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Why Can’t NYC Make a Decent Chicago-Style Hot Dog?

Really, why?

Perhaps no dish in North America is more precisely defined than the Chicago hot dog, often known as a "red hot." The frank should be skin-on and all-beef, ideally manufactured by Vienna Beef Ltd or Red Hot Chicago. Firm-fleshed and reddish colored, this type of frankfurter debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, held along the Chicago lakefront.

During the Great Depression, the current complex treatment of the red hot emerged. The wiener came to be served on a poppy seed bun, heaped with an aggressively odd combination of ingredients: yellow mustard, bright green sweet-pickle relish, chopped raw onions, ripe tomato wedges or slices, kosher dill pickle spears, sport peppers, and celery salt. The idea was to make one frank a full meal.

One of the first things that Chicago expats ask me when they arrive here is where they can get a real Chicago red hot. Usually I hang my head in shame, but recently I decided to do a reappraisal of the bars, cafes, and kiosks that offer them. Certainly, there’s nothing that stands in the way of creating an authentic rendition here: You can get the hot dogs shipped from the Windy City (or have a facsimile made locally), and find an internet source for sport peppers — small bottled green chiles something like serranos, though probably of Italian origin (others claim they first came from the American South). The other ingredients are all readily available, except maybe the poppy seed bun.

Somehow, every frank I tried — sometimes with desperate Chicagoans in tow — totally missed the mark. Is it that New Yorkers don’t realize the deliciousness of the precise formula? Or, more sinisterly, are they exhibiting an active dislike of the City of the Big Shoulders, as Carl Sandburg called it?

Shake Shack and No. 7 dogs.

First stop, of course, was Shake Shack. The Chicago frank there is punningly called the Shack-cago Dog, and it begins with an actual Vienna Beef frank — but from there, it swerves off in its own direction. Instead of using the blindingly green sweet relish, it tends in a locavore direction with Rick’s Picks Shack Relish, made in Brooklyn and more sour than sweet. The dull color, too, is all wrong. The bun is seed-free, raw cucumber has been added to the recipe (a few Chicago renegades do this, too), and the celery salt can’t be tasted, though a fine green powder is in evidence. So near, yet so far! Rather than displaying an orderly assortment of ingredients as the real Chicago dog does, the Shake Shack toppings form a green sludge, and the sweet-sour balance of the original has been entirely lost.

According to the web, The Landing on Old Fulton Street in Brooklyn, a fenced-in food court, offers a Chicago-style frank. The pictures looked promising. I sped there around lunchtime one recent weekday to find the place closed up, with some new commercial construction in the offing.

Despondent, I nosed around the rest of the Fulton Ferry Landing to try to find a substitute. I hit pay dirt — well, almost — at No. 7 Sub, a brick structure under the Brooklyn Bridge mainly selling hot dogs, despite advertising heroes. One of the selections was seemingly offered as a sop to those seeking a Chicago red hot. The so-called Joliet Blues offered a suspiciously similar series of toppings, only tweaked in Brooklyn and Korean directions: spicy muchim pickles, onions, pickled jalapeños, marinated tomatoes, mustard. The hot dog was a slender foot-long (well, 10 inches), the tomatoes were cherry tomatoes, and they were pickled, too! The Joliet Blues tasted pretty good on its own, but the thing was more of a parody of a Chicago frank than an emulation.

Above: Sons of Thunder dogs. Below: Euro Smoothie exterior and Custom's hot dog.

I jumped on the subway to pursue another lead, this one on Stone Street in FiDi: Growler Bites and Brews. But when I sat down outside on the cobbled, umbrella-shaded street, the waitress told me, "Oh, we don’t make them anymore. Nobody wanted them." I had to content myself with a Cuban sandwich made with duck breast. That evening found me at Sons of Thunder, a new poke spot on the East Side that also happens to concentrate on hot dogs made with proprietary links they get manufactured themselves. These are way longer than they oughta be, dwarfing the bun, which didn’t have poppy seeds and was way too squishy. The dill pickle was missing, too, but, aside from that, the so-called Chicago dog wasn’t bad.

There’s a red wooden lean-to plastered against a tenement on Macdougal near West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village that has recently been taken over by Turkish proprietors. Named Euro Smoothie & Juice Bar, the place offers hot dogs in several permutations, including an Istanbul dog, Coney dog, Tex-Mex dog, New York dog, and Chicago dog, in addition to a veggie dog made with a cylindrical falafel. The Chicago dog is a little offhand, with several key ingredients missing, in addition to a big doughy bun that seemed all wrong. "Do you want ketchup or mayo with that?" The clerk inquired. "Hell, no!" I replied.

Looking back through my photo archives, I found a picture from 2012 of a Chicago hot dog made at Williamsburg’s Custom American Wine Bar. Called the "Mid West," the bun was indeed sprinkled with a few poppy seeds, the frank good, though the sport peppers had been chopped up, along with the dill pickle and tomato. Still, even today, it stands as one of the better of several bad attempts to recreate the Chicago hot dog here. New York City, can’t you please try a little harder?

Where Sietsema went:

  • Shake Shack, Madison Ave and E 23rd St, (212) 889-6600, and elsewhere
  • No. 7 Park, 11 Water St, Brooklyn, (917) 618-4399
  • Sons of Thunder, 204 E 38th St, (646) 863-2212
  • Euro Smoothie & Juice Bar, Macdougal St and E 3rd St
  • Custom American Wine Bar, 644 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 387-9463
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