When a small storefront called Dog Day Afternoon materialized in Windsor Terrace not far from Prospect Park in early August, I was there in a flash. Named after an Al Pacino bank-heist movie shot on the same block, and helmed by Buttermilk Channel veterans Joe Boyle and Jay Kerr, the place dispenses Chicago-style hot dogs, sometimes known as “red hots.”
Few American regional specialties have a recipe as exacting as that of the Chicago dog. It starts with an all-beef frank of the type first served at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, perhaps a little grainier and more red than our own natural-skinned franks. It’s a recipe developed during the Great Depression with the purpose of making the humble hot dog grander and more appealing.
The sausage is deposited in a soft, poppy seed bun before it’s dressed up with yellow mustard, painfully green pickle relish, chopped raw onions, ripe tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, and sport peppers — then finished with a vigorous shake of celery salt. Boyle, who grew up in the western Chicago suburb of Oak Park, directs me to play the Ms. Pac-Man game standing in the corner as I wait for my order. (There’s no seating inside, but outside, you can play foosball.)
To the diehard New Yorker, who prefers a simpler topping of sauerkraut and grainy mustard, the Chicago dog poses several questions: Why is the relish so green, and does it need to be? And what the hell is a sport pepper? Reproducing the frank requires a belief that there’s something magical about the combination, and then a lot of effort to acquire ingredients not so readily available here.
As such, many attempts to recreate it in New York have been half-hearted, at best. Most notoriously, Shake Shack welched on the ingredients in its “Shack-cago dog,” by using a sour, dull-green relish; little (if any) identifiable celery salt; a buttered and toasted (rather than steamed) seedless bun; and a supernumerary cucumber spear. Tellingly, it’s no longer available at most Shake Shack locations but it appears a similar version called the flat-top dog is available, according to the chain’s website.
Forming the centerpiece of its menu, Dog Day Afternoon’s version ($6) is as authentic as any in the Windy City itself — where, admittedly, franksters sometimes fool around with the formula. The sausage is from Vienna Beef, as a yellow umbrella outside proclaims, and is snappy, salty, and inordinately red, as expected. There’s also some truth in advertising at play as the ingredients all correspond to a diagram from the manufacturer displayed on the counter.
All the other ingredients fall in line, with the pickle spear and slightly spicy sport pepper holding down the sour side of the flavor spectrum, and the green pickle relish valiantly vying to counter both with sweetness. Really, if you don’t have this relish — doubtlessly rife with artificial food coloring, I imagine — all is lost. The celery salt is a faint whisper; the hot dog could have used more, but other than that, the thing is perfect in every way.
But while being the centerpiece, the Chicago dog is not the totality of the menu. In the sausage category, there’s a vegan version ($8) that passes muster even if it’s a little rubbery. Even better is the Polish sausage, another Chicago staple, that’s grilled to near blackness and mega garlicky; it’s worth every bit of its $9 price tag. (It was large enough that a friend couldn’t finish one on a recent visit.)
Shame on me for not trying the chili dog, which also features cheese, but I did get the French fries ($3), which came out pale, with a starchy coating that didn’t produce crispness, and were generally not very good. If you consider them mainly as an excuse to enjoy ketchup, they’re fine.
Dog Day also does a bang-up job of reproducing the Midwestern milkshake, in flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ($6 or $7). This beverage is thick, but not so thick it can’t be sucked up through the straw. The place also does a root beer float using A&W, another Midwestern favorite. As I waited for my order early one sweltering afternoon in the dog days of late August, other customers began appearing and lining up in front of the comic-decorated storefront as Boyle and Kerr labored methodically inside.
In its obscure location, the hard-to-source ingredients, and the effort-intensive prep, I never would have bet on this place being such a hit. Are there really that many customers who care about the Chicago dog? Or maybe Al Pacino devotees? Or are they just hot dog fans, who relish the detailed treatment afforded to our city’s favorite sausage?