only the ingredients have been codified into a pristine, unimpeachable list of Commandments, but also the sequence in which those ingredients are to be applied, as well as the very words to be uttered while ordering one—the phraseology delineated precisely, as though it were a wizardly incantation. Mispronounce even a single word and the spell fails; instead of a hot dog, you’ve accidentally materialized the goat-headed Belial, masterless Prince of Hell and commander of 80 demonic legions, before whom all manner of infernal depravity proceeds. Really, it happens!)

But if Hot Doug’s were merely another Chicago hot dog joint, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I certainly wouldn’t have waited in line for 90 minutes for one of their franks. (Yep, 90 minutes! The line literally went out the door and around the corner.) In fact, Hot Doug’s really isn’t a hot dog place at all. As indicated in the title of this post, a better term would be “encased meats”. Why? Well, here, take a look at some of their specials for today:

  • Red Bell Pepper Wild Boar Sausage with Sun-Dried Tomato Mustard and Pistachio Pecorino
  • The Atomic Bomb Spicy Pork Sausage with Spicy Passion Fruit Mayonnaise and Smoked Gouda Cheese
  • Blue Cheese Pork Sausage with White Peach Puree, Rum-Infused Dried Fruit and Roasted Almonds
  • Bacon and Cheddar Elk Sausage with Goose Island Honker’s Ale Mustard and Serendipity Cheese
  • Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Sel Gris

I could go on, but you get the idea. The menu reads like you’re in a gourmet restaurant. (If you’re curious, follow the above link for a complete listing of the specials.) Indeed, these are no mere hot dogs—they are works of art. Except you can eat them, too! (Which possibly explains why the line to get into Hot Doug’s is substantially longer than the line for, say, the Louvre.)

Now, it is a well-known fact that every choice presents you with the promise of a multitude of possible universes. Each selection you make necessarily pales in comparison to the aggregate of those possibilities, swollen and tumescent as a sausage overstuffed with pure heaven-spiced potential. It was my unenviable task to whittle the dazzling array of selections to a scant two or three items for purchase. Alas, I am only a single man with but a single stomach. In order to maximize the number of foodstuffs sampled, I went halfsies with a friend on both the elk sausage and foie gras specials. I also got a traditional Chicago-style dog as a gesture of respect to the hot dog gods.

My favorite item was easily the elk sausage, followed by the foie gras. The elk had a definite zing to it (or was it zang?) whereas the foie gras was a bit heavier and milder in taste. The traditional dog was good, too—but this city is teeming with hot dog joints, and many them have essentially perfected the art of the Chicago-style hot dog. You don’t need to drive downtown and wait 90 minutes in line for something that you can find at the Hot Dog Island down the road. In retrospect, I should have seized the opportunity and tried another specialty option instead.

In addition to the ridiculous selection of encased meats, you can get french fries that have been fried in rendered duck fat. Duck fat! Pay heed, though: if you’re interested in trying out this indulgently over-the-top delicacy, you need to come on either Friday or Saturday. They’re also slightly more expensive than the regular fries. Are they worth it? Taste-wise, probably not. But I think the novelty makes ‘em worth a try.

Final verdict? Definitely worth a visit, if you can make it. If you live in Chicago, I’d absolutely recommend trying it out. (Here are directions.) Bring friends so you have someone to talk to in line. And when you’re there, make sure you’re trying the gourmet specialties. Because if all you’re looking for is a Chicago-style hot dog, there are other options in town that are plenty more efficient and just as good.

1 Some say it’s acceptable for kids up to a certain age (I’ve heard it vary from 10 to 18) to put ketchup on their dogs. Others disagree on the grounds that this is merely encouraging bad behavior from a young age.