It’s almost mathematical. The Venerable Hot-C has posited a theorem that dictates the following: the more junked-up a hot dog joint’s menu is with other food items, the more out in the cold the dog is left – sometimes ignored in a tepid bath and periodically forked out, water-logged, on a bun because the guy behind the counter is too busy slicing gyros or frying chicken to bother cooking and assembling a decent hot dog.
If you are a hot dog stand worth your celery salt, how can you treat your namesake child this way? Take a look at the menu of the next hot dog stand you visit and do the math. Do they feature the dog prominently? Or have they hung posters about how great their Italian beef sandwiches are, or their latest buffalo chicken wing deal?
One of my favorite hot dog places in the world is a seasonal, modest shack with a clapboard window that opens to customers in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, and is shuttered in the off-season. It’s called The Dog House, and it’s a 4501 Lawrence Avenue in Chicago. The offerings are limited – the hot dog is the star of the show. It’s a hot dog that modestly brings all the elements together in a harmonious, toothsome explosion of balance and bite. And it's a feast for the eyes and taste buds.
What makes the dog so good? Care, for one thing. The Dog House does not have a cluttered menu. Fries are not even available, and are not even missed by Hot-C, a noted fan of the crinkle cut.
The dog is assembled with the kind of love an artist gives his most prized creation, or a doting mother making sure that her child’s raincoat is buttoned up and the collar smoothed down. Suffice it to say, the dog is dressed for success.
Yes, the bright green relish is here, the steamed poppy-seed bun, the crisp dill spear, the fresh tomato slices laying just so, the chopped onions, the tasty and tangy yellow mustard, all present and accounted for.
There is, most assuredly, a formula at work here, and a recognition of that formula and pride in delivering it that defies tweaking. Why tamper with a good thing? Why offer up all manner of diluting and (more often than not) frozen items that are deep-fat fried at great peril of having the dog die a miserable death in a pot of cloudy water? I know economics enter into it – a “Be-All-Things-To-All-People” mentality that is misguided at best, and economically damaging at worst.
I once asked the owner of The Dog House about the care he puts into the assembly of his Chicago style hot dog. He said that everyone’s conception of “a traditional, nostalgic dog is what it’s all about” with him.
It’s respectful. It’s not tampering with someone’s conjured-up memory of what a fine dog should be when homesickness and hunger merge. Why mess with a great thing at the expense of messing with a whole menu-load of not-so-great things?
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