Chicago’s traditional-style hot dogs and pizza get a little competition from some delicious newcomers.
Ah, Chicago: City of the Big Shoulders and colossal appetites. Home of juicy hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. Lately, though, the dogs have gotten fancy, the pizza has slimmed down, and the city’s eateries are dishing up concoctions — like veal dogs with date chutney and crackly-crust Neapolitan pies — that once would’ve seemed sacrilegious.
A perpetual line snakes down the nondescript, tree-lined block outside hot dog haven Hot Doug’s. Guidebook-toting tourists mingle with neighborhood teens as together they creep closer to the coveted franks inside. A few miles north, families and couples while away three hours on the curb outside diminutive eatery Great Lake, dutifully waiting as the overworked single-capacity oven lethargically cranks out the eatery’s hallowed pizzas.
In Chicago, the town that put its first marks on the culinary map with gut-busting deep-dish pizzas and plump hot dogs buried in toppings, lining up for grub is no anomaly. But the dogs inside Hot Doug’s are a far cry from good ol’ Chicago-style red hots, and the pizza at Great Lake bears little resemblance to the deep-dish pies the Windy City is famous for. Instead, these are innovative culinary amalgams like ostrich sausage with cumin-mustard cream or paper-thin Neapolitan-style pizzas topped with cremini mushrooms, sheep’s-milk cheese and Sicilian sea salt. With newfangled hot dog joints and thin-crust pizzerias popping up around town nearly as often as political scandals, many are wondering whether Chicago style is officially out of style.
“I think Chicago is perfect for our business because it’s not only the home of the hot dog, but it’s a city that embraces change and supports people trying things that are very, very different,” says Alexander Brunacci, co-owner of Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, a chef-run spot that dubs its creations “haute dogs.” The best-seller is the Tur-Dawgen, a turkey-and-date sausage topped with crispy duck confit. For $8.50, it’s a hefty price tag for a hot dog but a cheap way to sample some pricey meat. “It’s fine dining for the masses. We like to give people something they may have never had the pleasure of experiencing,” says Brunacci.
Brunacci and his crew are so focused on dreaming up new combinations for their made-in-house, highfalutin franks that, although they plan to add a version of the traditional Chicago dog to the menu, they haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. But few people seem to mind.
“Of everyone we’ve served, probably fewer than five people have been annoyed that we don’t have them,” Brunacci says. The traditional Chicago dog (an all-beef frank topped with mustard, onion, sweet pickle, a dill-pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled peppers and celery salt) appears on the menu at Hot Doug’s, but as with Franks ‘N’ Dawgs, it’s the ever-rotating, downright ingenious creations — like Port-and-cassis smoked-venison sausage smothered in black currant–brandy sauce and blue cheese — that make a trip to Hot Doug’s worthy of the half-day time commitment it requires.
Not to be outdone, Chicago’s pizza scene has undergone a swank makeover of its own. The new pies in town — with their slim, blistered crusts, artisan toppings and southern Italian roots dating back to the 19th century — have little in common with the 3-inch-thick Chicago-style pizza, which was invented at Chicago eatery Pizzeria Uno in 1943 and surged in popularity during World War II because its hefty, casserole-like fillings and crust could feed a slew of mouths on the cheap.
According to Francisco Quinteros, founder of the Chicago Pizza Club, the city’s Neapolitan-style pizza boom launched with the 2006 opening of Spacca Napoli Pizzeria. Owned by a Chicagoan who had become a certified pizzaiolo (“pizza chef”) in Naples, the new shop attracted throngs of curious Chicagoans.
“That was a really high-profile opening, especially in the foodie world,” says Quinteros, who, along with his 15-member group of pizza enthusiasts, has dined at 100 Chicago pizza restaurants. Since Spacca Napoli opened, scores of thin-crust pizzerias, like the perennially packed Great Lake, have followed suit.
“I can’t tell you the last deep-dish pizza place to create any buzz like these Neapolitan spots have. It was probably a good 20 years ago,” Quinteros says.
The quest for healthier indulgences is fueling the posh-pizza and dressed-up-dog crazes. Thin-crust pizza has far less cheese and oil than deep-dish, making it lower in fat. “Deep-dish is my favorite kind of pizza, but it’s a special, only once-in-a-while indulgence since it’s so heavy,” says Quinteros. It’s no secret that Chicago-style hot dogs aren’t figure-friendly, either, but gourmet dogs, especially those made of turkey or game, are often less fattening than those made of beef.