In the 1990s, the beer company Old Style aired a series of ads starring Dennis Farina, the Chicago-born actor who’s been typecast for most of his career as a cop. In them, Farina plays the role of a detective tasked with thwarting out-of-towners, specifically from New York and Los Angeles, from loading cans of Old Style into vans to take back to home. “The Old Style Light you drink is one they’ll never get,” he says in the ad. “It’s our great beer, and they can’t have it.”
The advertisements were a joke, I think, but they underscore something core about Chicago and its foods: The Midwest city is protective of its regional dishes, especially when they’re made in other cities. And in New York, there’s probably no better example of this than the Chicago dog.
It’s a rare moment when New York defers to Chicago, but when it comes to hot dogs and roast beef sandwiches, we’re doing just that. Perhaps it’s a result of The Bear, or maybe we’re finally coming around to the idea that the Windy City has us beat on certain meats.
A handful of chefs have tried to bring Chicago dogs here over the years — but never really gotten it right due to their exacting recipe and countless toppings, each of which presents its own sourcing challenges. Shake Shack, at one point, sold Chicago dogs, but the dish was laughed out of town for using a buttered potato roll, pale pickle relish, and a cucumber spear in addition to a pickle.
The full formula calls for a poppy seed bun and a Vienna Beef dog, followed by yellow mustard, neon green pickle relish, diced raw onions, a pickle spear, sport peppers, tomato wedges, and a sprinkle of celery salt. In Chicago, those ingredients can be found at most corner stores. In New York, they’ve eluded chefs for years.
A half-decade before Chicago native Eric Tran opened Falansai, his acclaimed Vietnamese Mexican restaurant in Bushwick, he was selling Italian beef, another Chicago specialty, from a stall at Smorgasburg. He thought about selling Chicago-style hot dogs, which were available from a few restaurants in the city, but he couldn’t figure out the Vienna Beef problem.
“Vienna Beef hot dogs were mostly non-existent here,” Tran says, unless you paid a premium to have them shipped from Chicago. “You couldn’t build a restaurant around them.”
The Chicago-based company — whose all-beef franks can cost as much as $1.50 each wholesale — is inseparable from the Chicago dog. Its branded lines of relishes, mustards, buns, and so on are considered by some to be the gold standard of Chicago dog making, but until recently, those products were mostly unavailable in the five boroughs.
“Ten years ago, it was really difficult to get them,” says Jim Silverman, Vienna Beef’s director of sales for the Northeast, “but it’s gotten easier.” When Tran was operating his stall at Smorgasburg, Vienna Beef didn’t have a single distributor in the five boroughs. Today, it still doesn’t, but restaurant owners have found new ways to get their hands on the company’s all-beef dogs.
Jay Kerr and Joe Boyle run Dog Day Afternoon, a small restaurant in Windsor Terrace that’s made a name for itself by selling a mostly faithful rendition of the Chicago dog. When Kerr and Boyle opened in 2021, they say they had to prove they were the real deal before an out-of-state distributor would deliver to them in Brooklyn. And so, they drove out to New Jersey, loaded their car with $6,000 of Vienna Beef hot dogs, and returned to their restaurant
Eventually, their plug, a man named Howard Buzgone, agreed to deliver to Brooklyn.
Buzgone is the owner of the food distribution company Foods Galore in New Jersey, which supplies hot dogs and other Vienna Beef products to restaurants like Dog Day Afternoon and Emmett’s in Greenwich Village. “New York was not on our radar for a long time,” he says, “but lately, I’ve seen more activity in the area with this product.”
In addition to Buzgone, there are two other distributors — one in New Jersey and one in Philadelphia — who will drive Vienna Beef products into the city. And getting ahold of one is sort of like finding a weed dealer after moving somewhere new: It takes a personal connection, or at the very least, proof that you’re good for a few grams.
Emmett Burke, the owner of Emmett’s in Soho, has been selling Chicago dogs in some form for close to a decade. Like Kerr and Boyle at Dog Day Afternoon, he recalls driving to Philadelphia once a month, loading up a cooler in his car with Vienna Beef hot dogs, and driving them back to the city until a distributor agreed to drive them into Manhattan.
At Bobbi’s Italian Beef, which opened in Cobble Hill two months ago, owner Jason Lux says his father is a friend of a friend of the Vienna Beef representative for Illinois, which helped him get in contact with Silverman. Greg Minasian of Greenwich Village bar Pubkey says his dad has a personal relationship with chief executives at Vienna Beef.
But a connection is only a foot in the door, and restaurant owners say that no one distributor sells all of the components of a Chicago dog. At Dog Day Afternoon, Kerr makes his poppyseed rolls by egg washing Martin’s hot dog buns and rolling them in poppyseeds, while the restaurant’s giardiniera was sourced from Amazon early on.
“Our business model doesn’t work unless we have the real deal,” Kerr says. “If we run out of one of those ingredients, we’re sold out of all of them.”
It’s a lot of trouble for a $7 hot dog, but really, what choice does anyone have? Unlike a Philly cheesesteak, which can be ordered with or without onions and might be topped with American cheese, provolone, or Whiz, the laws of a Chicago dog are absolute: Stray from the path once, and endure the wrath of Midwest transplants for eternity.
Chicago Tribune critic Nick Kindelsperger argued for Serious Eats that the Chicago dog laws are actually looser, the formula having been invented by Vienna Beef as a way to market its line of branded relishes, celery salts, sport peppers, and mustards.
Dog Day Afternoon uses sliced grape tomatoes when Romas are out of season — and “gets shit for it all the time,” Kerr says. Pubkey and Bobbi’s Italian Beef both use skinless franks, which are easier to source and about 20 cents cheaper per dog. No one complains, the owners of those restaurants say, but that doesn’t mean no one notices.
For all the excitement, the dogs are really only served from a half-dozen or so restaurants across Manhattan and Brooklyn at the time of writing, and Silverman knows that Vienna will never beat out local brands like Sabrett or Nathan’s Famous. Hot dog loyalties run deep, he says, and this is a town deeply devoted to cheap street dogs.
“You want a Chicago hot dog? Go somewhere else,” says Johnny Huyghn, the owner of Glizzy’s in Williamsburg. “If you look at every hot dog cart in New York City, it’s Sabrett. That’s why I run with them.” The late-night counter serves dogs topped with chili crisp and cilantro, but there’s not a sport pepper in sight.
Still, don’t be surprised to see more Vienna Beef signs hanging in restaurant and bar windows. Kerr says that about two-thirds of his customers at Dog Day Afternoon are New Yorkers trying Chicago dogs for the first time, and Silverman says his team has close eyes on New York City. “We don’t have people knocking on doors,” he says, but the company is looking to expand in this market where it makes sense.
Back at Falansai in Bushwick, Tran is holding out hope. “I never lost the dream,” he says. The chef now runs an upscale restaurant, where a multi-course tasting menu starts at $83 before wine pairings, but head to his bathroom and there it is hanging on the wall: An illustration of a Chicago-style hot dog, with toppings that are still easier to draw than import.