Gone To The Dogs...

Just about a year ago, I was able to cross a major item off my Chicago bucket list when I finally went to Hot Doug's, the renowned local emporium of encased meat products. While there was no way it could have possibly lived up to my epic expectations for it, the food there was still quite tasty, but I haven't made it back, given its distance from my residence, its public transportation-unfriendly location, and the daunting lines that turn any visit into a half-day affair.

Since then, a new presence has cropped up on the Chicago gourmet sausage scene that has been receiving its own fair amount of hype. I've seen Franks 'n Dawgs featured on Food Network, the Cooking Channel, and the Travel Channel for its "haute dogs," and last night Justin and I decided to have a pre-theater dinner there since it was a mere couple blocks from the Royal George Theater where we saw White Noise.

Franks 'n Dawgs had several things going for it to recommend it over Hot Doug's: although there has been plenty of press about it, my expectations were lower, there was no line when we arrived, and once we had placed our order, there was plenty of available seating -- we didn't have to stalk people who looked like they were about to finish their food and shoot them dagger eyes til they felt guilty enough to hustle through their meal and vacate their seats so we could sit down. The menu also featured a bit more variety than Hot Doug's, as it boasts more options for side dishes, including a Brussels sprout salad and truffle waffle fries (worth returning for entirely on their own) in addition to their regular fries, cheese fries, and chili cheese fries. I also liked the buns better at Franks 'n Dawgs, which are supplied by a local bakery and toasted on each side, as opposed to the standard issue hot dog buns served at Hot Doug's.

Da Ringer and the N'awlins Dog.

When it came to the actual dogs though, I think Hot Doug's still dominates in terms of flavor. I ordered the "Charitable Dog" of the month, from which a dollar of the proceeds go to benefit a local charity. "Da Ringer," as it was called, featured a Thuringer-style sausage, topped with shallot marmalade, pieces of bacon, and shoestring potatoes. The flavor of the meat was not particularly interesting and I found its natural casing to be more tough and chewy than snappy. Ditto for the bacon topping, which was similarly chewy instead of crisp. It was good, but it wasn't transcendent.

Justin, who loves New Orleans cuisine, had the "N'awlins Dog," which consisted of an andouille sausage, topped with fried shrimp, fried okra, and spicy ketchup. He seemed to enjoy it, though the andouille was a bit on the spicy side for me, and I don't normally shy away from hot food.

Even though I ultimately still think Hot Doug's has the better hot dog, I'll definitely be going back to Franks 'n Dawgs. For one thing, it's much easier to get to -- I think you could even walk there from the North and Clybourn Red Line station on a nice day -- and the thinner crowds make for a much more diner-friendly experience. I was overwhelmed when ordering my meal, but only because there were so many delicious-looking options that it was hard to choose. I'm already thinking about when I can go back to try that Brussels sprouts salad and the celebrity chef-designed "Chicken ala Naha," a house-made chicken sausage topped with maple pork belly, apple cider date chutney, tomato crème fraiche, and scallions. Yum!

If you're traveling through Chicago and want to get in on the gourmet encased meat trend, I'd seriously consider skipping the more famous Hot Doug's in favor of the more accessible Franks 'n Dawgs. It might not be quite the same, but it's still very good, without all the hassle.

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