Like so many foods, Chicago’s distinctive hot dog originated at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held along the waterfront of Lake Michigan on the South Side. Cracker Jack, shredded wheat, and the brownie all debuted there, and chili con carne from San Antonio was popularized so effectively that cans of it were soon being gobbled in every corner of the country. Another prominent contribution of the fair was the Chicago hot dog. Two Austrian Jewish immigrants, Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl, founded the Vienna Beef company that year and sold their frankfurters topped with mustard and onions from a window in the Old Vienna pavilion.
The unique list of toppings did not appear until four decades later during the Great Depression. A place named Fluky’s was the first to top the Windy City sausage with the ingredients that have come down to us today: yellow mustard, fluorescent green pickle relish, chopped raw onions, a dill pickle spear, spicy sport peppers, fresh tomato wedges, and a sprinkle of celery salt on a poppy seed bun. These extra ingredients turned the frank into a full meal for cash-strapped Chicagoans.
Over the last decades we’ve seen many attempts to recreate Chicago hot dogs here. Danny Meyer notoriously failed at his Shake Shack chain by introducing the Shack-cago dog. He violated the formula by using a buttered potato roll, a pallid pickle relish, no celery salt, and a cucumber spear in addition to a dill pickle.
Since then we’ve had dozens of Chicago dog imitators, some good, some bad, but few quite hitting the nail on the head.
Recently, two places have opened scarcely two miles apart that concentrate on the well-topped franks and strive for authenticity. Named after an Al Pacino film shot on the same block, Dog Day Afternoon is located at 266 Prospect Park West near Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace. Just down the Slope in Cobble Hill, Bobbi’s Italian Beef — referencing a Chicago sandwich also made on the premises — is found at 288 Smith Street, near Sackett Street.
One blustery Saturday afternoon, a friend and I tried the dogs at both places to judge which one would resonate more with Chicagoans, and which one is better — not necessarily the same thing.
Bobbi’s Italian Beef
This sunny spot with counter service is outfitted with booths and produces an utterly satisfying Italian beef sandwich soaked in gravy and topped with homemade giardinera — but we were there for another reason. Owner Jason Lux bragged that he produced a totally authentic Chicago hot dog, buying Vienna Beef franks and sourcing his condiments from the same manufacturer. Indeed, the interior is plastered with Vienna Beef advertising placards, making it seem like a franchise operation.
The frankfurter came on a poppy seed bun that was sparsely seeded, and because the frank was boiled rather than grilled, he said, a skinless frank was used rather than the natural skin frank also made by Vienna Beef. The condiments heaped pell mell over the sausage and grainy mustard squiggled at the finale, making it more prominent in the mix of flavors and maybe preventing a degree of sogginess. Some bonus fried potatoes came on the side.
We took one bite, another, and then another, trying to keep the the toppings intact. Nevertheless, sport peppers shot out like tiny missiles from this deliciously over-heaped wiener.
Once we’d had a Chicago frank apiece washed down with Dr Pepper, we grabbed another hot dog for comparative purposes, then headed for the F train at Carroll Street and rode it uphill four stops to the Windsor Terrace station.
Dog Day Afternoon
We found Dog Day Afternoon to be smaller, with no seating inside, though there was a giant movie poster and a Ms. Pac Man machine. We found plenty of seating outside at tables and a comically low counter, presumably to accommodate kids. A free bag of chips was provided with each dog.
Joe Boyle and Jay Kerr run Dog Day. Their hot dogs are boiled in a Crock-Pot, and placed on a bun that had more poppy seeds than Bobbi’s. The sausage was the natural-skinned version, producing a nice pop for the bite. Although the list of ingredients was precisely the same as that found at its competitor, there were a couple of arresting differences. Instead of a jarred dill pickle spear, there was a half-sour spear such as one finds at a New York deli, and instead of pale supermarket tomatoes there were cherry tomatoes that ramped up the sweetness. The toppings were a little more organized too — though anarchy may be one of the aims of the Chicago hot dog.
The Referee’s Decision
There is no question that the Dog Day Afternoon version tasted better — call it the New York variation on a Chicago hot dog. But isn’t it cheating to slightly tweak a dish so on paper it read the same, but it’s a bigger impact when it comes to taste?
The Bobbi’s version was as faithful as an old hound and deserves points for adherence to the formula, although it may also be viewed as permitting a foreign agent — in this case the Vienna Beef company — to intercede in New York gastronomy.
So in conclusion, the Bobbi’s Chicago hot dog is most to be admired intellectually — as you wolf down the Dog Day Afternoon mutt. For a $2.75 ride on the subway I recommend you try both.