Hot Diggity Dog...

It occurs to me that somehow I have failed to mention that I have been on vacation for nearly two weeks. Or a staycation, rather. With my time at the museum drawing to a close in a couple months, I needed to make a serious dent in my remaining vacation time, but a tax withholding error left me too broke to actually travel anywhere in my time off. So I've been biding my time at home, conducting some spring cleaning, relaxing, and spending time with friends. Enjoyable as it has been, I still felt that I needed to go somewhere to give my time off some validation, so I turned to my special to-do list, and settled upon a pilgrimage to Hot Doug's.

As I have mentioned in the past, Hot Doug's is an epicenter of foodie culture in Chicago. It's been featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and pretty much every food publication in the United States. It's kind of a big deal. To say that it's also hard to get to is putting it mildly. The distance and hassle associated with getting there has always been a dealbreaker in my ongoing curiosity regarding Hot Doug's, but one of the perks of spending the week doing household projects with my mom meant that I finally had somebody to go with me who has a car and doesn't mind driving in the city.

Today we made the drive up to the city's northwest side to visit Hot Doug's, so far into the neighborhoods that we actually found free street parking -- something I had long-believed to be an urban legend. Better yet, since it was a drizzly, moderately cold afternoon on a weekday, the line wasn't even out the door when we arrived! We squeezed just inside the door, but I'm still counting it as a victory.

The restaurant was so small I couldn't get far enough away from the wall-mounted menu to capture the entire thing, but here were some of the specials from our visit.

Once inside, the experience was a little daunting. There were so many things I wanted to try, but only so much stomach real estate available to hold it all. The specials list offered a cornucopia of temptations, as did the regular menu, and that didn't even include the game meat sausage of the week and a special "celebrity sausage" -- another special offering named after a famous personality. I was intimidated to be sure. I was also nervous about the actual ordering process.

Forever enshrined on the adjacent wall is this famous-in-foodie-circles quote, often cited by Anthony Bourdain.

From everything I'd read about proprietor Doug Sohn, who maintains idiosyncratic hours at his shop, and does everything on his own terms including serving illegal meat*, I was expecting a gruff, curmudgeonly man to greet us at the counter when we went to order. Mr. Sohn, however, was a complete pleasure. He was warm and patient with us when we still hadn't quite made up our minds about what to order, and were not versed in the proper way to order it. Whereas most Chicago hot dog establishments cater to a loyal clientel who know the ins and outs of their quirky ordering systems and do not take kindly to uninitiated newcomers, Hot Doug's proved to be a refreshing bastion of good service.

My elk sausage, left, and Mom's weisswurst, right. I didn't get a photo of her Chicago-style dog because she started eating it before I could get to it.

I ultimately decided to go with the weekly game sausage: elk with a topping of raclette cheese (a Swiss peasant cheese usually toasted over an open flame and served on bread) and bacon-garlic mayonnaise, and an order of cheese fries. Since it wasn't the weekend, Hot Doug's legendary duck fat fries weren't on the menu, but I'd heard enough good things about their regular fries that I wanted to try them anyway. Mom decided to go with a basic Chicago-style dog from their regular menu, and a weisswurst with mustard and horseradish cheddar cheese.

My elk sausage was meaty and gamey, with a nice snap to the casing, but not quite as flavorful as I would have liked. I also found the raclette to be a little overwhelming, even though it was relatively mild in flavor. There was simply too much of it there. Plus, the heat from the sausage alone wasn't enough to melt it, and raclette is almost exclusively served warm. I almost regret not going with one of the spicier options on the menu -- I suspect I might have found more aggressive flavors there. The fries, while good, weren't as crispy as I would have liked, which might have been attributable to the presence of the cheese sauce, which was rather tasty. Still, I wouldn't choose the cheese fries at Hot Doug's over my all-time favorites from Michael's in Highland Park. The tastiest item that I sampled from our order was Mom's weisswurst; the sausage itself tasted just like the ones I had in Bavaria, mild and herbal, with just the right amount of punch from the mustard and cheese, even if the non-sweet mustard wasn't authentic to the typical Bavarian presentation.

Overall, I was pleased with my experience at Hot Doug's, but I wasn't completely blown away. With all the hype the establishment recieves, and the years I have spent longing to check it out for myself, there was really no way it could live up to my expectations. It was good, to be sure, but not life-changingly good. I would certainly return to try other items on the menu, but I'll have no trouble waiting for the stars to align for someone to drive me there on a weekday so I don't have to endure the weekend line. Plus, for that matter, if I were to schlep up to that neighborhood again, I'd be more likely to first try Kuma's Corner, the legendary Chicago burger joint, which is just a couple blocks away from Hot Doug's. For now, however, that item on my to-do list is going to have to wait...

*When the Chicago City Council banned the sale of foie gras in the city in 2006 citing animal cruelty in its production, Doug Sohn introduced a foie gras-topped sausage that he refused to remove from the menu for the duration of the ban. He is often pointed to as one of the leading reasons that the ban was repealed in 2008.

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