What to Eat in Chicago, Illinois

Anatomy of a Chicago Hot Dog

Chicago Hotdog

Hotdogs are obviously a serious business, and my lovely tour-mates assured me that yes, there is a right way, and a wrong way to eat a hot dog, and Chicago’s way is right. So here is the not-so-skinny on the Chicago hot dog.

A Very Short History of the Hot Dog

The hot dog (like so many things in Chicago) traces it’s roots back to the 1893 World’s Fair. It was here that Vienna Beef first sold it’s all-beef sausages (pork being far more common) on rolls for the first time.

It was a hit because during the Great Depression vendors in Chicago began topping their hot dogs with “salad” to give more value to what was considered a cheap meal. Salad, meat and bread all for a nickel. At some point the definitely hotdog toppings became entrenched in the local culture and have never deviated since.

The Toppings

You start with a soft, poppy seed bun and a juicy all-beef hotdog (Vienna Beef or Red Hot Chicago brand preferably- the natural casing gives the dog a satisfying snap when you bit in). The toppings on a Chicago Hot Dog are numerous and exact. A typical dog will have the following:

  • Yellow mustard (no dijon here)
  • Green relish
  • Diced onions
  • Tomato wedges (2)
  • Large pickle spear (1)
  • Spicy “sport peppers”- pickled serranos apparently
  • Celery salt

The result is a stuffed to the gills bun of sausagey, salady goodness. I’m going to confess: I picked the pickle off of mine (an act several of my tour-mates berated me for. I just can’t, sorry) but I still really enjoyed the intense rush of different flavors: the savory hotdog, the sharp mustard, the sour relish, the sweet tomatoes and the spicy peppers.

Don’t Use Ketchup

Some parting advice, and the most important rule of the Chicago hot dog, so famous that even I knew it before I arrived: NO Ketchup. Most hot dog places won’t even have ketchup so you can just forget about it right now.

Why are they so anti-ketchup? Nobody really knows, not even the experts, but it may be that the ketchup taste overpowers all of the other things going on in the hotdog. I don’t know if that’s true but there certainly is a LOT going on in a Chicago hotdog.

Whatever the reason, when you’re in Chicago, just save your ketchup for your fries.

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